Best things of 2011: Turntable
As the year winds down, I thought I'd end it on a note of cheer, by blogging about a couple of my favorite things. I got the idea from our latest episode of "Opinionated", where Samhita and I listed some of our favorite things about 2011, both in entertainment and just overall. One of the new developments that caused a lovefest was, of course, Turntable.fm, which has its hooks in both myself and Samhita. Samhita has a short post at GOOD on Turntable that explains how the genre rooms tend to replicate the off-line fandoms that support them.
In the simulated club environment of Turntable, you get to be the DJ, along with four others. When people like your music, they press “awesome” and their avatar heads bop back and forth. It is gratifying—virtual reality at it’s best. Listeners can also hit “lame” if they don’t like it, which quickly reinforces the often stubborn borders of musical genre.
Spend a few hours on Turntable and one thing becomes clear: Musical tastes are fickle and nuanced, so diverse that a computer can’t replicate or auto-generate them no matter how many preferences you put in. Pandora based its algorithm on input from real people (as opposed to the iTunes “Genius” function, which culls data from the store—an indicator of what people are buying, not what they're listening to), but the method still fails to capture the marginal differences in music. And it's the differences that are most important to those with refined musical sensibilities.
I've found it replicates the off-line music nerding world in many other ways, too, which I'm sure Samhita has seen and just didn't have space to discuss. She prefers hanging out in genre rooms, whereas I have a tendency to run with a specific group of people who have somewhat varying tastes, go into "anything goes" rooms, or go into rooms that have wider genre boundaries that don't lend themselves to people diving for the lame button on the grounds that this isn't in-genre. This has advantages and disadvantages, compared to the genre rooms. There's a general expectation that your selection should flow naturally from the one before it, which can often take more guesswork than trying to decide if something's in-genre, though it's not as hard as it sounds for those of us who spent our adolescence and eary adulthood making one mix tape after another. More importantly, you have to play something "good". That is a subjective measure, to say the least. Naturally, I'm full of self-confidence when it comes to my own taste, so if I play something that's maybe a tad avant garde and it gets rejected by people, you can guess where my feelings lay on the subject of whether or not the song or the people judging it fell on the right side of the taste line on this. But, like in real life, you don't want to be an obnoxious fuck, so you quickly learn who is more open to the weird shit and who isn't, and adjust accordingly. People have this image of music snobs as aggressive and uncompromising, but in reality, you'll find that it's all about having a good time, and few are going to just try to shove the most erratic choices on people who aren't in the mood to hear that. No, they wait until you leave the room and only fellow travelers are with them—this is replicated on Turntable.
What Turntable gives you that real life can't is two major things, I've discovered. One, you can have the experience of sitting around playing records with people any time you want. Real life just doesn't have that. Second of all, it allows you to drop in on people spinning records without having to participate at all. I use that function to get exposure to new music, by dropping into genre rooms, like the hip-hop room or the indie rock room. In other words, you can choose your own adventure. Is it going to be a sitting-around-playing-records-with-friends experience, or a DJ-ing-for-a-large-group experience or a going-to-a-club-to-listen-to-other-DJs-while-you-drink-a-beer experience? Your choice.
I'm a big fan of the impact that the internet has on being a music fan. In the past, you either had to accept what was on the charts, or do a lot of work in researching to find cool, underground stuff. Now, you can have basically whatever you want with much less work. Instead of going to the record store and listening to records—a time-consuming task—you can go to MP3 blogs and listen to samples before buying, without leaving your house. For people who like music but don't live in areas that have easy access to record stores, the internet is a godsend, and you really see the impact of it when you're chatting with people on Turntable. But the one thing that all this does is removes the communal experience from music. Playing cool new stuff for friends, exchanging mixtapes, spitballing with people? More than anything, Turntable has filled in that gap, allowing people to go into these spaces and play music for each other while bullshitting about what they like. Like Samhita said, there's no computer program smart enough to replicate that for you, and I doubt there ever will be.
What would you put on your "best things of the year" list?