11/11/13: An inside view of Pandora advertising

Brad Hill
November 11, 2013 - 12:20pm

Greg Cutler is a voice-over actor and producer who has been creating audio ads for Pandora since 2011. After a decade in radio (1981-1991), and taking a break for non-profit activities, Cutler returned to voice work in 2001. He operates a home audio studio with a whisper booth and digital recording/editing.

Cutler became involved in Pandora through the Internet’s version of cold calling. “I contacted Pandora by email,” he told RAIN. “Nothing happened right away, but six months later I got a reply saying, ‘You’re one of the voices we’d like to use.’ Suddenly I was producing spots for clients all over the country.

Cutler told us he has made over 100 ads for Pandora, at a pace of three to ten a month. We asked him for a glimpse into the Pandora realm -- specifically, how the company commissions and produces its commercials. We were also interest in the balance of local and national ad spots that Cutler has produced, in light of Pandora’s aggressive build-out of local sales offices. (RAIN coverage here.)

RAIN: Is Pandora a direct client?

GC: They are a direct client, and I am an independent contractor working at home. The days of going to studios and recording with the artistic director, and production guys, and six people watching over your performance, have dwindled.

RAIN: How does the direction work? Do you send multiple takes, and is there some back-and-forth?

GC: With Pandora in particular, they send me an order, with instructions for the type of [acting] delivery they’re looking for. They might say they want it to be upbeat, or subdued, or neutral and professional. It’s one-line direction. They’ll give me pronunciation keys and a link where you can hear pronunciation of a locale or somebody’s name. It is three takes per commercial. It can be 15 seconds, thirty seconds, or just a tagline. I get paid the same, regardless of length, and there’s a graduated scale for additional takes or extra tags.

Once I’m done, I separate the takes into individual files and send them [online]. I don’t have to do any treatment to the audio [after recording]. They do that at Pandora -- they have [in-house] audio producers. I’ve worked with about 10 of them. If I’m lucky, the producer will say, “That’s great,” and I get a notification that the spot has been approved. I send an invoice through Pandora’s invoicing system, and they pay with direct deposit.

In terms of direction, they’ll sometimes come back and ask for it to be re-done in a different way. I’ve been lucky. Maybe two out of ten times what I send isn’t right. I think Pandora is very tuned into the needs of their clients.

Pandora seems to have increased its number of audio producers. I don’t know where these people are, whether they’re working in their homes or in a central office. But the number of people who handle the audio after I’m done has increased. They have all been sensational people to work with. That’s my only interaction with the company, and I think Pandora likes it that way.

RAIN: Do you hear your spots on Pandora?

GC: I do. I’ve never asked them whether they’ve placed my voice outside of my own market, but I get a sense that they do. I’ve done things for the west coast, like the San Francisco Symphony. I’ve done spots for VISA Signature, Fandango theaters, Mazda. When the spots run nationally, people I know sometimes call up and say, “I think I just heard you on Pandora.” I’ve done a lot of universities all over the country.

RAIN: Do you have a sense of how many of your spots are local compared to national? Do you do more local copy, or more national copy?

GC: Again, I’m an independent contractor, so I don’t have access to their information, and I’m not speaking for Pandora, just for myself. But it seems to me that I’m doing more of local. I don’t know if that’s because of my shortcomings! Some of [the spots] have national scope, but many are hyper-localized. I do a lot of MBA spots for different universities, for example.

RAIN: How fast do you have to work?

GC: It’s usually 24 hours. I’ve done over a hundred spots, and about five have asked for [shorter] turnaround of two or three hours. Pandora is a fantastic client. What they get from me is quick turnaround. Unless I’m on vacation, I’m available to them pretty much all the time. If it’s a Sunday morning, and somebody says, “Can you do this?” -- I’ll do it. The orders come in at all sorts of crazy times.

RAIN: Is working with Pandora different from working with non-Internet based clients?

GC: It’s nimble and fast. My other clients -- we spend much more time. They might rely on me to come up with some of the creative, or I might have input on copy. Or, there’s more time on the phone receiving direction. Pandora uses a numbering system [to keep track of its produced commercials]. When I started in 2011, the numbers were small -- it might have been in the 099 range. Now, the number is 29,000. I don’t know if it’s a whole new system, but if the numbering is sequential, they’ve got to be going gangbusters. Having talent that can turn spots around quickly is a benefit to their advertisers.

RAIN: Do you work with any other streaming platforms?

GC. No. I tried to get in touch with Spotify. They use a lot of national spots, and they seem to have an in-house person who does Spotify promos. I reached out to them as I did with Pandora, and I never heard back.

RAIN: Are you a Pandora One [paid] subscriber?

GC: I’m not, but it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to be. The only reason I’m not is that I want to hear myself! [Pandora One subscribers do not hear commercials.]

Brad Hill
November 11, 2013 - 12:20pm

Spotify is reportedly in late-stage discussions to obtain 200-million dollars in new venture funding from Technology Crossover Ventures (TCV). Added to Spotify’s current funding total of $288-million, the new investment would raise the startup’s valuation by 41 percent. Spotify has received $288-million since its founding in 2008.

Technology Crossover Ventures invests in high-growth tech companies with a long-term horizon. TCV owns equity stakes in Zillow, Expedia, Facebook, Go Daddy, Genesys, Netflix, and many other companies. Year-to-date, RCV has invested at least $337-million dollars in some of its holdings.

Consumer-facing Internet music services have not been venture capital magnets for the most part. There is fear around the cost of content and the variability of that cost in the U.S. and around the world. At the same time, publicly traded Pandora is valued in the open market at $4.6-billion.

If the reports are true, and the number is accurate, Spotify’s imminent $488-million investment total is majestically higher than competing services Rdio ($17.5M), Slacker ($68.1M), Songza ($4.7M), SoundCloud ($63.3M), and 8tracks ($1.2M).

Brad Hill
November 11, 2013 - 12:20pm

Last week we noted that many online music services are lagging behind some terrestrial stations in pre-Thanksgiving holiday programming, even though adding it doesn’t displace any non-holiday music -- a choice that broadcast stations must gamble on.

AccuRadio dives deeply in holiday music this week with an extravagant array of 49 fine-tuned stations. (Disclosure: AccuRadio’s CEO is Kurt Hanson, who is also the Founding Editor of this site and newsletter. AccuRadio’s EVP of Programming is Paul Maloney, former Executive Editor of RAIN.)

The granular programming includes single-song stations (e.g. “Silent Night,” “Greensleeves”), world-music delineations (e.g. Latin, Celtic), genre categories (e.g. smooth jazz, rock, swing), and even one station which plays only carols starting with the word “Oh.” (Think about it -- there are several of them.)

AccuRadio is always a relatively lean-back experience, compared to jukeboxes like Spotify, Rhapsody, and Rdio. This positioning works especially well during holidays, when users want to set a mood for parties and family gatherings, without having to lean in for adjustments. In 2012, AccuRadio’s December listening jumped 12 percent over November, which in turn showed a 14-percent increase over October, according to Triton Digital’s Webcast Metrics. There were similar month-over-month gains in the 2011 holiday season.

AccuRadio is hooking the holiday effort into a contest to boost engagement -- “AccuRadio Secret Santa.” Each day a new code word is embedded in the streams, which users can enter on a special page for a chance to win gadget swag like an Amazon Kindle Fire HDX, a Nexus 7, and many other tech prizes.

Brad Hill
November 11, 2013 - 12:20pm

No music has grander sweep than movie soundtracks. Streaming Soundtracks, one of an Internet-only cluster of stations owned by 24seven.fm. (Others include 1980s.fm, Entranced.fm, Death.fm, and Adagio.fm.)

Inspirating, uplifting, tragic, dramatic, tectonic -- movie scores evoke big feelings and events. Listening to this stream makes the work day epic. In honor of Veterans Day today, Streaming Soundtracks is showing a programming emphasis on patriotic movies (e.g. Saving Private Ryan, The Bridge on the River Kwai).

The site engages a bustling community, with a running message box and a focus on requests. Subscribing to the site ($60 per year, or less if you subscribe to one of the sister sites) bestows specialized request benefits, including a timer that counts down to the start time of your request.

An Android app offers mobile streaming of all 24seven.com stations.