Pandora’s Jane Huxley on streaming radio, and the future of Soundcloud

Jane Huxley spent 16 years at Microsoft, has previously worked at Vodafone, and Fairfax Digital. She’s now Director of Pandora Australia and New Zealand, and is charged with building the first international subsidiaries of Pandora.

According to her, audio content is broken up into three categories. Spoken word, which is streamed and on demand through apps like Aha, Stitcher and in Australia, TuneIn Radio, on-demand with 17 or 18 players, most notably Spotify, Deezer, Rapsody and previously Rdio and finally streaming radio which is Pandora’s field.

In her speech Friday at Pausefest in Melbourne, Huxley talked about Pandora’s new Genome feature which establishes a digital fingerprint around songs describing everything from a song’s lyrics to its timbre.

Huxley believes this can provide a way in for independent musicians that create songs with a similar “fingerprint” to those already of a large profile, to gain the exposure they deserve, as similar songs are cued next to one another, democratizing the internet. But I wondered if this was a system that could then be gamified and abused.

In this interview we discuss the new Genome feature and those very issues that could be associated with it, the future of Soundcloud as a viable business, and whether we’ll see more podcasting on Pandora.

You said you’ve democratised the music industry with products like Genome but have you also gamified it in some sense? Is there a way around that to stop that?

I don’t think we’ve gamified it at all. You can only do three things in Pandora, you can start a station and then you can thumb it up and thumb it down, and that’s actually quite boring. So, I’m not sure that we’ve gamified it. We have - in fact - just tried to streamline it more than anything else. And get out of the way of people that just want to listen to music.

Well I suppose you are the pop-station of the music services replacing those pop-music radio stations. Which begs the question, is Pandora and their digital fingerprint technology bringing us closer to manufacturing music, or has that just been happening all along?

It has been…people will like what they like. And, what we’ve found is that tastes are so broad. You know there is literally an audience for everything. The earliest song in the Genome goes back to 1905. It’s a brass marching band song. There are fans of that who were clearly not living back then. Although we do have a hundred listeners over the age of a hundred that listen to Pandora. So the democratisation of Pandora is just looking at music for what it is. The attributes that don’t see the record label, the location in the world, how much money is being put into you. The democratisation is more about the garage band from Melbourne being able to be spun next to P!nk. It’s a democratic choice of music, and that’s what we’re talking about.

With the news today that Soundcloud may be on its last legs, and the similarity in that you at Pandora have gone for scale rather than necessarily generating a profit, what has Pandora done right that Soundcloud has done wrong?

It’s hard for me to comment on that. I read that this morning. Firstly, I never believe everything that I read. Soundcloud is a great company providing a really extraordinary service to musicians. And (it has) 175 million around the world use that service, it’s pretty extraordinary. So, firstly, never believe what you read. What have we done right? We’ve just run our own race. We are very clear about what we do, we’re radio. Push the button; music comes out. In our case it’s music that you love. We have not tried to compete in the on-demand space, particularly. There is absolutely that passive audience that is the lion’s share of that audience we’ve been focused on since day one in 2005. So, I think what differentiates us is the clear view of what that listener is, and what we can do for them. And…it’s the same product that it was back then. It’s got more functionality in it now. But…the essence of it is still the same. We’re not trying to get clever. We just want you to listen to great music.

Since delving into podcasting, bringing across the uber popular Serial and This American Life, I think you were saying earlier Serial had five million listens?

Five million “station starts", yes. I heard that in our investor call this morning that it had five million station starts eclipsing the first season and This American Life. It’s just a different model for us. And, truth be told, we’re just experimenting with that to see what happens.

Are they categorised the same as music? How does the DNA work for spoken word?

No, and that’s why it was challenging for Pandora. Because we randomise, we don’t serialise. And so the engineers really had to scramble. I think, in fact, we ended up serving that from an ad unit tech background, because we needed to play that very differently with how the Genome works .Imagine getting Serial scrambled up! So, I’m pretty sure we ended up building that in an ad unit just as part of this experiment.

Is there a future there in podcasting?

There is a future in podcasting. What part of Pandora’s future that plays is not really something I can speculate on. There is growth in the spoken-word…I, for one, have been mad about listening to podcasts and, in fact, audiobooks for, gosh, since my first child was born nine years ago…Bringing that to the masses is just a matter of time.

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Thanks for sharing Tom!

Good read. Thanks for posting!