Can An Internet Application Find The Hits That Programmers Miss?

From the beginning, it seemed like there had to be some radio programmer’s application for Pandora.com (http://www.pandora.com), the Bay Area-based Website that promises to help listeners discover music by asking what songs they like, then looking for songs with similar musical DNA. Categorizing songs by “minor key tonality,” “repetitive melodic phrasing,” “a vocal-centric aesthetic” or that sure-fire identifier of a hit, “mallet percussion,” might seem a little clinical. But from my first listen, Pandora seemed far more predictive than the skin-deep recommendations of Amazon.com or the iTunes Music Store, not to mention a little less invasive.
For its thousands of tiny tangibles, Pandora seemed pretty good at predicting intangibles–finding songs that went nicely together but not in any cliched way. I fed in “Mickey,” expecting to get “Safety Dance” or “I Ran (So Far Away)” next, and instead ended up with an obscure cut by the Three O’Clock, an ’80s L.A. power-pop band best described as the male counterpart to the Bangles. While that name will probably be familiar to no more than three readers of this column, those three are likely to understand the logic of that particular segue.
Unlike several services that have popped up in recent years, Pandora doesn’t claim to be able to predict the hits by their musical properties. And merely finding songs that musically resemble the hits is, of course, no guarantee of success. After all, labels unleash scores of soundalike records for the 2-3 years that it takes to beat any musical trend to death. And during my brief A&R career, my boss Cory Robbins, now of Robbins Entertainment, had always warned me about the difference between those songs that “sounded like hits” and those that really were.

But I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if I asked Pandora to customize a station for me by giving it today’s current Top 40 hits as a starting point. Would it supply a stream of second-string soundalikes? A series of overlooked gems that had the same magic as today’s smashes? Was there possibly a way to find songs listeners might like before they had even heard them?

But I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if I asked Pandora to customize a station for me by giving it today’s current Top 40 hits as a starting point. Would it supply a stream of second-string soundalikes? A series of overlooked gems that had the same magic as today’s smashes? Was there possibly a way to find songs listeners might like before they had even heard them? Pandora starts playing your customized radio station from the moment you enter one song or artist as a clue. But listeners can use the feedback button to enter other songs/artists and guide it further.
So I decided to enter nine hits about which there was (relative) consensus at Mainstream Top 40. I started with Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous,” then, in order, supplied Pussycat Dolls’ “Buttons,” Panic! At The Disco’s “I Write Sins, Not Tragedies,” Fergie’s “London Bridge,” Hinder’s “Lips Of An Angel,” Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” Jojo’s “Too Little Too Late” (to make sure I had at least one uptempo pure pop song), Ludacris’ “Money Maker” (to make sure rap was represented) and Nickelback’s current No. 1 Top 40 hit, “Far Away.” It took about three songs to get all of my preferences loaded in.
So what did I get back? About a quarter of what I heard was music that had made it to the radio in some form. Beyond that, I heard a lot of album cuts from prominent mainstream artists that I either hadn’t had a chance to listen to yet, or that really jumped out of the speakers in a way that they hadn’t previously in the context of the whole album. I heard a handful of left-field songs that felt like they might grow into hits with Snow Patrol-type exposure in the right TV show or commercial. And I heard a lot of songs that sounded more like they belonged on the “Garden State” soundtrack, or on KCRW Los Angeles, than across town on KIIS. So would KIIS have even better ratings these days by throwing the Shins in between Akon and Justin Timberlake? My guess is that your reaction to that question will depend whether you fall on the radio programmer or label person/ musicologist side of this column’s readership.
It is for the former group that I’ve tried to describe every song I heard here–about 55% of which was new to me–from the standpoint of how it would fit on mainstream radio. Those in the latter group are likely to find my descriptions of some of these songs–no doubt huge in their world–pedestrian at best. To which I can only point out that the large amount of music now available through services like Pandora has made it a lot harder to sound perfectly informed about every new song and act, even for the listeners who most actively seek out music.
SAMPLE HOURS #1
Blue, “Stand Up”–Midtempo R&B pop with a nod to “No Scrubs” from the British hitmakers of a few years back;
Sevenfold Tomorrow, “7 Second Afternoon”–Emoish but wispy, from 2004;
Up Up Down, “Robyn Fleshman”–Indy rock, more of a pulse;
Jeannie Ortega, “So Done”–her follow–up to “Crowded.” The most overtly teen pop of anything I heard–came up, incidentally, after I added Jojo to the list;
Tegan & Sara, “Want To Be Bad”–Older and less obvious/poppy than the Canadian duo’s Modern Rock charter, “Walking With A Ghost.” It will come as a surprise to fans of both acts that Pandora found this song to be similar to “My Destiny” by American Idol’s Katherine McPhee;
Fergie, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”–Liked it on the album and sounded good again here;
Beyonce, “Irreplacable”–Had always seemed like the standout from “B-Day,” even before radio recently came around;
Jin, “F–k Jay-Z”–Novelty rap in which the “Speak Chinese” rapper explains that he’s not starting beef with Jay-Z, he’s merely talking about how he could get more radio airplay if he had done a song dissing Jay-Z;
Tech N9ne, “Here Comes Tecca Nine”–R&B/Hip-Hop charter from his first album;
Rick Ross, “Push It”–The current No. 11 R&B/Hip-Hop hit;
Andre Nickatina, “Get Down”–Indie rap from 2005;
Janet Jackson, “Show Me”–From her new album;
My Morning Jacket, “Golden”–2004 signature song that sounds like it could be ’60s folk. Not the kind of record you’d expect to hear on the radio, but they’re already a soundtrack/agency music supervisor favorite;
Brian Jonestown Massacre, “Prozac Vs. Heroin”–Sludgy as the title would indicate from the famously self-destructive act featured in the documentary “Dig”;
Gosling, “Stealing Stars”–Acoustic ballad;
Joanna, “Screaming Infidelities”–Her cover of the Dashboard Confessional song. Seemed like an inspired choice at the time, since the original never made it to Top 40;
Sugababes, “Overload”–Thought U.S. radio missed this song when it came out during teen pop’s first early ’00s lull;
Poets Of The Fall, “3 A.M.”–Not the Matchbox 20 song, but midtempo acoustic with a power-chords chorus. Sounds like it could have been a late ’90s hit in between Fastball and Vertical Horizon;
Bernard Butler, “Cocoon”–Languid, but also a good hook. Recalled both “Sour Girl” by Stone Temple Pilots and “Closer To Home” by Grand Funk Railroad;
Aimee Mann, “Deathly”–From her late ’90s comeback: edgy and ethereal, not a radio song;
Kelis, “In Public”–Really popped in a way it hadn’t when I listened to the album;
Rihanna, “S.O.S.”–No comment needed on this one, except perhaps for the folks who got here by Googling the Brian Jonestown Massacre;
Mariah Carey, “Fantasy”–The oldest song in this set.
SAMPLE HOUR #2
Ivy, “Diggin’ Your Scene”–Remake of the Blow Monkeys’ 1980s semi-hit by the Fountains Of Wayne’s sister band;
TLC, “Damaged”–Sounded surprisingly good after four years;
Kyle Riabko, “What Did I Get Myself Into”–John Mayerish acoustic blues/folk from 2005;
Ben Harper, “Sexual Healing”–Cover of the Marvin Gaye classic from 2001 live album;
Teedra Moses & Raphael Sadiiq, “Take Me”–Midtempo neo-soul ballad from 2004;
India.Arie, “I Am Not My Hair”–Her recent Urban AC hit;
Rihanna, “We Ride”–The recent Top 30 Rhythmic and Top 40 charter;
Amel Larrieux, “Trouble”–Midtempo shuffle from the voice of Groove Theory’s “Tell Me” with a Smooth Jazz feel;
Fergie, “Here I Come”–Track from “The Dutchess” that samples the Temptations’ “Get Ready”; sounded good on the album and here; note that this is the first time the average energy here has cracked a 3 on the 1–5 scale, despite the songs I fed in;
Beyonce, “Fighting Temptations”–Her 2003 movie soundtrack title;
Les Nubians, “Temperature Rising”–Vibey midtempo 2003 song from the Urban AC/World Music act that had a surprise late–’90s Urban AC hit with “Makeda”;
Faith Evans, “Burning Up”–Her 2001 R&B hit;
E–40, “U And Dat”–His recent multi–format hit, described here as having “southern rap influences, electronica influences, consistent rhyme patterns, lyrics with heavy erotic content, repetitive sound structure, booming kick drum, and a dry recording sound”;
Play ‘N’ Skillz, “Do Ya Thang”–Houston call-and-response rap from a year ago. Sounded good here, but maybe I was just happy with all this tempo after the first 40 minutes or so;
Nas, “You Won’t See Me Tonight”–1999 Hip-Hop/R&B hit. Sounded really good here;
Bubba Sparxx, “Get Right”–From the southern rapper’s 2001 album;
Thin Dark Line, “Lights To The South”–Now we’re back in indyish, emo-ish territory. Sounds kinda like a harder “Ocean Avenue”;
Kent, “If You Were Here”–Swedish band, similar feel to Coldplay’s later breakthroughs;
38 Special, “20th Century Fox”–Not sure how this early ’80s AOR song got here;
Panic! At The Disco, “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”–The only one of the songs I typed in that actually played;
Lyfe Jennings, “Slow Down”–Surprisingly uptempo cut from the new album;
Janet Jackson, “So Excited”–Her current chart single;
Danity Kane, “Want It”–Uptempo retro-flavored bass jam that also recalled Vanity 6′s “Nasty Girl”;
Beyonce, “Freakum Dress”–Also from the new album;
Bratz, “When We’re All Together”–Yes, the cartoon/doll group is still at it; from 2006 but felt more like late ’90s rhythmic pop;
Corey Clark, “Cherry On Top”–Vaguely Justin Timberlake-like rhythmic pop from Paula Abdul’s alleged favorite contestant.
Those who are routinely critical of radio for not digging deep enough on music are going to seize on how I fed in Fergie, Nickelback, Justin Timberlake, and Panic! At The Disco, and got back My Morning Jacket and India.Arie. They’ll see proof that “quality music” isn’t as obscure as it seems. And there are certainly periods in pop music where that seems to be the case: the first, acoustic-driven hits of Modern AC in the mid-’90s and the neo-soul movement just shortly thereafter.
But if there were a few gems among what I heard, they were often exceptions that proved the rule. Not every acoustic ballad is “Far Away” or “Lips Of An Angel.” And even if your response to that is, “Thank God,” there are reasons those songs became the hits they are. And while “Far Away” had a pedigree (and some previous airplay) by the time it became a single, “Lips Of An Angel” is certainly a song that had to force itself to the fore, even with some early champions.
For the most part, the songs in my three or so hours of listening that seemed to have the most radio potential were from established artists. In that way, Pandora was a pretty good way to hear how those songs would sound on the radio, rather than in the context of the album. Even if you think you could find the hits on a given album for yourself without wading through the more unfamiliar music here, well, how many PDs have the time to find their own hit on the Kelis album these days? And how many of them would be looked at funny by their bosses if they did?
With so much music available, some broadcasters have long decided that their role has become less that of gatekeeper than curator–helping cull everything that’s out there for listeners who can’t devote all their free time to finding music. Helping find new music is also Pandora’s stated benefit. And I did indeed come out of this exercise having purchased two new songs on iTunes Music Store with two more that I would have bought if I could have found them. But I also came out of it with a notion that there’s still an opportunity for anybody who fills the gap between radio’s present tightness and the Web’s more musicologist vision of what a hit music listener would enjoy.

5 replies
  1. John Dimick
    John Dimick says:

    now..if they can develop software to deal with talent and come up with really bad ideas for sales.. we can all start golfing on Wednesday again! :). Great article.

    Reply
  2. The Infinite Dial
    The Infinite Dial says:

    Can You Find The Hits Without Asking The Audience?

    I’ve been intrigued with Pandora.com for a while now. The Internet application that starts with your list of artists or songs and finds others with similar musical qualities has generally been more predictive (not to mention less intrusive) than simila…

    Reply
  3. Aaron Barnhart
    Aaron Barnhart says:

    We had the Three O’Clock in-studio at WNUR Radio back in 1983 or ’84. All I remember is that the youngest one looked about 13. And was no doubt getting laid every night of the tour.

    Reply
  4. Eric Wilson
    Eric Wilson says:

    Great article! As a former PD/DJ, I hope it opens some programmers eyes. Sure, I’m in my mid 30′s now, but I’ve known for sometime that radio is playing WAY TOO safe these days, and relying too much on their “research” instead of their gut. Most of my friends (which happen to be my age through 10 years younger) don’t find the programming interesting anymore on traditional radio. Throw in some left field choices like My Morning Jacket or songs from “Garden State,” you’d broaden your audience base.

    Reply

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