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Pandora ‘s Westergren Responds To Artist Airplay Submission Controversy

Yesterday's story that Pandora was requiring that all music considered for airplay must also be available for sale as a physical CD on Amazon drew some strong comments from Hypebot readers. An online poll showed that for 40%, the practice tainted their view of Pandora and another 14% claimed they would never use the service again.

I asked Pandora for a response and founder Tim Westergren replied:

Tim_westergren_newer-150w We appreciate the scrutiny everyone's bringing to this – it’s a very important issue, and one for which we feel a great sense of responsibility.

Here are some general thoughts from Pandora on this.

There are a number of reasons for us to add this requirement. It’s something we’ve been contemplating for a long time.  Just to be clear, it's not about making money from Amazon.  We don't get any portion of the $29.95, and even though we're thrilled at the amount of music we sell through them, the commissions we get are a small part of the overall business (it's all about advertising). So these requirements have nothing at all to do with revenue.

There are really three principal reasons – user experience, improving the meta data, and managing submissions.

We believe it's very important from a user-experience standpoint to have functioning 'buy' links. We get loads of complaints about broken links when listeners try to buy an album that is not available on Amazon – when that happens it feels like Pandora is malfunctioning, and it’s a real drag for a listeners – disappointing, and a waste of time. Requiring enrollment will of course mitigate this issue.  It’s clearly the right choice from the product/user experience perspective.

Clean meta-data is a constant struggle for us (and all online services for that matter). Our entire system is based on a concept of UPC and track information (perhaps someday that will change, but it’s one of our most basic building blocks dating back almost 10 years)- it's how we identify the music internally and talk to all sorts of external partners, vendors, distributors, etc. We also need album art; and we get all of this from Amazon. Requiring registration at Amazon is a very effective solution for us.

Finally, it serves as a way to manage our flow of submissions. Pandora remains intensely focused on providing a level playing field. Our aim is to find the best music we can – indie, major or otherwise – and to add as much of that as we can. Given our sole focus on quality, we're looking for folks who have a demonstrated seriousness about their craft. Just as investing the time and money to create a professional sounding CD is a strong predictor of quality, having invested or being willing to invest in an online distribution mechanism is another signal.

We are huge believers in not discriminating against aspiring/emerging artists – 70% of the 75,000 artists in our collection are not on a major label. All we’re asking of artists is to make great music, and have it available for easy purchase for Pandora’s audience.

I hope this makes sense.

One additional clarification. 

mreasy: Pandora pays tens of millions of dollars per year in royalties to artists and terrestrial radio pays nothing.  Although it’s not pertinent to this particular conversation, Pandora pays a substantial percentage of its gross revenue to artists.

Thanks Tim (Founder, Pandora) 

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31 Comments

  1. But why do they have a physical CD requirement? Having your album available on the MP3 store at Amazon covers all the stated goals – album art, buylink, UPC, track metadata.

  2. I’m seconding gregor’s comment
    Tim, you did not explain the need for physical CD
    Please could you elaborate on that ?

  3. look, how do you expect great companies like Pandora to provide you with cool services if you aren’t required to pay something… it’s ridiculous that artists continue to demand free services from companies that have invested millions into developing their technology… get over it and pay the nominal fee… if not, build it yourself!

  4. Fair question. This gets back to the internal requirement for a CD which remains fundamental to our system. Not all downloads have a UPC – so it will be much more hit and miss. And we’ll still need a CD, which will likely therefore be hand-ripped. In our experience, these CDs often have out-of-order or missing tracks. Also, the CD buy link won’t work.
    Tim

  5. Interesting that a service like Pandora, which many hype as the future of this business, is attached to a medium such as a CD which is near extinction. Has anyone at Pandora received the memo? Looks like it might be time for them to rethink. Just an opinion

  6. I think Tim summed up the whole “CD” issue pretty clearly.
    Although we are in a technical revolution, and CDs are becoming less prevalent, many people still do purchase CDs and record labels still press CDs in addition to offering digital downloads.
    Aside from the ‘UPC’ issues the “download only” content creates, I think it also institutes a sort of screening process in that Pandora is making the assumption that it’s more likely that better quality music comes from artists who have both downloads AND CDs available for purchase.
    It’s not completely fair, but from Pandora’s perspective, it makes sense.

  7. Regarding CD’s, here’s an idea from my own business model. Yes this’ll sound like pimping my own stuff, but bear with me:

    • I sell tracks directly to my hardcore fans via subscriptions to “>http://matthewebel.net
    • For the subscribers, those tracks are download-only and direct from my own website, so there’s nobody else’s hand in my pocket other than Bluehost.
    • I’m about to start releasing archive albums for new subscribers who missed the earlier releases. Those archive albums will be available as downloads OR CD’s.
    • The Point: Why not just make a short-run CD release of your downloads every so often, get a UPC code, and make it available for Pandora?

    Granted, the CD model is indeed on its way out (it’s really only useful for having something to autograph and sell at live gigs). But at this point it’s still a viable medium and not a real barrier to entry. I sincerely hope that Pandora will find a way to incorporate digital-only music. CD Baby has methods of doing this, why can’t they?
    And yeah, I might as well do the shameless thing and point you to http://matthewebel.net – my subscription site. I haven’t released the archive CD’s yet, but I’ll see what it takes to get them onto Pandora and, hopefully, let you know what the results are.

  8. BTW… is there ever going to be a way for the artists to log in and see their stats on Pandora? I am curious how many people have actually heard my music, where the recommendations are coming from, etc. I also want to know when those plays turn into a royalty payment via BMI since you guys were forced to do that anyway.
    Is there an artist back-end that I just don’t know about?

  9. Tim: Sorry for the mistake about the royalties, was thinking about the origins of web radio/streaming vs. the current reality. Very stupid of me.
    That said, it’s misleading to say that terrestrial radio pays “nothing” – commercial stations pay royalties to songwriters, which is a tremendous expense for stations and a huge source of revenue for songwriters.

  10. Good point. Sorry. I should have said ‘zero performance royalties’. All forms of radio do indeed pay the publishing fee to composers – which is fairly uniform across all platforms, and a reasonable level – about 3-4% of revenue.

  11. Tim, I’ve tried several times to get Pandora to include my latest CD but it gets quickly rejected. I’ve been in contact with several people there and they always tell me it’s not necessarily about the quality but I have never got a firm answer as to why the rejection. Especially since Pandora has included my 2006 CD and my artist gets a dozen stations a week created which is well over 1000. My latest CD is even a more professional effort than the last and several songs have been or are being played on The Weather Channel and college radio stations around the country. Seems odd, especially when Slacker Radio has a catalog 3-4x the size of Pandora you’d think you’d want to keep up with them.

  12. I am in the band Gravity Kills (which has sold a fair share of CD’s.) I too am appreciative of Pandora and the exposure it gives us to fans but… After a 6 year hiatus we have just started recording music again. Our plan is to not release a CD until we have already released and given away several tracks. With Pandora’s policy, our new material will not be available on Pandora for at least a year. There will be no quality issues here I can tell you but I do understand why Pandora wants to weed out the endless stream of crap that exists only in digital form. Believe me, the time will soon be here when the Album/CD cycle will be completely dead. You can’t keep fans engaged forever unless you give them a constant stream of new material. The essence of 2.0.

  13. pandora is a VENTURE OWNED COMPANY. stop pretending they are indie, it’s part of their ruse….they are venture funded and the same primary funder also invested in topspin….
    y’all need to lower your expectations of venture funded music companies acting as indies, they will never be truly indie. they have investors.

  14. Yup, I’ve come to that realization. I know the answer but I wanted to hear someone say it. It’s about what sells and the market is flooded with a lot of poor Electronic music. That’s what’s been hinted to me. They need to pay the bills just like everyone else and if people are listening and not clicking on ads then they won’t accept the music. I am fine with it. I am very happy they’ve included at least one of my CD’s. Good look to all indie bands!

  15. I’m familiar with you. I have your debut CD I believe. ;-). Welcome back. Good luck to you on the new CD’s. I’m right there with you. I’ve had to spent a lot of money on getting a nice CD produced the past 2 albums because it’s still all about presentation but a majority of my sales are digital. Digital music doesn’t have that presentation yet. Until people start accepting a better way to release digital inserts, etc, it’ll be a bit before they die out. I wish the iPhone would start allowing you to view the inserts in a standard format while you’re listening.

  16. You know, as both a songwriter and artist, I would be perfectly happy seeing the same kind of blanket license for performance royalties at the same manageable rate. I imagine the performance royalty rates are so ridiculously high simply because the major labels dump so much money into promoting albums that they need to see some kind of ROI.
    I’m probably wrong, tho, this is just wild speculation here. 😉

  17. Trance Fury,
    The game must still be played because even in a 2.0 world, there will still be gatekeepers. Good luck with all you do. Looks as though you get it. I must say I do like the Pandora/Slacker model(s). You must engage fans and potential fans by any means necessary. Free music is awesome and do think that hardcore fans will still buy from the bands they are passionate about.

  18. Just FYI, if you sell your digital tracks with Bandcamp, they give you a UPC code for the album, free.
    For those interested in printing physical CD’s, I found a company here in Nashville, New Life Digital Media (http://newlifedigitalmedia.com), that does packages of 100 discs for as little as $200. If you’re only printing discs to give to CD Baby, Pandora, Amazon, and a few promoters, this much cheaper and more professional than copying discs one-at-a-time and printing liner notes on an inkjet.
    I’m not affiliated with either of these companies, but I am their customer.

  19. You got it, too. The rules have changed and may have leaned in indie’s favor but they are still governed by a minority. I think the models for Slacker and Pandora are on the right track as well. It’s great exposure and you are right, the die hard fans WILL purchase the music.
    Happy Independence Day weekend everyone! Without it we may not be so lucky. May people be blasting your music everywhere!

  20. Although I agree with many of the points that Pandora presents the process needs a little more work. I released an album digitally and made it available on Amazon solely for Pandora submission. Two weeks later I can’t get through the submission process because Pandora is unable to get track info from my UPC.
    After contacting Pandora I’m told to contact Amazon and vice versa. Hopefully someone will sort it out but as it stands now it really doesn’t seem like Pandora has the concern of indie artist in mind. My problem has been shuffled around many times now.

  21. After reading everybody’s comments I still think Pandora requiring the sale of a CD is total BS!
    What about artists that have digital albums that are currently on sale at iTunes and Amazon with Album art and real UPC numbers? Why isn’t that enough?
    If it’s good enough for iTunes than why not Pandora? I can’t speak for everyone but most indie acts I’ve met make most of their income from digital downloads than CD sales. Forcing artists to press CDs to get on your station is BS.
    I don’t see Jango.com doing that!
    I don’t see that with Last.fm!
    Sorry, I just don’t by Tim’s BS explanation! If he’s concerned about wrong track listings and missing tracks, that’s easily fixed by requiring they have music for sale on a reputable store like iTunes or even CDbaby. They do the work for you!

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