Tag Archives: J. Cole

The Demise of Turntable.fm and the Difficulty of Leaning Forward

Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 1.08.15 PMI 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)

Don’t Bonk: A Playlist

chicago-lakefront-path-running

On the brink of a birthday, I’ve resolved to run more. Not more frequently, but longer. Since my daughter was born, I’ve become all too accustomed to runs more apt to be measured in blocks than miles. 15 months in, it’s time to shelve the excuses and stretch it out in search of endorphins.

If recent past is any prologue, I’m going to need some help.

Unceremoniously entitled “Don’t Bonk,” this playlist is meant to get me going. Its running time clocks in at an optimistic hour and a half, and it spans a wide range of genres in search of an extra gear.

http://we.tl/1A5u9omTj7

1. Avicii, “Wake Me Up”– Fair warning: this mix isn’t above the somewhat cheesy use of situation-specific lyrics. But if you’ve just hauled yourself out of bed early, you’re not above someone encouraging you to wake up.

2. Kanye West, “Power” (Swizz Beatz remix)– You’re now awake enough to be registering the inevitable inconvenience of the first mile. A little swagger will help.

3. Lil’ Wayne, “6 Foot 7 Foot”– Let’s double up on that dose of swagger.

4. Diplo & GTA, “Boy Oh Boy”– Putting some topspin on a beat from Missy and Tim, we’re looking to find a bit of a groove here.

5. TVOTR, “Will Do” (XXXChange Dancehall Mix)– If I’m going to see the second half of this playlist, I’m going to have to settle the pace a bit.

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Hit Singles: Archaic or Essential?

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“Where’s the hits, you ain’t got none.                                                                                     You know Jay will never put your album without none.                                               And dog, you know how come?                                                                                           Labels are formulaic, archaic with their outcome.                                                         They don’t know, they just study the charts.                                                                      Me, I study the shows, the fans, study their hearts.”                                                               – “from “Let Nas Down” off Cole’s forthcoming second release

Conventional wisdom would have doomed J. Cole’s debut before it even dropped.  Cole’s “first single “Who Dat?” (2010) fizzled, peaking at No. 32 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.  Follow-up “Work Out,” released the following summer in the lead-up to his debut album’s fall release, didn’t fare much better at first, languishing at No. 98 on the Billboard Hot 100 when the album arrived Sept. 27, 2011.  So, when “Cole World” bowed at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, with 217,000 first-week copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, industry prognosticators were shocked — as was Cole himself.” (for more, read the Billboard cover article)

In the industry, Cole was a contradiction: a #1 album without a hit single.  For over two years now, I’ve been documenting how Cole and others have been upturning the traditional marketing machinery of the record industry.  In a world of mixtape marketing, many were saying that the importance of the incendiary hit single had been eclipsed by the steady burn of content and touring.

On the other hand, for all of Gotye’s ubiquity, I defy you to find someone who can name a second song of his.  Psy?  Baauer?  The pop landscape is as littered as ever with one-hit wonders and silly dances.

Amidst this, the music industry and the artists within it are awkwardly trying to tend to two masters.  Even J. Cole, standard bearer for the new model, is balancing both in his forthcoming sophomore release.

With tracks like “Let Nas Down” and the screed that led off this post, Cole plays the game by his rules to wonderful effect.

But then, Cole teams with TLC (yes, same one) to trudge through a track that feels like a homework assignment from the office of demographic targeting.

Some study the charts, some study the fans, most try to do both.  We’ll see how this plays out when Born Sinner arrives on the 18th.

Aside

Well before Drake and the Frank Oceans of the world made it common practice, J. Cole upturned the music industry marketing machine.  His mixtapes made him famous before he was promoted; his commercial appeal ascendant before you could even purchase … Continue reading

The Best and Brightest of 2011: Day Seven

Many of today’s top rappers face a peculiar and quite recent dilemma.  When you rocket to fame by way of free mixtapes, how do you top yourself once you start actually trying to charge people for your music?

As the word cloud of this site will attest, there have been few artists of late that I have followed as closely as I have J. Cole.  With his mixtape The Warm Up, Cole gave me hope that perhaps writing had finally returned to rap.  And I was far from alone.  One the merits of one song alone, he was signed to Jay-Z’s label and superstardom seemed not only certain but imminent.

And then, we waited.  And waited some more.  18 months of eternity after his breakthrough mixtape, J. Cole finally released his first commercial album and the resulting product was… well, commercial.  All of the studio support and star cameos were mustered to chase the obvious archetypes of “successful” songs, and my favorite few songs were those carried over directly from the mixtape.  And the new song that I thought held the greatest promise wasn’t even included– but I have it here to share with you in an unfinished form: promise of what can be from this artist.

Cheer Up, J. Cole

With his first official album already behind him, the expectations for Drake’s second were Throne-like.  And, for different reasons, I was equally disappointed by his album as well.  However, this track with Rihanna stands out not only as the best on the album but as one of the best of any album of this past year.

Take Care (feat. Rihanna), Drake

As he presumably prepares for his first commercial album, Frank Ocean will face the same test.  With the full support of the music industry machine, will he be able to better the album that he released in defiance of this same industry?  I guess we’ll find out soon enough, but in the interim here is yet another captivating new track from him to start off the new year.

Tears, Frank Ocean

Waiting for Cole, not Godot

J. Cole has been on the rise for so long that you had to start to wonder if the climb would become a true take off.  I’ve written post after post about how he is re-writing the playbook on music marketing by becoming the hottest thing out there before he’s ever even released something you could buy other than a concert ticket (see also: Frank Ocean).  But, with year after year passing without the arrival of an actual album, you had to wonder whether he is re-writing the playbook or if he just didn’t read it.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for take off.  Here comes the second song that is single-worthy (listen to the as yet unfinished but still-infectious first here).  With a luxury rap lyrical vibe reminiscent of Watch the Throne, Cole storms the stage with an explosive verse from his boss leading the way.

Fire.

Cole world, out at last on September 27.

Mr._Nice_Watch_Clean, J. Cole

The People-Powered Pandora

In case you don’t see me for the next several months, know that it’s because I’ve discovered Angry Birds for music lovers.

With merely a month under its belt, Turntable.fm is already being billed as “the most exciting social service of the year.”  Although it wasn’t announced to anyone, and it’s still in semi-closed beta mode, Turntable got 140,000 users in the first month.

Much like other exciting social services, the premise is “why-didn’t-someone-think-of-that-yet?” simple: you play music together.  The appeal lies in what has been dubbed “social listening”: it takes competition, reward points, socializing, and music discovery and mixes it all together to create a people-powered Pandora.

And here’s a new song that has been well-received in the Turntable rooms… though it’s not yet finished, it looks to be the makings of J. Cole’s first radio hit off of his upcoming album.

Cheer Up, J. Cole