January 14, 2011 at 8:50 am

Listening Room Battles The New Antisocial Music Experience

Update: Listening Room shut down on December 2, 2011. Read more here.

Blame it on headphones, computers, or the solo commute, but it’s undeniable that music listening has become a more solitary experience. Technology may have caused this problem — to be fair, as a side effect of other advances — but perhaps it offers the antidote, too.

Listening Room lets anyone create, well, a listening room that friends can join, and anyone in the chatroom can add an MP3 to the virtual room’s virtual record player for all to hear.

The site launched in raw form about a month ago and has since stabilized, for the most part, although we encountered one skip in a few hours of listening, and the site froze at one point. Otherwise, testing revealed few hiccups. Music generally played smoothly regardless of who added it to the player, it was easy to add songs, and the chat function worked well, though it lagged occasionally.

All you need to know in order to join a room is its name,  and if no room exists by the name you enter, a new room with that name gets automatically created — a smart solution that avoids the need for passwords and complicated invitation processes. Once you’re in, the virtual needle moves on the virtual record as songs play, while the player displays song information derived from the MP3s’ ID3 tags (something almost no record player can do). And if the song has album art, it displays on the surface of the record automatically.

This latest version of Listening Room has been well received by the small community of people using it so far; “this is 10 pounds of awesome in a 5 pound sack,” reads a typical comment. During testing, I found myself wanting to show off rare tracks from my collection including songs I’d recorded myself, as well as one or two unreleased gems by my brother and my cousin.

I know that one person doesn’t make the rule, but if my reaction to Listening Room is typical, the site will foster a friendly competition of sorts between friends: Who has the rarest tracks, the best idea for a thematic song, the best follow-up to the previous song, or the most interesting cover songs? Who can pick the perfect track for a particular Friday morning — in our case, the aptly chosen “That’s What Friends Are For” by Dionne Warwick and Friends? To that end, as one listener suggested, Listening Room might add a voting feature to allow people to rate the songs as they play. At the end of the day, everyone would know who played the best stuff, according to the group.

Sure, you can approximate this social music experience by posting YouTube videos on Facebook or creating collaborative playlists within a music subscription service. But with Listening Room, everybody hears the songs at the same time, and can chat about them as they’re playing, as opposed to on Facebook or other asynchronous services. I found myself telling little stories about the songs I picked as they played — something I would never do on Facebook, where people listen solo at their own leisure.

Of course, Listening Room is a web app — one that streams MP3 and works in any browser, but not on the iPhone or Android. We can’t help thinking that mobile and especially tablet app versions of this would be nice, too, although the web-app version of Listening Room already goes a long way towards making music truly (as opposed to in a buzzword sense) social.