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

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The music-streaming site with a social twist is a hit with
techies

By Felix Gillette and Jim Aley
     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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