Making digital music social | Music Column | Chicago Reader

Making digital music social 

Spotify and try to turn the cloud into a listening lounge

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The experience is what developers like to call "sticky"—using it is intuitive and potentially addictive. It's already inspired real-life parties designed to emulate a room, including a couple called Turntable.irl at Beauty Bar this summer. The service's user base is still tiny compared to, say, the tens of millions says it's attracted, but the simple sociability of it could easily trigger a Twitter-size explosion in popularity among casual users.

In even bigger news for social listening, two weeks ago Facebook ended years of speculation by finally unveiling its plan to more thoroughly embed music into its user experience. Instead of making a head-on run at the iTunes Store, the plan simply provides integration with existing music platforms such as Rdio, Rhapsody, and MOG. Facebook seems willing to let competition among them define which music experience will become the de facto standard, and the smart money is on Spotify. In the months since Spotify debuted in the U.S. this summer (it's already popular in Europe), it's accumulated more than a million and a half users, some paid, some using hobbled free accounts.

Spotify is one of the few competitors to iTunes that looks able to replace it, at least for the nongeek. Its stand-alone application works almost exactly like iTunes, but augments the music on a user's hard drive with a massive streamable catalog, and both are searchable through one text box. It's dead easy to use, and the mobile versions work similarly, providing access to the same music.

The platform debuted here with Facebook and Twitter already baked in—right in the app's main window you can post songs you play to Twitter, look up your Facebook friends' favorite artists, and so on. The Facebook-Spotify overhaul two weeks ago deepens the link: now the only way to use Spotify is via Facebook (preexisting Spotify users are excepted), and if you agree to the new terms of service without adjusting the settings on your Spotify and Facebook accounts, you give them broad permission to exchange data.

The upside to this symbiosis is that Spotify listens can appear in your Facebook news feed—the same one that lets you know when your friends have uploaded a photo or linked to an article. This can add up to a flood of music, and with just one click you can hear to the whole album the track is from; another click opens up a back-and-forth with the original listener and other Facebookers. Spotify's large and growing user base and the intuitiveness of its Facebook integration—you have to wonder why things haven't always been this easy—make it a shoo-in to dominate Facebook's music initiative.

Plenty of people are irked that Spotify will automatically post updates on what you're listening to straight into the list of your activities on your Facebook profile page, but Spotify is already rolling out a new version of its app with a "private listening" mode that disables this feature. (It's also relatively simple to disconnect your Spotify account from Facebook.) And good thing, too—social listening may be a net positive in aggregate, but not everybody wants his friends to know about his late-night Tegan and Sara binges, or for a potential employer to see that the last song he listened to was DJ Assault's "Panties on the Ground."

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