Tristan Rodman

Brown University

December 2012

 

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

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).

 

 

Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2985. Print.

Attali's reading from our third week will help ground discussions of music-as-commodity that this paper will feature.

 

Auslander, Philip. "Live from Cyberspace: Or, I Was Sitting at My Computer This Guy Appeared He Thought I Was a Bot." PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 24.1 (2002): 16-21. PDF file.

Auslander begins his short article by citing the Oxford English Dictionary definition of "live"—"Of a performance, heard or watched at the time of its occurrence, as distinguished from one recorded on film, tape, etc" (16). He uses this definition and the time of its conception to draw some conclusions about the nature and history of liveness in music. Auslander argues that this definition of liveness as contrast to recording arose out of a feeling that one could no longer be assured that what they were listening to on the radio was a live product, because "radio does not allow you to see the sources of the sounds you're hearing" (17). He then extends this line of thinking to online artificial intelligence "chatterbots," contending that the presence of chatterbots on the Internet brings up a similar, though related crisis of liveness. Chatterbots do not make one question the relationship between live and recorded performance (of sound, or in the case of chatterbots, identity), but rather they "undermine the idea that live performance is a specifically human activity" (21).

Auslander's article brings up some questions for my research on turntable.fm, which involves a heavy element of online avatar. Avatars appear to occupy the space halfway in between the human and the bot, though they can veer closer to one side or another. Because the presence of bots on the internet have caused us to question "the idea that live performance is a specifically human activity," avatars can engage in activity online that is not-quite-human. For turntable, this matters when investigating how users see themselves on the site—where do they place their avatars on the spectrum of human to bot? The use of the OED definition of liveness will also be useful when theorizing the flow of a turntable.fm room, as music is heard "at the time of its occurrence," but the source is never "live."

 

Bilton, Ricardo. "Why Did Users Stop Using Turntable.fm? Blame the Experience." VentureBeat. N.p., 1 May 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://venturebeat.com/2012/05/01/users-stop-using-turntable-fm/>.

An investigation of why turntable.fm's userbase decreased significantly. Bilton argues that the site is too socially involved for users who want a passive listening experience.

 

Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. Print.

Boellstorff's chapter on "The Virtual" will help with theorizing avatars in relation to human-ness, as well as thinking about virtual meeting places as host to those characters.

 

Burgess, Jean, and Joshua Green. YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture. Cambridge: Polity, 2009. Print.

Will be helpful to determine where content creation occurs in a large, online, socially-mediated context. Also handy for figuring out how to treat the chat room on turntable.fm.

 

Greene, Paul D., and Thomas Porcello, eds. Wired for Sound: Engineering and Technologies in Sonic Cultures. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2005. Print.

Timothy Taylor's chapter on radio in this volume will be a useful point of contrast for conceptualizing the flow of a turntable.fm room, as well as the level of intimacy involved.

 

Helm, Burt. "Where Did Our Love Go?" Inc. May 2012: 64-72. Digital file.

In for Inc Magazine, a magazine targeted at entrepreneurs, Burt Helm attempts to write a pseudo-history of turntable.fm as a service, and finds it at an important crossroads as its user base has steadily decreased. He profiles the founder, Billy Chasen, the coder-genius archetype, and Seth Goldstein, the older finance-world chairman. The article operates in multiple timelines, shifting from a history of the service (how Chasen and Goldstein met, all their projects prior) to present-tense descriptions of their activities at South by Southwest in 2012 (where they throw parties to promote the brand and present it to conference attendees). Some of the most relevant and important information in this article comes from the section on the SXSW press conference, where Helm notes "To a SXSW audience, Turntable is already past its prime, even though during last year's conference, the product didn't yet exist" and does the math on Chasen's site statistics to figure that there are "just 317 people on the site listening at any given time" (70). Helm also outlines the company's core conflict, a debate over where their user drop-off occurred: "Chasen believes it's because of problems with the product—that the model is based on users' being intensely involved, when other music sites can play in the background. Goldstein, meanwhile, has wondered whether they just never got the word out far enough to hard-core music fans instead of techies" (70). The article ends with a description of Kiwi, turntable's feature-in-progress that will "be something like Pandora, but with playlists based on the recommendations of the user's Turntable friends" in order to "attract passive listeners interested in hearing friends' favorites, just not chatting or collecting points in a live Turntable room" (72).

This article will be critical to my paper for many reasons. For one, it gives a narrative history of the company's origin, and outlines the desired goals and the multiple views on how to get there. It also gives a sense of the company's panic about irrelevance and some raw data on how few (317 at any given time!?) people use the site. This all provides insight into my core research question, which is how turntable.fm positions the "social value of music." Is that value active or passive? Or is that irrelevant, and the social value lies in what the users make of turntable's rooms? The article also describe's the turntable.fm SXSW parties, which attempt to bring elements of turntable.fm's interface into real-life space. As Helm puts it, "We are in a real-life club that looks like an online version of a real-life club" (67). Avatar masks are provided to concert-goers. I'm not yet sure what to make of this in the larger context of my paper, but I imagine that it questions the division between human and avatar, and provides a potential conceptualization for avatars as masked humans.

 

Humphreys, Lee, and Paul Messaris, eds. Digital Media: Transformations in Human Communication. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. Print.

Includes a number of relevant chapters, including "Transformed Social Interaction in Collaborative Virtual Environments" by Jeremy N. Bailenson and "Inhabitable Interfaces" by Jeffrey Huang. Both of these will help theorize turntable.fm's social nature.

 

Ito, Mizuko, ed. Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. Print.

Two chapters (one by danah boyd and the other by Patricia G. Lange and Mizuko Ito) will be particularly helpful; the former deals with friendship in the online social world, the latter focuses on creative production in online media.

 

Jurgenson, Nathan. "Strong and Mild Digital Dualism." Cyborgology. N.p., 29 Oct. 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2012/10/29/strong-and-mild-digital-dualism/>.

Nathan Jurgenson, a grad student in sociology at the University of Maryland, notes the tendency of scholarship to make the assumption that the internet and virtual space are entirely distinct from the "real" world. He gives this phenomenon a term: "digital dualism." His essay proposes a few new categories for thinking about the issue, though he recognizes that his proposed categories "should be thought of as 'ideal types,' conceptual categories that are never perfectly realized in reality, but are useful to 'think with.'" He proposes four categories as opposed to the previous two. Strong digital dualism is when the digital and physical are fully different and "do not interact" (emphasis his). Mild digital dualism would hold that the digital and physical are different realities, but that they "do interact" (emphasis his). Mild augmented reality would describe the digital and physical as part of the same reality, but having "different properties" (emphasis his) though they do interact. And finally, strong augmented reality proposes "the digital and physical are part of one reality and have the same properties" (emphasis his). He even provides a flow chart (http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2012/10/29/strong-and-mild-digital-dualism/strongdualism-2/) for determining which term to use. The point of Jurgenson's essay is not to argue for any given one of these views, but to clear up conceptual messiness that has arisen from the digital dualist debate—"Once we have our positions clear, we can begin discussing which stance best describes the realities we are studying."

Jurgenson's simple, one-item essay is very effective at communicating both a fallacy and potential solutions. This article is heavily relevant to turntable.fm, as we can begin to view the service as a strong augmented reality. In other words, time spent on turntable.fm is not time lost in a physical universe because turntable.fm exists within the same reality in which we live. This would mean that avatars are very close to the people they represent, and aren't necessarily abstractions but rather disguises of identity. This argument can be supplemented by looking at Jurgenson's flow chart. I would ask, though, whether applying one of these terms to a given service (like turntable.fm) suggests that I view all online/physical interaction in this way? And if so, to what extent will I need to defend and substantiate my opinion?

 

Kafka, Peter. "Turntable.fm Really Is Awesome. Is It Legal?" All Things Digital. N.p., 21 June 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://allthingsd.com/20110621/turntable-fm-really-is-awesome-is-it-legal/>.

Peter Kafka, writing for the All Things Digital blog in June 2011, calls turntable.fm "a little miracle." He points out that the service's "'gamification' element" is secondary to its core function, which is the sharing and discovery of music. But he also notes that turntable.fm has done all its work to the date of publishing without any record label deals. Billy Chasen operates the service under the fair-use clause in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, using a deal with MediaNet, a large content database, to supply "millions of songs." If somebody cannot find the song they want in turntable.fm's library, they can upload their own MP3 to the site. The catch is that turntable.fm uses the same DMCA clause as Pandora, which operates "as a 'non-interactive' Web radio service." While Kafka argues that turntable.fm is essentially interactive (and very configurable by the user), he also finds that the site places restrictions: "You can't play music in a room by yourself, for instance. And there's a limit on the number of times you can play a song by a single artist per hour. And you can't see the next song another user has cued up." He gives a legal precedent (a site called 8tracks which lets users create mixtapes that other users can then play back) that would support turntable.fm, but also describes "a technical difference between 8tracks and Turntable 8tracks relies on songs its users own and upload, while it seems like most people on Turntable are using the tracks Chasen and Medianet provide." And while that distinction may appear to be insignificant, Kafka finds that "some music biz folks I've talked to have pointed to that as a red flag." Kafka ends his article by noting that turntable.fm could crash just like any other hot startup, but that he "hope[s] they make it work."


I find it particularly interesting that it's less illegal for a web service to use tracks that its users provide, as the source of those tracks could just as easily be illegal or legal. Kafka uses a footnote to point out that Apple's iTunes Match got permission from record labels to "provide a 'scan and match service, where a single master track could be used by multiple users," and that he "wouldn't be shocked to hear a music label lawyer tell Turntable its model is closer to Apple's, and requires a separate deal." When talking about how turntable.fm sees "the social value of music," this distinction becomes critical. It would seem that allowing users to upload their own music is central to the sociality of the service, as it allows users to share something not accessible to everyone in a blanket library of music. This allows for much more personal, social discovery of music. But it also was the feature that caused turntable.fm to shut its doors to international users, as the DMCA clauses only apply to the United States. So the feature at once crippled and engendered social music sharing. This March, turntable.fm signed deals with all four major labels, and the publishing rights organization ASCAP, but it has yet to re-open to international users.

 

Katz, Mark. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010. Print.

Katz's final chapter, "Listening in Cyberspace" will help ground the discussion of listening to turntable.fm as a streaming service, as well as add historical cases to the debate on its legality.

 

Lange, Patricia D. "Searching for the 'You' in 'YouTube': An Analysis of Online Response Ability." Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings 2007: 36-50. PDF file.

Lange writes about the potential complications with participation on YouTube, including moderation and navigating social conventions. This will be particularly useful when discussing the chat room and public commentary elements of turntable.fm.

 

Lasar, Matthew. "Inside Turntable.fm: saving music radio from itself." Ars Technica. N.p., 12 Aug. 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://arstechnica.com/business/2011/08/inside-turntablefm-saving-music-radio-from-itself/>.

A firsthand account of turntable.fm's user experience at the height of its popularity.

 

Lysloff, Ren T.A., and Leslie C. Gay Jr., eds. Music and Technoculture. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2003. Print.

Lysloff's chapter, "Musical Life in Softcity" will help establish the criteria for virtual communities, and I'll use it to show what kinds of communities exist on turntable.fm.

 

Raymer, Miles. "Making Digital Music Social." Chicago Reader. N.p., 6 Oct. 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/turntablefm-spotify-itunes-facebook-rdio-mog-rhapsody/Content?oid=4756528&showFullText=true>.

A good description of what it's like to use turntable.fm, as well as musings on the state of social music. Discusses implications of Facebook's integration with social music sites, and includes information on people who have tried to replicate Turntable.fm's service in real life.

 

Shah, Parth. "How will turntable.fm make money?" Quora. N.p., 20 June 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://www.quora.com/How-will-turntable-fm-make-money>.

Writing in the summer of 2011, at the height of turntable.fm's popularity, a number of internet users speculate on ways that turntable.fm could turn itself into a sustainable business. Implicit in this brainstorm is the assumption that, as it stands, turntable.fm does not have a business model (or that their current model is insufficient). Parth Shah, a turnatable.fm user and engineer at VMWare, is vehemently against the idea proposed by other Quora users that turntable.fm should monetize its avatars by allowing users to purchase/unlock them. He argues, "If DJs are allowed to purchase and unlock the avatars, they might lose the motivation to earn them by entertaining the audience at their best. I believe that the avatars and the awesome/lame buttons are core to the experience and should be left untouched." For Shah, turntable.fm "should aspire to be the best place on the web to listen and discover music" and "monetization features that don't enhance the music listening & discovery process in any way should not be considered." As such, he suggests allowing "sponsored recommendations," which would allow placement of sponsored tracks as suggestions to turntable.fm room DJs; affiliate fees, which would include links to purchase albums and songs, with a twist that "when a significant number of users 'awesome' a track," the site would "create a group buying deal on the fly"; a feature that would allow DJs to purchase virtual equipment to accompany their avatars; and the ability to host a private room for a small monthly fee.


The users on Quora are notably not avatars. They all give their full names and occupations, and they communicate with eloquent and precise prose. But they are all still users and fans of the service, brainstorming on how the site's developers could make it better. The ideas suggested in this thread bring up interesting questions about how turntable sees "the social value of music." Private rooms would be a logical extension of the real-life tradition of in-the-know invite only parties (something like what Sarah Thornton describes). Balam Acab (my case study for this article) is already doing something like this, except without a restriction or fee. Indeed, the way in which turntable.fm decides to monetize its service will say a significant amount about the "social value of music," as the site sees it—the feature that users pay for will be the feature that determine the site's identity and longevity.

 

Shur, H. Cecilia. Social Media and Music: The Digital Field of Cultural Production. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. Print.

Has a number of relevant chapters, one of which we'll read for this class on MySpace and cultural production. The book also includes chapters on other social media and networking sites as they relate to music and cultural production including YouTube and Second Life. This will be helpful for discussions of (sub)cultural capital and the blurring lines between consumption and production visible on turntable.fm as well.

 

Taylor, Timothy. Strange Sounds: Music, Technology and Culture. N.p.: Routeledge, 2001. Print.

Taylor's discussion of the mp3 and remixing as they pertain to technology and agency will be relevant in looking at how different virtual communities use turntable.fm.

 

Thornton, Sarah. Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1996. Print.

Chapter 3 will be useful for discussions of subcultural capital within turntable.fm rooms, and establishing the parallel between my case study of Balam Acab's turntable.fm room and a rave.

 

Van Buskirk, Eliot. "Can Turntable.fm Survive Its Popularity?" Wired. N.p., 27 June 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://www.wired.com/underwire/2011/06/turntable-fm/>.

Includes a good note about the "timesuck factor" of turntable.fm, and also suggests that the site is too active. The article also questions the site's business plan.