How Long Until The RIAA Kills The Best Music Service Around?
from the countdown-begins dept
Over the past month or so, there has been tremendous buzz about a startup called Turntable.fm. It’s been written up in a few places and lots of the usual crew of Silicon Valley folks have been using it. In general, I tend to be skeptical of the “buzzy” startups out there, but over the past couple weeks I’ve been playing with the service, and have found — like so many others who use it — that it’s incredibly fun, addictive and amazing (and not great for productivity, at times). A bunch of folks associated with Techdirt have been using it and we’ve spent almost as much time discussing the legality of the whole thing.
If you haven’t used it, it’s a service that finally makes music social in a way that works. Basically, you and others go into a “room” which generally has a theme. Up to five people in the room can act as “DJs” and sit at a table in the front. Each of the DJs puts together a queue of songs and when their turn comes around, the next song in their queue plays (usually, it’s still a little buggy on that front). Everyone else in the room can hear the song and can vote on whether it’s “awesome” or “lame.” If it’s awesome, the DJ gets points, if it’s lame, the song can be cut off and you can get booted from your chair (I believe, though have never seen that happen). Also, all the folks in the room have cute little avatars, and their heads bob to the music if they think it’s awesome. When one song is done, it moves on to the next DJ in the row, and on you go: collaborative curated music playlists.
But I think the reason that hits me so hard, and why so many people like Turntable.fm, is the core underlying social aspect of it that so many in the music industry seem to ignore. Music isn’t an individual thing. It’s always been a social thing. We want others to hear the music we like. We like to share the experience. It’s a cultural thing. If only you hear a song, that’s one thing, but sharing that great feeling with a friend or others is something else. It’s part of the reason why people flock to concerts. But the recording industry has always focused on music as a solitary thing: as in, they want each individual to buy a song or an album and that’s it. The social part is an afterthought. Maybe it helps more sales, maybe not. That’s not important. It’s why so many music services today are kind of boring, frankly. You can listen to music, but that’s about it. There’s not much social about most of them (with a few exceptions).
Turntable.fm, on purpose or not, brings back that cultural sharing element. It makes just listening to music a party, and that’s incredibly addictive. And, as simplistic as the graphics are, something about them completely “works” in this environment. The little bobbing heads are really quite powerful. And, as Marcus Carab said after playing around with the service: if no heads in the audience are bobbing, “IT FEELS HORRIBLE.” That’s a part of that cultural sharing phenomenon. We all love music, and we love to introduce others to music we love… but many of us still fear that basic feeling of social awkwardness: what if we pass this along, and no one likes it? Turntable.fm does a brilliant job of meshing together all of these elements, and really has made it work.
But is it legal?
Then we come to the big question. If there’s one thing we’ve seen over and over again, it’s that the big record labels and the RIAA simply can’t stand it when “someone else” figures out how to make music valuable. The standard operating procedure is to claim that whatever they’re doing is infringing, and then sue first as a part of a negotiating strategy to get massive license fees or to drive them out of business. Sometimes, as with imeem, they do both (get massive license fees, which serves to drive them out of business).
There were some questions as to whether or not Turntable.fm already had deals with the labels. The way the music works is you can do a search, and if Turntable.fm already has the track you can add it to your queue. If it doesn’t, you can also upload it from your personal collection. Various reports note that Turntable.fm has a deal with MediaNet, which allows them to stream a ton of tracks at $0.002 per listener (and 10 cents per DJ, since that’s an “on demand” play). It’s not clear how it works with uploaded tracks. There are also some limits, as a friend of mine discovered when a bunch of DJs in a room all tried to play songs by a single artist. After a few tracks, you get a message saying you can’t for licensing reasons.
That sounded similar to what the (also quite cool) startup 8tracks does, in that people can upload songs and create playlists… but with a few limitations to avoid violating copyright law. There are a few basic rules that have been put in place at the behest of the recording industry to make sure such services aren’t really fully interactive (for which they want much higher priced licenses), so limiting tracks by a single artist, limiting tracks from a single album and not letting people see what’s upcoming are there.
What is now official is that the company does not have any licensing deals with the labels, relying on the belief that following those streaming rules and the basics of the DMCA make it legal. The issue is whether or not the labels buy that and decide not to sue. That would be the smart move, but think about who we’re discussing here. There’s a pretty good likelihood that someone will get upset (or, really, jealous of the massive popularity) and decide that they’re “not getting the proper cut,” and initiate legal action.
That would be a shame. The service really is the sort of thing that the labels should be encouraging. It’s an amazing tool for social music discovery. It clearly makes music more valuable. I’ve been introduced to all sorts of new music via the service, and have since purchased a bunch of CDs (yeah, make fun of me, I’m old fashioned that way) because of it. There’s also tremendous user engagement here, not just in picking the songs, but in voting on them and talking in the associated chat room. Still, almost everyone seems to think that the labels will do what they always do and sue. Again, quoting Marcus, “it must be illegal, because it’s awesome, and there’s simply no way something this awesome would be okay with the RIAA.”