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Column: Spotify, turntable.fm bring a new excitement to music listening

By ; July 21, 2011 at 9:50 AM 

Over the course of the past few weeks, my listening habits have been completely flipped over, grasped at the ankles, and given a thorough shaking. Like one of those fools you see still balancing their checkbook or writing driving directions on a piece of scrap paper, I’d been stuck in my ways. I’ve got an enormous external hard drive (and yet another as a back-up), the latest version of WinAmp installed, and that’s all I need. Or at least that’s how it felt before the emergence of turntable.fm and then, like an alien army set to take away all the natural resources I’d been accumulating, Spotify’s residency here in the States.

Don’t get me wrong: my old method of storing, sharing, and listening to music is perfect for me. It’s better than iTunes, with all the synching and updating and rigidness. It’s better than Grooveshark, Pandora, and Slacker for a whole slew of reasons, the least of which being that my system isn’t reliant on an internet connection. It’s better than lugging around a totebag full of CDs, too. I know, physical copies of music are a nice garnish, between the artwork, the sleeve of lyrics, and the way they look when displayed on a shelf in your living room. But as the prophet Sean Corey Carter once suggested: it’s 2011, not 1864.

Frankly, there’s no better music management service than myself. I love being able to make my own artist compartments and place my own album folders within them. I love being able to section off my soundtracks and e-books. I love the simplicity of attaching a drive to a computer, opening up a folder, and clicking on whatever song or album I’m in the mood for without having to sludge through a software interface laced with advertisements to do it. And yeah, most of this stuff can be done within a program. But programs are controlling beasts and my music collection is a precious thing. It’s not a kingdom I want ruled by someone – er, something – else. It really is the greatest method in the world.

But lately, with a swift, unforeseen gust of programming savvy, the tides have started to shift. My personal means are suddenly challenged by bigger, better more gratifying options.

turntable.fm

My noticable shift in music consumption began with the phenomenon that is turntable.fm, the relatively novel idea of sharing music with your friends in a 1990s-style chatroom environment. If you regularly digest music and have access to the internet, you probably have at least a cursory awareness of this program by now. But if you haven’t yet given it the opportunity to hook you, you’re severely missing what certainly feels at this infantile stage in its development, like a game-changing music access point.

While the social aspect of turntable.fm is one of its prime selling points, it isn’t the service’s greatest offering. If you’ll recall, chatrooms died a slow and painful death because of a disease that hasn’t yet been cured. In fact, the plague that is trolling and spamming has only seen its ugly genetic strands grow. In my early experience with the website, most of the users are cordial. In some rooms, there’s even a self-managed queue system that, believe it or not, tends to function pretty well. Still, there’s enough people instantly clicking down songs they don’t immediately recognize, complaining about not getting an opportunity in the DJ seat, or otherwise being a pest to put a slight damper on that aspect of the site. But again, the social feature of turntable.fm is just one part of the equation.

The thing that’s sucked me into the program and altered my means of discovery is the way, somehow, every song sounds buttered up in the context of the program. This, it would seem, is because turntable.fm captures the very essence of managing a playlist at a party, albeit it on a much dorkier level. If you’ve ever been to a good party, be it crowded or intimate, you understand the strange rush you get when your shuffled iPod jumps from your favorite indie rock band to an obscure b-side from a Motown legend. That’s exactly what this program does often: it turns corners on a dime, igniting that irreplicable feeling of “I forgot all about this song!” over and over again.

In reality, turntable.fm is like the radio with a deeper catalog. It’s rare to hear the same song twice in a day, although you will encounter certain mainstays (it seems everyone who enters a room has an undying devotion to Justin Vernon). It’s like your iTunes library shuffled up, but with the added value of human judgment to make smoother transitions – or at least interesting ones.

As it stands, turntable.fm is still awfully rough around the edges. It often freezes up when searching for songs, inexplicably boots you from a room for being idle even though you’re actively participating, and occasionally it’ll ignore the order of your queue and grab a track you’ve already played seemingly at random. You’re also not able to play full tracks while alone at a DJ room, something that can make it difficult to start a new room when you aren’t concerned with an audience and just want to play some tunes. It says a lot that a service can be so impactful even while all of this is going on. But that speaks to just how interesting the thing is, and it demands mentioning that the program finds itself at a point in development where the best is yet to come.

In more turntable.fm sessions than I can remember at this point, the topic has shifted to what the brand could introduce down the line, once it’s been tested and is running smoothly. Some of the possibilities are obvious: an iPhone application (imagine hosting a party where your friends could use their phones to sit down at a DJ seat and choose the event’s music, while other attendees could vote down songs they don’t like from their own phones), compatibility with last.fm, and a built-in queue system that gives some notification when it’s almost your turn to hit the plates, since it seems to be a tool used a lot at work and not everyone can sit with their eyes glued to the screen waiting for a spot come available. But the future glows even brighter than that. Something as simple as a steadily adding more avatars – which you have to earn by playing songs that your audience likes – would go a long way toward keeping interest. They could have promoted rooms where sessions run by websites or artists (both of which, by the way, have already employed turntable.fm to engage their readers and fans) are brought to the forefront. If they add the ability to record a session and embed a widget of it to your blog or website, it could become a sparkling utility for podcast-esque blog features. And of course, once the project goes fully public, there should be a lot more users on board.

Of course, turntable.fm is still in invitation-only beta mode (though right now invitations are based on Facebook and Twitter, so plenty of people do have access if they really want it). You could argue that it’s merely a fad that will run its course. And maybe that’s true. But in such a short lifespan, it’s somehow managed to usurp my tried and true methods of listening to music, something that hadn’t come close to happening since first going digital. I can’t be the only one that’s been impacted.

Spotify

Spotify’s reputation as a potentially industry-altering spectacle has already been well documented internationally, but now that it’s landed in the United States, a whole new population has been introduced to its majesty. That is, of course, if you’ve been fortunate enough to land an invitation.

My invite came fairly recently, but I’ve already found myself captivated by the freedoms of the software. Of course, being that I had such strict means of storing and accessing my music previously, it didn’t come without some initial reluctance. If you collect physical music – vinyl, compact discs, whatever – then you probably do so with some level of pride towards all you’ve amassed. You feel differently with 100 albums on your shelf than you did when you had 50, and that feeling only grows stronger as you collect more and more. As a digital collector, I feel the same way.

I’ve been acquiring music for years, to a level where it really is just a matter of excess and greed. Uploading some 60,000-ish songs into my Spotify library — which, by the way, went a hell of a lot smoother than with either iTunes or MediaMonkey (though tags were still a bit of a debacle, but that isn’t the program’s fault) – was an awakening experience. Somewhere along the lines I’ve acquired albums by Vertical Horizon, Avril Lavigne, and even a compilation of WWF theme songs from the 1990s. I’ve got music in there that I loved as a high school student and loathe as a self-respecting adult. There was even a stash of promo copies that had to be filtered out before the upload.

But as embarrassing as some of the material on my hard drive was, there’s a level of pride behind it. If one day I’m asked to play the acoustic version of “Everything You Want,” damn it, I can do that! And so for that reason, the mere acknowledgement of Spotify was a jarring blow to my own fragile ego. If everyone who gets an invite and signs up can access a library of galactic proportions, then what good is my personal collection? Now everyone has an acoustic version of “Everything You Want” at their fingertips, along with five cover versions and a live session. It’s strangely humbling, actually.

It’s also sincerely amazing.

Though I’ve found plenty of frustrating obstacles with Spotify’s interface and features (it sometimes adds extra unwanted songs to my Play Queue, the editing of tags isn’t fantastic, and navigating through a large library feels more cumbersome than scrolling through my personally-kept artist folders), I’ve otherwise been awed at its capabilities. And, like turntable.fm, Spotify is still a work in progress. As someone who prefers albums to playlists, there’s certainly been an adjustment period. Spotify places a greater emphasis on mixing songs by different artists and sharing playlists, so there is a lingering feeling that I’m not using it exactly as it’s been intended, yet I’m still able to get a lot out of it. It’s actually a bit surprising there isn’t a taste-based radio player of some kind built in, something that would seem right up Spotify’s alley and could serve as a death knell to Pandora and those types.

Also similar to turntable.fm, Spotify makes sharing and being social online incredibly easy. In this way (and others such as organization, look, and ease of search) it trounces some of it’s more comparable competitors, like Grooveshark or Pandora. Spotify is, even in my limited experience thus far, the best social music world out there, barring attending a concert with actual human beings.

For many years, last.fm has been my favorite website. I can’t put my finger on it, but I love watching my music slowly filter in, my charts grow, my event calendar fill up. Not all of these things are built into Spotify just yet (scrobbling for last.fm is built in and incredibly easy to set up), but it does make connecting with my real-life friends a breeze. It just launched in the United States, yet I’ve already got a bunch of friends using it and sharing, all accessible easily by punching in my Facebook credentials. I can share a song I’m feeling with the click of a button, suggest an album to someone in a snap, and many of the tracking elements of last.fm are included as a pleasant side effect. These things are all possible with other services, but it’s never been this clean or efficient. I can suggest songs all day via last.fm, but unfortunately, my friends list there is predominantly occupied by strangers (that last.fm hasn’t caught on as a larger social tool is one of the internet’s great injustices). Though Spotify is most viewed as competition for iTunes, I actually see it as a potential threat to a number of different services – maybe not today, but soon.

A case could even be made that Spotify has the capability to put a dent into piracy. I know, that’s been said before. And I also realize there’s always going to be a magnetic draw to acquiring things for free. That’s common sense. But for $10 a month ($120 per year), you can capitalize on Spotify’s premium plan, unlocking their full library, wiping the interface clean of advertisements, sparking offline capabilities, and stream unlimited. Sure, you’ve got to pay for the plan, but how many times have you heard a torrent-user say they’d gladly pay for music “if only”? Well, $120 per year sounds like a remarkably reasonable price for such a wealthy catalog, not to mention the many options already built in and yet to come. On top of that, it’s an affordable way to clear your conscious and bring to an end the days of having to make excuses for stealing, which is ultimately what’s going on, regardless of what intellectual property argument you might whirl around.

The music industry is rapidly changing and has been for a very, very long time. But it doesn’t always feel like platforms for listening to music are evolving at quite the same pace, or at least not in a cognitive, linear fashion. You can stream new albums before their release date every week now, but each time you’ve got to go to a different website. Artists are offering up free downloads, introducing pay-what-you-want methods, and even letting their fans construct their own albums to sell themselves. And while, yeah, the innovation is to be admired, it sometimes feels like a long series of panicked reactions to the dwindling state of the industry. Apple, meanwhile, has its own renowned set of stringincies, something that casts reasonable doubt on their new iCloud project, and has certainly been a dagger – in my experience, at least – with iTunes.

Both turntable.fm and Spotify – or maybe some day a holy union between the two – certainly feel like two of the most promising new institutions in music consumption. I’ve stuck to my guns as a listener and discoverer for a long time now, but it’s only thanks to these new means that I’ve found good reason to readjust my habits. These two programs don’t just have the capacity to change stubborn minds like mine, they have the potential to change the whole game.


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