A rant about 8tracks

Tagged as IP Law, Music, Personal

Written on 2011-01-09 06:15:54

A few months back I discovered a playlist sharing service called 8tracks. It allows you to upload tracks or search among already uploaded tracks to create playlists (with a minimum of 8 songs) that you can then share with your friends. There were some light but sensible requirements on playlists, they couldn't contain more than 2 songs by the same artist or from the same album. As a listener, you could skip to the next track in a playlist but you couldn't do that more than...I think twice an hour. Otherwise, that was it. You could follow people to get informed about their new mixes and there were some commenting and tagging features. It's a simple idea but it had a slick interface and it was very easy to browse around and add your own playlist. In other words, good fun.

I immediately threw up two similar playlists I'd come up with way back in 2006 or so, listened to a playlist or two of a friends and did some work. I visited 8tracks once in a while to look for new music and meant to get around to posting more playlists of my own. I finally got around to working on a playlist over the holidays but had some nasty suprises in store when I tried to upload it. The RIAA (record labels) have forced 8tracks to remove community tracks so I have to upload each song myself AND after the playlist has been listened to once by a given listener the track order is randomized on each future listening.

Now 8tracks is doing their best to appease these foolish companies that think this will somehow help their bottom line by keeping people from listening to or discovering new music. 8tracks is also doing their best to not let this ruin the service and, if you're a Mac user, they have provided a tool that will let you drag and drop playlists from iTunes and automatically do all the song uploading for you. Why would that matter? Because even with decent upload bandwidth you're looking at spending ten minutes looking for files on your filesystem and waiting for them to upload. But I don't use iTunes, or use a Mac...or Windows for that matter.

I was really excited about 8tracks as a service and hoping to use it more in the future. I know the site is working towards rectifying the situation to restore the old functionality and I sincerely hope they find success. There are a number of reasons that this state of affairs is really terrible for them. Here are a few:

  • The whole point of a good mixtape involves the sequencing of tracks for coherency, flow, emotional potency and storytelling. Does the music industry really not understand that randomizing a mix at worst fundamentally destroys it or at best turns it into just a selection of songs?

  • I'm pretty sure it won't magically force people who otherwise *weren't* buying music (like me) into purchasing albums. Keeping people from being exposed and engaged in music is not the way to market penetration, relevance or consumer interest. Guaranteed.

  • One significant reason the site was such a joy was the simplicity of it. You simply searched for songs, dragged them into a list, arranged them and hit save. It was easy to use, attractive and fun. This is one of those "design really counts" moments. Forcing the user to open a file browser constantly and sit around waiting on uploads immediately limits the site to those with fast connections or patience and dedication. You've taken a potentially large market and limited it to a much smaller number of hardcore users.

  • Let's not even mention the fact that 8tracks has to worry about an entirely new technical problem. If they're storing each user's songs individually, how do they manage to consolidate the 8,000 uploads of Bad Romance or what have you? I'm sure you could binary diff the files or get a SHA-1 hash of them as they come in and then have duplicate files just point to an entry in a Distributed Hash Table or something. Unless they do the hashing client side (which admittedly isn't hard) they're still going to have to deal with a lot of bandwidth usage for all those identical copies being uploaded. This isn't impossible by any means, it's just unreasonable. Their is no reason this is a problem which they should have to spend their time on. It doesn't do anything to enhance the core values or draw of their site. It does *nothing* for their value proposition to me, the consumer. That said, users had the option of uploading files all along if they weren't in the "community tracks" so hopefully the developers were already doing something like this.

As I understand it, 8tracks is a side project for a number of folks and none of them yet work on it full time. It shows a delightful level of polish if that is indeed the case. A huge part of that polish came from the User Experience which has, at least in my opinion, been severely damaged by the record labels. What's so sad is that this site did nothing but allow users to discover and share new music in a fun and interesting way and it was engaging in large part because the User Experience/Design was just damn good. Given the limitations that were already there I sincerely doubt anyone was trying to avoid buying music by skipping through playlists and listening to music there. Any human over the age of 6 is smart enough to just listen to the radio (or internet radio) or navigate to filestube.com or a torrent site by now. Keep shooting yourself in the foot, recording industry. Maybe one of these days you'll get a whole red cent out of it.
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Unless otherwise credited all material Creative Commons License by Brit Butler