Turntable.fm and Blip.fm are both social music web apps. They allow you to listen to music online, and turn that listening into a social experience. They have some notable differences, though. Which is right for you? This comparison might help you to decide.
If you’re new to both sites, here’s a quick run-down.
Turntable is set up like a virtual concert venue. Your profile is represented by an avatar who is either in the audience or is one of the DJs playing music. The rules about who gets to DJ and when vary from one virtual venue to the next. There are at most five DJs on stage at a time and they take turns choosing songs. There is a meter at the bottom of the screen. Anyone in the room can hit the “awesome” button to give the DJ a point. Or the a listener can hit the “lame” button to express disdain. If the lames outnumber the awesomes, the song gets skipped. Points can be used to get more impressive avatars.
Blip is often described as “Twitter plus music.” I don’t like this description because it appeals to neither Twitter fans nor Twitter adversaries, but it is accurate. If Facebook and Twitter are a lifestream of consecutive status updates, then Blip is a music stream of consecutive song updates. Your station consists of your songs and your followers’ songs, although you can create a customized station using their Tag Tuner or add songs to your playlist. You can also play just songs you’ve blipped. Instead of points, Blip offers props and badges. Unlike Turntable, users have to earn points in order to give them away.
In Favor of Turntable
Cute Avatars Give Real-Time Feedback
Turntable looks like Second Life with its little avatars, though at this time you have little control over their actions. When someone likes a song, his or her avatar’s head starts bopping. Not only is this adorable, it gives the DJ real-time feedback on whether or not people are enjoying the music.
On Blip, people give “props” when they like a song. These are collected on your props page, and you don’t see them unless you go there. The instant feedback on Turntable tells you several things: if listeners “like” a song right away, it is probably already a song they know and love. You can watch as several people hit the awesome bar around a particularly lovely climactic section. It also tells you which songs have played well in that room. If someone got a lot of avatar head-bopping to some underground hip-hop in the indie rock room, you can probably pull off that Aesop Rock mash-up you were considering.
Users Have Profiles
In keeping with the tradition of Twitter, Blip only allows you a link and a few sentences to describe the music you play. On Turntable you have a full profile that can be viewed by clicking on the avatar. Why is this important? Because when you’re trying to decide whether or not to follow a DJ, it’s useful to know if the 80s B-side set was an anomaly or if the DJ plays that music all the time. On Blip, you can view a DJ’s entire playing history, but most people won’t take the time to dig. With a profile the DJ can state clearly what he or she primarily plays. This gives each DJ more freedom to play outside the DJ’s genre without fear of scaring away listeners.
Music is Divided by Genre
Blip is a free for all. Anyone you follow will show up, along with your own songs, in your radio stream. You can listen strictly to your own songs in chronological order on your profile page, but most of the time you’ll want to be on your main page so you can discover new music. If you’re the type who listens to only one genre, this won’t be a problem. But in this increasingly diverse global age, most of us are interested in more variety. So if one of your DJs is in the mood to play a retrospective of sixties folk and concurrently another DJ you follow is playing hot new dance tracks, your playlist will go up and down from Joni Mitchell to a Booty Shakin’ Beats remix back down to another girl with an acoustic guitar.
On Turntable this jarring experience is avoided by having different rooms, which are usually distinguished by genre. DJs take turns playing for the entire room, and the pressure is on each DJ to play a song that transitions well from the one before it. If someone plays a song that doesn’t fit the theme of the room, the moderator can give that person the boot or annoyed listeners can lame the track so it gets skipped.
Personally, I like that Blip.fm plays YouTube videos because it has allowed me to catch up on all the videos I missed since MTV went in the toilet. But enough people don’t like the YouTube songs that Blip created an option to remove them from your search results and skip them on your station. The sound quality of most YouTube videos will be adequate for the majority of work-day listeners but the discerning listener with a fancy stereo may notice a difference.
The real problem with YouTube videos isn’t the difference in sound quality of the home-grown and official music videos. The problem is slogging through crappy bootleg concert footage and teenagers doing living room covers in the hopes of landing their big break. On Turntable, all their tracks are clean so your only risk of getting a dud is if you upload it yourself.
Use the Music You Have on Your Computer
Recent changes to the Blip.fm song database have sent many of its biggest fans away. Previously, on Blip you could play any song as long as there was an mp3 link out there. This has led some people to upload songs strictly for use while they are DJing, which was a lot of work just to share new tunes with your pals. However, Blip’s recent deal with the labels has removed this functionality. Thus all of the old links to mp3s in the archives are broken. The tradeoff is a million clean mp3s with label support. You can also play YouTube videos on your station, which fills in many of the gaps on unreleased or extremely new tracks.
Turntable has a database, and you can upload any song that you have on your own computer. This is hands down the best advantage of the site. While a large database is good, it’s no competition for an unlimited database. So long as you can find it and download it, you can play it on Turntable. Keep in mind that music sites tend to get more restrictive as they age because they get threatened with lawsuits by the record labels. Turntable is in Beta while Blip has been around for a few years so it is possible that once Turntable explodes in popularity it will change its policy too.
The arrangement that Blip has with the record labels is supposedly similar to the one at Grooveshark, so if you have an account with them and are satisfied with their selection then the selection at Blip most likely won’t be a problem for you.
Blip.fm has banner ads and occasionally roll-over pop-up ads. Some of them are pretty damned annoying. However, Turntable is a new site so there’s no guarantee it will stay ad-free for long.
This leads me to a final and more subtle advantage of Turntable…
Turntable is a New Site
New sites have a number of less obvious advantages. While Blip is still a small team, the Blip developers have been in the works on a new site for the past year. Thus supporting Blip is not their primary concern. The Turntable developers, on the other hand, will send an avatar to your room immediately if you contact their customer service. Because the site is new, you may still have a chance to influence the developers about new feature decisions.
It also affects the atmosphere. When a site is brand new, most people don’t have a ton of friends there already. This means they are open to chatting with strangers and there’s a general buzz about sharing tips on how best to take advantage of what Turntable offers. Most Turntable users are still actively looking for DJs to follow. I would be so bold as to say that Blip.fm is possibly the least-cliquish site I’ve ever encountered (more on this later), but the sense that it is no longer the coders’ top priority has lessened morale.
In favor of Blip.fm
People lie, but at least each photo is unique. On Turntable it is common to see someone on the site who is identical to you in appearance because of the limited number of avatars. This will change as they get more avatars, but it still makes it harder to recognize your friends or even to know at a glance which profile is your own.
Less Intrusive Bugs
Both sites have bugs. However, the kind of bugs that Blip has usually involve the columns not sizing properly, or banner ads popping up in the wrong places. The bugs on Turntable involve the music stopping abruptly or getting accidentally booted from a room. In other words, the bugs on Turntable get in the way of you actually listening to music and are therefore much more annoying. On the other hand, Turntable is still in beta so hopefully they will get these kinks worked out soon.
All Your Friends Are in the Same Place: Your Stream
At Turntable, rooms are divided by genre. Thus if you want to find your friends, you have to go to the room where they are. When you scroll through the rooms, it shows you an avatar if someone you follow is within. You also get an email every time someone you follow goes into a room, which will become annoying once you are following more than a handful of people. The emails can be turned off, but then you have no way of knowing when your friends go online. On Blip, on the other hand, everyone is playing to your stream (exactly like Twitter if Twitter played music) so you will always know with a cursory glance who is playing music.
Messages Over Chat
Part of what makes Turntable addictive is that every room is also a chat room. The problem is that it means the community actively discourages you from using the site as background. I can listen to Blip all day long, only going to the site to occasionally reblip a song or play something new. If I play two songs an hour and finding each takes a minute, I can get eight hours of music for only twenty minutes of effort.
This may come down to personal preference. If the time you spend playing music is spent only playing music, you may prefer the immediacy of a chat box. But if you are a hopeless multi-tasker like me, a music site that demands all your attention is too much of a distraction from the To Do list.
Communication is Achieved on Blip by Selecting Songs
Because Turntable has DJs choosing songs right after each other, it would seem that DJs are more conscious about selecting for their audience. I am definitely more likely to hit the “awesome” bar if the song is more than good, but also a well-thought out follow-up. On the other hand, because each message on Blip comes with a song, DJs often choose a song that fits their reply. For example, if someone compliments my stream, I may say thank you with Cut Copy’s “Feel the Love.”
The nice thing about this is it cuts out a lot of the negativity and bickering. Again, this may come down to personal preference, but if I don’t like a song I may say so in a chat room but would be a lot less likely to do so if I have to choose a song to reply with. This is related to the next point…
It is hard to describe how the set-up of a website can contribute to its atmosphere, but it makes a considerable difference. First of all, when chat comes on the scene, you truly get to know people…and that’s not always a good thing. Strangers who share a love of music feel a great kinship on Blip, but at the end of the day they are only acquaintances. You can conceptualize this as the difference between how people use Twitter and how they use Facebook. Because of Twitter’s limitations, like Blip, it is less personal. There are plenty of people who are “great friends” on Twitter that would rather not be Facebook friends.
But there is a more important aspect that shapes the atmospheric differences between Blip and Turntable. Blip allows “props” but there is no way to express dislike for a song. While there have been times I wished for an easy way I could press a button expressing contempt for the music someone has cluttered my stream with, not having that ability keeps things friendly. If I really hate a song and feel so strongly about it that I need to let the world know, I can respond with a song and a message expressing myself. However, it is rare that it comes to that. You get props so you know a song went over well. Songs that don’t get props could have been hated, or maybe no one was listening, or maybe they liked it but not well enough to give it the click. Or maybe they are out of props! The point is, you don’t know, so you don’t stress it.
Compare this to a situation I had at Turntable.fm the other day. I was in room where 90 percent of the songs DJs chose were getting skipped because so many people had hit the “lame” button. Only one or two tracks got enough positive feedback to push the meter into the green “awesome” zone. I had recently installed a Chrome add-on that has little pop-ups telling you who lamed or awesomed a song. So I know that there were three people in the room that were hitting the lame button within the first ten seconds of most songs playing. Perhaps they knew and hated those artists, but I get the feeling that at least one of them was lame-ing every song so it would be more likely to be skipped, and thus get back to his or her DJ turn sooner. I actually saw one DJ mark a song as lame before it even started playing and then change his vote to awesome once the song got a chance to get going. Now maybe these people are just very harsh critics and they were being true to their feelings. However, I have a solid reputation as an online DJ, and the brutality of that room managed to shake my confidence. Average Avatar who just wants to share a few songs from bands he adores is likely to walk away from such a room very unhappy.
The flip-side of this was in a room I visited later that evening. The room had a non-genre theme, so the song choices were all over the place. The chat was very positive and they were sharing non-music links as well. People said “hello” and “good-bye” as avatars moved in and out of the room. Most heads were bopping for all my song selections, and despite the vast diversity of genres, most songs had the Awesome-O-Meter firmly in the green. Perfect, right? Alas, no. One kind fellow pointed out that I’d yet to give points to any of his songs. There was a woman who kept asking if she should skip her own songs because no one had given her any points. Look, just because I don’t want to give someone props for playing the same classic rock I’ve heard 70,000 times on the radio doesn’t mean I want to have a dialog explaining that. But because props cost nothing to earn, there becomes some peer pressure to claim you love songs that really you only “like.”
Blip is Also a Music Journal
Even though both sites are designed to be used as radio, Blip has an advantage in archiving every song you play. This means that if I go back to Christmas 2009, there is a record of the night my dad introduced me to King Crimson. It means that if I want to do a “Best songs of 2010″ list, I can comb through all the songs I played over the last year to see what I might have forgotten.
This used to be a major advantage of Blip, but as of September 2011 those old mp3 links are no longer playable. Your journal still exists, but the links will all be broken (unless they were YouTube videos). This is due to the new label agreement that Blip has made. It’s a big loss for those who liked to comb the archives, but Turntable has no archives at all to compare this with.
You Can DJ Whenever You Want
To me this is far and away the biggest advantage of Blip over Turntable. I find that often when I am paying more attention to Turntable than I would like (e.g. when I am failing to multitask effectively) it is because I am checking the chat to see if a DJ slot has opened up. This is not fun. In popular rooms, it can take about four hours to get a chance to DJ, which is a longer commitment than I want to make. To combat this, some rooms are a free-for-all. Take Indie OneNDone: there DJs are only allowed to play one song, then whoever has the fastest fingers can jump into the DJ spot. This is even worse for productivity because one will never get a chance to DJ unless she is giving her total attention to Turntable, and then it is only for one song.
The other option is to start your own room. If you have three friends rounded up and you don’t care about attracting the herd, this can be a fun alternative to other chat sites. But you can’t DJ on your own because, to appease the music labels, single DJs only hear 20-second clips. Otherwise, you have to go spam other rooms to recruit DJs. This is discouraged within the Turntable subculture, but I don’t see any way around it as the site is currently designed: either I have to go find people to DJ with or I am alone in a room listening to 20-second clips. No fun! I have created a room and managed to get a small crowd, but when the room clears out after I go to sleep, it effectively ceases to exist. In my experience, a room with 7 avatars isn’t superior to one with 100, but I end up in the crowded rooms because even in the small rooms the DJ slots are always completely full anyhow. On Blip you can listen to any DJ at any time, or play any song at any time.
Comparing Blip and Turntable: in Conclusion
Both of these are fantastic sites for discovering new music, so which is better will ultimately come down to what kind of user you are. I highly recommend them both over better-known sites like Last.fm and Pandora.
If you loathe multitasking and primarily want to share music for a short time when you are done with your work, Turntable may be the best site for you. If you want to play extremely rare tracks or if you’re a proud sound quality snob that would never enjoy a track playing on YouTube, by all means Turntable is your choice.
A quick note on extremely rare tracks. By rare, I don’t mean recent indie bands or illegal bootleg mash-ups or popular DJ’s remixes that don’t have their own albums. That stuff can mostly be found on YouTube. By rare tracks, I mean B-sides from indie bands that were barely popular ten years ago or ragtime blues from the late twenties or remixes by DJs unknown outside of your region. Underplayed music is my specialty and I can usually find whatever I need with Blip’s YouTube functionality.
If you are more interested in playing music than listening to music, and you don’t mind YouTube videos, Blip.fm is still the better choice. Conversely, if you want to use the site as background while you get on with your day, I still recommend Blip.
Have you tried both sites? What do you think?