Sunday, December 9, 2012

The politics of Pandora: is international music really that “different”?


Pandora, the internet radio service that composes playlists based on users’ musical preferences, has come under scrutiny (…mine) for its unbalanced use of international pop music. As I was listening to a Pandora station for various kpop groups the other day and hearing random assorted American artists appear in the stream, I began to wonder: Why do these American performers (most of whom I have never heard of) appear in this station - yet I’ve never heard a non-English speaking artist in one of my American artists’ station?

For example, why doesn’t Nell come up in Coldplay radio? Why don’t FT Island or CNBLUE come up in The Click Five or Jack’s Mannequin stations? Why doesn’t 2NE1 come up in the Lady Gaga stream, or LED Apple in the All American Rejects station?  Shouldn’t Busker Busker show up in the Mumford and Sons station? Why is there no reciprocity between American and non-American artists on Pandora’s stations?

I wrote to Pandora posing this question and received the following form response about Pandora’s recent efforts to enlarge their collections of international music.

While we are amassing a collection of other genres of “world” music, each type won’t be released right away. We need to have a critical mass of matchable songs in order to offer a reasonable listening experience on Pandora.

This shift will also require analyzing the music differently than we currently do — each different style of music requires different listening skills and music theory knowledge on the parts of our Music Analysts. It’s a huge undertaking, but we’re really excited about it! We’re expanding the kinds of music we stream every day. We’re of course also working on the licensing rights to offer our service legally overseas.

In other words, all “world” music is fundamentally different from (default) (Western) music and therefore requires special training in order to organize it within Pandora’s Music Genome Project, which classifies works according to their musical qualities. Strange, then, that the Music Analysts already feel comfortable inserting American music in existing streams for kpop artists.

What seems to be in play here is an impulse to respect the particularity of each culture’s music, and I can understand that impulse. I wouldn’t want to hear Hawaiian music on an Indonesian gamelan station just because they come from the same (roughly) region of the world; I wouldn’t want to hear South African kwaito on my Youssou N’Dour station just because both originate in Africa. And it’s hard to appreciate, say, Infinite’s The Chaser without an awareness of the use of indigenous Korean instrumentation and language within the song. So there’s something to be said for training these Music Analysts to categorize music within its own frameworks.

On the other hand, though, it seems to me quite absurd to claim that just because an artist is from another country, his or her work does not have enough in common with a given American artist that they could not be on the same station. The whole reason I kept listening to kpop beyond the first song I heard (Girls Generation’s Tell Me Your Wish…) was that B1A4’s OK reminded me so much of classic AAR tracks like Swing Swing and Dirty Little Secret. And I’m sure many kpop listeners recognize the influences of other American artists within much of the kpop corpus. Thus, given that kpop shares many characteristics with American artists, I think there’s also something to be said for recognizing the clear similarities and grouping those songs together. The interests of particularity - that certain types of music are fundamentally different from others - need to be balanced with a sense of universality, the idea that popular music the world over shares some important characteristics.

I wonder if there is a market force at work here too. Since Pandora began its life by getting permissions to stream music from American record labels, it seems those labels might have an interest in keeping an exclusive grasp on the stations belonging to their artists. This hegemony of the American record labels seems to have kept international popular music from gaining serious traction in the American market (with the exception, of course, of Psy, and we might even say O-zone’s Dragostea din Tei) on the conventional radio stations. So it could be that Pandora is concerned that bringing non-American music into American artists’ stations might somehow be threatening to said artists’ labels…

Or maybe the explanation is much simpler. Maybe Pandora not playing non-American music on stations where it would obviously fit quite well is just an unexamined bias, or the assumption that listeners hold bias against certain kinds of music just because they are not American.

And in fairness to Pandora, I should also say that there is now an option for correcting the oversight: Pandora users can “add variety” to any of their stations with the click of a button and thus manually include any artist in any station. So I guess that’s what I’ll be doing until someone at Pandora re-examines the organization’s assumptions about international popular music. Sigh.

If anyone has any insight into this particular imbalance between American and non-American music within Pandora and/or the Music Genome Project, I would be glad to hear it!

Not that I have any insight to this particular issue, but Pandora’s classification of music from other countries in another language as “world music” says a lot. From their message it looks like they’re operating from the base assumption that music like k-pop is fundamentally different from popular American music, and requires a special sort of music analysis. Which, if you’ll pardon my French, is bullshit. As you’ve pointed out, and as many casual and dedicated listeners of Korean music know, it is heavily influenced by Western music. To presume otherwise is to other and exoticize the music - and devalue it, to some extent.

The term “world music” evokes for me an image of drum circles and white men in cheesy safari hats holding mics in the middle to record “the sounds of [country, continent, what have you]” for their home audiences. Musical tourism, so to speak. It represents a failure to - or a decision not to - engage with the music on a real level, and acknowledge both what is similar to Western music and what is different. Since they put “world” in quotes, it seems that they’re not oblivious to its connotations. But they shouldn’t have used it in the first place if they were serious about integrating other musical genres into the Music Genome Project, and taking those other genres seriously.

I can understand that they would want to get people more familiar with Korean traditional music on the job to make sure that they’re not lumping together things that are not actually quite alike. But I wonder if that’s a good working strategy in the first place. What if they find that Indonesian gamelan music actually has a lot in common with, say, Tuareg music? That both musical cultures happened upon the same musical stylings, only in isolation from each other? It’s totally possible, but it sounds like Pandora wouldn’t put them on the same station because they’re operating from a base assumption that they cannot be alike.

Also, you don’t need special knowledge to analyze music that’s not part of the great Western bloodline. You might encounter completely different motifs, but that doesn’t mean that the methodology shouldn’t be the same. That’s like saying you can’t understand a k-drama without having studied them or something. As many, many people can attest to, that’s simply a false assumption. You might miss a couple of things due to cultural differences (the significance of formal vs. informal speech, for example). But if you can read subtitles and know how to identify lead characters, plots and your basic film cues, you can understand a k-drama. Whether you’ll enjoy it is a little less certain.

Which brings me to the next possible assumption that could be at work here: that people wouldn’t be interested in listening to, as per my above example, Tuareg music, if they created a gamelan music station. But you can’t make that decision for the user - you have to give them the option first and see how they decide. They’re preventing people from discovering music that they probably wouldn’t listen to otherwise. Isn’t that what “music discovery” is all about? Or is that just a fancy marketing catchphrase for all the new music services post-Napster?

I was actually super excited when I first read about the Music Genome Project. But it seems that its true potential for “music discovery” will be hampered by the implicit ethnocentrism displayed in this message. I wouldn’t expect to hear any Nell on a Coldplay station anytime soon.

I might be reading too much into this - it’s still very possible that Pandora’s partners, advertisers, investors and other corporate actors are the real machinators - but I can’t take any “music analyst” seriously if they’re describing any sort of music these days as “world music”. I mean, come on.