Is-It-Time-for-a-Turntable

Bring Back Turntable.fm

Turntable.fm saw the future of the internet, but didn't survive to see it. The nostalgia for it hints at what could be a new normal—or just a passing fad.
May 7, 2020, 4:07pm

Since the pandemic forced bars and music venues into indefinite closure in March, scaling physical communities down to household size, the nightlife industry has been scrambling to keep the party going online. KaterBlau and about 40 other Berlin clubs have joined together for nightly DJ streaming. The FADER transformed its annual FADER Fort into a 9-hour digital broadcast; Ridgewood, Queens’ expansive nightlife space Nowadays has moved all of its DJ sets and educational programming online; and a network of friends and local musicians from Toronto have created a globally popular queer Zoom party.

But at the start of this apparent streaming surge earlier this Spring, flickers of a return to the early 2010s appeared—and not just in the return of a global financial crisis. Scores of people suddenly longed to cram into a room packed with friends and strangers to bob their animated teddy-bear heads together to a cooperative playlist of surprises and favorite tracks—all without leaving their homes. The people once again wanted Turntable.fm.

"My whole company has started working from home. I really wish turntable.fm was still a thing for us to enjoy as a remote workforce," wrote one production designer at Square.

"We need turntable.fm to return in these trying times," the reissue label Light in the Attic posted. "I am prepared for my virtual ambient dj set."

It seems almost quaint now, but to web-savvy music-lovers and the extremely online, Turntable.fm was the most exciting development of summer 2011 this side of WU LYF. Turntable was a website that let users hang out and DJ in virtual rooms, chatting as they took turns selecting music and listening to others’ choices. After racing to 360,000 users in its first three months, it vanished almost as quickly as it appeared, in what fans lamented as the end of a whirlwind chapter in online listening and what seemed like a sign that humans ultimately favored real-life social interaction around music to interacting online.

As quarantine drags on with no clear end-date, the nostalgia for Turntable.fm may hint at what could be a new normal. Still, the story of the site's rise and fall could be read as a cautionary tale about the longevity of these virtual nightlife alternatives, especially once the novelty wears off and we're able to congregate in public again.

For a brief period, though, the novelty of Turntable was part of the appeal. Room members, represented onscreen by cartoon avatars, might consist of a few real-life friends, Tumblr acquaintances, thousands of complete strangers, or even cyber-friendly celebrities like Diplo, Neil Gaimon, and Sir-Mix-a-Lot. Even an antediluvian Mark Zuckerberg popped into the "Coding Soundtrack" room at one point. Chatboxes buzzed with ebullient discussion sprouting from the music playing and pure online energy.

Room members could thumbs up and down picks, and a moderator might boot a DJ from the decks for playing too many duds or RickRolling the crowd. Prefiguring the streaming ecosystem to come, gatherings were often tailored to genre, situation, or vibe; popular rooms documented by The New York Times one July afternoon included "Indie While You Work" and "Endless Bar Mitzvah."

The site rapidly generated excitement among the hyper-plugged in, quickly raising $7 million in funding and earning a $37 million valuation. Ashton Kutcher, Jimmy Fallon, and the managers for Lady Gaga and Madonna came aboard as enthusiastic financial backers. One indie label was reportedly using a Turntable room to audition unsigned bands.

"People love sharing music with friends and seeing their reaction to new songs," Turntable co-founder Billy Chasen said. "They also love going to concerts and meeting people. Turntable simply brought both of those concepts online for the first time."

The site developed an especially fervent following among independent music makers and aficionados. In 2011, Adam Downey, co-founder of the avant-garde label Northern Spy Records, was feeling nostalgic for the road trips he'd taken with college buddies in the early 00s. For long stretches on the highway, they’d "load up the iPod with the maximum 50 gigs of music, then pass it around in the car, and everyone would add a song [to the playlist]," he remembers, with a nostalgic twinkle in his voice. "You’d try to react to the song before you, and that was always so fun."

Like a musical madeleine, Turntable brought those memories back into the present for him: The site became a hub for passionate listeners with unusual taste, including people he know from the then-thriving experimental music blogosphere (Think: sites like Blastitude and Mutant Sounds)—all reacting to each others’ far-out picks in real-time. "It was like music Twitter, but it felt almost like a party," Downey said. "You’d play a Kevin Ayers track, and then all of a sudden, you're having a dialogue about records to check out. There's nothing better than listening to music with other people that are engaged in active listening."

For other fans, Turntable offered a way to cope with isolation. In the summer of 2011, Maya Kosoff, who now works as a writer and editor, was bored. Like many college students summering in parental homes, she was temporarily dislocated from her community of friends—and at only 19, she couldn't go out to bars to entertain herself.

She was, as she puts it, "a little bit of a power Tumblr user" at the time, and one of her internet friends invited her to come hang out in a Turntable room. For the next few months, three or four nights of the week, she and a cadre of Tumblr friends would occupy a Turntable room for several hours until early in the morning. They’d spin "chill, low key, 'we're gonna pass out in an hour' bedtime music," like Margot & the Nuclear So and So's, and bond over shared interests.

"And then, all of a sudden, it went away," said Kosoff. "I went back to school and had a normal social life again and didn't really miss it that much," Until recently, that is.

Kosoff’s story of brief obsession, followed by rapid abandonment, is a common one among former Turntable users. For one, the platform required constant, active attention—selecting tracks, chatting, rating others' picks—a mode of engagement that was out of step with the rising popularity of passive streaming services. "Listening to music in Turntable.fm was like playing a game," John Herrman wrote at the time. "Actually, Turntable was a game: it had points, avatars, ranks, and its own chat system. It demanded all of your attention, all the time, just like a game. It was fun, just like a game. And, like most games, eventually it's not."

Despite the company’s best efforts, it also failed to successfully transition its user base to its mobile app, even as smartphones became ubiquitous. After a blazing summer of hype and exponential growth, college kids returned to their campus friends, and the novelty of a site that allowed people to congregate and listen to music together had online worn off. By the fall, traffic was already down to half its peak summer levels.

Unlike many startups, the site also made a point of properly licensing its music, which required legal and engineering infrastructure that was expensive for a young company with a user base around the size of the population of New Orleans. Further, initial deals with U.S. record labels forced the site to remain stateside.

"The actual major hit was closing international traffic and needing to lock down to the U.S. after securing our label deals," said Chasen. "We then spent the next couple years trying to get the deals needed to open internationally. It was a move that was ultimately costly both in time and money."

By 2012, the site had been largely abandoned; and on December 2, 2013, about a month before the company shut down, Turntable’s rooms played their final songs. Inside the official Turntable Last Day Party room, melodramatic synths sent users off with a "Final Countdown."

Soon, Turntable was just another piece of Obama-era ephemera, like Four Loko or Chillwave. But even in death, its imprint remained. "It's one of those online things, like Google Reader or Vine, that dies and then leaves a long legacy," said Bijan Stephen, a livestreaming reporter for The Verge who spent the summer of 2011 attempting to convince friends to join him on Turntable. "It was influential for a very small but powerful sector of the Twittersphere—music critics, bloggers, people who are in a music ecosystem."

Since shelter-in-place orders were instituted, calls for the return of Turntable have proliferated. "It took me a few minutes to remember its name... but thinking how awesome it would be right now if turntable.fm still existed," wrote techdirt editor Mike Masnick. "There were those few months when everyone was using it—and it would be a fun way for people to gather while social distancing. Chasen himself said he has been flooded with "a ton of requests lately to bring it back. "I wish I could," he told VICE, "but without funding and licensing deals, it's impossible to do."

Nonetheless, thanks to a handful of similar platforms, those of us craving social listening during quarantine no longer need Turntable to scratch that itch. Plug.dj, which first appeared in the immediate wake of the Turntable heydey, then resurfaced in 2016 after a posthumous sale, integrates most of its playback through YouTube—adding a jittery vaporwave flavor to the ripoff Turntable cartoons. Then there’s AuxParty and JQBX.fm ('jukebox"), which are both Synced through Spotify; the latter, which launched in 2017, has most of Turntable’s functionality, if none of the visual frills. Even Spotify itself was apparently working on a "social listening" function last year, though it never debuted publicly.

Lately, these platforms seem to be experiencing a quarantine boost. Due to an uptick in traffic, JQBX and plug.dj have reported experiencing issues with the amount of data they are able to request from Spotify and YouTube respectively. And if you’re looking for a social listening experience, there are countless quaran-streams from professional musicians and DJs to choose from, on platforms ranging from Instagram Live to Twitch. In a telling echo of the Turntable days, Mark Zuckerberg reportedly dropped into DJ D-Nice’s Club Quarantine IG stream this March—"like a club owner swinging by to check out the revenues before heading home for the night," the New Yorker observed.

Downey, for his part, has been on JQBX so long that he has a special badge for being an "OG" user. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that anyone else he knew seemed interested in joining him. Staff at the Northern Spy office typically listen to music throughout the day, so when COVID took them fully remote, he immediately turned to JQBX to fill the void. After he posted the room’s link on Twitter, friends, acquaintances, and strangers began to flow in, contributing their own genre-fluid picks.

When Stephen heard that one of his Twitch followers had had their prom canceled because of the coronavirus, he rallied his viewers together to throw a virtual prom for the deprived high-schooler on platform—and used JQBX to provide the playlist. Kosoff has also been running the occasional JQBX room, where fans chat about seeing Mitski in concert over a backdrop of Waxahatchee and Built to Spill songs. During one such meet-up, one of her friends invited an old Turntable.fm buddy to the JQBX room—and people exchanged Twitter handles before departing.

"It brought me back to the way that things felt in 2011, like, 'Oh, this is what community-building online is like,’" she said. "Like, these are my people and we all like this thing, but I don't really know anything about them beyond a screenname." (Unlike in 2011, though, Kosoff considered the possibility that trolls might invade her room.)

Turntable was part of an older, more tribal internet that mostly went the way of blogs as social media rose to dominance. Even before quarantine, though, there were signs that people were craving a return to a more intimate kind of social-networking—as evidenced by the rise of Discord and similar apps, and indie-rock-themed Facebook shitposting groups. "Communities can only really form now in private," Stephen said. "It's harder to coalesce as a group in public. "[Privacy] just makes it feel less performative. You’re not out here farmin’ for likes and RTs."

Now that offline gatherings are temporarily off the table, many physical communities have sought to relocate their connections online. Nowadays, the Ridgewood, Queens nightclub, is usually somewhat technophobic for an electronic music hub; phones, for example, are banned from the dancefloor. But according to co-founder Justin Carter, pivoting to a regular calendar of livestreamed DJ sets and workshops has enabled the community around the venue to remain dynamically linked. "Technology often stands in the way of connection, and it's not the same," Carter said. "But I will be the first to express my gratitude for the ability to connect via technology during this time—to see some of the familiar faces of Nowadays, even if it’s just their screen name."

Whether online social listening will have staying power beyond the quarantine remains to be seen. Stephen predicts some of our new listening habits will endure. "Everybody who's using these services will have been changed by this period of time," he said. "We're at the beginning of this thing that has already rearranged the world."

But Kosoff said she doesn’t expect to use JQBX post-quarantine, and Downing admits that unless the site gets considerably less buggy, he’s unlikely to keep with it once back in his office. After all, the joys of sharing music are deeply tied to physicality—dancing, head nods in rhythm, a shared glance with a friend when a favorite song comes on. Experiencing music online can feel like drinking Soylent for dinner; something essential is missing. Even Chasen thinks that Turntable would likely remain a niche service if it were still around.

But who knows? Prognosticators be damned—when history takes a dramatic turn, even the most hare-brained innovations can quickly become ubiquitous. Maybe Turntable was just a decade ahead of schedule. Before it went entirely out of business, it even attempted a pivot that seemed ridiculous at the time: ticketed live-streams of musical performances.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.