Recorded music has always been a somewhat solitary experience compared with the communal experience of seeing it live. By and large, the digital music evolution has only exacerbated that tendency, making loners of us all. Hiding between our headphones, we manage to share recommendations with each other on Facebook, Last.fm, and elsewhere, but when it comes to listening, we’re mostly dancing with ourselves.
The new hottness is to buck that trend by hearing music together in online listening rooms — a phenomenon we first noticed with the aptly-named Listening Room, then with Turntable.fm. Even Facebook and Spotify are rumored to be getting in on the action, but Outloud.fm is already up and running (read Evolver.fm’s interview with its creators at the bottom of this post).
After testing the service on and off for about a day now, we’re pleased to report that it works like a charm. Outloud.fm is super simple to use, which is a good thing, because what it does — unite people to listen together online and chat about it — isn’t something most music fans are accustomed to doing yet.
Anyone can log in with a Twitter or Facebook account. After that, you can join a room or create your own, and invite people to show up using the name of the room. A public room is available for “the friendless and early adopters.” To upload a song to whatever room you’re in so that everyone there can hear it, simply drag and drop it from your computer to the play queue on the left.
You can chat in the box at the bottom with all of the room’s other visitors, visible on the right, and everything you say shows up in an event feed along with the songs and the name of the person who played them. If you hear something you like, you can “heart” it to add it to your favorites, which don’t play or offer “buy” links, but at least this feature helps you find those songs later.
Everything worked perfectly with Outloud.fm until I uploaded a massive (53MB) MP3 of Javelin’s excellent “Andean Ocean Mixtape” (disclosure: Javelin is my brother and my cousin). That file appeared to cause Outloud.fm to stream silence to me, but other users said they could hear it just fine.
Luckily, Outloud.fm includes a handy “restart stream” function that kicks things back into gear, should you encounter a similar issue, but again, this free service performed admirably overall, and we scarcely had to use that. Outloud.fm can even convert unprotected M4As and WMAs on the server side (in our case, Deerhunter’s also excellent “Fountain Stairs”), so that they play even if you don’t have an MP3 version.
We decided to learn more about this social music web app and the red-hot online listening room phenomenon in general, so we conducted a quick email interview with the creators of Outloud.fm — developer Mike O’Brien and operations guy Steven Huynh –which they graciously delivered on Thursday despite having day jobs.
Eliot Van Buskirk, Evolver.fm: How did the idea for Outloud.fm come about?
Steven Huynh, Outloud.fm: We spent large parts of our days sending each other music YouTube links over AIM, and thought it’d be cool if there was a site that facilitated this in a smoother way. Mike had spent some time programming streaming MP3 servers, and there were a bunch of social music sites coming out, so we decided to put our own spin on it, incorporating all the ideas we had talked about.
Evolver.fm: What about your philosophy? What does this sort of group listening do for music fans that they were missing before?
Huynh: It’s pretty great seeing how different people are using the site. For me personally, it’s about discovering music that I didn’t know my friends were into. I think it’s awesome to be in a room and get the feeling of “Whoa dude, I didn’t know you liked ____.” Not that this feeling can’t exist without Outloud.fm, but I definitely think it makes it easier to share and discuss your tastes. Another cool example is, the other day, someone uploaded Eddie Murphy’s “Raw” on MP3 in a room, sent out the link to a bunch of people, and just let it play out. No red leather jumpsuit though, unfortunately.
Evolver.fm: Sorry, but what’s the business plan?
Huynh: I wish we had a better answer for you, but for now, the business plan is to keep the servers up and ABL — Always Be Launching! We’re bootstrapping this project while both working full-time jobs, so it’s hard to think in the long term. We have talked to some record labels and reached out to some potential sponsors, but that’s just to get an idea of what people are interested in using the site for.
Evolver.fm: I have a feeling that this online group listening thing is about to blow up. What’s the goal with Outloud.fm, are you trying to make this a fully-fledged thing on its own, or is the goal to sell it eventually?
Huynh: I’d probably go one further and say that “group listening” has blown up just in the last couple of weeks. We think all of the other sites out there are great, and each serves its own purpose, but do think that Outloud.fm has a different focus. We’re just going to keep adding features that users have been asking for, as well as keeping the design simple, easy, and intuitive.
Evolver.fm: Is the idea here to qualify as a non-interactive webcaster under the DMCA and pay royalties that way, or if not, how are you going to handle the legal issue?
Huynh: Is “build first, ask questions later” an acceptable answer here? We’ve consulted with a law firm, and are exploring our options with them, but since this is technically still a side project of ours, it’s a little early to say what we’ll do for sure. That being said, whoever’s reading this, please don’t sue us.
Evolver.fm: What are the technical challenges associated with streaming to multiple people at the same time and letting them chat? Is it fairly simple?
Mike O’Brien, Outloud.fm: It’s tricky. The streaming server needs to be efficient, as it’s dealing with many simultaneously open connections with events happening in real-time on a system with very limited resources. The version I wrote is performing pretty well, but it’s certainly going to need to evolve with the rest of the site. The many quirks across different browsers, versions, and operating systems also make it difficult to get everything working smoothly for all users, but we’re improving it all the time.
Evolver.fm: Why is this only happening now in 2011, and not, say, five years ago?
O’Brien: I actually think that things change so fast in software that even just five years ago, this would have been considerably tougher to pull off. Browsers are getting more powerful by leaps and bounds, and some truly amazing and brilliant open source projects (like node.js, Redis, and Soundmanager2, which we rely on heavily) have emerged, making these kinds of applications much more tractable. Developers have so many more great tools at their disposal that just didn’t exist then, and we can iterate more quickly on new features than ever before.
Evolver.fm: What are your thoughts on this Facebook/Spotify rumor?
Huynh: I’m actually very curious as to how that is going to work. I’ve gotten a chance to use Spotify (I know a guy who knows a guy), and I think the service is pretty amazing. Anything that will make it easier for friends to listen to music together is OK in our book.