Is Spotify secretly creating a Pandora radio clone?

Spotify and Pandora

Check out our comparison of the Spotify Radio and Pandora mobile apps for the latest on the two streaming services.

Spotify is great, but discovering music on it has never been as easy as it could be. There are lists of top-selling songs, but the service has never had a great recommendation engine to let users know what music they may love, but may never have heard of before. That could change later this year. Bloomberg believes that a Pandora-like recommendation service is in the works. 

“…The new format would be similar to Pandora’s, which operates like radio and is cheaper to operate because royalty rates are lower and set by Congress,” writes Andy Fixmer of Bloomberg, who found out from two unnamed sources with knowledge of the situation. “The new service would start by year-end and be supported by advertising, said the people, who weren’t authorized to talk publicly. The company has begun notifying some content partners of its plans.”

Currently, Spotify is a streaming service that lets you play any music album or track from its library at your will. Spotify brings in revenue through audio and visual ads, as well as subscription fees. A subscription is needed to use the smartphone or tablet version of the Spotify app. In addition, Spotify’s real differentiation is its playlist format, which encourages users to construct unique playlists. Essentially, Spotify is offering free music collection software and free music for those on a PC or Mac. The problems with this model are that some artists, like The Black Keys, refuse to let Spotify stream their music because they think it reduces the value of music as a whole. The service also lacks a good way to notify people of music they might love. Pandora, on the other hand, does not have either of these problems. 

Pandora Music Genome ProjectPandora has managed to operate under old radio laws (that honestly should be extended to include modern services like Spotify). It can play any music track as long as it pays a royalty back to the recording company that owns the music. Some years back, Pandora reinvented the radio concept with its special sauce: the Music Genome Project. Basically, every track on Pandora is assessed by real people who analyze it based on 400 really crazy, indepth characteristics that go far beyond “Indie Rock” or other labels we usually put on music. It studies things like vocal harmony, rhythm syncopation, tonality, instrument types, and all sorts of other important attributes that most users don’t know they’re picking up on when they listen to music.

Pandora encourages users to create their own radio stations by typing in artists or songs that they love. Once they do, it analyzes the music and comes up with more music that is somewhat similar, hoping that the user likes it. The formula has been a huge success. Pandora is now a publicly traded company with nearly 150 million users. Its only weakness is that you cannot choose which specific tracks you want to play, which is exactly what Spotify does allow you to do. 

Spotify has even tried to mimic the Pandora recently, using a company called Echo Nest to analyze music, but its recommendations lack the mojo of Pandora, likely because Echo Nest uses computers to analyze its music and extrapolate qualities of it, while Pandora uses skilled musicians. While the approach may be better in the long run (once the computers get smart enough), currently Pandora offers better recommendations. So what is Spotify planning to do differently this time? Is it simply about finding a way to be able to play any song, or is it re-evaluating its approach toward deep song analysis?

If Spotify and Pandora were to merge, it would be a happy day. Sadly, that probably won’t happen, but Spotify taking any steps toward providing better music recommendations is good. Let’s hope this new radio service, if it exists, connects up to the current Spotify service and has an underlying structure that resembles Pandora’s Music Genome Project. It’s a massive undertaking, which took Pandora years to get up and running, but without it, there’s really nothing new here. Spotify has tried to tackle Pandora with algorithms and genres and such. It has had radio stations since the beginning of the year. What it needs are radio stations that can produce the kind of surprising and amazing results that Pandora is known to deliver.

Pandora is vulnerable. Despite being popular, the service hasn’t evolved much since its launch more than half a decade ago. Spotify could make an impact here, but it needs to offer something great.

[Side note: Once it’s finished with its radio station, Spotify should create an export function so that users can freely export their playlists, choices, and creations from the service. Currently, Spotify is more than happy to import playlists, but it won’t give any back.]