The original Walkman had two headphone jacks. (@OReillyMedia reminds us – and if you look closely, you can spot them!) Couples sharing iPod earbuds was an early sign of communal listening. So, how did the portable player turn listening inward – and how can you turn it back in the connected, Web age?

Industry titans Google, Amazon, and now Apple have each launched “cloud” music services. Yet, despite being connected via the Internet by design, these services are primarily concerned with solo listening. Even with Google’s various social efforts (+1 and the like), or Apple’s fledgling if not-exactly-blockbuster service Ping, there’s little to suggest that sharing with friends online was even a consideration. All of this raises the question: what should listening look like now that we’re connecting to music through the Internet, instead of through the headphone jack of our Walkman? Against that background, writer Primus Luta (David Dodson) offers a guest editorial on the potential of social music and new means of listening.

I’d like to start this off with a proposal. Despite the incredible innovations that have developed in music in the past few decades, none can match the impact of the one pictured above: the Sony Walkman.  To understand my rationale, separate the music from the business.  Though the Walkman had a clear impact on the music industry, what it did for the listener’s experience was the seed for most of the innovations that followed.

When I was growing up, the whole idea of personal listening was limited to one’s ability to find a closed room with a stereo system.  When you played something, everyone within earshot heard it, be it my mom rocking Olatunji while she cleaned house, my sister bumping David Bowie, or my aunt throwing back to Etta James.  I did have a small radio I used to listen to Casey Kasem count down the top 40 in my room, but for the most part, when someone listened to music, everyone did.  Outside, boom boxes reigned supreme: you’d hear what someone was blasting as they walked down the block then hit the record store to track it down.

Then came the Walkman, which allowed for private music listening in any environment.  There were a lot of benefits to this, not the least of which was my mom not having to hear the 2 Live Crew I was nodding my head to (or even knowing I was listening to it, shhhhh).  Over the years, however, this privatization of music listening has led to a decrease in spaces for social listening or even recognizing that listening to music is a social experience.

This piece began with a simple tweet from CDM editor Peter Kirn, in which he made a tongue in cheek reference to music being his favorite anti-social experience.  The comment stuck out for me because I’d recently been using two services which sought to restore the meaning of social listening.  Both services move away from the networking aspect of the social movement, assuming you already have the network of friends you’d like to listen to music with, and jumping straight into the practical by providing a virtual space where you and those friends can listen to music together.

“As a teenager,” Abe Fettig, the developer behind The Listening Room shares,  “it seemed like any time I was with friends, shooting baskets, playing videogames or riding around in someone’s car, there was music playing. So even though I listened to commercial radio a lot back then, I think most of the music I fell in love with came to me via having a friend who owned the album play it for me.

“I had been thinking about how listening to music with other people, and talking about what you’re listening to, is a fun thing to do, and something I wished I could do more,” he shares on the inspiration for The Listening Room. “There’s something about the conversation that makes it more fun than just hearing the song.”  Inspired by NPR podcasts of a similar format, Abe and his friend Luke began a blog.  “We both listened to a song at the same time, talked about it in real time, and published our chat to the blog.”

For better or for worse the blog wasn’t the biggest success, but the idea behind it stuck with Abe.  “Reading about HTML5 audio, and I thought it would be a fun experiment to build an app that would stream an mp3 file from one person’s web browser so another person could hear it in their browser. So I started with that, and immediately felt like I was onto something good.”

Similar thoughts were at play in Denmark, as Esben Milan, one of the developers behind MuMu Player, explains: “I thought about making a live whiteboard where creative people could meet in a online space and draw, write and create projects together. My good friend had a similar idea for an office player where everybody in the office could control the physical speakers.”  From this, MuMu Player was born.

Five users share a playlist, love of music and laughs in MuMu Player

While there are parallels between the two services, the executions and experiences do differ.  With MuMu Player, a central playlist layout manages social interaction.  “Everybody in the player can upload music and re-arrange the playlist – and the music plays in sync. That’s it. It’s the virtual way of when friends listen to music together in real life.”  MuMu Player’s simplicity makes it quite intuitive.  The shared playlist shows everyone’s uploads in the order in which they will be played and a side bar area is set aside for chatting while the music plays.  One of the biggest differences between the two services is that MuMu is limited to five listeners per room.  There are advantages to this, especially when managing the playlist and following conversations in the chat window.  Overall, it makes the experience feel very intimate.

The Listening Room abandons the centralized playlist and has no user limit, but because of that, operates a little differently. “Any registered user can create a room and add songs. When a song plays everyone in the room hears it, and sees the record spinning with album art. Any user — even those who haven’t registered — can drop in on a room to listen and chat. The chat is in sync with the music, so as you scroll down the page you can see what people said next to what was playing at the time.”  What plays isn’t as immediately intuitive as with MuMu.  The shared playlist is replaced with a personal queue of songs which only you can see and rearrange.  When multiple users have songs in their queue, the room will alternate between user queues to pull selections.  As there are no user limits on an individual room, it takes away the hassle of having to worry about playlist management, though without being able to see what someone has in their queue until it plays it makes the song selection a little less interactive.

Ultimately, though, the thing that makes both services is the ability to converse about music in real time.  Not only can you play your friend that song, you can key them in on a specific part of it.  Discover the six degrees that separate your interest in shoegaze from your friend’s death metal collection.  And how are you supposed to know what minimal witch house is until someone you trust plays it for you?

I wish I could end this piece right here: try them both and see what works for you.  Either way, you’ll surely discover the joy true social listening inspires.  Unfortunately, though, both of these involve a hot topic of discussion in the IP world — streaming rights.  Both services do everything they can to adhere the rules as they exist today, but there’s reason for concern.

“Its a very complex area,” Esben explains. “We believe MuMu is legal, like it is legal for groups of people to listen to music together in real life. Everything in MuMu is also made with that in mind. By example, when a user exits a player his or her’s songs automatically is removed from playlist.”

“The United States has what’s called statutory licensing  for ‘non-interactive’ broadcasters,” Abe says. “The statutory license means that you don’t have to negotiate your own deal with the music labels – there are predefined terms available to anyone, as long as your service meets the definition of non-interactive, which basically means the listener doesn’t get to choose exactly what they want to hear on demand (Pandora is non-interactive, for example). So I designed The Listening Room to meet the qualifications for a non-interactive service. And my company pays SoundExchange [an entity that represents labels and artists] as well as BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC [which represent songwriters and publishers] fees for all the music that gets played.”

So far, there have been no legal actions against the services, but considering they are breaking into a new realm of streaming service, how that will hold up is uncertain.  That both are aware of the issues bodes for their ability to adjust should things change.

The Listening Room
MuMu Player

Ed.: Do let us know if you try these services, and what you think of the challenges social listening faces, and potential it holds – technological, legal, and personal. I noticed a headline the other day claiming people were using smart phones as quasi-boomboxes, albeit via the internal speaker, but that still seems a poor substitute. Can social listening translate online? -PK

  • Nice one. It'd be nice if SoundCloud would get something like this.

    A decade ago my wife (back then girlfriend) lived on another continent so we used to listen to the same tracks over the phone while chatting or doing instant msg. Now that was fun! "press play on 1, 2, 3!" 😉

  • You gotta check out, then. You can invite people into a sort of chat room, and then play music and everyone can hear it. You can upload whatever mp3s you want, and up to I think 5 people can DJ at a time, where each person sets up a playlist and after one person's song is done, it starts the next song on the next person's list. Design is a little all over the place, but the functionality is pretty much perfect, and it's a lot of fun.

  • more than a decade ago, a company i worked for, Pseudo programs, created channels of live interactive audio/video. people from all over the world joined in via chat and phone number to interact with DJ's/Hosts. the community shared music via ftp/email/browser uploads that could be played on shows. eventually we would allow people to use web cams…then bloomberg bought the company and dismantled the interactive content model. oh well.

  • +1 for


    This service makes me feel like it's the early 90's again and I'm just discovering real time chat. I've not had real time chat with strangers from across the world in a very long time, aside from freenode IRC, which is usually a bit less exciting than playing and discussing music.

  • Turntable FM is a great new service, but differs a bit from the two services featured here, primarily because it is setup as a social networking game.  IMO while there is a social aspect to it, the networking and points system affect what is played.  It becomes less about sharing music, and more about playing what people will like for the props.  While I do feel there is a place for that, my experience with the two services featured here has felt more intimate in terms of connecting with friends around music.

  • I think alot of this is based on already what is happening on facebook with people posting tracks from youtube, these newer sites are simply taking out this use case and putting it into a separate site. Which I think might be why they won't be all that successful outside of a few early adopters.

  • Just to give an example, a year ago I thought it would be nice to setup a facebook page where tracks that people heard played at the berlin club Panorama Bar/Berghain could be shared.
    The process is that people who were at the club hear a track, they find it on youtube when they get home and then post it to the page. Originally it was only friends who knew each other and regulars at the club that were involved, but it took off and now there are 15,000 page subscribers. Facebook even recently allowed page owners to classify a page as a "Playlist".
    Also amongst my friends I am seeing a new phenomenon,  what I call youtube crate digging. There is now so much music digitalized on Youtube from the past decades that people are digging through them, finding gems that they then post to there walls. Sort of like a crate digging, finding a great unknown gem and then playing it to your friends. The frequency of playing tracks also needs to be low, if everyone is posting stuff constantly the whole discovery thing goes out the window as there is just too much stuff to listen to and people switch off. The "like" button is a form of feedback to let you know that people are listening and approve of your track, providing a nice validation feedback loop that we all need as people 😉
    One cavet in this process is that if everything goes mobile and the desktop disapears, the action of cutting and pasting a link from Youtube and creating a wall post becomes overly tedious. So there is some work needed here. But outside of that I can't see any extra functionality that will get people to move from Facebook and Youtube and into a new social network on mass. 

  • @Gavin
    It should be distinguished this is very different than sharing a youtube link with a friend.  Even with a discussion on Facebook about a youtube link, you aren't interacting in real time with the music.    All of the networking paradigm things really don't have to apply here.  When you post a link on a networking site it's about your profile, and how that profile makes you valuable within the network.  There are network rewards for the popularity of your selections.  The social commodity aspect I think takes something away from the joy of honestly sharing music.  

    In their current state both of these services step back from that model and focus in on you as a music listener and your other friends that are music listeners.  There's no like button, no become a fan.  There isn't even really a means for networking as the rooms for the most part are restricted to people you invite.  When you go into one of these spaces it's only about listening and talking about music with people in real time.  This is far closer to the analog version than posting a video on your profile for whatever percentage of your friends/followers give you e-credits for.

  • I recall sitting on the bus, where young girls used to share their small earplugs (one per girl!) – of their mp3:s and minidiscs. I also vaugely recall seeing a dual headphone jack once!

  • "The social commodity aspect"

    I don't think though there is anything wrong with someone posting a link and their facebook friends liking it. Its basic human communication and we all need it, be it a virtual nod of agreement or clap. Its part of human nature and makes us happy. Be that a facebook "like" or whatever. Its only when you wrap it in business/marketing speak that it takes on a certain connotation. 

    The other more interesting point is to do with how musical taste is pretty individual to each person and that bombarding each other with a constant stream of musical recommendations will invariably make each other switch off and just go back into our own selections. Hence the frequency of recommendations needs to be low. One or two tracks fine, but 30 people hitting each other with their own radio stations based on our personal taste? Why not just listen to your own selection?

  • greg's "gatekeeper" question is almost insulting. :-p

  • Don't forget the PairShare app for smartphones.  It acts like the old Sony Walkman from the article photo above.  Only its wireless and you can use it with as many users as need be.  Very clever!

  • howisya

    gavin brings up a good point about bombarding people with recommended songs. i really enjoy sharing songs i like in this live listening environment, whether they're new or old to me, but i've learned that you can't unleash all your "best" songs at once for a variety of reasons. on a more practical level, people leave with little to no warning either for the moment or for the day, especially if it's during work hours, so the people you have in mind to hear the song might not necessarily hear it. the song might not fit the playlist (or the "mood" of the room–yes, it's just like real-world DJing in that you read the room, only in this case you rely on the chat and whether people seem to be actually around). finally, there is a desensitization when you are playing hours of single tracks, usually from nonrepeating artists. maybe that song you love or feel is amazing didn't get the reaction you expected or none at all because people are too busy talking about a previous song or something else or maybe just can't comment on everything because it would be exhausting and people are multitasking. you have to sense when the time is right if you want people to give feedback. the live interaction as you listen is what makes it cool, especially if you're not playing songs "everybody" is familiar with. there is validation involved for bringing something at least notable or interesting to the room. for me, it's not even about oneupmanship or being cool so much as just finding out what other people think of music that is meaningful or interesting to me, and in that sense there is common ground with a facebook page where people post youtube songs, but the key difference is you ostensibly have the ears of the room at that moment and can direct the conversation to probe what people really think of what we're hearing, which i think is pretty unique online and a throwback to simpler times offline, maybe when you were first discovering music. the live collaborative nature with other users building a communal playlist we all hear in synch is also special, especially in mumu where there's no default alternation or undisclosed selections. anyway, give these sites a try and see for yourself.

  • Listening Room is where it's at! I think even more interesting is the idea of online communities being built around this new forms of distribution. For instance, the Qwantz room in Listening Room has been going strong since January (excluding some time when LR was down for maintenance). There are polls, memes, and genuine fellowship among its listeners.&nbsp ;

  • Damon

    The original walkman. my younger sister bought one and I used it to mow lawns for cash.  It lasted for years, outlasting a number of newer models down the road. I realize they had 2 phone connections, but they were also built like a tank. This is what I care about here. Oh well!

  • Downpressor

    I'm old enough to remember the pre-walkman days as well when "social music" meant people listening in the same place. To tell the truth I still prefer that idea for a few reasons:

    1. This sort of usage of music happens while doing something else. This seems to go against the idea of webchat which is something that generally takes up most or all of a screen and requires more focus, essentially becoming a solo/anti-social activity.
    2. A physical group listening experience means everyone hears the music from the same playback device so the experience is reasonably consistent for the whole group. With some web based thing who knows what the other listeners have for playback? What good is it for me to play some bass heavy music when other people might be on tinny laptop speakers?
    3. "/me grabs and dances" is pretty darn unlikely to produce the same result as the real thing. BTW the two headphone walkman was PERFECT for sharing what felt like a private moment with your sweetie in public.

  • PinkyTheBrain

    I live in Berlin and i just recently stumbled across some fellow music-lovers how created an free app just for that! Gives u an virtual listening room with comment possibilities, kind of an small web-radio on your smartphone. I start a song and my friends, where ever they are can tune in and automatically hear what u are listening to. On both, iOS & Android, as far i know. Go have a look @&nbsp ;    absolutely worth it!!                    

  • Just to keep things accurate, the OP's recollection that the Sony Walkman revolutionized listening because it made private and portable music listening possible is not accurate.  The Walkman was developed in the very late 1970's and became a world-wide phenomenon in the 1980's. It's innovation was that it offered stereo playback from cassette tapes which meant the listener was in control of what he or she heard.  However, private and portable music was old school long before the Walkman was developed.

    Portability and private listening was introduced in the mid 1950's with the transistor radio which Wikipedia calls the most popular electronic entertainment device in history (in terms of number of units manufactured).  They were pocket-sized, came with an ear bud, and were everywhere you looked by the early 1960s.  You could only listen to the radio but that's what everyone listening to popular music listened to.  They only played back in mono, but that's how almost all popular music was recorded and mixed (the stereo mix of Sgt. Pepper's (released in 1967) was an afterthought that neither the Beatles nor George Martin cared very much about).  The Walkman was a revolutionary product but it had nothing to do with enabling private and portable music listening.  That had been in place for 25 years before the Walkman appeared on the scene.

  • AWESOME! throwback, I still use mine 🙂
    Like all things music from lp turntable to the ipods, and the Walkman were and in some cases are useful depending on what era of music time space you are from or still living in. I don't mind sharing my gift of music, but just please remember, we Indies make our livelihood from our gifts. Who am I? The Silver Conductor @, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube & iutnes. I as an Indie Artist I'm just looking for love and play from the online communities that love the gift we offer, which is the glue to all human existence. Music
    Remember: "Always know who loves you" The Silver Conductor

  • Hi there,

    Great article.
    We thought we'd pop our heads up and pitch in with our own little comment as we are doing something quite similar to MuMu. We are company based in Berlin who are trying elevate the social music listening experience.

    The above Sony Walkman with the dual jack was actually the initial inspiration for A nifty piece of technology that would enable two people at the same time to listen to music.

    What we are tring to do is similar to MuMu, essentially allowing people to make their own radio station on their mobile but in mobile communities across the world.You can interact with your friends whilst experiencing new stations and music everywhere you go in the world in real time.

    We want to change the "anti-social experience" into one where people are unified, not to mention that the is totally legal as it fits firectly into the statutory licensing mould.

    Please check us out and let us know what you think.

  • eric

    Very Interesting.
    This makes me think of a friend who told me about a listening party at someone's house when "In Rainbows" came out. Everyone laid on the floor, they cranked up the volume and they all listened to the album the whole way through for the first time together.
    It makes me think about listening to Cannonball Adderley with my friend Dan.
    Makes me think of listening to songs on the stoop at my old house, or impromptu dance parties in the basement, or dancing to “Gut Feeling” by Devo in the park blasting from my friend’s bike trailer sounds system.
    On youtube there's this fellow who shares funk 45's. There is no interaction between you and the poster during the sharing of course, but in this one particular video of his that I really like ( he has a friend over and they are fucking loving this 45, and the dialog is basically, "woooooooo," "damn," and "that's nice, nice," but then there's also head nodding, finger snapping, hand clapping, grooving, all that. That's all feedback that's not available in any listening room online. You can’t see your friend moving and shaking. You can’t see your friend loving it, eating it up. Well maybe you can if they got good emoticons or something.
    The internet is very convenient for sharing music, but as far as the shared listening experience, maybe try doing it away from the light of the glowing rectangle. Why stay connected to the computer for listening to music with friends, or for socializing, or sharing. Why sit on a friend’s porch and watch a thunderstorm roll in, when we can chat online while watching it via video stream. Fuck that. “Wave of the future, dude,” yeah well… maybe I’m just old fashioned or maybe as a wiser man than myself once said about something along these same lines, “I still jerk-off manually.”

  • anon

    One thing worth noting is Soundcloud's commenting system. It allows for comments to be placed in the context of the music, at specific times. Of course, these are completely public and you can't have the nuanced, real time interaction of actually listening to someone.

    What is really interesting me is the forthcoming Google+ network. It has group video chats (up to ten people), where you can watch a Youtube video together. It seems like this could be a great option if people adopt that social network. Rather than focusing on just music with chat, it lets you enjoy any audiovisual media and see your friend's emotions.

  • Tom

    You need to have a look at Does true social playlist building and listening to music with your facebook friends. Signup with a Facebook account.

  • Shellbear

    Hey! This is a WONDERFUL article! thank you so much – I’m writing a college application and this is just what I needed. Thank you so, so much! Merry Christmas!!!

  • Shellbear

    Hey! This is a WONDERFUL article! thank you so much – I’m writing a college application and this is just what I needed. Thank you so, so much! Merry Christmas!!!

  • Shellbear

    Hey! This is a WONDERFUL article! thank you so much – I’m writing a college application and this is just what I needed. Thank you so, so much! Merry Christmas!!!