Last Friday, the Berklee College of Music put on its annual Zafris Lecture, which brings in high-profile actors from various corners of music to deliver an hour-long presentation for the school's music business students. Previous lecturers have included Lyor Cohen, Pitchfork president Chris Kaskie and Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall.
This year's lecturer was the (oftentimes polarizing) co-founder of Pandora, Tim Westergren. Westergren used his time to outline his biography, from his beginnings as a political science major at Stanford to his time as a "manny," before moving towards playing in bands.
Westergren began his talk by outlining the beginnings of Pandora and its Music Genome Project -- "codifying taste... starting with a band they know very well, and use this machinery to... find a band they otherwise would never discover."
A month-and-a-half after he began looking for investors, Westergren secured $1.5 million in funding for the nascent Music Genome Project. "I'd never been anywhere near that amount of money before."
Westergren describes stepping back while polymath friend Will Glaser created the mathematics and song data points that formed the Genome beginnings.
"We listened to that first track [that was analyzed]," Westergren says, "and we thought, 'That's the wrong audio.' [The Genome had picked a Bee Gees song.] It sounded exactly like a Beatles song... but not had it arguably found the best song, it did something counterintuitive, which is pick a song from an artist you wouldn't relate to that first search."
Pandora's access to an iPhone prototype also came up. Apple provided the company a unit in order for it to develop its app. "The iPhone came to us handcuffed to a briefcase and locked to a plexiglass panel on a desk. Only three of us in the company knew we had it. Steven [Jobs] himself said 'If anyone knows you have this, I will destroy you.'"
Expectedly, Pandora's ongoing battle over statutory license rates also reared its head. "We had this disastrous rate set for our streaming -- one that would've put us out of business. This was just a couple years into the service. we really didn't have recourse -- we rely on this one license and, if it was too expensive, we'd have to pull the plug. We were getting ready to do that... but we sent an email to all of our listeners, seven or eight million of them, saying 'We've had this adverse ruling, and if you'd like us to survive please call your congressperson.' The response from listeners was so overwhelming -- close to two million called or wrote or visited their members' offices to declare their opposition to this. Within three weeks we had a bill with 150 sponsors to reverse this rate structure."
Westergren isn't known for pulling his rhetorical punches. At one point during the question-and-answer session he remarks: "If you think about the music industry right now, it is a fantastically inefficient business."