Turntable.fm: A place for DJs, wannabe-DJs, music snobs, and — interestingly enough — musicians to hang out

I’ve been playing on turntable.fm for the last couple weeks.  I’ve been on the site so much that if my wife sees a window with a funky red curtain that looks like a cartoon version of the White Lodge in Twin Peaks (enough that I expect a dancing midget to start talking backwards at me at any minute) with a bunch of bobbing cat, bear, kid and, occasionally huge gorilla avatars, she will give me a look and start complaining about how much time I spend on the site and avoiding work.

If the room names are any indication (a quick glance might give you Indie While You Work, Indie While You Don’t Work, Indie While You Shirk Work, Music to Code By, etc.) there’s a lot of people avoiding work on turntable together.  A lot.  In the last month, it seems, the site has exploded.  Not only in the number of users — with the profiles feature they rolled out earlier this week you can see how long a user has been on the site, many of them under a week — but in news and posts around the blogosphere.  Turntable is, as they say, the new thing, all the while playing nice by the rules of the DMCA (following the same guidelines that Pandora and other streaming radio services need to comply with in the States).

Turntable works for a couple different reasons, but I won’t go overly into game theory (even though that’s a big part of it).  First of all, music is universal.  ”Do you want to come back to my place to listen to some records?” is the sweater-wearing indie version of “why don’t you stay the night?”  Music communicates on a deep level — deeper than words alone — because we respond emotionally to certain kinds of chords, keys, and progressions.  For a music-o-phile, what’s more fun than having some friends over and playing your latest discoveries at them?

Turntable rewards users by giving them points every time another user hits “awesome” on the built-in Rock-o-Meter, which is displayed prominently under their username, and allows access to new avatars, giving a sense of status and l33tness (this is where game theory comes in).  It also allows users to fan other DJs, alerting them when they are DJing in different rooms and serving as yet another status indicator if you have a lot of fans.

For those of us (myself included) who have or do DJ in real life, turntable offers an opportunity to spin to a live audience, get feedback from the audience (in a way that you wouldn’t on, say Blip.fm) and hang out with other DJs and music fans.  And I think it’s fairly universal that anyone who DJs can’t ever DJ enough, so any excuse to throw on some wax is enough to get us moving in that direction.

There’s an interesting thing, though, about turntable if you make your own music.  You can use the right room, with the right kind of audience, to demo out your music and see what kind of feedback it gets.  I’ve done this myself with my own music and that of musicians I know.  It’s rewarding to throw out a track you contributed to and see heads bobbing indicating that other people are digging it.

I don't know if this exists, but the source this came from said "photo credit: TechCrunch" for what it's worth…

Due to DMCA restrictions, there’s a limit to the number of times a single artist can be played.  However, I’m hopeful that the service will open up to allow artists to contact them directly for listening parties and virtual concerts (in fact, that’s exactly what we’re doing later this month).  For those of us who never leave the house, this is another tool in an artist’s arsenal for spreading your music.  Already I’ve seen recognizable names like Neil Gaiman and Ben Folds headlining popular rooms.  It’s only a matter of time before that spreads and we have a Daft Punk room or a Paul Oakenfold room — assuming they, or someone in their entourage, has time to waste on the site, that is.  Independent artists can use turntable as a promotional tool and netlabels in particular can use it to promote artists on their label and create exclusive live events without the need to book a club.  You can even make a room private and potentially sell access to the room on turntable through your website.

The site is in beta and has some very obvious glitches, particularly in peak hours.  Despite this, it’s addictive as cocaine, sending users into spiraling withdrawal when the site goes down or experiences problems.  The only limitation to access is that you have a friend on Facebook that’s using turntable, which you probably do.  Even if you aren’t a music snob, it’s a great way to be exposed to new artists and new music in much the same way as hanging around in a dorm room and playing records is.

Visit turntable.fm
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A new take on digital music

There hasn’t been much on this blog of late.  That’s primarily because, in the topsy-turvy world of Upstart Blogger/Ashley Morgan, there hasn’t been much going on.  Sure I could comment on the 4 different name changes his “record label” has gone through in the past year, or the numerous twists and turns of his Twitter […]


A little bit about me:

I went to a University with an adjunct program that allowed students to create their own individualized majors (it’s called the Johnston Center).  You see, my interests and passions were too diverse for me to settle with one single field of study.  We didn’t have letter grades — that doesn’t tell you anything — instead, we received evaluations of our performance.  Before the class we would write a course contract stating our goals for the class, at the end we would write a self-evaluation based on how we felt we did, and then the professor or facilitator of the course would write an evaluation which went on our file.  I recently uncovered the faculty evaluation for my senior project and was reading it.  And I think this says a lot about my approach as well.

The original concept for my senior project was to take an entire year, including the short interim semester, and write a story, film it, and then turn it into an interactive movie like many that were popular when I was in high school (Phantasmagoria and the sequel, Wing Commander III, various others).  The film footage was shot, but when it came down to doing the game portion, I realized the scope of the project would exceed the amount of time I had, and shifted gears, focusing on editing and showing the film and created a CD-Rom with bonus material and the extra footage from the scenes that were to be alternate takes for different forks in the story.  Rather than being seen as a failing, my faculty advisor — who I mostly just checked-in with to give periodic progress reports, otherwise I completely ran everything myself including facilitating my own class which became the production team for the film for the first half of the project — saw this as a strength.  She says:

The many challenges he faced (teaching and directing peers, sorting out technical and creative goals, and readjusting his plans as he went along) could easily have proved too daunting for many students.  But Chris persisted with his core ideas and visions, demonstrating a solid enterprising spririt and producing and intriguing film in the end.

Re-reading this ten years later makes me realize that being able to evaluate a situation and adapt as-needed to create something that is attainable and still true to the original vision is a skill that hasn’t faded, in fact, as a designer and an entrepreneur (I hate that word, by the way), it’s something I do almost every day.  Several years ago, I decided I wanted to create an online music store.  The vision behind it was based on a dream I had for a brick and mortar store, where you would be able to go to a kiosk (I was working quite a bit with photokiosks at the time) and listen to any album in the store, in its’ entirety, before purchasing it.  It was based on the idea that I’ve had for many years that the best way to promote music is to let people hear it, without restrictions.  I tried to take this approach to the website, with mixed results.  The stuff I had in my online catalog was not the same as the stuff I had in the store, and vice versa, and the music catalog was limited by access to distributors, many of whom required a monthly subscription that I didn’t have the capital to front.  It was a learning experience, however, one that — for the first time — really got me deeper into the music business than I had been before.

The only thing that has ever held me back in following through with my crazy, ambitious schemes is taking myself seriously.  In college, of course you take yourself seriously, because you take everything you do incredibly seriously, and you have a bunch of teachers urging you to push yourself.  But in the real world, when you’re faced with bills and responsibilities, it’s too easy to look at a crazy idea and say “wow, that’s crazy” and let it die right there.  But it was a crazy idea to start a business doing web design, and that’s one instance where I’ve taken the crazy idea, and shaped it along the way as new challenges have come and the industry has evolved.  Last summer we started Museum Themes and, in less than a year, have sold enough WordPress themes and Blogger templates to take in over $1k.  It’s not much by the standards of all the other premium theme vendors, but for us, an indie studio with a very small advertising budget (most of the earnings from the themes go straight to advertising), it’s a pretty big deal, and those numbers only get better over time.

So when I start musing over the idea of a netlabel, what I’m doing is analyzing the situation.  Is it worth it?  What is the benefit?  What could I provide with my netlabel that you might not find elsewhere?  Over the years, I’ve written a lot about the music industry.  I’ve watched and watched and I can’t believe how some of these monolithic labels continue in their Jurassic practices and fail to see the obvious right in front of them: that the industry they are in is not the same as it was ten years ago, or even five years ago.  I was about to write a post about the small-batch cd duplication service provided by Kunaki (which I’m still going to do), and considering the new Radiohead album which is sold as a digital-only album with a collectors-edition physical artifact (in the form of two records and expansive art), when a word floated to the front of my consciousness: netlabel.  What does that mean?  Can I do it?  Why bother?

If you watched my last video post, you will know that I’ve been thinking more about the production side of music-making.  This new idea is an extension of that.  And the more that I think about this idea — netlabel — the more attracted to it I become, the more serious the idea gets.  But most of all, the thing that’s driving me is when I half-rhetorically asked on Twitter if anyone would be interested in joining me if I started a netlabel, and actually got a few bites.

What can a netlabel offer? Exposure.  A small amount of advertising (mostly through viral and online, social networking-type avenues).  Complete creative freedom.  Most of all, I think what a netlabel could do for an independent musician is deal with the getting-your-music-out-there part of the music equation, so you just need to worry about making it.

What would I be bringing to the table? I have been making sideline commentary about the music business for years.  It’s time to put these ideas to practice.  So, in part, it would bring my analytical view of the direction the music industry and the effect of the internet and digital mediums on this new incarnation the industry is taking.  I’m also a designer and a web guy.  I could design or help with art, websites, banners, various social networking type things.  I’ve dug deeply into a variety of social networks and tools and ideas and practices, trying almost everything to figure out for myself what works, what doesn’t, and why.  So, as opposed to a regular label, or even, maybe, an indie label, I have music industry knowledge, business knowledge and a knowledge of the internet, social networking and — though nothing I’ve ever done has gone viral, per se — viral marketing.  As stated in my video post, I’m also interested in getting involved in producing albums.  I’m looking at the last few days of the RPM Challenge winding down, and what I see is a lot of people struggling with mixing their own albums.  As of today, I can’t promise that I’m an expert, but I know my tools, I know I have a good ear for music, and, in many cases, I couldn’t possibly be worse than what you’re trying to do yourself.  Time, practice, and experience will tell if I’m as good as I think I could be.  That’s another thing that I could bring.  I also have experience getting music posted on Last.fm, Alonetone, Bandcamp, all of which I’ve used.  I’ve followed both indie musicians and professional musicians and watched as many have shifted their approaches to releasing music and, literally, there isn’t anything they are doing that I couldn’t also do.

What does a traditional label give you? Distribution.  With everything online and an emphasis on digital music, this is irrelevant.  The only real thing that matters is getting your music in the right places so people will hear it.  But with the internet as your storefront, there’s no question of distribution.  Marketing. Again, when the internet is your medium, the entry level for this goes down to nil.  You can market yourself.  Or you can hire some firm to market your stuff for you (in this new job description known as “social media marketer”) but the end result is the same: get yourself a web presence, establish your “brand”, throw your name in as many people’s faces as possible and, most of all, actually engage with people (this is where a lot of companies and individuals fail, opting, instead, for generic or canned messages and status updates or exclusively aggregated content).  Take @Syfy for example.  A single employee for the cable channel maintains the Twitter stream, but rather than posting sterile tweets about upcoming shows, he actually engages his audience, and it’s largely because of his tweets and retweets that I’ve started watching (and enjoying) the Syfy shows Eureka and Being Human, so obviously what he’s doing is working.

Traditional record labels also often provide recording studios and equipment, but if you’re interested in joining or getting involved with a netlabel, you’re probably already doing this in your bedroom.  We have tools now that they couldn’t dream of when they got in the business — we can have entire, professional-quality recording studios in our bedroom for less than $500, so this, too becomes a moot point.  They also provide some upfront cash and help with tour dates and getting gigs, but this is something that bands generally do themselves when you scale it down and start looking at indie labels.  And, again, with the internet, the need to gig to get your music out there isn’t as necessary.  More than that, being a touring road musician means that, unless you’re a big deal, you’re ending up making just enough to get to your next stop.  This will almost never not be the case for any of us bedroom musicians — we know this, and probably we’ve come to terms with the fact that we won’t ever be a huge deal.  But, we could cultivate a cult following if given the right ingredients.  I also think that — while my initial research into what it takes to start a netlabel (honestly, the answer is: hardly anything) says there’s generally no money in it and you’re doing it mostly for a love of the game — I don’t think that it should be excluded as a possibility to actually sell your music.  And maybe signing onto my netlabel will help you promote your music enough and provide enough tools and resources so you are actually able to sell a few copies.

This is what has me thinking.  A lot.  I think I’m going to try it.  I need to work out the details of the business model, profit sharing, etc., but the framework is there, and I really don’t expect there to really be any money involved for a while anyway.  I’ve also got a clear idea of the structure the website will take and even some idea about the design.  And, despite what I’ve seen suggested that netlabels limit themselves to a particular genre or style, my approach is not going to go in that direction.  I’m interested in promoting and producing good music, regardless of the form it takes.  And if your music isn’t good, you should know, and understand how to make it better.  Which is one of the things I’m thinking about with the website…

With that said: Plague Music, coming in 2011.

lala.com closes their doors: a case study in how to alienate your core userbase

Once upon a time there was a website called Lala.  I think I first heard about them in an issue of Wired as an alternative to filesharing.  Because, when Lala got started, it was all about cd trading — put the cd’s you don’t really care for anymore up in the pool, create a wishlist of stuff you do want, get a match, stuff an envelope, and a week or so later get something new and cool (okay, used and cool).  For a year or two, I was an active member…and by active I mean I had a little gadget that ran in the background and told me if anyone had added something from my Want list to their Have list so I could attempt to snatch it before anyone else did; I visited and was vocal in the forums; I followed other users and got a few good music recommendations out of the site (in particular Scatter the Ashes, the Silent Ballet and Run the Road compilations, and Throwing Muses).  And, to an extent, it did replace filesharing — if I could snap up a CD of a band I’d marginally heard of, or heard good things about, I could listen to that, not download it, and then ship it back out if it didn’t strike my fancy.  Or keep it and get everything else they’ve ever made if it did.  There were a few duds, misfires, and CDs I got that were somehow on my want list rather than my have list, but otherwise it was a good system.

Eventually, though, once you’d been trading a while, you’d run out of things that people had available to share on your want list (or your want list would grow increasingly obscure) or stuff that people wanted on your have list (i.e. your have list growing increasingly obscure), and your trades would slow to a trickle, and then stop entirely.  It happened to everyone.  The only way to fight it was to get new users involved, new wants and haves, to replenish the active trading pool.  Seasoned members tried to spark interest via the forums by shipping something from their have list or buying a new cd for a random or chosen member (called “gifting”)  to revitalize the CD pool, but it didn’t really work.  The only thing that worked well was new members.

Meanwhile, shipping discs was expensive, especially when there wasn’t any other tangible way to monetize the site.  The first thing Lala did was to make the site similar to a virtual music storage site, where you could upload your entire mp3 collection.  The software was smart enough to recognize when it already had a track in your collection, and only stored files selectively based on what it was missing.  Along with this, they added the ability to create playlists (from your digital music collection) that people could subscribe to, and, most importantly, started selling digital downloads (they had been, by way of a small, independent music and comic book store, selling CDs through the site for a while).

The problem with this plan was that the core users — the traders — didn’t care about the digital stuff, we (because I include myself in this group) just wanted to trade CDs.  Then, Lala redesigned the site, putting more focus on sales and hiding the trades, making it a background feature.  And we were pissed.   Because now there was much less of a chance that any new users would even enter into the trading pool.  It essentially doomed the trades to oblivion.

There was talk of a mass exodus to some other platform, but the thing is, there wasn’t anything, nothing as good at any rate.  But there were more than a few coders in the group, and some plans were made.  I don’t know if anything came of them.  Eventually, having nothing to keep me on Lala, I left.  So did a lot of other people.  Which is why I wasn’t all that surprised when, a couple weeks ago, I found this on the site:

Here’s my criticism: Lala could have done just about anything other than what they did and kept their core users.  Need to monetize the site?  How about offering bonus incoming trade slots for a monthly fee?  Let’s say you could convert trades to credits and get a CD from the store for 10 trades.  $10 a month and at least one CD guaranteed every month?  I’m guessing people would go for that.  And that’s the sort of repeat business you could get going on a large scale that many online retailers would kill for.  Need more cash?  Maybe you can turn in 15 trades for 1 CD or have additional subscription plans.  Using trades as currency that could be bought or converted to store credits makes sense and doesn’t destroy all the work that went into the complex “karma” system that evaluated who — of the possibly hundreds or thousands of people wanting a particular disc — got first crack at a given CD.  Seriously, if I were a developer who’d spent hours upon hours building up that karma system only to see that Lala was going to go head-to-head with Last.fm and iTunes, I’d put in my resignation right there.  And maybe a few did.

What Lala failed to take into account was the very fact that they were not a store: they were a unique service catering to a specific niche.  In this case, their niche was often hard core music collectors and enthusiasts.  Rather than figuring out a way to monetize that select group, they tried to appeal to a broader audience.  They offered a better price point than iTunes, sure — $0.89 vs. $0.99 — but who cares?  The innovation and uniqueness was gone. Lala was just another online music store, and those have been falling like the stock market since 2000, when CDNow started to decline and was merged with BMG and subsequently acquired by Amazon in 2001.

The moral here is that if you’ve got something unique, you need to go all in or nothing.  It doesn’t work to take it half way.  Lala shot themselves in the foot by alienating their most loyal users.

fighting music piracy one rapidshare file at a time

sam rosenthal, of projekt records, is back on his piracy soapbox again.  he is asking each and every one of you to do your part to help stop piracy.  he breaks the world down into two camps: camp a says: “Music should be free, fuck you for thinking I should pay for your music.”  camp a is apparently the belligerent asshole camp.  camp b says: “I want to support the music I love, because I want you to keep making it.”  camp b is apparently the wishful thinking camp.

once again, sam is hurting the debate by oversimplifying the issue.  i refuse to believe that there are only two types of music listeners in the world — those that say “fuck you music should be free” and those that say “please let me give you more money so you can play for me.”  it would be awesome if the world was so binary — it would make the debate much easier to handle and deal with.  it would make the bad guys bad and the good guys good.  unfortunately, there really is no such thing as a black and white issue.

but, i’m not even going to necessarily get into that, because the truth is — regardless of whether the world fits into neat categories like sam suggests or not — he has a point: musicians need to get paid.  if they don’t, they will stop making music.  and that does nothing to fight the crappy state of popular music, where our choices are spoon-fed to us, and it’s increasingly difficult to find music outside the box of corporate sponsorship.  a system needs to be devised where the people who want the music can get it, and the people who make the music get paid.  back in the days of linear distribution and supply chains, that was easy: you make a record, you press it to vinyl, it gets sent to a distributor, who feeds it to record stores, where people buy it.  even when recordable cassettes came along, the supply chain remained more or less intact.  all that changes when the music is converted from atoms to bits; bits that can be duplicated onto your ipod, your friends’ ipod, your friends’ roommate’s ipod, your friends’ roommates’ ex-girlfriend’s laptop, etc, etc, etc.

sam describes three ways that music is traded illegally:

  1. russian mp3 stores that give the illusion of being legit because the have a real checkout process,
  2. bit torrent sites, and
  3. rapidsharemegaupload, and similar third-party file sharing/hosting sites.

sam says he can’t do anything about the russian sites, and they go largely unnoticed (or out of the jurisdiction) of organizations like the riaa.  he, likewise, considers torrent sites a lost cause for pulling down illegal content (more on this in a sec).  so, the solution to fighting online music piracy is: issue dmca complains against any and every rapidshare/megauploaded file you can.

wait.  what?

first of all, i disagree that torrent sites are entirely a lost cause.  i’d be willing to bet that the majority of music files traded illicitly on the internet happens across torrent networks.  back in the good old days, if The Pirate Bay got a takedown request, they’d laugh in your face.  but The Pirate Bay is no more, and whether they like it or not, their departure sets a major precedent in what can and can’t fly in today’s file-sharing.  the new heir to the throne as the most popular/widely used torrent site is isoHunt, which isn’t a torrent site, per se: it’s a search engine, pulling results from a variety of different source torrent sites.  as such, different rules apply.  but what’s also different about isoHunt is that they actually respond to takedown notices if a copyright owner issues them.  therefore, it’s not fair to say that there’s no chance of getting infringing material pulled off of torrent sites.  sure, getting the results removed from isoHunt is different than getting the files removed from their hosting torrent sharing networks, but if isoHunt has the most traffic of any single bit torrent site since The Pirate Bay, pulling it down from there would go pretty far.

even that, though, barely addresses the issue.  issuing dmca complaints (or bribing your minions to issue dmca complaints for you) is a band-aid solution to the problem.  it’s a feeble attempt to staunch the bleeding.  and it’s the same approach the major labels have been taking since the beginning of napster, and they are still no closer to “fixing” the problem than they were then — on the contrary, file sharing has proliferated.  it’s not an insane notion to consider that the kids entering college next year might not even realize or think about the fact that what they are doing is in the least bit wrong — it’s just what’s done, it’s how music is acquired.  whether or not that’s a “fuck you for telling me i need to pay for it”, the real challenge is to persuade those listeners to pay for what they’ve downloaded — or find some other gateway to a purchase — rather than alienating them more by saying “what you are doing is wrong.”  reprimanding your audience is not the way to get more sales.

maybe sam is right.  maybe putting your music out there for free and asking your audience to kindly pay if they feel like it really only works for established acts like nine inch nails and radiohead.  but that doesn’t mean it’s an entirely wrong approach.  the fact remains — and it always will be the same — that the music is there if you want to get it bad enough; pulling down one illegal copy of 10 neurotics will only prompt two or three more to show up in its place.  i still maintain that the music industry needs to take a freemium approach to selling music — give away a limited or restricted version of your product for free (say, the full album in 128kbps mp3 files), and grant access to premium content for purchasers or subscribers.  i may not be chris anderson, but i know that his own experiment in freemium still managed to get him a national bestseller.  and despite the fact that the copyright laws in canada are more lax when it comes to file sharing, their digital music sales are actually increasing, rather than decreasing like everywhere else.

now i know sam is going to lambast me for expressing my opinion on my personal blog, in a forgotten corner of the internet that no one will read anyway, rather than on his facebook page where i can get flamed by project artists and die hards appropriately.  and that’s just the thing — people aren’t likely to do what you want them to do just because you want them to do it.  and just because you said “pretty please don’t steal my shit — if you really loved me you wouldn’t steal my shit” doesn’t necessarily make anyone less inclined to steal your shit if that’s what they are going to do.  pulling your shit down so they can’t steal it won’t even stop them from stealing it, if they are determined enough.  so attacking piracy one file at a time is kind of like trying to put out a raging fire with squirt guns.  i guess if it helps you sleep better at night to know that people are out there trying to pull your stuff off of those two sites, well, good for you.  but it’s not going to fix anything, and it’s certainly not any form of fight against piracy.

the truth is that the days of the record label are, largely, coming to an end, as more and more independent musicians are able to market and distribute their music themselves and make more profit from it.  eventually, if you aren’t making a pop40 record, you won’t have any need for a label — if you even need one now.  and maybe that’s why sam’s approach to music piracy so closely resembles that of the major labels — attacking the symptom rather than the problem.  i hope sam’s scrappy little independent darkwave label in new york — and every other indie label/distributor out there (kill rock starssub popmetropolisfat possum, etc, etc, etc) — makes it through these growing pains as we move from the dark ages of music production to a full-fledged renaissance, with or without indie or major label help.  i really do.  but i think it’s a good thing that projekt.com isn’t just a record label, but also acts as a distributor and online music store providing access to some really awesome, obscure music.  because, as i see it, labels and distributors will eventually become the same thing as many artists choose to sell their record themselves on itunes or bandcamp, and promote it on twittermyspace, and facebook.

don’t get me wrong, i’m not heralding the death of the indie label — i think that indie labels will become like artisan food makers: sure you can get the same basic food elements at a fraction of the cost at any old supermarket, but the specialty stuff, the limited run, handmade stuff is so much better.  it’s worth it to take the time to track down the obscure stuff, the local producers.  and an essential part of specialty, artisan foods?  free samples.  hell, even the traditional drug pusher knows that the first taste is free — if you can get them hooked on the first freebie, they’ll be coming back for a long time to come.