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JQBX.fm and Live Collaboration

Aug 08, 2020

A few years ago, I would pop onto a website called turntable.fm, where you could pick a cute little avatar to represent yourself in a room and choose to either be a DJ and play music for the room or just vibe as a listener. As a DJ, you could pick from songs from an existing catalog or upload your own, which made the service popular with DJs like Diplo. With each song, every person in the room had the option to vote on whether or not they liked the song, a form of instant feedback. At the time, turntable.fm was the most interactive and fun way to listen to music, but it struggled to compete with Spotify and Pandora’s mobile offering and ultimately folded.

After a few years of getting used to the Spotify recommendation algorithm, finding new music feels harder than ever before. The algorithm over-indexes on music that you already listen to or extremely similar vibes, so all of the recommendations start to sound the same. It’s still a very manual process to seek out new music that you like, something that is difficult to really put into words. The best music I’ve discovered in the last year has all been through recommendations from my friends, which I often incorporate into my own playlists to share and hopefully introduce them to new music.

My coworkers and I have been using a copy of turntable.fm called JQBX.fm (pronounced “jukebox”) to share music during the day and try to recreate the days when we would alternate adding songs to the office Sonos and jam out throughout the workday. And it’s incredible. It lacks the fun characters and the wide variety of music (it uses Spotify Premium), but it works well enough to showcase the power of human curation on a small scale. Since each person can only play one song at a time, there’s some level of coordination required to keep a consistent vibe going through several songs. It’s not the easiest thing, but when it works well, the results are incredible.

JQBX can’t recreate the sheer fun and community of turntable.fm, yet it has a feature that helps it to exist as something entirely different. Hidden in a “history” tab on the right-side of the page, there’s a button that says “Export To Playlist.” Clicking the button automatically generates a playlist of every song that was played in that room. So, you can check out “the palace of immaculate vibes” playlist below, which we dubbed the room after we had a bunch of great songs play in a row.

I’m fascinated with this idea of live collaboration as a form of creativity. Live collaboration is inherently more generative than working solo and creating a large corpus of work to build off of can lead to a lot of interesting things. For example, the McElroy brothers started a Dungeons and Dragons podcast called The Adventure Zone (TAZ). _Dungeons and Dragons_is a practice in collaborative storytelling and improvisation, as each person acts as a character going through a high-level story developed by the Dungeon Master (DM). In TAZ, we get to witness the development of several characters going through new worlds, with the trademark humor of McElroys keeping everything interesting. TAZ was so successful as a form of generative storytelling that it spawned a graphic novel series and an upcoming animated series.

Historically, we’ve only seen collaboration happen in person really— a band jamming together or chefs combining ingredients. And we’ve started to see some work tools dive into the space of digital live collaboration, like Google Docs and Spotify, but how can we do the same for other forms of creative work?

We can get some level of collaboration through tools like JQBX for playlist making or set list-making or album making, but what if two musicians could jam together in real-time? What if two artists could work on the same painting at once?