"Last night I broke the seal on a Jim Beam decanter that looks like Elvis..."
I started writing my review of Twitter Music while listening to a George Jones country song I'd never heard before: "The King Is Gone (and so are you.)" I listened to a lot of George Jones on the day I learned he died. It seemed appropriate, if a bit macabre, to follow him on Twitter Music and see what sort of songs might pop up as a result.
I'm not going to list "The King Is Gone" in my top ten George Jones pantheon (frankly, any chorus with the words "yabba dabba doo" is right out) but I'm glad I heard it. I love being exposed to new music (even if, and sometimes especially if, it's old music).
Twitter Music is all about the social discovery of new music. It suggests for your listening pleasure songs that are already popular on Twitter, songs that the people you follow are tweeting about and listening to, and songs from artists who are in mysterious ways connected to the musicians that you choose to follow. It's confusing in a good, serendipitous, jumbled up kind of way. You're never quite sure how exactly the algorithm works that is generating the tunes, but that's OK. The whole point is discovery, hearing something new that you might like, generated through a fortuitous crunching of your social relationships. If you have a Spotify or Rdio premium account you can listen to the entirety of the songs; if you have iTunes you get a 30-second clip and the option to buy.
Sad to say, the "chart" of songs generated by the artists that whoever was operating George Jones' verified Twitter account had chosen to follow did not do the man's legacy any justice. Kid Rock? For that desecration, I almost spilled my whiskey and trashed my house in a drunken rage, like George Jones did so many times before. Even worse, Twitter Music's "Suggested" category of artists that I might like was suddenly invaded by a pack of crappy modern country singers. Sorry Twitter, if I sign up for George Jones, I'd probably rather hear Hank Williams and Johnny Cash than Blake Shelton. To clean up the mess, I had to unfollow poor George. Just another heartbreak for the Ol' Possum, I guess.
At Wired, Mat Honan explains that Twitter Music is a natural direction for Twitter to pursue, because Twitter users love to follow musicians and talk about music. Until today, however, your humble correspondent followed exactly zero musicians on Twitter. Oops.
But I've changed. The mark of a truly good app is that it doesn't just allow you do something fun or more efficiently -- it actually encourages you to change your behavior so as to get more out of your life. In between listening to George Jones sing about heartbreak and adultery and alcohol poisoning via the links that people were sharing on Twitter and Facebook, I started following a dozen or so of my favorite musicians on Twitter Music. At first I was just curious to see what would happen, but then I realized I was actually enjoying some of these songs. I started to engage, to feel some investment in the app.
The merging of social media and music is potent stuff. We learn this fact anew any time a beloved musician dies and our platforms of choice fill with tributes and recommendations and shared mourning and celebration. Whoever figures out how to bottle that juice on an everyday basis will deliver fantastic value for both listeners and artists.
I'm not prepared to say that Twitter Music completely nails it, yet. You can't get the app to recommend songs that are stylistically like other songs, a la Pandora. The "Popular" and "Emerging" categories smell a little too strongly of recording studio promotion and lowest common denominator pop crap for my tastes -- if I want to hear Rihanna's latest hit, I can just turn on the car radio. The playlists generated by following artists also seem open to potential gaming by record labels.
But Twitter Music is slick, and fun to play around with, and I've heard a lot of new music since I started using it. I even heard some songs I like. I'm a little bummed today George Jones won't be singing any new songs, himself, but there's still a world of wonder (and more heartbreak) out there to find. Maybe Twitter can help me get there. Or some Jim Beam.