It’s emerged out of nowhere to become one of the coolest sites on the Web in a matter of weeks, but what’s the story behind Turntable.fm, what’s so great about it and where is it going?

A service amassing a reported 140,000 users in its first month is nothing to be sniffed at at any time. A service that hasn’t courted the press at all, growing entirely virally, hitting that figure in a month is something that demands closer inspection.

Where did Turntable.fm come from?

While it has seems to have come out of nowhere, Turntable.fm is actually the result of a startup that pivoted. On discussion site Quora, co-founder Seth Goldstein explains that the service ”is a project that evolved out of Stickybits, the social bar code scanning service, founded by Billy Chasen and myself. Our investors include First Round Capital, Polaris Ventures, and Chris Sacca.”

Dig around the Turntable.fm site and you’ll find references to Stickybits, which appears to still be the legal name of the company. This New York startup was based around the idea of the ‘Internet of Things’, letting you stick barcodes on objects to trigger audio, video, photo, and text messages when they were scanned. It seems that earlier this year, the company changed direction to concentrate on Turntable.fm.

We reached out to Turntable.fm for an interview to discover more and we found out just how publicity-shy the startup is. Our initial request went unanswered and when we managed to make contact via an intermediary, we were told that the company isn’t talking to the press at all. In a way, this makes Turntable all the more interesting – here’s a startup acting like a cool indie band, refusing interviews and growing by word of mouth.

How it works

That viral growth is deserved, too. Turntable.fm is arguably the most interesting social startup to emerge in a long time. Inventing a new subgenre, ‘social listening’, the site revels in something humans have enjoyed for millennia: shared experiences around music.

If you haven’t tried it yet, here’s how it works: You can only sign up if a friend of yours on Facebook is already signed up. Once you’re in, the site lets you DJ, playing songs in an on-screen ‘nightclub’. Others come to listen to you in your ‘room’ and can join you on the decks if they choose. Multiple DJs (up to five) play a song each in turn and everyone else in the room gets to vote on the current DJ’s choice. If your choice gets voted up, you get a point. If it gets voted down by too many people it’s ditched for the next DJ’s choice.

It’s a simple but addictive concept that combines the joy of music with a competitive element as DJs are forced to consider which songs will fit the audience in the room and its current vibe.

Screen shot 2011 06 25 at 14.55.20 520x472 Why Turntable.fm is the most exciting social service of the year

Why has it grown so fast?

There are a number of theories about just what has made Turntable.fm so successful so quickly about over on Quroa. Ryan Hoover, Product Manager at PlayHaven, suggests that “The Turntable guys have done an excellent job at creating a natural loop to motivate and re-engage users.” This involves visible progress and rewards (through DJ points and the ability to gain ‘fans’ who are then alerted by email each time you start DJing); motivating emotion (it’s a great feeling when people’s avatars start ‘nodding their heads’ in time to your music), social calls to action (through the group chat function, and the ability to share your taste in music and judge other people’s), and user re-engagement (it’s such an enjoyable social experience that you want to get your friends on boards to share the fun).

However, Adrian Chan, a social interaction designer, goes further, believing that there’s a deeper social element to Turntable’s success:

There’s more to be said about the “togetherness” factor. Whether it’s best described as collaboration (coordinating action with other DJs in choosing tracks, for example, that reinforce each other and build flow). Or as something more ineffable, such as sharing time (it’s hard to stop, and there’s some social commitment to remaining in a room).

This “togetherness” isn’t directly produced by the ego-oriented social game features of Turntable. In fact it’s an attribute of the experience that exceeds or transcends what those features can offer in and of themselves. And it says something about the power (engagement) of the tacit, the implicit, and the unspoken aspects of synchronous mediated experiences.

For example, when DJs demonstrate that they’re listening to each other by playing off each others’ track selections, there’s a commonality that transcends… individual achievements. Social games that offer the promise of individual success may be missing out on the uniqueness of shared experiences capable of creating shared surprise and pleasure. As when tracks flow well, as when it’s clear that DJs are not just picking their own favorites but show that they’re paying attention to each other, as when a “good” stretch of DJing attracts newcomers to the room, and so on.

Chan’s definitely onto something. Sociologists would probably have a field day studying the social mechanics behind Turntable.fm, and it’s only been going a few weeks. That’s probably the most exciting thing about the service – it connects deeply with users and is still just a mere sketch of what it could grow into.

Possible future directions

While it’s impossible to predict how the service might change as it grows and potentially goes mainstream, there are a number of directions the team behind it can go in.

Customisable and branded rooms: A no-brainer, really. At present every room in Turntable looks to same, no matter what music is playing. Customisation options for room administrators would be a logical addition, but lifestyle brands would no doubt pay good money to have specially branded rooms. Nightclubs could even have their own rooms so that clubbers could continue their Saturday night out whenever they like right from their web browser.

Celebrity guest appearances: Imagine taking to the decks alongside your favourite DJ or musician – it’s an experience that most people can only dream of. On Turntable.fm it could be a reality. As with Twitter, it’s likely that celebrities will begin to adopt Turntable.fm without the direct input of the startup itself. This week saw rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot play a set on the service. Sure, he’s hardly the biggest celebrity, but it’s a start, and something Turntable.fm can build on.

A new way for media companies to interact with their audiences: Earlier this week, we experimented with setting up our own The Next Web room (you can often find TNW staff spinning tunes in there). One tweet brought in a crowded room and it was fun for us to be able to play music with our readers. Music is a brilliant bonding tool and being able to have direct group chat with readers can help media companies get to know their audience better, and vice versa. I even got teased with knowledge of a stealth startup over the chat function yesterday – so maybe we’ll get a few news tips this way too!

Music discovery: Experiencing other people’s music taste is a great way of broadening your own. Turntable.fm already has links to add the currently playing song to Spotify and Last.fm or to buy it from iTunes. In the future, charts of the most popular songs across the service and specific genres would be valuable, as would data visualisations of songs’ popularity over time. In fact, as the service is essentially a more social version of Pandora or Last.fm, deep statistics would make an interesting counterpoint to Last.fm’s own stats.  On an individual user basis, profiles could log the songs you’ve played in the past, letting others know more about your taste.

Screen shot 2011 06 25 at 13.23.39 520x347 Why Turntable.fm is the most exciting social service of the year

Where’s the API?

Perhaps the most interesting opportunity of all is for a full API, allowing third-party developers to create their own apps and plug-ins on top of the service. While that’s yet to materialise, add-ons are already beginning to appear. One example is Awesomes.fm, a browser plugin that, as we reported this week, tracks every song you mark as ‘Awesome’ on Turntable.fm and lists them all on a separate website. A script is also available for Chrome that promises to scrobble the songs you listen to right to your Last.fm account.

Turntable.fm’s big problem ahead: licensing

While Turntable.fm’s Facebook friends-based sign-up method has helped it grow organically, it’s also likely to have been designed to keep it growing slowing. This is probably not only to stem demand on servers, but because as it grows ever bigger, licensing is likely to become a big issue. As Peter Kafka at AllThingsD explained this week,

“A deal with MediaNet, a digital content provider, gives Turntable access to millions of songs, and if the song you want to play isn’t there, you can upload your own MP3 to the site and play that…

So how can any of that be legal without label deals? In short, (CEO, Billy) Chasen believes he’s able to run the service under the protection of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) — the same law that lets Pandora operate without label deals — as a “non-interactive” Web radio service.”

So, in theory, it’s legal – but the test will come when it becomes too big for music companies to ignore. Will they believe that a service of the depth Turntable.fm clearly has is just a ‘non-interactive’ radio service? It’s unlikely. UPDATE: Just two hours after this post was published, Turntable.fm locked the service down to the US only citing, yep, licensing.

Hopefully when that times comes, a deal can be cut that satisfies both sides. Turntable.fm is so unique and full of potential that, fingers crossed, it’s just ‘too good to fail’.