Editor’s Note: This article about best music apps is a revised version of an article that appeared in a previous issue of The Social Media Monthly. If you like it, you might want to download The Social Media Monthly iPad app or iPhone app and subscribe, or order a print subscription.
Madonna was probably thinking about live music when she sang the words “Music makes the people come together.” But as we all know, today it's about the apps. And more and more, apps are bringing people together.
When it comes to sites and apps, music isn't a trend like food apps or daily deals. It's a pillar on which other trends are created. Portability, social features, recommendations, management, games, creation – music provides a sea of opportunity that inspires hardware and software alike, including a recent explosion of online and mobile apps to satisfy anyone's desires. Whether on your computer, on your phone, in your car, or on Facebook, there are innumerable ways to consume your favorite tunes, discover new ones, play the DJ, and show your artist-discovery mastery. And if you're an artist, now more than ever you have opportunities to leverage platforms to build your own audience and career.
We can't look at this category without acknowledging the platforms that have helped get us to this point – most notably Apple, but also Android and products like Winamp and SoundCloud which other creatives can build upon. Early music applications like Napster and Rhapsody also helped pave the way and shift industry paradigms.
All this innovation around music creation and consumption is astounding but can also be confusing. To help you out, here are some of the biggest trends we've seen and a few of the sites and apps that are driving them. Of course this is not a comprehensive list, as there are too many music-related apps to count (there are over twenty thousand music apps in the iPhone store alone), but if you're looking for an app to play with or to brush up on the category, here's a nice primer.
Streaming Music and Passive Discovery
While most of us have clogged up our computer hard drives with music downloads, and still have iPods in docks and stereo receivers collecting dust, that's still not enough to satisfy our hunger for new music. Nope, we demand a stream of new music suited to our tastes and every mood. So that's what the industry has built – a number of streaming music services that can be used across your every device. Note that many of these services offer free and premium options and a variety of social features.
A time-tested favorite of many, Pandora allows you to explore music to your heart's content. Provide the name of one of your favorite songs, artists, or genres and the app will scan its database of analyzed music (almost a century of new and old, well known and completely obscure songs) to bring you an endless stream of interesting music suited to your taste. You can also provide feedback (thumbs up/down) to make it smarter. Pandora is available on the web, on your mobile device, and in many vehicles now and allows you to share songs with your social networks.
Giving Pandora a run for its money is Spotify, which began in the UK and entered the US market with much attention. Spotify is more deeply integrated into Facebook so you can see and hear what your friends are listening to. Yes, teasing may ensue when your Phil Collins obsession is broadcast to your 658 friends, but it's a great social music discovery tool. It also allows you to import your existing music files so not only can you stream any song in their 13MM song library, but you can play your own. Spotify is available for your computer, home audio system, and mobile phones.
Another fan favorite is MOG, which has been around since 2005 with the goal to perfect your music-listening experience. The on-demand listening service provides access to a library of millions of songs through its mobile apps on iPhone and Android, on the web, through consumer electronic devices, Internet-connected TVs, and Blu-ray players, and in the car. For yet another flavor of streaming music player, check out Rdio. Available via your mobile device, it also lets you play music offline and discover music through friends and influencers. Similarly, early to-market Rhapsody is still a popular option, too. Another site to watch is The Hype Machine (and now an iPhone app), a website curating many of the top music blogs. A notable feature of this service is the “Popular” filter which tracks the most liked and shared songs over a given time span.
While almost every music application provides recommendations in some manner – some more passive than others – some apps are specifically designed to look at the music you currently listen to and help you discover new artists and songs you might otherwise have never heard of.
The most well know is probably Apple's own iTunes Genius, which looks at your music library and the data around it (your ratings, play counts, etc.) and then creates Genius Mixes based on genre, Genius Playlists based on one song you select as a starting point, and Genius Recommendations for new music you might want to purchase.
Likewise, newcomer Rexly integrates with iTunes to track your listening and purchasing to ultimately make personalized recommendations. But Rexly also connects with Facebook and Twitter, so it can look at what your friends are listening to and utilize that data for your recommendations. Note that your music activities will make their way into your friends’ feeds, but fortunately you can change your settings to hide any tunes you might not want them to know about. Rexly offers both a web app and iOS app.
Not so new, but still very popular, is UK-based Last.fm, a music recommendation service available online or on pretty much any device you can think of. Last.fm uses a tool they call “the Scrobbler” to look at the current music library on your computer and then make personalized recommendations. They compare your musical data with millions of other listeners' to create the recommendations. Last.fm incorporates a lot of social features and feels like an actual social network.
For the visually driven music fan looking for their next favorite artist, We Are Hunted also connects with your social networks or iTunes to recommend new music based on what you actively share and already listen to. Curate your own playlist by adding the tracks you want and customizing their order, which you can embed or share on your blog and social networks. Like most of these sites, you can also follow others and comment. They've also been around for a few years and are available on other platforms such as Spotify, Winamp, and Rolling Stone Online.
Don't care about personalized recommendations? You may just want a simple app like Band of the Day, which will recommend a different band to you each day. Sweet and simple.
Years ago, if a great song came over the speakers at a store or restaurant, you were dependent on the nearby staff to help you figure out what it was. But when the iPhone launched, an app called Shazam (also from the UK) changed all that. Shazam, now available for Android, BlackBerry, Nokia, and other devices, leverages your smartphone's microphone to sample a short clip of the song and then use the song's “acoustic fingerprint” to search their database for a match and identifying the song name and artist. It then offers opportunities for you to purchase it, get the lyrics, share with friends, view the video, and more.
While Shazam introduced most of us to the magic of instantaneous music identification, SoundTracking took it a step further, socializing your music as well as your experiences surrounding it with your friends and followers. Founder Steve Jang calls it “your music moment.” This moment includes where you are, what you’re doing, and how you feel about doing it. Users can share their location, photos, and comments about a particular song as they’re sharing it with friends. So now when you are in that restaurant, hear a great song, and use your app to identify it, you can also share that you're enjoying the tune while noshing on a cheeseburger.
Be the DJ: Interactive Music Listening Rooms
A whole new set of social music discovery tools rolled onto the scene recently, leveraging your social networks and betting that there's a good percentage of people out there who not only want to discover new music, but want to be the DJ and show off their musical chops.
One of the hottest to hit the scene is Turntable.fm, a social music platform where members create or join listening rooms to play music for each other, chat, and vote on what others “spin.” The listening rooms feature DJ avatars taking turns playing music for the crowd gathered on the listening floor (you can be the DJ or part of the crowd). Members get the experience of being in a virtual club and discussing what’s being played, as well as making requests to the DJs.
Two similar social music services are Console.fm and Rolling.fm. Console.fm leverages Twitter and focuses on music genre. It pulls popular tracks from a set list, so you cannot access your own music like you can with Turntable.fm. Rolling.fm looks and acts similar to Turntable.fm – the subtle differences include the ability to see who is in a room in one big list (also represented by avatars), and a private chat feature that lets you speak directly to Facebook friends even if they’re in a different room.
Also in the fm space, Exfm, a NYC-based social music discovery platform, makes it easy to find new music online, organize it into a library, and share it with friends. The Exfm browser plugin for Chrome builds a music library from freely available music on the web. Users can tag songs to create a public record of their favorite tracks on their Exfm profile, follow other users and save their noted tracks to their library, share songs to Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, and play songs directly from those sites.
Similar in concept but bringing your DJ skills into the real world is Roqbot, which lets you be the DJ at a real live place, like a local bar or restaurant (as long as they have it set up). It allows customers of a specific establishment to interact with the music using their phones. Think of it as a community jukebox. Anyone in the venue can use their phone to select a song to play using Roqbot credits. The app offers you a comprehensive list of popular music to choose from as well as some playlists. Meanwhile, the people around you can vote on your DJ skills and songs, creating some fun interactions.
A site that's fun to browse for music discovery is Blip.fm, a social music recommendation and streaming site that feels like Twitter for music. Users post short messages on what music they are listening to at the moment, and the site turns them into streaming links – no file uploads are necessary because the site pulls the song from Imeem, allowing your followers to hear the full version. It's addictive. And while Blip.fm has been around the block for a few years, Splash.fm lets you find music based on who you know. You can see what songs your friends are listening to, click on the song to “splash” it, and leave a comment. Users and songs are scored from 0-99 – rankings are based on how many follows and re-splashes you have, and how many people are buying or downloading that music.
Artist Communities and Tools
Perhaps more than anything else, what technology has created is an opportunity for artists to find and connect with their own audience, helping them to get their careers off the ground. For example, SoundCloud, which is a social sound platform where anyone can create sounds and share them, allows artists to record and upload songs to share publicly or privately and broadcast via Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Foursquare. SoundCloud can be accessed anywhere using their iPhone and Android apps, and on hundreds of creation and sharing apps built on the SoundCloud platform.
On thesixtyone, new artists make music and the listeners vote for what they like. Their goal is to “nurture a growing ecosystem where talented folks can sell songs and merchandise directly to their fans.” Visually, it's like About.me for artists, with the added benefit of music sales and more social features. Similarly, Chicago-based startup SoundOff.fm provides a gaming mechanism where artists upload the best 20 seconds of their music. Voters select a genre, hear two songs, and vote for the track they like best in a blind test. As they vote, users earn credit to spend on the site, supporting the new artists.
With a goal to get artists sharing what they are working on at various stages of the creative process, Illinois-based Merge.fm encourages every member of the site to preview an artist’s new music. Once previewed, fans can subscribe to the artist’s page for a small fee and will be notified when new music is uploaded. The artist then benefits from their fans’ subscriptions monetarily. It’s a win-win situation for all: the fans get access to unreleased music and are able to provide feedback, and the artists get to hear what their fans think while funding their efforts. And for younger artists, Breakoutband facilitates song creation and sharing, finding new fans, and competing for awards. Their platform for self-expression through music is combined with strong social and gaming mechanics to create a highly engaging experience.
For artists who are all about the live experience, there are a few platforms providing live streaming opportunities these days. One of them is Paris-based awdio, which provides a platform dedicated to the live music industry for real-time streaming: artists, producers, labels, clubs, venues, promoters, and others can now stream their live music events in real-time, worldwide. The company boasts over 5,000 events a month in more than 35 cities and 25 countries. Users can embed the player into their sites or share across social networks.
And lastly, a new to player to the scene is TwitMusic, a platform that allows musicians to seamlessly share, promote, and track their music through Twitter. A graduate of the 500 Startups class of 2012, the service has already lured in a handful of prominent musicians, including an exclusive release from Ryan Adams.
Games and Media
Finally, for the hardcore music fans who love to mix a little gaming or media with their music passion, there are sites and apps such as Songster, by Mowgli Games, that allow players to create original songs with friends using layers of instrument and vocal loops. Users can collaborate with friends and also experience life in the music industry virtually as they unlock achievements such as hiring a manager and signing record deals.
If you're on your iPad and want some eye (and ear) candy, Chicago-based Groovebug is an interactive music magazine for the iPad that scans your music collection, pulls related content about your favorite artists from blogs and websites, and suggests similar artists. It's like Flipboard for music. Your music collection determines the content, so it’s totally personalized based on what you like.
Bringing some Fantasy Sports elements to the mix is the app TastemakerX, a mobile social game that enables users to build virtual portfolios of their favorite artists and express their acuity as a tastemaker by highlighting their date of purchase and the price for when they discovered and “purchased” the band. Trades can be accompanied by location tags, photos, and text thoughts, leaving a visible timeline of your interests and passions. Once “owned,” or ”followed,” players can track their favorite artists’ news, tour dates, and upcoming releases directly from the application. TastemakerX also surfaces real-time trending artists and Tastemakers, and is a mechanism for uncovering new music through following “Portfolios.”
This list barely scratches the surface of what's currently out there, and new social music sites and apps spring up everyday. Music has truly been unleashed and socialized – it's an area we can count on to continue to innovate and change.