By now everyone in the tech world knows the story of Turntable.fm. It started as a novelty idea involving stickers called StickyBits. Then it pivoted to Turntable, another novelty, which sent the tech blog hype machine into overdrive. The company raised $7.5 million at a $37.5 million valuation, turned down an even higher offer from Spotify, and set out to dominate the place where social media and music listening intersect.
But, as VCs like to tell their hottest portfolio companies: Beware the two-sided hype cycle — the higher you fly, the further you’re going to fall on the other side.
Turntable has now crossed over to the other side. Not long after the site was all the rage among bloggers and bored desk workers, the company’s virtual DJ rooms were knocked for being too engaging — using Turntable simply requires too much attention. One can’t just passively listen to music in the background on it.
Six months in, the site’s users had fallen off a cliff and stayed down. I argued that it was time for another Turntable pivot. Not long after, the company began doing that, in a way, as outlined in an Inc. profile on the tension between the Turntable’s founders Seth Goldstein and Billy Chasen.
Chasen says that story didn’t really paint the full picture of his relationship with Goldstein, who is still the Chairman of Turntable but in September stepped back to launch his own VC-backed music startup focused on electronic dance music called DJZ. The two have a good relationship, Chasen says. “I’ve been working with Seth for years and will continue to work with him in the coming years,” he says. “But saying that isn’t as compelling a story.”
Still, while Goldstein powers ahead with his new venture, Chasen continues work on Turntable and its latest pivot, which goes live today: a music discovery app called Piki.
The app launched in beta in January. In that time, Chasen and his team of 22 have been iterating on ways to make music discovery and listening more social, without asking too much of its users. The result is an app that I enjoyed playing around with. When you sign up, you “pik” a few songs that represent your taste in music, and then recommendations from friends and contacts are served to you in a radio-like format. With the exception of one major misstep (My Chemical Romance?!!?), all of my recommendations were a solid mix of bands I like and bands I’m discovering. Whether that is compelling enough to pull users from their existing music apps is another question.
Chasen’s argument against that dig is twofold: For one, the current buffet of music services out there don’t get social right, he says. They don’t allow users to interact with and have discussions around the music. Turntable taught him that people want these kinds of interactions, and he built them into Piki. Further, he learned that human-powered music discovery is more valuable than anything an algorithm can recommend. (Songza learned that lesson before it gained any traction, too.)
And two: music consumption is not a winner-take-all game. I’ll give him that. Our music consumption habits are becoming increasingly fragmented, similar to the way our communication habits are. Email didn’t kill the telephone. IM didn’t kill email, and Facebook messaging won’t kill texting. We simply use more tools to communicate with each other. Likewise, Spotify won’t kill Pandora, and Pandora won’t kill traditional radio. Users increasingly split their time between the buffet of listening options, including Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, iHeartRadio, Songza, MOG, Rdio, Slacker, Jelli, Deezer, Thefuture.fm, Hype Machine, Just Hear It, Radionomy, This Is My Jam, Hulkshare, Soundtracker, and eventually Apple’s iRadio and whatever streaming service Google/YouTube is cooking up. A recent Targetspot study showed that 64 percent of Internet radio listeners change the service they’re using once a day or more.
The issue here is that each new service is fighting for a smaller sliver of the same pie. Daniel Ek of Spotify believes he’s fixing that problem, too, noting at SXSW that with Spotify, people listen to more music than they did before, so he’s increasing the size of the overall pie. But this still leaves Chasen and team Piki in a very crowded place.
They continue working on Turntable, too. The site has around 100,000 monthly users, which is nearly double what it had at this time last year, but nowhere near its peak amid the early hype. Part of that is because the site had to shut down its presence outside of the US due to licensing issues. Turntable is working on turning international back on, Chasen says, because having people from across the world listening to music together was part of the beauty of the service.
But why not just abandon Turntable altogether? Why try to build two separate, loosely related products?
“The hype cycle is not a cause for abandoning something,” Chasen says. It is natural for a bunch of users to check out a service amid a flurry of media fawning and then abandon it. What matters is whether some users stick around, and whether that user base grows. And they have, and it has. The company’s decision to abandon StickyBits, on the other hand, was obvious. No one was using it, Chasen said. “We built it and we didn’t even use it.”
So Turntable lives on, as Piki tries to capture some of its social music magic without overwhelming users. Hype cycle be damned.
[Image courtesy euthman]