I fondly recall spending the better part of the summer of 2011 on Turntable.fm.
Oblivious to sunshine or sleep or other such distractions, I spent hours hunched over my laptop plotting how to get a roomful of avatars to bob their heads back and forth. I looked up only long enough to breathlessly blog about the phenomenon.
I was far from alone in my fandom. Soon dubbed “the most exciting social service of the year,” Turntable.fm had everyone from Zuckerberg to Diplo at the decks and was reportedly drawing money from the likes of Lady Gaga and The Roots.
But then, a mere matter of months after being dubbed the next big thing, the wind began to seep from Turntable’s sails. And now, a year or so after most people presumed Turntable dead, this week the axe finally fell on yet another music service.
Why did Turntable fail?
The obvious but incomplete reason is that it’s a major pain in the ass to run a music service that is both legal and profitable. Labels, still persistently pursuing immediate pennies over dollars of the future, insist on licensing deals that make the economics of music services virtually impossible (because, you know, why would the music industry want to incentivize consumers to discover new music?). Having decided to be legal (and global) from the early days, Turntable set a profit hurdle that was nearly certain never to be met.
But the bigger reason for the demise of Turntable and other such services is that it is wickedly difficult to get consumers to lean forward for music.
Interactive music discovery services remain like those foreign documentaries in your Netflix queue: you’re proud to have found them, you have every intention of leaning forward into them someday, but you keep finding yourself slumping into the couch and watching House Hunters.
Likewise, when you put the time into it, Turntable was unquestionably more rewarding than the Pandoras of the world. Trouble is, generally speaking, we don’t end up putting the time into it. Effortless okay almost always wins out over time-consuming awesome. This trade-off of ease for awesome remains the Gordian knot of music services.
It’s hard to substantiate sadness for the end of a service that I had left long ago. But yet here I am, reaching for my wallet to buy the t-shirt that they’re printing to commemorate what was… just like the nostalgic concert t-shirt for a band that you always knew was going to break up.
Ironically, this unfinished demo from J. Cole is the song that I posted when I first wrote about Turntable. As I re-post the track, I do so hoping that Turntable served as an unfinished demo for what music can become: something for which we don’t have to give up awesome for easy. I’ve got high hopes for Ian and my friends at Beats Music as they make their debut next month: if they can crack this dilemma, we’ll all be the better for it.
Cheer Up, J.Cole (unfinished demo)