Pandora opens more classical boxes


Pandora Media Inc. logos; on Wednesday, the service launched three new classical music channels. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg (Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG)

Pandora, as a lot of listeners know, is the online custom radio service that allows you to program your own stations to your own tastes (a thumbs up/thumbs down rating option lets the search engines know how its suggestions have gone over, and help them make new ones). Classical music did not figure large in its original plans. However, finding that its classical stations were performing slightly better than market share indicated they should, the company has made a significant push over the last three years to expand its classical catalogue. The result: three new classical stations, available as of today, with a Goldilocks array of choices: a light one for the casual listener, a more serious one, and one that focuses exclusively on complete performances -- as people who love classical music generally expect.

Figuring out how to get classical music into online formats has been a challenge at least since Apple rolled out iTunes -- which still sells individual tracks as “songs” -- in 2001. An initial challenge, and the biggest one, was coming up with workable databases for music for which listeners need a lot of information -- composer and often a bevy of different performers -- as opposed to the simpler group + song title format of a lot of pop music. (I am obviously generalizing in both cases.) It was also not clear that classical music listeners were interested in this kind of service. Pandora Radio launched in 2005, but it didn’t add classical until 2008.

But Pandora, like iTunes, has observed the growth of its classical listenership -- in June 2013, it was up 27% over the previous year -- and has been working to respond to that. The new stations have been “hypercurated,” says Ron Nenni, Pandora’s director of music programming, with “handcrafted” categories, as opposed to some of the broader stations in other genres. “We wanted to make sure we were offering a good balance of classical periods.” And rather than being offering generic recordings, says Michael Addicott, head of Pandora’s curation team, “We were carefully picking which performance of which particular work or movement by a composer.”

One reason classical music audiences for services like Pandora are growing may be that standard radio stations offer them fewer options. The decline of classical and jazz programming on terrestrial radio, Addicott says, “is an opportunity for us to take these formats and make them unique to Pandora, and also give listeners that may have been displaced a place to go.”

Channels called “Classical for Work” and “Classical for the Soul” (with “a slightly deeper focus,” according to a press release) may not entirely scratch the itch of aficionados, but the “Complete Classical Performances,” now featured as one of Pandora’s main genre channels, is certainly targeting the core classical audience.

“It might not be the largest segment of audience on Pandora,” Addicott says, “but they’re engaged and they communicate with us.”

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.

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