Things That Are Awesome: turntable.fm

  This isn't so much a column as a public service announcement. Start using turntable.fm. Then send me a thank you note. I'll dive right into what it is and why it's awesome.

Since the internet began way back when Jack Stark was president of CMC and Cheva was still working at Collins (some things never change), people have been using the internet to listen to music. Napster. iTunes. Limewire. Rhapsody. Rdio. BitTorrent. Spotify. Pandora. Pandora more or less took the idea of streaming internet radio to mass market by offering something nobody else was--listen to all the full songs you want for free and they'll be curated for you, so you're (hopefully) hearing stuff that you like. Pretty simple concept: you punch in a band or song you like, and Pandora will bump out song after song that's similar, pausing only to ask "Are you still listening? We try not to play to an empty room."

Which was all well and good, but it ignored the biggest thing to happen to the internet in the last five or six years. MYSPACE! err…Facebook. More accurately, the internet got social. Sure, you could hook up Pandora to your Facebook and find out that so and so "also likes this artist", but that's pretty simplistic.

Turntable.fm takes internet radio and makes it social, interactive, and ridiculously addictive. The site is organized into "rooms" of music which are usually based around a genre--my go-to is "Indie-Folk" where I get to hang out with my fellow Fleet Foxes/Edward Sharpe/Iron & Wine fans. There's a few rooms for pretty much every possible taste in music, and also rooms for dubstep. (Yes, I am implying that dubstep is not music. Send me an angry email.)

In each room, five people have the role of DJ. Their avatar is in the front of the room at one of the DJ stands. They take turns, in order, playing a song for the rest of the room. Everyone who is in that room is hearing the same song. If you like it, you can rate the song "Awesome" and the DJ playing that song gets points, which they can use to obtain cooler avatars or brag to their friends about. If the song sucks, you can rate it "Lame". If a high enough percentage of the people in a room rate the song lame, it gets skipped and it goes to the next DJ.

Once someone gives up their DJ spot, another person in the room can grab it. For crowded rooms (50+ people), getting one of those DJ spots is an extraordinary challenge. You start clicking furiously trying to grab one. There was a Chrome extension that automatically grabs the next available spot, but Turntable fixed the bug that allowed it to work. Regardless, don't even think about using it. (you troll.) It's a lot easier to get a DJ spot in a room with 10 people, but you can rack up points a lot faster when you're playing your jams to 100 people.

The music itself is more than adequate. They have a fairly extensive catalog of songs that you can automatically stream from (just search by song, artist, or album, just like Pandora). If they don't have the song you want available, you can upload it yourself from your computer. You queue your songs up, and if you're a DJ then the site will automatically play whatever song is at the top of your queue when it becomes your turn. You can take any song that's playing from another DJ and, with one click, add it to your own turntable queue, buy it on iTunes, or find it on last.fm or Spotify (which you can use in the good ol U.S.A. now).

 

So why is this service so addictive and effective? Here's my theory: Pandora will never be able to write a music prediction algorithm as good as the judgment of people who like the same music as you and are listening to it at the same time. If you're listening to the Pandora station for "Islands" by The xx and Pandora comes up with a track from the new Bon Iver album and you think "Dude, this song is DOPE! I want more!", well unfortunately for you, Pandora will play another song similar to the XX, not Bon Iver, unless you intervene. On turntable, if someone played the new Bon Iver and everyone in the room was digging it (as judged by the Awesome to Lame meter and comments people make in the room's chat window, chances are the next DJ might lay down some "Skinny Love"--which might fit the mood better.

There are intricacies to music taste that can't be quantified--sometimes you just feel a song and know what you want to hear next. A real person is more likely to intuit that feeling than an algorithm. That's why Pandora hasn't managed to replace real live DJs at parties. People know what to play better, and can do it more creatively. Add in some game-like features that make you want to compete and up your score, the ability to play great music online, and interact with people that like the same music as you with the group chat, and you've got a killer service. And by "killer" I mean that it will actually kill any chance of me completing my thesis on time.