Pandora Music on innovating in an era of change

Jeff Zuckowski and Liz Bacelar

Jeff Zuckowski and Liz Bacelar

“Everybody is always trying to figure out what’s next, and sometimes you’ve got to live in the now,” says Jeff Zuckowski, vice president of industry relations at music service Pandora, on the latest episode of TheCurrent Innovators podcast.

Speaking to Liz Bacelar, he highlights the importance of balancing newness and familiarity, and how companies should be striving to innovate in the present, and not the future in order to stay ahead.

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For Pandora, disruption began when consumers flocked to digital to listen to music how they wanted, when they wanted, says Zuchowski. But every disruption is preceded by a phase of resistance, he notes. For digital music, it took big industry players a while to realize the power of investing in platforms that tap into the growing consumer needs for convenience and discoverability.

Although Pandora currently sits at number two in the US market behind Spotify, many would discard the company’s recent attempts to stay in line with competition. Zuchowski disagrees with that notion, saying the platform already has a large fanbase (circa 80 million), which simply needs to be reignited. “I don’t look at Pandora as an underdog, I look at is as a sleeping giant,” he says.

Pandora constantly adds touches to make the usability more seamless and relevant, he says. A recent feature, for instance, enables users to just pick one or two songs, and Pandora will generate an entire playlist off the back of them. Users can then eliminate or add songs along the way, and an algorithm will learn from their behaviour.

“When we set out to go to the next level, and we had to do something to compete, we did it by using what’s always been Pandora’s backbone, which is the Genome,” Zuchowski further explains. The Music Genome Project is a proprietary music rating system developed by Pandora where trained musicologists rate songs on 450 different attributes – such as “aggressive drumming” or “jazz influencers” and cross-reference the results with other songs in order to make recommendations. The platform is betting on its human-meets-AI approach to provide a more curated selection of music.

Zuchowski’s competitive nature, however, means he never thinks a project is done, a trait he believes most disruptors have. At the core of that approach is the need to go beyond his own industry to learn things from people who are in other spaces, facing similar problems. Fashion, he believes, is going through a large amount of change and could learn from talking to peers in other industries such as music, who often face the same hurdles, but at different times in culture.

His advice for the industry is to “take chances.. to throw a lot of s**t against the wall and see what sticks”. No one can afford to do the same thing they did a year ago, he notes.

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