The .FM Boom: Most Will Fail. Some Will Survive. Which Ones Are Worth Your Attention?

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You can't crank up the Internet these days without being invited to a dozen music websites in Alpha, Beta or stealth mode. Well, some of us can't. Who are all these startups? Who's paying for their coffee? Will I go to jail if I use their product to pack my iPod? Perhaps most importantly, how readily can I leverage my esoteric playlist into swagalicious cyber-stardom that rivals the musicians' whose every move I follow on my mobile device? Clearly, it's not an exchange entered into lightly, particularly when subscription fees are involved. Wait, pay for music, what?

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Clearly, music is still a volatile Internet business. Yet, the buzz continues in them thar (Silicon Valley) hills. Crowd-source, micro-funding service Kickstarter recently announced that music was its most successful category. Handmade- crafts community Etsy has been gaining popularity with musicians as a way to market their music with unique packaging. Amazon and Google rushed their cloud storage services online without deals with record labels. Despite the licensing headaches, music is still one of the hottest properties online—after cats and porn.

Among the buzziest sectors in online music are “.fm domains.” Originally created for the Federation States of Micronesia, the .fm domain hack has become a status symbol among music startups. Compact and retro hip, the .fm domain instantly conveys its intentions, which range from sharing and discovery to promotion. Last.fm, launched in 2002, has lost some of its appeal over the years, but its genre-filtering technology forms the basis of newer affinity-driven services, like blog scanner/toolbar player Shuffler.fm. Blip.fm, one of the first Twitter-like music sharing services, got off to a hot start but cooled off just as quickly. Apple jumped on the .fm wagon with Ping.fm, its iTunes-integrated social network. And on and on. Most will fail. Some will survive. A handful will become embedded in our day-to-day. So which ones are worth your attention? Magnetic has checked out three of the more innovative twists on the social music hustle.

Turntable.fm

Over the last few months, no .fm has garnered more attention and press than turntable.fm. Early adopters in the tech world and music blogosphere have made the hybrid-curated radio/game impossible to ignore or resist. What makes turntable addictive and viral is that it presently requires an invitation from a Facebook friend. By "restricting" access, turntable has stoked everyone's curiosity and whipped up a frenzy of demand. Using a simple chat room model, Turntable.fm allows you to search or upload a track and queue it up for the room. The other users in the room are free to play along provided one of the five decks is available, or just rate the track however they like. Points are awarded for sharing popular music, and can be used to upgrade your generic avatar. There are also links to .Lastfm, iTunes and social networks to allow for buying and sharing. Largely populated by writers, bloggers and social media types, it has attracted musicians as well. Former M.I.A. producer Diplo recently used the service to preview a few tracks, only to be greeted with a backlash of criticism from highly opinionated hipsters. Despite this degree of obvious interaction, Turntable.fm is presently operating under a streaming service business model similar to Pandora's, avoiding the perils of a sharing or download service. Recently, they announced deals with publishing services like ASCAP, so its future may be more stable than previously thought. If Turntable.fm can scale its service to a mainstream crowd with the blessing of the recording industry, it can become an effective and powerful distribution channel.

Shuffler.fm

is a nifty toolbar player that allows to you scan and browse blogs by genres. As it shuffles between blogs, it allows you to bookmark and follow the songs and blogs you discover. By directing traffic to the blogs themselves, Shuffler.fm makes itself more virally appealing to traffic-hungry bloggers who are eager to be indexed, and fans who trust Shuffler's affinity engine built on Last.fm's genre sorting technology. The lightweight toolbar can play in a discreet tab so it doesn't interfere with cubicle duties and by being simply a player; it avoids the legal entanglements associated with hosting any music. The challenge to Shuffler.fm is revenue. It is presently a free service that doesn't even require a profile to use. The interaction between listeners and bloggers is not as immediate as it is on turntable.fm where one can be tossed from a room by its creator, but it does provide music fans a convenient way to filter through the crowded blog space and connect with content providers that share their taste in music. And, they can do at their leisure without fear of being flamed by an overzealous curator.

Headliner.fm

is not a social network, but a web application that connects musicians' social networks and allows them to cross-promote their music to each others' fans directly in their news-feeds; whereas turntable.fm and shuffler.fm are geared toward fans, Headliner is a communication tool built expressly for musicians and does not host or share music publicly. What Headliner does share is recommendations that are created and approved by the artists themselves. The service is free to use, but does offer subscription packages that give musicians more options. Using a virtual currency system, Headliner rewards artists for every fan they have on their social networks, promoting each other and being subscribers. The main challenge to Headliner is educating users on the value of recommendations and reach. Social media's evolution has conditioned many users to value success in terms of Likes, Followers and Friends. The idea that simply reaching new users in a crowded space through a customized recommendation is value in itself will take time. But as social media becomes noisier and more crowded, we have seen an ideological shift toward emphasizing engagement. Linkedin, the job search network has used the idea of recommendations since its launch. And Facebook itself has started using "Recommend" buttons as well as its ubiquitous Like buttons. If Headliner can hang in there, it is in a unique position to scale its application and adapt it to more than just music.

So whether you feel like sharing your taste in music with a room full of opinionated people, listening to new music privately while you work or need to reach a new audience that already loves music similar to yours, there exist somewhere out there in the vast cyberether, a .fm for you.