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April 4, 2013

Pandora, Co-Founder Tim Westergren Take On Music Industry's Elite in Royalty Fight

(Continued)

MIAMI —

Onstage, he looks more like a guy about to slide behind the keyboard than a corporate pitchman. He's both, actually. That afternoon, he tapped out a few notes on a piano to an empty house. "It's a Steinway; I couldn't help it," he says.

Westergren is tall and slim with tousled brown hair. He's a youthful 47-year-old with a laid-back manner and an evenly modulated, nonconfrontational, pedagogical speaking style. Guys in the audience are "dude."

He anthropomorphizes his cyber-child, a "music genome project" that analyzes the component parts of a song and is fed into a computer program that matches similar songs and makes recommendations for listeners. "Pandora has an attitude," he tells his Miami audience, "and sometimes gets upset."

The overwhelming majority of Pandora users access the service at no cost, though a tiny percentage pay a small fee for a version with no ads. Users can create individualized stations based on a single artist or song. The idea is to help them discover new music with similar characteristics, a process that gets even more personalized by offering users the option to customize their stations by giving a song a thumbs up or thumb down. Pandora has logged 22 billion thumbs and counting.

Once, a user wrote Westergren furious that a Celine Dion song played on his Sarah McLachlan station. Westergren and the Dion-hater e-mailed back and forth for a long time, then silence. Later, a single-line e-mail arrived: "Oh my God. I like Celine Dion."

His routine in the late 1980s and early 1990s was simple: Piano all morning. Pick up somebody else's kids in the afternoon. Piano all night. Repeat.

Not exactly the typical sitch for a Stanford University political science graduate. But somehow it felt right. In college, Westergren had done some teaching and worked with at-risk children. Now he was the nanny — or manny, as he puts it — for a family in Palo Alto, Calif.

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