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Dropping the needle: the life and death of Turntable.fm

Turntable.fm redesign

Tonight at 10PM EST, the virtual DJs at Turntable.fm will be escorted off the stage for the last time. Two and a half years after founders Billy Chasen and Seth Goldstein captivated music fans with their highly interactive approach to internet radio, they are shutting the service down to conserve their remaining venture capital and focus on a spinoff. Fans have used Turntable to create 1 million virtual DJ rooms and play more than 400 million songs — but it hasn’t made for much of a business. "The cost of running a music service has been too expensive," the founders wrote on their blog, "and we can’t outpace it with our efforts to monetize it and cut costs."

Early users included Sir-Mix-ALot, Diplo, and Talib Kweli

On one level, Turntable is just another dead music service. Unlike some of its peers, Turntable quickly licensed the music it plays, a process that proved difficult and expensive. But Turntable also illustrates how fickle consumers of web services can be. Sometimes apps that strike the world as goofy novelties go on to become big, public companies. Most of the time, they don’t.

For a time, Turntable looked like it might one day stand shoulder to shoulder with Pandora and Spotify. The New York Times, in an enthusiastic overview a month after it emerged, likened it to earlier hit music services like Napster and Limewire. Turntable hadn’t said how many users it had, but the company succeeded in creating a buzz among early adopters. Among those showing up to DJ in those early days were Sir Mix-A-Lot, Diplo, Talib Kweli, and Mark Zuckerberg. "Those who have watched Turntable.fm over the last few weeks say that for now, the service is enjoying something of a golden moment," the Times wrote.

Turntable represented a second chance for the founders, having risen from the ashes of their failed QR code company. And for a while, it appeared to be the rare pivot that succeeded. Inside its virtual club, friends could gather together to show off their favorite songs. DJs could upload original tracks to try out new material. And more casual listeners could explore new genres in an environment that was heavy on interaction. A chat window let you discuss songs with others in the room, and if you chose to DJ yourself, your fans could reward you with points you could use to buy new avatars. At the height of its popularity, Turntable raised $7.5 million.

At loggerheads over what to do next

It wasn’t long, though, before the virtual club began to empty. Early on, the company decided to invest significant resources into expanding internationally, but licensing issues proved time-consuming and expensive. More pressingly, the product proved to be the kind of thing that many people tried exactly once. "The product itself, while novel and fun, had a hard time retaining users no matter what product improvements we made," Chasen tells The Verge.

In April 2012, less than a year after the launch, traffic had fallen to less than half its peak level. Chasen and Goldstein were openly at loggerheads over what to do next — but the next steps were not obvious. Unlike most services, Turntable demanded the user’s constant attention. DJs had to select new tracks, fans had to give songs a thumbs up or thumbs down, and the chat window was full of distracting conversation. You could just leave it open in a tab in the background, but that eliminated everything unique about the service.

Then there was the fact that Turntable was best experienced on a desktop computer at a time when the rest of the world was going mobile. Most music is listened to by people on the go, confining Turntable to a small niche of users willing and able to use it while working. (Pandora and Spotify, by contrast, invested early and heavily in mobile development.) Turntable released an iOS app in the fall of 2011, and an Android app the following spring, but struggled to translate its highly interactive listening service to a device people want to shove in their pocket and forget about. "We built the mobile products out of necessity," Chasen says. "People constantly asked for them. While it was a harder experience to use on mobile, we still had a big percentage of people talking and DJing from their phones."

By the time the company came out with a "lean-back" mobile app, it was the spring of 2013. Piki, as the app was called, created Pandora-like radio stations out of your friends’ musical tastes. It flopped.

Betting it all on Turntable Live

The company will now bet its fortunes on Turntable Live, which takes the experience of live music and tries to cram it into a glorified Google+ Hangout. Fans back concerts they want to see until a Kickstarter-like tipping point is reached, at which point the artist schedules an internet show for everyone who bought a ticket. And perhaps it will succeed — Chasen and Goldstein have surprised the world before. But it has been a long time since momentum was on Turntable’s side — and if it hadn’t been for its big summer of 2011, the company likely would have closed down long ago.

Join The Verge for one final Turntable party tonight at 6 PM ET.

The Verge
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