The Underground Promise of Turntable.fm
My thoughts on TechCrunch (July 2011) about the breakout hit of 2011, Turntable.fm.
One of the most prolific vinyl collections belongs to a DJ who only surfaces every now and then. And when he does, legions of fans wait on baited breath, desperate to taste the latest brew from Josh Davis, otherwise known as DJ Shadow. DJs like Shadow usually begin creating underground. Their music is the result of months of sampling and cutting to form entirely new sounds. These new tunes form in darkness, outside the purview of record labels, radio stations, and the majority of listeners. It’s a bit romanticized, but there’s also much truth to the underground creative process and secretive DJ battles that occur in real life, where other DJs rate their peers. For those who have witnessed a live battle, it’s a unique environment where an unknown DJ can conceivably, on any given night, spin records better than pros like DJ Shadow.
Yes, this is another post about Turntable.fm.
TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld was the first to write about the service back in May. Since then, it’s taken off like a hot summer single. Nearly everyone believes Turntable could become a big deal, though it faces dangerous landmines (see below) and may struggle to stay in the limelight now that Spotify has launched in the U.S. There’s a great story about the company’s pivot and creation of the service. Investors have circled around Manhattan, and the company’s Series B should be announced soon. Every tech blog and Quora have covered its rise numerous times, it’s technologystack, how it could make money, how to create playlists, a live DJ event in NYC, and even mainstream pubs like The New York Times weighed in. I won’t regurgitate or summarize any of the coverage thus far, but many of these pieces miss the key points about why this site has so much promise. I’d like to shine some light on these.
First, the Turntable.fm platform could help level the playing field for aspiring DJs and musicians to build their reputation, their audience, and perhaps even get discovered. In the real world, DJs create tracks and battle underground, earning their reputation by performing in various venues, trading mix tapes, referencing (or dissing) their peers, and incorporating new tricks into their cuts. What has been happening underground for years may now slowly be coming online, where someone could moonlight as a DJ and, perhaps even be discovered by a club or promoter.
Second, even folks who love Turntable remain skeptical about its prospects in a music world that contains Pandora, iTunes, Rdio, and now Spotify, which will feature some integration with Facebook. I believe there will be room for all of these services and that they each satisfy different needs. In other words, Turntable won’t “kill” Pandora nor be “killed” by Spotify, which may not “kill” Rdio. Pandora is about letting machines learn your music tastes and help you discover new tunes. Recently, it announced its own social layer. iTunes wasn’t able to break into social with Ping, though a young startup Rexly is trying to crack the code. Spotify, which launched this week and mayintegrate with Facebook, could offer more choices than iTunes for less money and theoretically could recreate the “social rooms” ambiance of Turntable.
All of these services carry a large song inventory, largely composed of mainstream music, both current and extensive back catalogs. Not everyone’s tastes are mainstream and/or homogenous, however. For some, buying music on iTunes is simply boring, chock full of pop hits and TV soundtracks. A service like Turntable allows users to organize themselves by type of music, geography, work groups, and so forth, and helps unlock niche areas of music that make up an interesting long tail in discovery.
Third, there’s widespread fear of record labels and licensing fees. The labels could conspire to kill this service, and their track record isn’t pretty. Or, Turntable could die under the weight of onerous licensing fees. On the other hand, the record companies are so beaten up that they may have actually reached a point where may want a service like Turntable to succeed, so that it cannot burn bridges to future distribution channels, especially now given the promise around Spotify. While I wouldn’t underestimate the battle scars inflicted on the likes of Napster or Grooveshark, it seems the tide continues to move in favor of the consumer, and that the timing for Turntable could actually be impeccable.
Finally, the most exciting future possibility for Turntable is mobile and crowd interaction. Right now, there isn’t a mobile application, and given the user load issues the site is experiencing, it may be a while before they build this. For now and the foreseeable future, Turntable’s music will be heard through laptops and desktops, where a small few could create new content, and some others could help spread it through voting, and help it reach the remaining mass of listeners. Imagine being at a club during a DJ battle where audience members could register their votes via mobile apps or SMS, in addition to their applause? Or, maybe you’ll want a certain crew of DJs to play at your birthday party in San Francisco, but they’re located in Berlin—a service like Turntable could help bridge that gap, and offer your guests a chance to chime in on the music selection. All of these possibilities surround audio files, but is there room for video, too?
I recognize it’s early days for the Turntable.fm team. I don’t mean to suggest that overcoming any of these hurdles will be easy. In fact, it will be extremely interesting to see who joins as an investor in the Series B round, because an endeavor like this will require both entrepreneurs and investors taking the fight to the record industry, or creating incentives for them to play along nicely. In some ways, it reminds me of Quora with its up-votes, entering “rooms” instead of following “threads,” and could also follow the 1-9-90 rule of content generation—where 1% create new music on the site, 9% help spread it by voting and sharing, and the rest of us consume it. Among most music fans I run into who have tried Turntable, there’s this initial, almost indescribable fascination with the service and shared desire to see it to succeed despite any challenges. They have cultivated a great deal of good will.
There are other real threats to the service. Will DJs and even casual listeners experience fatigue of waiting too long to DJ or hanging out in empty rooms? Will the technology stack hold up to the incredible demand for the service, especially when a celebrity DJ wants to spin for his or her fans? Or will the site succumb to trolls, invasive brand accounts, or SPAM? Is the site really about discovering music, or just chatting about music, or both? Or is this entire package seen as a possible antidote to Spotify’s upcoming Facebook plans, where Turntable could be gobbled up as a strategic acquisition, especially for artists and record labels who may be uneasy abowithut Facebook’s growing footprint in media?
Turntable.fm has the makings of a huge hit, already attracting world renown DJs like Questlove andDiplo. Perhaps even DJ Shadow will give the site a whirl before he releases his new album later this fall. For someone like Shadow, selling out shows worldwide isn’t a problem. Reaching new fans is, however. And, there may just be that part of him which misses the old days of DJ battles, something his status now rarely affords him. A site like Turntable.fm could give him and a variety of other established or hopeful artists an entirely new platform to test new beats, find others to collaborate with, test geographic demand for new music, interact with fans, sell albums and merchandise, play special shows online, and so much more. The possibilities are endless. That is the promise of Turntable.fm—and here’s to hoping it all gets realized one day.