Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Station Story: Prog Rog

If you created a QuickMix with my Prog Rog and Pioneers of Electronica stations, you'd basically have everything I was listening to in high school. I lived in Hermosa Beach in Southern California at the time, and a few blocks away was a Music Plus store which was part of a regional chain of record stores. There was a small bin for electronic music which single handedly weaned me from the easy listening radio stations that my parents listened to in the car.

The first record I ever bought was Walter (later Wendy) Carlos' Switched On Bach when I was in third grade. The synthesizer captured my imagination even at that young age, and so when we moved to So. Cal. and I started high school it was a natural progression for me to start listening to the electronic music of the era and rock groups which featured synthesizers which, at the time, meant Progressive Rock.

The holy triumvirate at the time were ELP, Yes and Genesis. But, thanks to some staffer at Music Plus who'd handwrite little reviews on address stickers and put them on selected albums in the import bins, I also discovered Novalis and Goblin during that era. I was so pleased when these latter two groups were covered by Pandora this year. Oddly, though I did purchase a copy of "Leftoverture" at the time, I did not consider Kansas to be Prog Rock at all then though I do now. I also was skeptical about Queen because their albums of the time boasted that "no synthesizers were used on this record". But I eventually accepted them into the fold as well.

Pandora has helped me flesh out the station a bit. The most out-there band in the set has to Ruins which came long after the others on the station, but provide some truly interesting and difficult (in many senses) tracks. On the other hand, Starcastle, PFM, Van Der Graaf Generator and Egg are all much more central to the genre.

The station occasionally strays into more mainstream rock one side and Fusion on another, and, in general, the station is below average on the monthly listening tests. Nevertheless, some of my favorite music from my high school days is played by this station.

Station Review: The Darjeeling Limited stops at two stations

Wes Anderson is a director who is known for the music in his films. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that his sense of taste transefered to these two promotional stations.

The title of his latest film serves as the name for the first station, The Darjeeling Limited (click to play). It would not surprise me if the four song seeds for this station are featured in the film. Nevertheless, the resulting station is pretty poor since there neither any other seeds nor feedback to flesh out the station. The result here is some blues rock vocals.

The second station, Wes Anderson Films* (click to play), is somewhat more interesting but less coherent. It consists only of eight song seeds, but at least the variety is interesting since it covers tracks by Devo, David Bowie, Cat Stevens and Paul Simon. Again, it's a bit Boomerish, but that's probably appropriate for the topic.

And with that review, I'm officially caught up with the influx of promotional stations after the Internet Radio crisis.

Station Review: SingStar presents two

SingStar seems to be a Karaoke Revolution competitor for the PS2 which is one of the better advertiser fits for Pandora that I've seen.

The first station this promotion offers is SingStar '80s* (click to play). They threw eight hits from the Eighties into a station and walked away without a single look back. Meh. I've heard worse, but, still, they put the 'F' in 'effort' with this one.

They took the exact same approach with SingStar Amped* (click to play). In this case the eight songs seem to be from the Nineties.

Station Review: The Honda Odyssey delivers four

My guess is that it's a car even though the first feature the copy on the Pandora profile page mentions is Bluetooth.

Breaking Free* (click to play) is one of the better designed promotional stations. There are four artist seeds and seven additional song seeds. The idea of connecting the High School Musical soundtrack to REM and They Might Be Giants is an interesting one. The two songs I've heard so far have been strange and good. The station has a little feedback with three thumbs up and three thumbs down.

On the other hand, Truckin'* (click to play) is a much more marginal effort. It's based on four tracks from the Eighties and earlier and minimal feedback (one thumb up and two thumbs down). Yet another boomer nostologia station. Will one of the two remaining stations be Hip Hop? Be still my heart.

Well, the next one, Ticket To Ride (click to play) is a bit moldier (if not Hip Hop), focussing on the Sixties and Seventies. The station is based on six artists and one additional song. You know, The Beatles are surprisingly rare as seeds for promotional station, but they're one of the seeds for this station. The feedback consists of two thumbs up. There are better stations covering this era.

No Hip Hop for the last station, surprisingly. Instead, I've Been Everywhere (click to play) looks at earnest balladiers with Johnny Cash and Dan Zanes and Friends as the artist seeds plus seven additonal song seeds. Like the first station this one is a bit more interesting than most promotional stations. It also has a tiny bit more development than most promotional staions with one thumb up and five thumbs down.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Station Review: BET Hip Hop Awards 07

Unlike the vast majority of Hip-Hip stations created for various promotions BET Hip Hip Awards 07 (click to play) is worthy document of the current state of Hip Hop. The station consists of 20 artist seeds and five songs seeds (though only two of the songs are not covered by the artist seeds). There is no development, but if you wanted to evoke that 2007 Hip Hop sound in the future, this would be an excellent set of artists upon which to base a station.

Station Review: The US Air Force tries four recruitment stations

"Patriotism rises in the heart of the American bear," as Fozzie Bear once said. The US Air Force recruiters paid for four stations in their promotion on Pandora.

First up is American Anthems* (click to play). This station is the epitome of bombast and cheese. Based on Lee Greenwood and four patriotic anthems, this station produces a lot of overwrought, whitebread gospel. Heh: "Hey Jude". These is no station development at all as usual.

Next is Air Rock Lounge* (click to play) which has nothing to with Lounge music. Instead, it's a Nickelback station with two addtional song seeds (Dauhgtry and Red Hot Chilli Peppers). Not bad, but there's not much to it since there's no development here either.

Third is a comparatively interesting station, Funk Force 1* (click to play). This station consists entirely of three artist seeds: Mighty Imperials, The Diplomats of Solid Sound, and The Poets of Rhythm. All three groups are comparatively recent funk revival groups and work quite well together. This collection could be the beginning of a good station.

Lastly, we have the obligatory Hip-Hop station, Horizon* (click to play). This one consists of three song seeds, and that's it. A Hip-Hop afficionado would have to tell you whether these tracks go together at all. As it is, it seems unlikely that this station is in any way superior to all the other promotional Hip-Hop stations.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Station Review:: Heavenly Sword carves up three stations

Heavenly Sword is a game for the Playstation 3. The promotion for the game offers up three stations.

First up is Speed Rock* (click to play) which is a generic metal station as you can get being based on Metallica, Motorhead, Slayer and Zeke. As is endemic for these stations, there has been no development whatsoever. If you like metal you cuold create a better station in fifteen minutes.

The second offering from this video game is yet another Indie Rock station, Range Indie* (click to play). The four seeds are Ghostland Observatory, Nada Surf, Okkervil River and The Thermals. In my brief listening to this station I'd say I like the station a bit better that the NikeiD version of the same genre. But again since there is no development, there's nothing here that you couldn't incorporate into your own stations in a minute or two.

Lastly, we have the inevitable urban market Power Hip-Hop (click to play). Excuse me as I roll my eyes, but there are only three artist seeds here (50 Cent, Kanye West and The Notorious B.I.G.) each of which have been featured on most other promotional Hip-Hop stations. Was there any point to creating this station? Of course, as expected, no time was spent developing this poor excuse for a station.

Station Review: NIKEiD tromps the SUPER-eGO with two stations

And what could be more id-like than a Hip-Hop station and a Rock station? I have no idea what product is being promoted here, but I assume it's something from Nike.

The Hip-Hop station is NIKEiD Hip-Hop Radio* (click to play). I can't be much of judge of this genre since I never listen to it. I've heard of Kanye West and Rihanna, and I've not heard of the three other seeds Buju Banton, Common and Talib Kweli. Since Pandora is about introducing you to new artists, the fact that I haven't heard of these artists is probably a good thing. In any case, no development time was spent on this station, and so it's still disappointing from that standpoint.

The seeds of NIKEiD Rock Radio* (click to play) are also comparatively obscure (Bloc Party, Interpol, Justice and The Killers plus a redundant song by The Killers), and that's nice as well. It seems to be a refreshing mix of recent Indie Rock. But once again there are no thumbs up or down to guide this station into being a bit more listenable.

Station Review: Four for the Journeyman TV Show

This set is a promotion for a US TV series featuring time traveling, and so the stations are built to reflect different eras.

The late Eighties are the focus of Journeyman Hits 1987-1992* (click to play). The approach was to use five artists of the era and five songs other songs of the era as seeds. It was not a great era to start off with, and the station as usual has very little development: two thumbs up and four thumbs down. (Beyonce gets dissed twice here, hilariously. As far as I can tell, this makes her the only artist to have ever been banned from a promotional station. I'm sure it was inadvertent.)

The next station attempts to encapsulate the next five years in Journeyman Hits 1993-1999* (click to play). Did anyone really need a Spice Girls station? In any case, the Girls join four other artists and two songs as the seeds for this station. The development consists of two thumbs up and two thumbs down. Bland pop at it's most vanilla.

Moving up to the present we get to Journeyman Hits 2000-2007* (click to play). The seeds are six artist and six seeds. Again, it's the tops of the pops like many other promotional stations. Yawn. It was granted a single thumb up for development. You'd be better off building a station off the Billboard lists.

A new low is finally achieved with the last station, Journeyman Hits Time Travel* (click to play). If you really wanted to hear a station based on Tupac, Bon Jovi, Green Day, Madonna, Pink, TLC and U2 you can listen to this station, or, you know, create your own maybe adding some artists you actually like instead. No development time was wasted on this station at all.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Station Building 101: Moving Ups To Seeds

Nearly a year ago I heard Tim Westergren speak in Berkeley. He mentioned that the list of thumbed-up songs were averaged to form a single seed which could then generate sets. I'm not sure I believed him, and I did not include that fact in my write up of the event. However, a recent update to the Pandora FAQ confirms that this is what the player is doing.

Given that information the question becomes whether we improve the focus of a station by making the best thumbed up songs into song seeds for a station. The idea is that by having many more similar seeds generating song sets, the station should become more consistent.

I examined my list of stations and picked a candidate for improvement. I Sing The Body Electric has always had a bit of an identity crisis. I wanted a station that played world-influenced electronica, but the only two bands I really liked (and of which I was aware) that were doing so were Engma and Afrocelt Soundsystem. And so to have enough bands to get the station going I added Polyphonic Spree and Jon and Vangelis both of which were looking for a home in my stations but neither of which met the ideal I had in mind for the station. It was time for major surgery.

I sorted the list of thumbed-up songs by artist, pressed the "show all" button, and printed out the list. I listened to the sample of each song in the list except for those of the four artist seeds and decided for each song whether to make it a seed, leave it alone or remove it from the list. Starting with the 183 tracks I had thumbed-up to date I made 45 songs into seeds and removed 95 of the tracks since they were more associated with the artists I was eliminating.

As I listen to the resulting station it seems that this a useful procedure; however, the station will need to go through a period of listening in which many new songs being drawn in by the influx of seeds will need to be thumbed down. And, of course, any new songs which are particularly appropriate will need to made into seeds as well as being thumbed up on an on-going basis. It is unclear at this point whether this process of constantly bringing in new seeds will result in a stable, consistent station, but I'm cautiously optimistic at this point.

A final point to consider is whether, in the long run, a station should use any artist seeds at all. My feeling is that as long as it is likely that new tracks by the artist will be made available to play on Pandora, then having artist seeds in a station is good because it will draw those tracks in as they become available. If an artist is no longer producing albums and Pandora has pretty much covered all the artist's albums then you might wish to include only the appropriate tracks by that artist in your stations.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Station Review: Four More For Visa Signature

Another advertiser to re-up for the Pandora promotional station advertising program is Visa Signature. Last December they introduced four of the better promotional stations, and now they're back with four more.

First up is Brit Rock Radio* (click to play). This station is based on Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Cure, The Fratellis, The Rolling Stones, The Who and a tune by Oasis. It's sort of a Boomer nostolgia station. Zzzzzzz... At least the station has some development with two thumbs up and five thumbs down. Kudos, at least, to Visa for being unafraid of offending The Ducky Boys.

Next, let's take a look at World Traveler Radio* (click to play). Could it be? A promotional station I actually like? Something must be wrong. In any case, this station is based on five bands, only one of which has any fame at all in the US: Ladysmith Black Mambazo. There are two song seeds as well. Lot's of drums and call-and-response vocals. The station is slightly developed with 2 thumbs up and 2 thumbs down.

The third station is Blarney Stone Radio (click to play). It's not a bad attempt to create a Celtic station. I would note, however, that my Tir Na Nog station (click to play) covers all the same artists plus many more, and is far more developed. Their station is based on three artists, two songs, one thumb up and one thumb down. Since it has no real development it pulls in a lot of folk and bluegrass which is not remotely Celtic.

Lastly, we take a look at Tokyo Pop Karaoke Radio* (click to play). Again, Visa Signature should be applauded for the mere idea of using a J-Pop station in their campaign. It has five artists, and one thumb down, and so no one stayed up hights perfecting this station. Nevertheless, Puffy is a good place to start any station.

Overall, I'd say that this set of stations is one of the best promotions to date. Much is still lacking in the development of these staions, but at least they are examining genres beyond "what the kids are listening to now".

Station Building 101: Spring Cleaning

In a previous Station Building post I mentioned that I probably should try to insure that no track is a seed or thumbed up on more than one station. I have several stations that are relatively close to one another, and so the idea is reduce the cases of tracks bringing the same songs to multiple stations.

And so I opened each station page and copied the lists of song seeds and thumbed up tracks into one long column of a spreadsheet. I added a column indicating which station the song came from and whether it was an up or a seed. At that point (Aug. 28) I had a list of 3,481 tracks which I then sorted alphabetically.

I then worked my way down the list looking for duplicates. When I found a set, I made decision on which I'd like to keep and copied the other rows in the set to another page. In the end, I found 75 duplicate tracks to eliminate. Sorting this latter list based on the station allowed me to quickly remove the duplicates.

The only downside to doing this task is the fact that afterward you will almost inevitably give a thumb up to tracks that you've cleaned out (particularly if you are listening to mobile Pandora where you cannot see the station). Nevertheless, this technique does help firm up what belongs in each of your stations.

The resulting list of all your seeds and thumbed up tracks is interesting in its own right. Currently, in that strange intersection of what I like and what Pandora has, Loreena McKinnet leads all others at 29 tracks edging out Kraftwerk at 28. Sadly, my two favorite artists, Vangelis and the Swedish/Finnish band Hedningarna (released in the US as The Heathens), are horribly underrepresented at 3 and 0 tracks respectively. (The Jon Anderson and Vangelis collaborations do score another 7 tracks for Vangelis, however.)

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Station Story: Pretty Pop Princesses

This station is probably the closest I'll ever get to having a true, current pop station. I do not listen to currently charting artists. When I was in my teens I definitely turned my nose up at anything popular. I was one of those music snobs who loved a band if I got to know them before they became popular, and scoffed at any band that only became popular because of the marketing machinery of a major label.

Jagged Little Pill is the only album I've ever bought when it was at number 1, as far as I know. I came across Shakira by catching a video of hers on a Spanish language channel years before her first album in English. I mush say that I was turned onto Lavigne by happening on the "Complicated" video on MTV, and, thus, caught her in a rather mundane fashion. I like the fact all three artists participate fully in the writing of their songs (the lyrics, if nothing else).

The additional song seeds for this station come from the period in Pandora history when Quickmix was first implemented. There was a time when you could move tracks while listening to an individual station, but not when you were listening to Quickmix. Thus, I heard these songs on other stations and moved them manually by adding them as seeds to the station.

I try to keep the male lead vocals out of this station. Even by thumbing down every male lead vocal, about ten percent of the tracks do have a male vocalist. Still, I'm pretty satisfied by this station.