The Futurist: The Future of Pandora is Mobile

Thanks to the Copyright Royalty Board, beginning in mid-July, all Internet radio stations will see substantially higher royalty fees. Fees so high, that it isn’t difficult to imagine vast swaths of the musical Internet becoming dead air overnight.

Most frightening of all is the prospect of losing Pandora — one of the truly great things to come from the entire Interweb. I had the opportunity to interview Pandora founder Tim Westergren about a year ago, and the way he put it, the service is purely a labor of love born from his affection for expanding his own musical palette.

Right now. Pandora is under siege. In order to survive, it will likely have to evolve. And it will have to go mobile.

If you aren’t familiar with Pandora, you obviously haven’t stepped foot in an American office in the past year, where it has spread from headphone-bound cubicle worker to headphone-bound cubicle worker like crazy. The short of it: The Music Genome Project has mapped out a bounty of songs based on often-obscure musical traits (think “Groove Based Composition” or “East Coast Rap Influences”). You type in a song or artist you like, and the player takes over—creating an ad hoc radio station based on your choice filled with songs that share one or more trait with your beloved tune.

The brilliance in it is in the unexpected. The service not only exposes you to zillions of previously unheard of artists (a lot of the music comes from CDs that were simply mailed to the Project’s door), but it breaths new life into stale commercial music by stripping away layers of pretension. The fact is that many music fans don’t give entire chunks of artists a listening chance. This could be because they aren’t very well known or, as is often the case, because they are TOO well known.

Lets put it this way. I have never knowingly heard a Beyonce song. If you asked me if I liked Beyonce, I’d probably say “Nah,” and assume it was a safe bet that it wouldn’t do much for me. However, with Pandora, I could be rocking out to an obscure shoegaze track when Ms. Knowles suddenly comes on. Not being familiar with any of her songs, unless my Pandora window is filling my monitor at the moment, I’d have no way of knowing who she was. And, surprise, I could find myself actually enjoying it.

This is why Pandora is not just a boon to unknown artists looking for any exposure they can get, but it helps big-time commercial musicians reach entire sects of the music-loving public who have given up entirely on commercial music.

Still, they are threatening to put it under.

So what should Pandora do to survive? The answer is simple: Go mobile.

Sticking cell radios or Wi-Fi on mobile devices is becoming increasingly inexpensive and increasingly common. If there were a mobile way of accessing all of the features of Pandora, it would be far neater than either the walled garden of music content currently offered by cell phone providers, or even the hundreds of satellite radio stations available on portable devices such as XM’s Inno or Sirius’ Stiletto. Imagine being able to input a song or artist on-the-go, and having a personalized playlist, chock-full of surprises, pop up on the spot.

To make this a reality, there are two options: 1) launch a program for high-speed 3G mobile phones that will allow them to tap into Pandora, 2) Launch an MP3 player or dedicated music device with wireless capabilities designed specifically for Pandora.

The first one, while obviously a far easier proposition, does nothing to guarantee the longterm viability of the service. For one thing, it does nothing to address the financial realities of high royalty fees. In fact, it probably would be an awful idea, economically speaking. A large chunk of Pandora’s income comes from banner ads — a dicey proposition for mobile listeners. And while some enterprising mobile users have surely streamed Pandora to their smartphones, this is clearly not in the service’s intent (it actually blocks certain versions of Windows Mobile from picking it up.)

Something along the lines of a Pandora-branded music player would be a far better idea. Such a device would require them to partner up with a deep-pocketed manufacturer, giving them access to financial resources they currently don’t have. If they teamed up with SanDisk or Microsoft to produce a next-gen Sansa or Zune with built-in Pandora access, they could reap huge licensing fees of their own, and have more corporate muscle behind them than they could possibly dream of at the moment.

Pandora should be more than just an Internet radio site — it should be a brand.

Seth Porges writes on future technology and its role in personal electronics for his column, The Futurist. It appears every Thursday and an archive of past columns is available here.