Turntable.fm Goes Legit, Signs Deals With Major Music Labels

The biggest question hanging over social music startup Turntable.fm was whether the major labels would let it survive. The answer to that question is, yes. Turntable chairman Seth Goldstein is announcing at SXSW that after 9 months of negotiating, Turntable has signed licensing agreements with all the major music labels. I caught up with Seth yesterday at the Four Seasons in Austin, where he told me about the deal in the video interview above. (Greg Sandoval at CNET caught wind of the news a few days ago, and now it is confirmed).

Turntable launched less than a year ago, and now has reached one million users. Through its website and mobile apps, you can visit virtual clubs where you can spin music for everyone else in the room or just listen along, chat and bob your virtual head. The music licensing wasn’t straight-forward because depending on whether a user is DJing (and selecting tracks) or just listening (the majority of users), a different license applies.

But Turntable is an amazing marketing vehicle for the music labels, and they came to terms with the startup. In the video interview, Seth talks a little bit about how Turntable finds sponsors to bring major music artists to both Turntable rooms and live events. He also mentions that an Android app is in the works.

TV Apps

It’s time to rethink TV apps. Many of the top entertainment apps on the iPad today are essentially digital TV channels—both new and old (Netflix, Hulu, ABC, NBC). But these are basically just ways to watch regular TV shows on your iPad, computer, or big-screen TV connected to an Apple set-top box. They don’t really go beyond that or take advantage of the fact that they are, well, apps.

All of that could start to change soon. Tomorrow, Apple is expected to announce a new iPad and a new Apple TV. It is very possible the Apple TV tomorrow will be just an update to Apple’s current set-top box device—AKA, the “hobby,” not the mythical TV the company is also supposedly working on that was Steve Jobs’ last project. When Apple moves the product beyond hobby status, it will be an actual TV with a screen and computer innards. If it is successful, it will not only change the way TV shows are distributed, but could also change how we experience TV.

In its attempt to turn TV into more than a hobby, Apple is reportedly trying to convince the TV industry to turn their channels into apps and stream their video programming over the Internet directly to Apple TVs (as well as iPads, iPhones, and Macs). Presumably, these channels apps could be free and advertising-supported or charge an ongoing subscription just like magazine or other apps can today.

The prospect of streaming subscription TV delivered over the Internet is a direct challenge to the cable and satellite TV industry because it bypasses their distribution and their bundled billing relationships with consumers. The ability to pick and choose your channels or shows and pay only for the ones you actually watch is certainly appealing. But disrupting TV distribution is only half the story, and Apple certainly isn’t alone in trying to do this (so is Netflix, Amazon, Google, and Hulu).

The other part of the story has yet to be written, and it will be written by developers. Apple wants to turn TV channels into apps. What does that mean? So far we’ve only seen plain vanilla versions of TV apps. They are typically collections of videos from one TV channel or site organized in an easy-to-consume fashion. Sit-back TV works, and they don’t want to mess with it. But TV apps could deliver so much more than just video. They could deliver data, social commentary, and even geo-local context when appropriate.

For most TV apps, there should always be a veg out mode. That should be the default mode because that is the way most people watch TV. But it also depends on the show and what else you are doing. We are already multitasking when we watch TV. The rise of second-screen companion apps that you play around with on your iPhone or iPad while you are watching TV is a testament to how easily our attention drifts. When the TV show or game your are watching gets boring, many of us are increasingly turning to Twitter and other companion apps for entertainment (often to commiserate about how awful the shows are that we are forcing ourselves to watch).

Most companion apps today pull in filtered social feeds about the shows you are watching. Social streams like chatter on Facebook and Twitter are just a layer of data. Those streams could just as easily be available in the primary TV apps themselves. There should be a way to push the video to your big living room screen via AirPlay, while continuing to use your iPad or iPhone for the other data features.

But let’s tale this a step further. What other layers of data could be added to TV to make it better, and more engaging? I think that depends on the kind of TV you are watching. If it’s just mindless TV, adding “interactivity” could be a mistake. But if I am watching a movie with a great soundtrack, when the credits roll, why not link to those songs on iTunes? Or if I am watching a cooking show, let me download the recipe. A newscast or documentary could benefit from all sorts of additional footage, links, and charts. A travel channel could geo-target its shows.

The traditional lean-back videos, you throw on the big screen. And when you want to dig in and lean forward, you do it on your iPad or iPhone. It’s the same app running, just on two different screens. And if what’s on your iPad is more interesting than the video on the big screen or you want to share it with everyone else in the room, pause the video and throw the Twitter stream or data visualizations up there. Or don’t pause the video, just overlay it on the screen. Take control of the experience.

Right now, the only control you have over TV is to change the channel. What if you could essentially control the graphics, or dive deeper into areas you want to learn more about? The only way this is ever going to happen is if TV apps are designed to make such exploration feel natural. And it’s not going to come from the TV industry. People in the TV industry generally don’t think this way. They package up video and present it all ready to consume. No, the best TV apps are going to come from app developers who ask themselves how they can use software to make TV better.

So you tell me, what is a TV app?

News.me: Rebuilt From The Ground-Up For The iPhone

When betaworks and a team from the New York Times put out the News.me iPad app last year, it was a forward-thinking experiment on using your Twitter network to filter the news. It was a little bit too forward thinking, as it turns out, with its multiple views of what people in your social network were reading. But the News.me team learned from it and redesigned the entire experience from the ground up for the iPhone app, which just went live today in the iTunes store.

While the News.me iPad app never really took off, its daily news email became a quiet hit. It is a once-a-day summary of the top news your friends are reading on Twitter. The engagement rates on the email product were through the roof, so the team took that as its new starting point. “After seeing the reaction to that,” says News.me general manager Jake Levine, “it became clear to us there is this overwhelming need for a social discovery experience built for news.”

Unlike the iPad app, which never rolled up all of your social news into one feed, the iPhone app does exactly that. (Instead, you had to click on each of the people you follow on Twitter one at a time to see their social news view). The News.me iPhone app presents you with a single, unified stream of the top news stories across your social networks. You can log in with Twitter and now with Facebook too, and then it shows you not only what the people you follow are sharing, but what they are seeing and reading in their feeds.

“There is an opportunity to build a new network for news on top of Twitter and Facebook,”says Levine. “There is too much crap on Twitter and Facebook, and people need help wading through it.”

The iPhone app shows you both the article headline and the conversations around it. But the articles come first instead of the Tweets and status updates. It shows you conversations at the article level, with comments below. This combination of headline and picture, with social comments below is a compelling re-ordering of the way we normally “read” news on social networks. It draws you into the story.

The entire app is designed to be used with one hand.When you click on a headline, you can often read the full story in the app (otherwise it opens up a browser within the app), save it to your reading list for later, and share it via Twitter, Facebook, or email. You can also comment on the article within the News.me app, or just leave a quick reaction (Ha!, Wow, Awesome, Sad, Really?).

I’ve been using the iPhone app for a couple of weeks, and I find myself wanting to tweak the algorithm, or exclude certain sources . But for the most part, it provides a steady stream of top news across my social networks, pre-filtered and ready to read.

Levine is right that there is too much noise out there and News.me is tackling the very hard problem of how to filter the news shared across your social networks. Its first pass is simply to pull out the headlines from the links and show that first, but then it looks for other signals such as how many times a story is shared or retweeted.

Filtering the news in a way that seems natural to different readers is extremely complex. News.me does this filtering job better than most apps using a combination of social signals and algorithms (remember, betaworks also owns bit.ly, so it knows what links people are sharing across the Web). But the key is that it boils this down into a simple interface.

With News.me, the news is only as good as your network. Just one more reason to follow people who share the news you care about.

Facebook Is Selling “Stories,” Not “Ads”

I am sitting here at Facebook’s marketing conference in New York City’s Natural History Museum (TechCrunch has a liveblog here), and the big message Facebook is trying to communicate to the brand advertisers assembled here is that they shouldn’t think about Facebook as a place to show people ads, but rather to tell them stories. Facebook is a “storytelling platform,” says VP of product Chris Cox. Facebook marketing director Mike Hoefflinger put it more bluntly: “We are evolving from ads to stories.”

Just as Facebook users now all have their new, more visual Timeline, brand pages will also soon adopt the Timeline design. Brands will love this because it will give them a much richer canvas to market to Facebook users, including features such as pinned posts and new ad types such as offers.

With pinned posts, Facebook is following in the footsteps of Twitter, which introduced a similar concept on its brand pages in December. But Facebook goes way beyond what Twitter is doing. For one thing, it will now be selling ads in your news feed itself, not just along the side. Twitter for the most part has resisted cluttering the main user streams with ads, (although Promoted Tweets can appear there under some circumstances). Facebook ads will continue to appear in the top right of your Facebook page, but they will also appear in your feed itself, on mobile, and as well as in the logout screen (37 million people a day log out of Facebook, so that is valuable real estate)

But remember, these are not “ads.” They are “stories.” And brands are encouraged to use these stories to create one-on-one relationships with consumers. Usually these stories take the form of things people would like to share like videos of sponsored athletes (something which Red Bull does). A successful ad on Facebook is one that people want to talk about, and thus share on Facebook with their friends.

So how will Facebook make increase the chances that those brand stories will be shared? Probably the most important announcement today for brand marketers is a new Facebook ad targeting product it announced today called Reach Generator. The most likely people who will share a brand’s message are consumers who are already Facebook fans of that brand. Reach Generator is simply a way to target Facebook ads, or “stories” to those fans in different places on Facebook (in their news feed, on their homepage, on their mobile devices, at logout). Ben & Jerry’s, a beta advertisers, found that marketing to fans doubled their engagement rates, and Facebook says other advertisers are finding similar results.

Targeted advertising up until now involved guessing which consumers across the Web would be most likely to be interested in a marketing message. Facebook’s twist on targeted advertising is to show ads to people who have voluntarily stated their affinity to a brand. And those fans then spread those ads to their friends, but only if they don’t seem like ads. So brands need to tell stories.

It’s a return to Advertising 101. The best commercials on TV are mini-narratives. The best magazine ads look like art photos. The best ads online spark a conversation.

PostCrunch

Monday was my last day at TechCrunch, after more than four years and 4,000 posts. This blog is my new home on the Web. I’m keeping it simple. Just a WordPress blog where I will write about startups, technology, and media.

This is a personal blog. It is not a professional news site. I don’t plan to hire any other writers. I don’t even expect it to be my main project (but it is the first one I can share publicly). It will be personal in that I will be writing more for myself than to please readers, but if I please some of you along the way, all the better. I will use it to work through some ideas about media and technology, and as a sounding board, which I hope will inform other projects.

In a way, I am returning to blogging’s personal roots. But on the internet, the personal is very public, which is what originally made blogging interesting. Some of that got lost along the way as blogs became news sites. (Yes, I am partly to blame for that). News sites operate by their own logic which is hard to escape.

I won’t be chasing news here, although I might break some now and then. I am going to write about things I care about. Maybe some of you will care about them as well. What makes a good startup? Where is the nexus of mobile and social? What happens to media in a post-PC, post-TV world?

This will be my TechStream (the sub-title of this blog) because for me media and technology flow together. Over the past few years, media has become dominated by realtime streams—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and so on. Media is increasingly consumed as streams of information. Also, more generally, here is where I will publish my stream of thoughts on tech.

No pressure, no deadlines, no noise. All signal.

Photo credit: Audrey