In the month since we broke the news (to some anyway) about the hot new Turntable.fm group-listening music service, it has become the most talked-about development in digital music. By one unofficial count, over 140,000 people have turned themselves into avatars on Turntable.fm to DJ or listen to what someone else is playing.
This is social music the actual thing, as opposed to the buzzword. And out of all the group listening apps we’ve seen, Turntable.fm demonstrates most clearly the allure of such services. Its 3D design immediately evokes a place where people listen socially — i.e. together — unlike the time-delayed social experience of sharing Pandora stations or YouTube videos on Facebook.
“Pandora should take all that money they just got and buy Turntable.fm.”
Evolver.fm contacted Stickybits co-founder Billy Chasen (pictured), whose company created Turntable.fm in part by using investments in its business of making barcode stickers, to ask what he thinks about this sudden expansion. He’s not talking about that and also declined to address Turntable.fm’s business plan.
His is already a fascinating service, which warrants the attention it is getting. However, if Turntable.fm is going to survive, nevermind thrive, it must surmount several obstacles:
One reason Turntable.fm is so great is that it includes every song in the world. The service’s impressive catalog already includes over 11 million tracks from MediaNet — and if you can’t find what you’re looking for there, you can upload any MP3 from your computer.
Turntable.fm says it plays by the rules of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act by complying with any copyright holder’s request to remove content from its catalog, which should cover whatever music its users wants to play, although that DMCA take-down approach doesn’t always work.
There’s also the matter of paying for the music. Turntable.fm also appears to be covered by the DMCA’s non-interactive rules, which are affordable enough for Pandora to remain in business, although it might violate at least the part about honoring user requests (if you’re a DJ in a small room, you can “request” a song and hear it in under an hour).
However, the DMCA only applies in the United States (though a congressman once told me it was spreading elsewhere), so for now, Turntable.fm has blocked access to international users.
As indicated by the screenshot above, people are flooding to Turntable.fm. The service has occasionally put the brakes on new invites, but it seems you can still get in if you’re Facebook friends with someone who uses it.
One problem with these crowds is that in a full room, you can no longer see the needle move when you designate something as Lame or Awesome, giving the impression that one’s vote doesn’t matter. Turntable.fm has already solved a similar issue: It used to take a high percentage of negative votes to skip a song completely, but, as noted by one @Masque, “They weighted the algorithm differently. It now factors in room size non-linearly.” That means it now only takes 15 or so negative votes in a room of 100 listeners to skip a song, rather than a full 51 percent, which is nice.
Turntable has other scalability issues — like how to fight spam in the chat feed (of which we have admittedly yet to see much), and how to keep its servers running smoothly as hundreds of thousands or millions of new users find out about the service. That’s going to be even harder if it has no money coming in, which leads us to…
Chasen wouldn’t speak to Turntable.fm’s business plan, but it has a few options: It can implement ads; let marketers sponsor branded listening rooms; charge a monthly subscription; and/or charge for points currently earned by DJs for pleasing audiences. Regardless of which way it goes, some people are going to be upset about it, because we like to get free stuff (why wouldn’t we) and can be annoyed when ads show up where they didn’t used to appear — especially more lucrative audio or video ads.
As it juggles all this other stuff, Turntable.fm is going to have to add new features to stay ahead of copycats.
Chiefly, we would like to see integration with AirPlay or Sonos, somehow. It’s good to listen to Turntable.fm on a computer — but it would be great to be able to listen to it wirelessly over a stereo without resorting to some sort of hack or wire. Of course, the inevitable iPhone app version of Turntable.fm will probably include AirPlay, but developing that would require even more work.
(Also, Turntable.fm’s music search function is still overly broad; it needs separate search for artist and song, to make commonly-named music easier to find.)
The ‘Timesuck’ Factor
Although you can queue up a number of songs when you’re DJing on Turntable.fm, they repeat unless you tend to them, so you need to stay “on it,” so to speak, or people will leave your room and vote your songs down. The honeymoon could end for many people as they run out of favorite songs to play, and things like work and homework intrude on their ability to keep selecting new songs.
To avoid burning people out and sending them back to Pandora, Turntable.fm might need some sort of “passive DJ” mode that selects songs based on a user’s preferences, whether from their Last.fm data or elsewhere. Or perhaps it will evolve into the same sort of bifurcated world of DJ vs. Audience that we see in the offline world.
Facebook Is Coming
Then there’s the sleeping gorilla of social music, Facebook. If Facebook fulfills expectation by rolling out integration with music services at its f8 conference in August, Turntable.fm could face sudden, heavy competition on many fronts from the likes of Spotify and others, as they build listening rooms for Facebook friends to listen together similarly to the way they can today on Turntable.fm, which also relies on Facebook for its log-in and invitations.
Sure, some of these won’t be as graphically interesting as Turntable.fm — but Chasen and company can’t patent the idea of putting people together in a virtual reality to listen to music, because others have been doing for ages in Second Life, Doppelganger, and elsewhere.
Now that Turntable.fm has proven that this is something people really want, its biggest challenge could be ensuring that established companies don’t leverage Facebook’s reported integration of music services to steal its impressive thunder.