Only two weeks after launching, Twitter’s new music application has proven rather less revolutionary or successful than the pre-release hype suggested. Ever since the advent of the MP3 (and possibly before), people have looked at the Internet and gone, “Hey! There must be a way of making money out of using this thing to distribute music!” The problem is that while the distribution bit is easy, the making money aspect has proven a whole lot more difficult. So here’s a look at the decline of other dead or doomed music applications that have graced the Internet over the years; some have proven fleeting fads or ideas that just didn’t resonate with enough people, while others, perversely, have been victims of their own success.
It’s interesting how many of the applications and sites on this list are based around the premise of sharing music with friends. You can see why venture capitalists and start-up execs think this is a great idea: everyone loves music, everyone loves social media, and “sharing” is the great post-millennial Internet buzzword. The idea that music and sharing go together like a horse and carriage is such a truism these days, in fact, that it’s rarely questioned. Thing is, though: what if you don’t really care what your friends are sharing? What if you don’t want to follow your favorite artists on Twitter? What if social music isn’t so much a revolution as a solution in search of a problem?
See also: Turntable.fm, the short-lived 2012 phenomenon that revolved around DJing virtual rooms where other members would gather and watch. The idea has “gimmick” written all over it — it’s the sort of idea you try out a few times, enjoy for a bit, and then go back to iTunes — but that didn’t prevent funders from throwing money at it and bloggers gushing about it. The article linked makes interesting reading, actually — the writer says things like, “taking turns playing music with friends is a kind of communication” and “if you’re DJ-ing in a room with co-workers, you may never have realized that you and the guy across the floor both like Afropop.” Does he really think people at work actually do this? That this is the way people listen to music? It seems like a fine example of someone talking themselves into lauding the perceived merits of an idea that’s ultimately a lot more difficult than just playing a record you like (either off your own iTunes or a streaming magic jukebox). Anyway, Spotify apparently offered $40 million to acquire the site in 2011, an offer we’re betting Turntable.fm’s founders wish they’d taken.
Conversely, some sites get canned because they’re too successful. So it went with the much-lamented Muxtape, which allowed users to upload mixtapes of MP3s for other users to download. The idea proved to be a lot more enduringly appealing than DJing in a fake room with a bunch of people you’ve never met; so much so, in fact, that the RIAA sledgehammer duly came down on the site with extreme prejudice. It resurfaced briefly a few months later as a doomed indie distribution platform, but soon disappeared again. These days, visiting its old URL shows only a forlorn cassette tape.
See also Napster, the RIAA’s original bugbear. In his excellent book The Master Switch, Tim Yu makes a compelling argument about the route to information-industry power being “vertical integration” — basically controlling both production and distribution. Napster was the harbinger of doom as far as the industry’s cozy hold over music distribution went, which is why the RIAA did its very best to reduce the site to digital rubble. It did so, of course, but it was very much a case of winning the battle and losing the war.
For all those people on message boards, etc., who like to say things like, “Oh, Apple would never have made a mistake like Apple Maps/the iPhone 5/etc while Steve Jobs was alive,” we give you: Ping.
Yet another lonely stone in the increasingly crowded graveyard of “social music ‘apps.'” This one was basically a Soundcloud-based equivalent to Turntable — it came accompanied by headlines about “fighting listener loneliness” and earnest quotes about “the ‘social listening’ phenomenon.” In the end, though, it served only to demonstrate that the phenomenon was chimera, and today trying to visit its URL gives you a 404 and nothing more.
This wasn’t a terrible idea, even if it was a pretty blatant grab for money-shooting-out-of-computer-hole: combining the aggregative leveling idea that keeps people coming back to Farmville and World of Warcraft with a music discovery algorithm. The resulting site was a sort of cross between Last.fm and a MMORPG, and it attracted a devoted, if small, userbase. Or, at least, it did for a while, because its glory days seem long behind it now. The site’s 2010 redesign didn’t help, mainly because it alienated a significant portion of the site’s user base, which wasn’t exactly massive to begin with.
As Flavorwire reported in 2011, the “shark” in Grooveshark’s name is no idle boast — they don’t pay any of the artists whose tracks they stream, and as a site whose content is all user-uploaded, they owe their continuing existence to a very gray area of DMCA interpretation. In any case, the combination of a clunky interface, lack of mobile options, and an avalanche of lawsuits means that the smart money is on the site not being around for a whole lot longer.
Long before there was Grooveshark, there was imeem. The site worked on a broadly similar model — it allowed users to upload music that others could stream for free — although it did at least take the trouble to secure licenses from all four major labels to ensure such streaming was legal (it was, in fact, the first site to do so). Circa 2008, the company was boasting of being “number one in social music.” Unfortunately, that status didn’t actually involve making any money, especially since the terms of licensing agreements they entered into with the major labels were crushingly onerous. The site soon went into decline, and was eventually bought out by…
The biggest and most elaborate mausoleum of them all: Myspace. Circa 2005, it was the only way for clued-in types to find music, and going down a friends-of-friends-of-friends rabbit hole beginning with a band you liked was one of the great pleasures of the Internet (even if it did involve negotiating some eye-bleeding layout choices). Then Facebook came along and Myspace went into terminal decline. Sure, it relaunched in January with help from Justin Timberlake… but how often do you find yourself combing it for new music?