Curation and the paradox of user-generated radio

I’ve been having a quick play with Turntable.fm since signing up last night and it’s got me thinking about user-generated and user-controlled radio, which is something I was involved with at Absolute Radio with the dabbl project.

Internet radio listening is a pretty small proportion of overall radio listening, and I wouldn’t suggest otherwise in the near future, even if just to escape the wrath of James Cridland. So then you have user-generated radio as a niche within that area, and yet there are a number of services which have been joined by Turntable FM…

Those are the immediate ones which spring to mind, and you could possible include the likes of Spotify (Although the social playlist sharing really takes place outside of it) or mFlow. And there are an increasing number of social sharing music apps for smartphones.

In an age of democratisation of content creation and particularly at the moment, content curation, it seems as if simple and easy user-generated radio is an obvious desire and fit. Make it quick, simple and easy, and you don’t have to worry about on-air talent or programme managers. And at the same time, everyone will love and share the service because they’re involved, engaged and that’s what social networks are all about.

So you’ve got Blip.fm, which has been around for ages, and is in effect a musical microblogging service which produces an effect of crowdsourcing John Peel as you follow a network of users all ‘blipping’ individual tracks.

You’ve got Jelli which has the benefit of pretty quick and simple ways to vote for tracks which may get played with enough votes, and the added incentive of hearing your choices actually play on a number of U.S radio stations. This was also the model for dabbl, although the track selection was more controlled by the Absolute Radio team to enable a more consistent listening experience.

And you’ve got Mixcloud, which is probably my favourite for actually relaxing and listening to great music – particularly the soul and funk mixes of the user HeavySoulBrutha.

Increasingly all of those services are interlinked with Facebook and Twitter, allowing for a high level of integration where the people are.

And yet, something just never quites fit right from a purely consumer point of view (I’m not going to go into the problems of licensing and running a UGC music service).

I’m struggling to define it accurately, but for me it’s almost impossible to find the right sweet spot between involvement and the listening experience.

Blip.fm can be hugely fun for a while, but also massively jarring when random songs are played after each other. Jelli and dabbl both did a reasonable job of allowing you to have an input into station output, but always with caveats over how much impact you have as an individual – and that impact will always lessen the more popular the service becomes, meaning that your aim to be able to play and get respect for the music you love is always slightly at odds with that of the service to become massively popular and afford the server costs.

Mixcloud actually has the best listening experience, and I think that’s because the perceived barrier to entry is higher – you need to actually create a decent mix of tunes and upload it yourself, meaning that a higher level of curation and DJ ability goes on. That compares with Turntable which allows for recognition and point scoring, but the impressive speed of track selection and playing tends to mean that you get a more random listening experience. Turntable is still in limited access at the moment, but unless it gets really popular, it’s still going to be easy for someone to jump onto the decks and play something completely out of kilter with the rest of the room.

The reason I struggle is that open democratisation and curation of text, images and video services has been a great thing. I read a lot of sources I wouldn’t ordinarily discover and the quality ratio is pretty high. The same goes for photos and videos. And in my network, I should benefit from knowing a higher-than-average number of musical experts, but it never seems to play out like that.

So why do you think user-generated and user-curated music services struggle so much in comparison with other art forms? Is it something inherent in music itself? Is it that the skill of curating a selection of music is less attainable?

Or is it the lack of human interactivity which is missing? With a traditional DJ on the radio, you get their opinions and entertainment in between records. With dance and club DJs, you get to see the human behind the turntables or laptop. But with user-generated radio online that element is a lot more subdued, and hasn’t really been brought out by any service yet, without a lot more effort on the part of the listener.

Could it be true that human-generated radio is actually just missing essential elements of humanity?