Picture this: It is the summer of 2011. The weather is beautiful, it’s a crisp summer day. You would love to be outside but, unfortunately, because you have a job, you are inside, possibly seated at a desk. You are listening to music on your iPod Classic, which is loaded up with thousands of MP3s, signaling that you like music. Spotify, a company with a weird name, just launched in the U.S.
All of a sudden, Gchat lights up. “Hey check this out,” your friend says, and they’ve included a link to a URL: turntable.fm. It is the first day of the rest of your life.
Turntable.fm, if you don’t recall, was this incredible website where multiple users could join a lobby, and each one took turns select a track, that everyone would hear at the same time. It was like sitting in a room telling your friend what to play next, but contained within your browser. Every user had an avatar, and they could leave text comments that appeared in little speech bubbles over their heads. The avatar whose song was currently playing appeared onstage behind a laptop. Users could vote on whether the song you picked sucked, which was a nerve-racking experience. It was like Club Penguin combined with Twitch, a digital clubhouse and communal listening experience.
The New York Times summed it up well in 2011:
It doesn’t matter if you start a room with some nearby cubicle mates or with friends scattered across the globe: what you begin to realize — almost instantly — is that taking turns playing music with friends is a kind of communication. One song leads to another. Music, enjoyable in and of itself, becomes a sort of shorthand when played among people who have shared memories attached to it. Someone plays a song that was popular when you were college, then another friend plays another song from that same period and — just like that — you’ve traveled back in time. It’s like you’re all sharing in the same inside joke.
Turntable shut down at the end of 2013 after traffic declined and without being able to establish a workable business model (licensing music is expensive!), but it looms large in my mind as one of the best online experiments I’ve had the privilege to witness. It’s cliché to say this, but Turntable.fm was truly ahead of its time. Streaming music is now dominant, and the popularity of livestream platforms like Twitch demonstrate that “hanging out and consuming media simultaneously with others online” is a thing that people enjoy.
And yet, there still isn’t a great alternative to Turntable.fm that lets people listen to music synchronously and take turns playing the DJ. The options that do exist are not really worth the effort to set up, requiring you to get all your friends to sign up for yet another service or install an extension or otherwise frankenstein two platforms together. The closest approximation is how Spotify integrates with the chat room app Discord to synchronize playback, but trying to get my friends to hang out on yet another messaging app is a no-go.
What I really need is for a streaming-music service that builds in Turntable-like functionality seamlessly, and it seems like that’s on the horizon, if some Spotify leaks are to be believed. Earlier this week, technologist Jane Wong found a “Social Listening” feature buried in Spotify’s mobile app.
From the looks of it, multiple users can scan bar codes or share hyperlinks that will sync them up, letting them build a music queue together. It’s not clear whether the playback itself will sync up between users, but given the aforementioned Discord integration, Spotify certainly has the capability.
If it does what I suspect it does, that rules, re-creating a social listening experience between multiple people across the internet, and without the need for everyone to set up a new app or daisy-chain different apps together. Since it’s already in the app, one could assume that the feature is pretty close to launch. According to Wong, Spotify employees are testing it now. I hope it gets here soon.