A Social Discourse: Social Music Hits A Sour Note

Music is essential to our culture. More than any other medium, music has driven social change through protest, satire, and commentary. Marketers have known that connection since the early days of radio, so it should be no surprise that social media marketers are throwing the “social platform” label on nearly every music site they come upon. But what really defines a social music platform? Does a music site need to go beyond a blue-and-white ‘like’ button in order to be social?

Pandora is a widely-known internet radio platform that has been around for a number of years. For the uninitiated, the site is designed around the Music Genome Project, an initiative to catalog and analyze every piece of music ever written. Pandora lets you build a radio station by selecting a song or artist you enjoy, which is compared to millions of other songs in the Genome Project database. Pandora then selects tracks to play that share similar sounds, instruments, and lyrics.

Pandora made real headlines several months ago when they announced an upcoming site revamp, which would include a full social network. As it turned out, those rumors were severely exaggerated. Pandora’s social network includes user profiles, Facebook integration (is anyone else getting sick of that “feature”?), and a following system, which is essentially just an upgrade to the old user-to-user sharing. Users can see what their friends are listening to, what songs they liked or disliked, and what stations they’ve created. Does that make this a “social network”? Not in my mind.

If Pandora is all music and no social, than turntable.fm is a massive swing in the alternate direction. At face value, turntable (which is too underground for capitalization, apparently) has a lot to offer. This crowd-sourced music player is treated as a virtual nightclub, or more accurately, an underground warehouse rave. The site is divided into user-created ‘rooms,’ each of which has a given theme, genre, artist, or style. Users vie for one of each room’s five DJ spots, which allows them to play music from their own collection for the crowd. The crowd, in turn, votes up or down on a track, which gives that DJ points. The points are used to unlock new on-site avatars, adding an addictive Facebook-Game quality to the whole package. Music to be played can come from a user’s own hard drive, or from an online database of previously-uploaded songs, which means that the music library is essentially infinite.

turntable.fm Music Room

The social aspect of the site is involved and engaging. The “follow” system allows you to build a friend list, of sorts, and each room’s chat feature allows live discussion of music, DJ’s, and the usual internet clutter. In some of the more popular rooms, it is not uncommon to run into the artists that actually created the tracks you are listening to. Big names in electronic music, like Daft Punk, Deadmau5, and Skrillex have all been known to make appearances. Few other niche networks allow you to have such immediate contact with the focuses of their fandoms. However, several egregious issues hold this platform back from the mainstream.

Some problems should already be obvious, the most blatant of those being the issue of music piracy. While there is no intended way to download tracks from the service, there is also nothing ensuring that the uploaded music has been legally acquired, or that it will stay within the site. In a very real way, turntable is running the risk of record-label intervention. For now, the site is dodging lawsuits by hiding behind loopholes in the DMCA , but that protection won’t last forever.

On a smaller scale, the music that users hear is almost completely out of their control. You can follow DJ’s you like, and stick to rooms that are designed for your favorite genres, but at the end of the day, it is other users that determine what you hear. The competitive nature of DJ spots, and the credibility that comes with “discovering” unique underground tracks means that you are unlikely to hear old favorites again and again on the site. Coupled with the above issues, technical bugs and compatibility issues add to the unpolished feel of the platform.

Spotify, on the other hand, is a fantastic piece of software. It easily blends online and offline music collections, allowing you to build playlists with a mixture of both. If iTunes, Amazon, Pandora, and turntable built a music platform together, Spotify would be the result. It is a great music platform, probably one of the best, but it isn’t a social network. To be frank, I don’t understand why so many other social blogs insist that it is.

Like so many others, Spotify relies on Facebook Integration for its social elements. This means that those of us that have moved on to other pastures are left with a secondary social experience. Not to say that Facebook users have it much better. Spotify’s social interaction involves nothing more than public playlists and newsfeeds that broadcast which Lady GaGa track you’ve had on loop all week. If it sounds a lot like the new ‘social’ Pandora, it’s because it is exactly the same thing, in almost every way.

For every person, in every culture, music is about emotion, and it has power. For now, it seems that in the social media universe, that means nothing more than a list of names under a single heading on a profile page. When the perfect social music experience is created, I’ll be there, but until that day, music in the social space is no more than background noise.

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Tim HowellTim Howell remembers what cassette tapes are, and is a content manager for Make Me Social. He studied fine art, psychology, and international pop culture at Bowling Green State University. In his spare time, he is a blogger, bartender, and social activist with a passion for cooking. You can find him at gplus.to/TimHowell

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