Turntable.fm‘s latest blog post reached my inbox on Friday. It focused on Turntable Live, a new feature in which Turntable room participants interact on a real time basis with bands. Then came this last distressing paragraph:
“As much as we all love turntable.fm, we have decided to shut it down to fully concentrate on the Live experience. It was a tough decision to make because we love this community so much, but the cost of running a music service has been too expensive and we can’t outpace it with our efforts to monetize it and cut costs. If we also want to give Turntable Live a real shot, we need to fully focus on it.”
I’ll save the decline and fall analysis until later in this post. What is important to note first is what turntable.fm accomplished.
Much of what passes for “radio” on the Internet is nothing of the sort. Yes, you get to listen to anything you like, but all by yourself. There is no deejay; it is not live; and there is no audience to speak of—unless you think that millions of people isolated from each other listening to different tunes constitutes an audience. Call that radio if you want. I call it the Automated Music Industry, which offers something that boils down to Bowling Alone with headphones.
Billy Chasen, Seth Goldstein, and the rest of the turntable.fm team made a huge splash in 2011 by demonstrating that online radio can be more than your own personal Fortress of Solitude. They did so by inventing something that can be roughly described as distributed deejaying. Turntable.fm software allowed users create dance club atmosphere “rooms” and share the task of playing songs for each other while chatting—the tunes uploaded or derived from a database. I was a bit of an anomalous user. In 2011 and 2013 I spent many happy hours in tt.fm’s single classical music room, Classical of Any Kind, sharing great music with a cohort of students who appeared to be mostly from the University of Colorado. But I also visited the jazz and world music rooms, where the content and company was outstanding. Sometimes I even ventured into the huge electronica rooms, just to share in the youthful frenetic joy.
You had to be there in 2012, hanging around in DJ Wooooo’s amazing house/electro room. Turntable.fm was nothing less than a discovery, an invention, a breakthrough.
But tt.fm also faced many challenges. Aside from how to provide and pay royalties for music, audience retention quickly became an issue. In 2012 Goldstein candidly acknowledged the problem at a social media conference in San Francisco, noting that he wished the service was more “background.” Turntable.fm is “really engaging for a small community,” he observed. “Because typically, if you use Turntable, you go in and you get addicted, and spend four days of your life not doing much of anything else. And then you say, ‘I just can’t do this any more. I’ve got to get back to my life.’ Right?”
The operation then launched a more “background” site, Piki.fm, but it failed. Next the group ended user uploads and allowed SoundCloud searches. That saved money, but apparently not enough. On top of all that, it appears that the service never resolved how to accommodate the multitude of requests for changes, extensions, or alterations of the software coming from users full of ambitions for their rooms.
I asked online music web developer Aaron Ho for his perspective on turntable.fm’s relationship with its “power” users, Ho prominent among them for a while. He prefaced his comments with respect. “I do love turntable.fm and I think it helped many artists and in general had many very cool things about it,” Ho noted, but:
“Besides the core reasons that TT is shutting down (cost of running it compared to monetization), the biggest loss has been the user base. The user base I feel left because of stagnation of the site and the overall lack of user input being added to the site. For the first year of the site many features were requested by the users and these feature requests were ignored. When features were added they were completely novel and not at all what the users requested. When users were requesting multiple playlists we got stickers. When users were requesting the ability to customize the room we got the ability to zoom. Many of the features users requested were quite simple to code, for example the ability to have room information and change it was a great feature to add, but it did not happen [until] after the site had been going for over a year. The stagnation of the site lead to many users and power users getting bored with the site. Even the power users that were there from the start and help to spread the site from the start just ended up leaving. Communities and friendships that had formed initially on the site went elsewhere or just died out. As less and less users appeared and daily room numbers dropped the overall quality of the music also dropped. Power users that would search hard for music just stopped bringing new music. With there being no reason to play music (points being useless other than bragging rights, people stopped caring). Without power users room modding became harder and harder. It became less and less worthwhile for mods to stay and police rooms. This helped to bring down communities that had built up around the rooms. When users of rooms were just randoms, chatting quality and talking went down and less and less people cared to do things together.
From the stand point of a blog / site owner (http://www.sosimpull.com), TT become less and less useful for promotion. Many sites and users would bring new artist in to do events. In the beginning the events were fun, but very very hard to accomplish due to all the rules set in place by TT. For example many artists that were playing their own music were not allowed to tag them with there artist name because after so many plays of a song by the same artist the song would just skip. Many new artist that never used TT had troubles with this. They would not understand why their songs were skipping and many times we would have to have the artist change the meta data of their MP3s while the event was going on. This made events not run smoothly and in general made TT, the artist, and event organizer looked unprofessional. As that went on it became harder and harder to get events and many times artist would just refuse to do an event because TT would not turn off these rules. I myself sent quite a few request weeks before the event to try and get the rules turned off or at least to not skip songs. (This did get fixed over time, but still was not the best fix and required talking to a gatekeeper to help you out). For a while it was even hard to get TT to even market or announce events, this changed, but still was not the easiest process. With all the work it took to get events going and the total lack of promotion by TT or customization of the room to help promote the artist or even organizer all of the events just became a work of love, rather then a tool of promotion for the event organizer/site/business.
Without users that loved the site TT become more and more boring. TT wouldn’t have gotten as big or would it have been as functional without users giving time to better TT. TT to me was unusable from the start without browser extensions. Rooms and Events were also almost undoable without having bots (made by the users themselves) to control who could get up, for how long, and to boot/ban users there were just trolling the rooms. So I guess in conclusion, to me, the fall of TT was an example of lack of taking user input and putting it to use.”
In addition to all this, by early this year turntable.fm faced competition in the form of a new and similar service, plug.dj. Around the time when Piki closed, my tt.fm stories started getting comments like this: “And so the exodus from TT to plug.dj continues. Plug.dj has been slowly bleeding TT dry of all their users. It’s no wonder with a more responsive support team! A little customer service goes a long way IMHO.”
As sympathetic as I am to user frustration, turntable.fm deserves more than bitterness as its epitaph. I doubt that Plug.dj would exist had tt.fm not launched its pioneering user interface. I hope that Turntable Live thrives. Beyond that, I am sure that scholars will identify Turntable as a breakthrough moment in the history of Internet radio, one that will be built upon in a myriad of wonderful ways.
We cover social music sharing communities every Monday in our Internet DJ feature.