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Making digital music social

Spotify and Turntable.fm try to turn the cloud into a listening lounge

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A common reaction to last month's 20th anniversary of Nevermind from critics and laypeople alike was nostalgia for a time when there was such a thing as a demographic-­crossing smash hit like "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The cynical Adbusters type might see this as Stockholm syndrome-style longing for the comforting embrace of a marketing-­driven monoculture, but it also speaks to the way people appreciate music—for most of us at least, the experience feels incomplete if we're not sharing it. Hence the existential horror with which the iPod and its little white earbuds were greeted in some corners—because the device was small, fashionable, and loaded with far more music than the Walkman and its descendants, people could and would wear it for huge chunks of the day, isolating each with his or her music.

The ubiquitous combination of iPod and iTunes (and other similar pairings of MP3 player and software) has made solo listening a bigger chunk of people's overall listening time, and cuts them off from any music they might overhear. There are exceptions, of course—if you're the type of person to share a set of earbuds with your bestie, for instance, or to play your tunes full blast off your cell phone on the bus—but more likely than not your listening is largely asynchronous with everyone else's. The half dozen people wearing iPods on any given train car might share not a single song in their iTunes libraries. And quite a few of us perceive this isolation as an absence, at least judging by the number of products and services that have arisen over the past few years to attempt to introduce an explicitly social element to the consumption of digital music.

YouTube and Instagram have had huge success mating photo and video sharing to social-networking services, and musicians who want to open up direct lines of communication with their fans have a plethora of online outlets to choose from, with SoundCloud poised to take the top slot formerly held by MySpace. But so far there hasn't really been a killer app that lets listeners connect with one another in more or less real time.

Last.fm, Rdio, and similarly socially minded streaming sites have never reached critical mass with the public, probably because their user interfaces aren't especially welcoming—and their use of off-putting jargon ("scrobbling") certainly doesn't endear them to less tech-savvy newbies. The app SoundTracking looked like it had the potential to become the audio equivalent of Instagram when it was released earlier this year—point your phone at a speaker, and it'll identify what you're listening to and allow you to post the song's artist, title, and a sample link to Twitter or Facebook (along with a picture, a comment, and even your location). But that takes a number of steps and about a minute—small barriers that also seem to have hobbled the social aspects of relatively popular song-identifying apps like Shazam and SoundHound. Apple's attempt to get social by grafting Ping onto the iTunes ecosystem in September 2010 was a mess in a dozen different ways—not least because the developers removed Facebook integration shortly after launch, robbing the network of an easy way to build a user base.

Recently, though, there have been a couple of breakthroughs on the social-listening front. Turntable.fm opened its beta version to the public in May, and though at the time it looked like little more than a neat toy for music-minded geeks, it's turned out to have serious growth potential. Users select a cartoony avatar, then take it to rooms where they can either chat and listen to songs selected by a panel of DJs (represented by a table full of laptop-wielding cartoons) or join in and start playing music themselves. As far as rights to the music are concerned, Turntable.fm seems to exist in at best a gray area, but the RIAA hasn't tried to zap it yet.

Turntable.fm's owners argue that playing tracks through the service falls under the definition of fair use as established in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act—and because that law only applies to the U.S., they shut down international usage. So far this claim seems to be satisfying rights holders, probably in part because Turntable.fm is paying royalties through SoundExchange (it's a free service, but it's attracted investors) and has publicly stated that it's interested in signing further licensing agreements. The service claims to have built a user base of 600,000 without any advertising, and if it delivers on the promise of that early growth, there will be bigger payouts for rights holders down the road—still more incentive for them to refrain from quashing Turntable.fm now.

The genius of Turntable.fm is its simplicity. Anyone can DJ. Anyone can vote on whether the DJ's selection is "lame" or "awesome." ("Lame" votes can get a DJ booted.) Anyone can start a room, and there are no limitations on a room's theme—it can be dedicated to "filthy dubstep" or simply provide a spot for coders working on a project together to hang out (there's a chat feature built in) with a shared soundtrack. Entering a Turntable.fm room is sort of like tuning into a college radio show where you're able to communicate in real time not only with the DJ but also with other listeners. Plus you can fire the DJ if you don't like the music.

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