Pass the Mic AMA with Michelle Alexander
Welcome to the exciting world of audio. In this industry, there’s something for everyone, including roles you’ve probably never heard of. Think: voice actresses, music curators, entertainment lawyers, and more. The audio industry is seriously lacking in women’s representation, and we’re aiming to promote leadership, equality, and action. That’s why we launched a monthly series with She Is The Music to peek behind the curtain at what’s possible as a female in the industry.
In our first session, we chatted with Michelle Alexander, Sr. Manager of Music Analysis here at Pandora. Michelle and her team are the magicians responsible for evaluating songs in the Pandora library in over 450 attributes, so your favorite Pandora station keeps you jamming. But it isn’t really magic — there’s a science to the process. Michelle’s been with Pandora since the very beginning, and has learned a thing (or two) in her path from recording artist to creating a life-long career in the industry. Post-chat, she went over some of the attendee’s most burning questions. Here’s what she had to say:
Any advice about internships, mentorships, being an assistant, entry-level jobs in the music industry during these times? How to get started, who to write to, etc?
Aim high and apply for any and all the internships you’re most interested over the course of your college career, or throughout your training. And when you get one, engage with as many people as possible, because the more people you meet, the more contacts you have when you’re ready to find your first job. Many people who interned here – even years after their internship – were invited to return for a full-time job specifically because of their internship success. This happens a lot across the tech space. In the music business, it is often who you know. A guitar player I knew told me to apply for this job originally, so engage with people every change you get. Every opportunity is a stepping stone to the next opportunity, so make the most of it.
What has been your most rewarding career moment?
Showing the artist Dessa her song analysis, live, at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women Computing conference in 2015. Artists are often completely intrigued when they see the analysis of their material, but Dessa’s reaction was next-level. Although I feel this a lot, it really made me feel like I was contributing something special for artists, as well as women! She also remarked that having her music analyzed in front of her was like watching herself digest her own food, which was a richly entertaining moment.
What is a traditional day of a music analyst?
They’ll analyze probably 15-25 tracks, as well as profile some artists. That’s a new element we’ve added. If they’re a senior, they’ll check folk’s work, fine-tune any new concepts we’re getting aligned on, review group song analyses, etc. Then they’ll spend time on special projects if they have one going, like clarify a freshly minted definition for an emerging micro-genre.
How many songs do you think you’ve analyzed since you’ve been at Pandora?
How long does it take to analyze one song?
5-20 minutes, generally. If I’m fresh, definitely somewhere in there. If my ears are full, I dunno — maybe forever?
What's the best way to get started as a music analyst?
First, obtain a strong musical proficiency. For example, jazz players typically have the level of musical skills to do the rudimentary nuts & bolts. Then, get as wide a knowledge and history of musical styles as you can. Finally, specialize DEEP in one genre area, like Latin or Dance. Then, wait for a position to open up, and apply!
What would you say to someone facing a disability of hearing loss and continuing as a songwriter? Maybe I could still contribute as the lyricist?
First, so sorry this person is facing such a huge challenge. Writing lyrics sounds like a great way to continue. If that’s not enough, the medicinal power of art goes way beyond even hearing it — I would encourage you to open yourself up to the whole expanse of expression of art. Being a musician is really just a subgenre of being an artist, so see about incorporating other elements into your music sphere: like the visual and the physical, and explore ways to get fulfilled.
Who was one of your mentors in the industry? And what role it played in your career development?
Jessica Steele, our former VP of Business development from back in the day. She helped launch Pandora’s employee group for women. We created a mentorship program, and she was my mentor for a period. She helped me get my first promotion to a team lead, by coaching me on how I could help my manager better, how to collaborate better, and how to time-manage. Jessica helped me get what we’ll call a ‘growth mindset’ (a cheesy term, but pure oxygen).
What advice do you have for creatives that want to pivot into the music tech space that is too old to formally intern and lack technical training?
If you can get a job you can learn on, that requires a limited amount of tech skill, but would allow you to learn along the way, that’s a nice package. Otherwise, build those skills up with classes, a tutor if you can find one. And spend at least a minute seeing what coding is all about. Even if you never need to actually do it, a rudimentary understanding of that universe can go a long way in getting how it all works.
How does music analysis help market your music?
It helps market you by exposing you to listeners who are looking for something like you. It allows us to drop your music in super prime spots — often really surprising spots — and put you in front of listeners looking for something exactly like what you’re cooking up. We slay this — not every time, but in general, we slay.
Want to hear more? Our next event is on September 23rd with Nazia Chaudhry, an accomplished voice actress with over 25 years of experience in the industry. Register here to continue learning about the fascinating and fun audio industry, and in the meantime, check out Pass the Mic for more content on elevating women’s voices.