Pandora Media, the king of personalized online radio services, pays recording artists, songwriters, record labels and music publishers close to $300 million a year in royalties. That's not nearly enough to satisfy the company's critics in the music industry, who resent how little Pandora pays each time a user plays a track.
On Wednesday, the company plans to start offering artists more than just royalties. It's opening a new Artists Marketing Platform that provides detailed analytics for bands and their managers about their songs and their fans. Pandora AMP will be available free to any artist whose music is available on the service.
Among other things, artists will be able to see which cities are home to the greatest clusters of their fans, the number of thumbs up (the Pandora equivalent of a Facebook "like") each of their tracks have received from listeners, and some basic demographic information on the users who have created playlists based on their music.
Consider Pandora AMP a peace offering of sorts to the artists who've complained bitterly about the royalties paid by streaming radio services -- even as Pandora has pressed Congress to lower them. The company has been embroiled in seemingly endless battles with the music industry over royalties; this year it defeated the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers' bid for higher royalties, only to be sued by the major record labels over royalties it hadn't been paying for songs recorded before 1972.
Yet AMP has been in the works for some time. Company founder Tim Westergren, a former professional musician himself, revealed plans for the service in a January 2013 speech at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Westergren argued then that Pandora can offer struggling musicians a path into the middle class by making it easier for them to attract, find and connect with fans. He returned to that theme in a blog post Wednesday announcing the service.
"When I was about 28, a band I was in drove 1,098 miles from San Francisco to Telluride, CO to play a club gig," Westergren wrote. The band arrived a few hours early to drum up interest by stapling posters on telephone polls and passing out invitations. The result: about 15 people showed up, or one for every 146 miles traveled to and from the show.
"We didn't really know any better at the time," Westergren added. "We figured that's what working bands do. You pay your dues, play tons of shows, drive thousands of miles and hope you build some buzz and catch a break. Some of the bands we played with went on to successful careers. But most, like us, eventually threw in the towel. We moved on for the same reason most working artists do; we had no platform to get large-scale exposure."
Pandora offers that kind of scale, Westergren contends. According to the company, more than 76 million users play more than 1.6 billion hours of music every month. Over its nine years in existence, the company has collected more than 45 billion pieces of feedback about songs -- the aforementioned thumbs up -- from listeners. And now it's letting artists peer into its trove of data for lessons that can help them chart more successful tours and promote new releases more effectively.
The data could prove particularly helpful to artists whose music never gets played on conventional over-the-air stations, the company said. "Over 80 percent of the artists on Pandora do not receive any airtime on terrestrial radio," the company said. "With AMP, Pandora has created an easy-to-use and actionable tool for all musicians."
For some artists, the data from Pandora may seem like a poor substitute for bigger royalty checks. But in Westergren's vision, the two go hand in hand, particularly for artists willing to go on tour. AMP turns Pandora into a tool to help artists navigate their way through the havoc that technology is wreaking in the music business. It's no shortcut to a successful career, but it's far better than a stack of posters and a staplegun.