April 26, 2012 at 8:49 pm

Budtobud Turns iTunes into Social Music Network

The creators of the new group-listening app budtobud say they had a long conversation with Turntable.fm creator Billy Chasen at TechCrunch Disrupt 2010 (see update), when they were working on a social DJ music player. At the time, he was still working on his old company, stickybits.

The following spring, Chasen launched Turntable.fm, the music-tech darling of 2011. So, did Turntable.fm steal the idea of a social DJ service in which users stream to each other from budtobud?

“We can’t be sure, but that’s how we feel,” budtobud co-founder Patrick Rousseau told Evolver.fm. “The timing of their pivot was exactly at that point in time… The most emotionally-charged post for us was when you wrote about Turntable.fm, since we were almost neighbors with stickybits at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2010, and had a long conversation with Billy Chasen.”

Not so, says Chasen.

“They may have me confused with someone else,” responds Chasen (updated). “I wasn’t at Disrupt 2010. When it was in New York, I was actually in Chicago, and when it was in San Francisco in September, I was in New York for a board meeting, as we’re based in New York. Regardless of that, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of social music for several years now, and welcome them along with the dozen other companies innovating in the space.”

Budtobud (currently Mac-only) took longer to launch, but you can try it out now if you have a Mac and like the idea of listening to music online in groups, but aren’t so crazy about Turntable.fm‘s cartoon avatars. In fact, budtobud is a much more full-featured app than Turntable.fm — which might be its problem.

The budtobud interface as it stands now feels a bit overthought, with lots of windows, menus, and modes. For starters, it can be hard to figure out what the difference is between DJ Mode and Party Mode. In real life, don’t parties have DJs, and aren’t DJ nights parties? (There’s no tutorial or Help section to get you started within the app, although the website includes a helpful quick start guide and FAQ).

“We are constantly improving the UI, and are working with the feedback we get to simplify things right now,” said Rousseau. “I think we got carried away a ‘little’ and built a lot of tools for users to accommodate all kinds of scenario and needs. What we are doing right now is actually removing some of the features. For example, we are removing the Silent and Offline modes and simplifying the native registration and the overall installation process, etc.”

Once you figure out that you need to be in DJ mode to broadcast or Party mode to listen to someone else after you “request to party,” things get easier with budtobud (direct link). To find stuff to listen to, you can invite friends or use the auto-friends already in there, and see what all the DJs are playing at any time.

To step up and DJ, simply switch to DJ Mode and then play whatever songs you want in iTunes. You can go track-by-track, rock a specific playlist, shuffle, or listen in any other way — and the partiers in your room will hear whatever you hear. You can even tweak the volume in your iTunes, and any listening Partiers will hear the volume change on their end too. For now, it’s iTunes only, but co-founders Rousseau and Kurt Bauer say they are working on adding more players and more platforms eventually.

With profile, status updates, chat (with the familiar “bouncing icon” alert in the Apple Dock taskbar), group chat for each listening room, personal listening history, groups, song ratings, and much more, budtobud is a full-featured social network unto itself. It can also share your top bands for the day, week, or month to Twitter and Facebook, as well as tracking down other DJs and Partiers on those networks. And of course you can purchase any songs you like (from iTunes).

We encountered a few crashes and a known bug (screenshots below) that silences the player. (To fix the latter, which Rousseau says will be fixed in a couple of weeks, go to your Mac’s Sound preferences, toggle back to your normal audio output, then back to budtobud). In addition, it can be hard to tell who you’re listening to, but once you’re further up the learning curve, things get easier.

In addition, because the DJ is actually streaming music upstream from their own computer, over their own internet connection (as opposed to Turntable.fm, which streams from their servers), the DJ needs to have sufficient bandwidth. Otherwise, listeners experience stuttering and dropouts. That is to be expected, although budtobud could fix it by using adaptive streaming technology to reduce sound quality in those situations, or — perhaps even better — barring you from DJing unless your connection is up to the task. If you and your friends are all on fast connections, you’ll never run into this problem, but if you’re at a crowded coffeeshop, as we were during some of our testing, things can get dicey.

We could go on and on describing the positive features of budtobud, which sort of proves our point that it might have too many features as it stands now. Turntable.fm on the other hand is dead simple, which might be a better approach given the fact that everyone seems totally distracted these days, and nobody seems to have patience with stuff they don’t understand in the first 10 seconds. If people don’t use an app for long enough to understand how it works, the battle might already be lost.

That said, after we’d spent some time with budtobud, it was clear that it’s incredibly powerful software, and the team is working on simplifying it, as mentioned above. Ideally, you’d convince all your music friends to use it — the only downside might be that you’d have to do some tech support to get them up to speed.

Here’s budtobud’s list of Why They Are Different from Turntable.fm (our title), followed by a small screenshot gallery:

1. budtobud is an app that integrates with existing media players (and later music services) as your music source and your friends see the metadata of what your listening to in real time. Mac OS and iTunes/Match are the first platform and media player we’re supporting.

2. You party with real friends (Buddies) your #1 source of new music and who you want to experience music with. No need for private rooms or worrying about getting lame’d by a bunch of strangers.

3. There is no queue or waiting list to be a DJ. You decide what you want to play and when. Buddies in your Party (up to four at any given time) follow along.

4. budtobud has one-on-one and group chat, automatic and manual social network updates, and the ability to dive deep into what you and others are enjoying with listening statistics.