Turntable.fm: Where the DJ Is in the Next Cubicle

July 7 (Bloomberg BusinessWeek) -- On Thursday, June 30, Kelly Reeves sent out an invitation to her 1,900 followers on Twitter to join her on Turntable.fm—a new, social media website that lets users share songs with friends and strangers while publicly celebrating each other’s musical tastes. “DJing in the Shameless POP! Room,” Reeves wrote. “Come hang out. Now playing *NSYNC.”

Since making its debut in early June, Turntable.fm has become the go-to music service for Reeves and other plugged-in meme chasers from New York to San Francisco to Austin who want to gather to spin their collective soundtrack. “It’s a really good music discovery tool,” says Jeremy D. Williams, 25, an ardent user in Chicago who works as a “creative technologist” for ad agency DDB. “There’s something for everybody.”

On Turntable.fm, up to five users at a time line up as DJs in one of dozens of virtual listening rooms. The rooms are typically labeled according to musical genre (“I love the ’80s,” “Indie While You Work”) or with the name of a company whose staffers are particularly enraptured with the site (“The Mashable Room”). DJs choose and play songs, either from a deep library of tracks provided by the content-streaming company MediaNet or uploaded from their own music collections. Everyone else in the room then joyfully jawbones about the selection and ranks it from “lame” to “awesome.” Users who delight the crowd rack up DJ points, turning it all into a status-enhancing game. Anybody can become a “fan” of anybody else. Each user’s DJ points and number of fans are prominently attached to their Turntable avatar.

The service’s simple interface allows participants to find their friends from Facebook who are on the site. Music fans must have a Facebook friend already on the site to join. (It’s free.) “I hop around a bit,” says Reeves, 28, a self-described “addict” who works in marketing for a New York startup called Outbrain. “I might go into a big room with 200 people in it. But I usually go where my Facebook friends are. I love the camaraderie.”

Turntable.fm is an offshoot of a barcode tagging service based in New York City called Stickybits. Billy Chasen, Stickybits’s chief executive officer, has said little publicly about Turntable’s business plan or, for that matter, its legality. (He declined a request for an interview.) The company’s silence has done nothing to damp the buzz.

In the month since Turntable.fm’s launch, several professional musicians, including hip-hop artists Talib Kweli and Diplo, have jumped on the site to spin songs alongside the amateurs. Venture capitalist Fred Wilson has rhapsodized about the service on his influential blog AVC. And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been spotted on the site, apparently listening to DJs in a listening room called “Coding Soundtrack.”

While DJs spin songs, everybody in the room is welcome to chat in an instant-message-like field on the right side of the screen. Conversations tend to vary from the euphoric to the esoteric. “I was in one of the crowded, indie rooms earlier today,” says DDB’s Williams. “People were talking about Flash vs. HTML5. So you know it’s popular with the tech guys. Everybody in the startup scene is on it.”

While 2011 may be shaping up to be the summer of love for Turntable.fm, there’s plenty of skepticism about how long the good times can last. The music industry has a famously litigious relationship with people who share music on the Web without publishers’ permission and has spent the past decade battling file-sharing sites such as Napster, LimeWire, and Pirate Bay. At the same time, the digital music business has struggled to invent legitimate online sharing services, stranding the industry outside the digital mainstream in a way that doesn’t benefit musicians or their fans. In Europe, millions of users have flocked to the music-streaming service Spotify. It was supposed to launch in the U.S. last year but never did. On July 6 it finally set up a web page saying services are coming to the U.S.

To date, Turntable.fm has no agreements in place with any of the Big Four music labels—Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, and EMI, according to these companies.

All of which could signal trouble for the service. “The problem in the music space is that ideas that are really exciting almost always require licenses from the record labels and the publishers,” says David Pakman, a partner at the venture capital firm Venrock and former CEO of digital music retailer EMusic. “You need licenses to do anything exciting. Those licenses cost a lot of money. Either Turntable.fm gets licenses from record labels, in which case the economics of the business make it difficult to make any money. Or they don’t. In which case, the record companies either sue or harass them. The sad irony of digital music is that the economics of the industry will make it nearly impossible for them to build a real business.”

For the time being, in trendy loft workspaces around the country, the music rocks on. “It’s the first time I’ve encountered social integration with a music site, where I am curious about what song will play next and I want to know what people have to say,” says Brian Schechter, 32, co-founder of the online dating service HowAboutWe.com. Until mid-June, the staff at HowAboutWe’s office in Brooklyn used the streaming site Pandora to pipe music through a communal set of speakers. Now they’re all in with Turntable.fm. “There are a lot of startup offices with between 5 and 25 people where everyone is listening to the music all day,” says Schechter. “This provides a fun way to do that. You hear your co-workers’ stuff. Everybody is DJing. You need to adjust constantly in order to build on the momentum of a particular set. So there’s almost a collective effort to create a good mix.” No word yet on how all that precision DJing affects employee productivity.

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