The creators of social music listening platform Turntable.fm announced yesterday at their SXSW presentation that the service had finally secured legitimate licensing deals with all four major labels (Universal, Sony, EMI, and Warner). Called "Turntable.fm: The Future of Music is Social," the panel found creators Billy Chasen and Seth Goldstein discussing the site's future as a promotional vehicle — one, hopefully, without traditional ad space, according to Billboard's report. Instead, branding will play a big role (expect to see a few Pepsi and Intel-branded DJ rooms and battles), and labels will use the site to leverage new music with virtual prizes and more.
But what does this actually mean for the service that you probably discovered back in July, used voraciously for a few weeks, then sort of got bored with? We've broken down a few elements of the new status of Turntable.fm:
1. Legality is boring:
The questionable legality of the original site created huge buzz when it launched last spring (for more on the legality question, All Things D has a good explanation). Now that it's fully on the up-and-up, the Wild West mystique that helped drive its traffic to its highest volume back in July (well over 200,000 unique visitors that month) has been peeled away entirely. Napster was pretty much toast after it went legal, but considering how insanely well the totally legal Spotify does, legality might not have an effect on how many people use the site, right?
2. If a site legalizes in the woods and there's no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?:
Sure, Turntable.fm started legalizing itself way back in July when it signed deals with performance rights organizations ASCAP and BMI, so it's not like this major label deal is a complete 180 from its recent modus operandi. But as Digital Music News points out in its handy Turntable.fm Unique Visitors graph, the time at which it started legalizing was exactly the same time when the site started losing visitors. From July 2011 to August 2011, unique online visitors dropped from 207,000 to under 100,000. At the SXSW panel, its creators assured attendees that the Turntable.fm user base had started growing again recently. The announcement of the deals has been everywhere since the story broke, but only time will tell if that will boost users.
3. The stakes have been raised significantly:
As DMN also points out, when startups like Turntable.fm, which are funded by venture capitalists enter licensing deals like this, they're often forced to give ownership shares to each label with whom they make a deal. This means that the startup's success or failure matters a whole lot more than when it was just Goldstein and Chasen and their VCs (who forked over a whopping $7.5 million, making Turntable worth about $37.5 million last August — the same month its audience dropped by half). This means that the site is about to enter a do-or-die period: If their proposed strategies doesn't work, it's either "Bye bye, Turntable.fm," or "Hello, abominable amounts of ads" (which eventually translates into "Bye bye, Turntable.fm" anyway, since no one likes visiting spammy sites).
4. Major label artists will start using the site more to premiere music:
The aforementioned proposed strategies, Goldstein and Chasen said at the panel, will involve a lot of artist-and-label promotion. For example, Wale used Turntable.fm as a tool last fall while on tour to promote his latest album, Ambition, making the site his "opening act" and allowing fans at the venues and at home to DJ and participate in the show. Now that all four major labels are on board, fans can bet on this kind of thing happening more often; Billboard reports that the folks at Universal, for example, may create "virtual goods as rewards" for participation in artists' Turntable events.
5. The jury is still out on your favorite indie acts: No mention has been made so far of how the platform, which its creators touted repeatedly at their panel yesterday as a new, non-traditional promotional platform for artists and labels, will benefit artists whose music hasn't been licensed — i.e., those not on major labels. But considering how independent artists have generally always figured out ways to use free music to their advantage better than majors have, there's very little evidence they won't do the same with this platform.