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Pandora founder Tim Westergren details new country initiatives

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Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Pandora

Pandora, the web-based radio app, has made recent, pointed strides to make inroads into Nashville — both on its platform via programs like Country Built, their series with Ford Trucks that dissects country tunes via deep dives, and their strong push into live, highly-visible events. “Frankly, country, as a genre, has been one of the most proactive digitally, period,” Pandora founder Tim Westergren tells EW. “And that’s probably not what people think of at first. They think, ‘Okay, it’s the hipsters that are going to be quickest to adopt these,’ but it’s totally country.”

In Nashville in June, they hosted Thompson Square, Dustin Lynch, and Kelsea Ballerini. During CMJ week in October, they put on a timely Women in Country night with Martina McBride, Cassadee Pope, and RaeLynn. Tonight, Tim McGraw will perform in New York City, celebrating his new album.

The Women in Country event, in particular, speaks to a current sentiment that women — or rather tomatoes, as one radio announcer said — in the genre have been underserved this year. “It’s in our DNA, as a company,” Westergren says of the initiative’s nexus. “Our company is half men, half women — which is fantastically unusual for a technology company. It’s hard to be a woman in music, on a bunch of different levels, and it’s not like it just started this year.” The perk for women whose music is serviced via Pandora radio stations? “You don’t have to deal with a gatekeeper, where that gatekeeper is always a man. When Pandora is playing a song, it doesn’t care if the artist is male or female.”

Country radio has long been the breaking ground for artists. That certainly won’t change soon, but Pandora radio sees itself fitting in a special niche. “I think we compete for listeners, on the one hand,” Westergren says of the relationship. “And when we look at our growth for the next few years, we think a lot of it will come from AM/FM. But I think from the artist standpoint, there’s a complementary element. If you’re driving up listenership on Pandora you can call program directors up and say, ‘Hey, you should be playing my record.’ And this has been done by artists — you can say, ‘Hey, you’re not playing me on the radio but this is my audience in your market.’” (Dustin Lynch has been particularly vocal in how Pandora’s hard data has helped him sway stations. “It helps give you recognition of ‘This guy sings this,'” he told Billboard.)

McBride agreed, saying that being able to keep track of hard data was a great benefit to artists. “It’s a tool. When people say, ‘No one wants to hear you sing anymore,’ which thankfully they haven’t said yet and I hope they never do, then I can say, ‘Oh no, these people do, look how many people do.'”

Looking past this week’s event, the music industry can expect Pandora and its newly acquired ticketing platform, Ticketfly, to dive into the live side more and more. Speaking about Pandora’s ability to see pockets of fandom on heat maps, message those fans about upcoming events, and sell tickets directly to fans, Westergren says, “I think the great beneficiaries will be touring musicians, which country music is well known for. I think of country as working-artist genre. These artists play out. It’s not like they book a few arena dates a year and that’s their shtick. It’s a culture of performance — and that’s absolutely our sweet spot.”

“If we can solve the problem of bringing people to these clubs,” he continues, “it will change the whole profession of being a musician.” Westergren has spoken numerous times in the past about his time spent as a touring musician, playing to empty rooms and angry promoters. “I lived this for years. It would be days and weeks of playing for 15 people, and 30 people, and then 50 people, and then 80 people, year after year. It’s f–king hard. This technology could completely change how that works. The first time you go to Telluride, you won’t play for a handful of people but every single fan that likes your music, because they’ll know you’re coming.”