Tom Conrad on Pandora's SXSW evolution

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on March 13, 2014

From The News Desk

This year at SXSW, Pandora is hosting music Discovery Den, with 36 performances stretching across four days in the company's biggest SXSW blowout yet.

For CTO Tom Conrad, the company's presence at the festival has mirrored its evolution from scrappy startup no one heard of to public company valued in the billions. Conrad met with Pando at the start of SXSW Music to reminisce about the old days and ponder how the company's South By experience has changed.

What was SXSW like for Pandora in the early days of the company?

The first time I came to South By was 2006. Definitely no one I met knew what Pandora was. We just launched. It rained the whole time, and I had a cold. I still had a really good time, though. This is all before the iPhone, too, so I probably had a Blackberry. I remember a lot of text messages flying around about where people were because there was no Twitter and no group messaging.

Do you miss the olden days of yore?

I think that's overplayed a little. There was something kind of magical about what happened in 2005 and 2006. Not just at SXSW but generally... The consumer Internet started to reemerge. That's when Flickr got started, Facebook and Myspace and Digg and a whole bunch of others that have come and gone since then.

There was just this period for a couple years when it felt like the community of people building stuff on the Internet for consumers was a few hundred. I'm sure it was many thousands, but in our insular world in Silicon Valley it felt like a few hundred.

So you could go to a BBQ and catch up with everyone who was trying to figure out what the Internet was going to look like for consumers. I have a little nostalgia for that period, because it was small and you could know everyone.

Fast forward to today, and there's hundreds of thousands of people in the industry, and they all come to South By and it just makes it different. Not worse but different.

Tell me about the evolution of Pandora at South By.

For a lot of years I think the company's growth was earned through word of mouth, not marketing. So the role of South By for Pandora was a little defined by that.

We're not inclined to come here and throw a big party and spend a bunch of money. For years and years, I would come and meet the tech people and meet with bands and artist managers and all of we had this very unofficial presence here. We, in a way, would scratch our heads at the people who would come and spend a lot of money to throw parties and things, because it seemed at best it was marketing to people who likely already knew about you.

Just like CES?

Well CES is funny for us, because almost every major constituency, with the exception of our listeners, is there in force. There's the electronics folks, all the automotive people, definitely advertising agencies and CMOs, anchors and analysts, the whole Wall Street dimension. So as grueling as that week is, it is a great opportunity to have a whole bunch of conversations packed into one week. It's nice to have it at the start of the year when we're looking forward to making our plans. And SX has a little bit of that character too. It's --

Just more fun. 

It's definitely more fun.

As the company matured, one of the things we came to understand was a lot of our advertising partners like to have a presence at these events. If you go around with an eye towards that, it's like, 'Oh it's the Frito Lay Hype Hotel.'

There's an opportunity to do it right, to have a presence here, to have a win for your advertising partners, for it not to cost you any money at all. Ideally to make some money. And to give back to your audience.

When we finally figured that out -- four years ago? I'm not sure when -- that's when we started building a real presence here. I think the first year, we just had a single day. And then last year was the first time that we had 3 to 4 days of performances.

I think there are 38 bands performing this year? 36. Which is -- I think it's roughly the same number of bands that perform at Coachella.

It's actually a pretty unbelievable logistical accomplishment for the team to book all the bands. We're going to livestream all of the performances, which is a technical and music licensing feat.

There are a lot of moments that I get to enjoy that shine a light on how much things have changed through the years, and South By is definitely one of them. From the cold, wandering around in the rain, shuffling into a bar hoping that some blogger would have a beer with me. To now, thousands, tens of thousands, an unbelievable number coming through [the Pandora den]. It's gratifying.

At what point did it start to change?

I think the real big step function change for Pandora was really just last year. It was nice to have the showcase three years ago but last year things went to whole other level.

Why last year?

It was a little bit about the maturation of the company. Last year, the six months leading up to South By, it was the first time we really had a team in place inside the company that could take on a project that was as complicated as a big event and connect it with advertisers and do all the things to make it a high leverage moment for the company as opposed to just a really expensive party.

Which still isn't in our DNA. We're still the last company on the planet to throw a big expensive party. If our listeners win and our advertisers win, then we'll do that.

Do you think a company's presence at South By each year symbolizes where it's at?

I tend to think that a lot of that effort is misplaced early. Without a great product that people fall in love with, it doesn't matter if you've got the best t-shirts or the best name or the best party. And I think my advice to a young company that was planning on spending, you know, an engineer's worth of salary on a big blowout party at South By is, "To what end? What happens?" And if they say, "Well it gets our name out there, and it increases the value of the brand, which makes it easier to hire," I would call bullshit. I just don't know think it works that way.

What year did you start coming to the music portion of South By instead of just interactive?

I came to music for the first time in 2008 I would guess. And that year I did the whole thing, 10 days, I was just a burned out husk by the end. That year was a particularly great year, because I didn't know what to expect, and I had no plan, and Pandora was at a size and scope where no one was going out of their way to put me on any list.

And so I just came and wandered around and walked in bars in the middle of the afternoon. I remember seeing this band Middle Class Rut. And they were amazing. They were so so so good. And I just love moments like that. The serendipitous, you walk into a bar and there's a band playing. Which hopefully is what happens on Pandora too -- as you listen you have these moments where you get something you don't expect.

So I think my first year I managed to come and take it as it came and just enjoy it. Then I went through a year or two where I tried too hard. I was so excited to go, and I had all the bands I wanted to see, and I tried to get on every list for every event for every party, and I had 400 wristbands, and at the end of that week I felt like I had just run around trying to see everything and had missed those serendipitous moments. Since then I've tried to dial back a little bit and take it as it comes.

What's your most memorable South By experience or moment?

There's a band called the Low Anthem that played here a bunch of shows. Just one of the 2,000 bands that turn up, and most of them come and do one official showcase, and then they end up playing parties and things.

I saw them early in the festival that year and went and saw them four other times. It was really cool. They're just really great. I would never would have found them. They're really nice people.

Things like that, getting to hear a band you've never heard of, fall in love with them, see them four more times. Talk to them while they're setting up. Be the creepy guy who's now at the fourth show. For me, it's those moments of music discovery. And for me, that's why we created Pandora. We love -- I love that moment -- and it's fun to do what we do and try to give that to people. It's hard to top that.

What are you most excited about for this SX?

I am excited to see London Grammar and Charlie XCX.

I'm [also] really excited to go and see the venue for the first time. Like when there's no one there, and people are still setting up. There's just something cool and magical about seeing the company come together around putting on a big event like that.

I like the moment before you open the doors, and everything looks perfect and -- it's just like a cool, beaming with pride moment.