This is You: Turntable.fm and the Digital/Physical Divide

Tristan Rodman

Abstract


Turntable.fm is a music service that allows users to congregate in virtual rooms and play music for each other. Users gather their avatars in themed rooms and take turns as DJ, and the listeners may gauge the DJ’s song choices on a scale of “Lame” to “Awesome” by clicking the according buttons. Users can also engage in conversation by using a chat window. Turntable.fm claims to be “bringing the social value of music to the digital music experience by letting people experience and discover music together.” My research focuses on turntable.fm as a host to communities and as a technology itself. The core questions of this paper are how Turntable.fm establishes and shapes “the social value of music,” and what properties of Turntable.fm are specific to online space. What’s virtual about the Turntable.fm experience?

I look at discourses surrounding Turntable.fm as a social technology, use electronic producer Balam Acab’s Turntable.fm “parties” as a case study and conduct a close analysis of Turntable.fm’s user interface. Social technology discourses question Turntable.fm’s business model, bring up debates on copyright and legality, and explain the site’s role in digital music consumption. Through participant observation, I examine how Balam Acab’s Turntble.fm parties employ the website’s format to create a local scene situated in online space. The user interface features abstractions of everyday objects, situating the avatars in familiar surroundings. These three sections lead to a discussion of the perceived difference between the physical and the virtual. Following Jonathan Sterne’s argument that the digital “doesn’t re-organize the process” of audio reproduction, I will argue that the digital also doesn’t reorganize the process of social interaction around music (Sterne 2006: 99).

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