Westergren entranced Gasser with a vision of “this moral component of what this sort of endeavor could entail . . . from artist to fans more directly.” Gasser took the idea with him on an academic research trip to Milan. By day, he pored over materials at the Fabbrica del Duomo in Milan; in the evenings, he dissected Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult and Buffalo Springfield.
When Gasser returned, he and Westergren typed their analyses into a clunky Microsoft spreadsheet they called a “matching engine.” They picked a Beatles song, either “Eleanor Rigby” or “Norwegian Wood” (they can’t remember which) to test it. Slowly, it sputtered an answer: a song called “New York Mining Disaster 1941” by the Bee Gees.
“We’re like, ‘Oh,’ ” Westergren recalls. “ ‘This thing doesn’t work.’ ”
But it did work. The more they tinkered, the more they believed. Even the Beatles-Bee Gees mashup that made so little sense at first seemed to compute because this wasn’t the later, saccharine Bee Gees, but the earlier, bluesier Bee Gees.
“Our big challenge was the lexicon; literally ‘the Word,’ ” says Westergren, who rattles off phrases such as “compositional dominance.” “You felt a breakthrough moment when you found the word. Then you forgot the time before you had the words.”
They settled on five genomes — pop/rock, hip-hop, jazz, world and classical. Their office in San Francisco, and later in Oakland, swelled with hip-hop rhymers, classical music performers and jazz guys who spent days listening to music and analyzing each song based on more than 400 characteristics.
The project was thriving, the business wasn’t. Pandora’s leadership “originally thought raising money was going to be much easier,” Gasser recalls. A possible investor sneered, “So you’ve basically got the ‘no-model’ business model,” Westergren recalls.
Westergren maxed out 11 credit cards, taking on more than $300,000 in personal debt. Stress sent him to the hospital with heart palpitations.
The company’s finances were so dire that Westergren had to stop paying staff, asking them to defer salaries, which he didn’t realize was against California labor law. “When you aren’t paying everybody on a monthly basis, yeah, it can cause some tension,” Gasser recalls.
“Pretty much everybody took off,” says Steve Hogan, who now oversees 25 music analysts as head of music operations. At the nadir, Hogan was the only staff analyst left.