Video Hangout with Pandora’s Steve Hogan

Steve Hogan_PandoraOne of the men behind Pandora’s ‘Music Genome Project’ Steve Hogan joined Mumbrella for a video hangout today.

Hogan, who is Pandora’s global music operations manager, said the streaming service is constantly experimenting with playlists and focusing on improving its services in order to retain a competitive edge.

The local market is very competitive with international players SpotifyPandora, and iTunes Radio continuing  to battle it out with local providers including Telstra’s MogIHeartRadio from ARN and JB Hi-Fi’s own offering. Telstra is also understood to be in negotiations to get the Beats platform off the ground in Australia.

“Our biggest challenge is keeping our competitive edge. Our focus is all about the quality of the music playlists and there is a lot of competition coming into the field so we’re really focused on improving the metrics and what we can measure to see people are enjoying their experience on Pandora. And we do that by seeing how long people listen, how frequently they come back,” he said.

“So we’re constantly testing new playlist ideas, right now on average people will spend two plus hours in each session of listening, if we have a new idea to tweak the playlist we’ll conduct an experiment in making this change say we need more cowbell in the music, we’ll make that change and send it out to 1 per cent of Pandora listeners and the other 99 per cent are the control group and we can measure is the 1 per cent test group listening more often, that’s how we address this challenge.”

He explained the music genome project, which he said “long predates Pandora the radio service”, was inspired by Amazon’s sale based recommendations.

“The idea was to create a music recommender. Our founder Tim would look at and see if you look up an album on Amazon and they’ll say people who bought this album also bought these albums and they make their recommendations that way. And he thought it would be cool instead of recommending music based on those sale rankings you base it on music similarity.”

He explained it takes around 10 to 15 minutes on average to analyse a song in order to make those recommendations to its users.

During the hangout, Hogan also expressed a desire for the struggling startup turned global frontrunner to launch in Asia, but royalty and licensing issues remain obstacles to expanding in this region.

“It’s a stated goal for us to eventually to have billions of registered users, so it is a big focus for us to expand. But it comes down to the framework around royalties and licensing, which is different from country to country,” he said.

“We’d love to come to your country, but it has to be on terms that work for the business. To launch in Asia, we’d have to hire music experts from the region who can build the music collection and understand it in its own cultural terms.”

Hogan has been with the music streaming company since its startup phase 14 years ago, and now heads up the 25-strong music analyst team who listen to each of the million tracks the service has rights to.

The team analyses and catalogues up to 450 aspects of each song from rhythm to vocals and enters them into the Music Genome project, allowing the service to select the most appropriate tracks for users based on their selected tastes. The service also serves up advertising based on the user’s profile.

A musician himself, Hogan has been performing as a pianist and organist in San Francisco’s Bay Area for over 15 years, including the past three seasons as the organist at baseball team the San Francisco Giants home ground.

Hogan was interviewed by Mumbrella editor Alex Hayes.


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