Here's the core of the problem. When music fans use an online music service, whether that means free music on YouTube or a paid subscription, they're more-or-less alone. If I use Spotify, you use Rhapsody, and our friend Bob uses MOG, the three of us might as well be in different universes when it comes to sharing and talking about what we're listening to. Our playlists, comments and "likes" don't translate.
The inability to share music degrades the experience for all three of us — perhaps to the point that we won't renew our subscriptions, or would never sign up in the first place.
It reminds me of when I used to DJ a small room in San Francisco. We weren't too serious about it — this was basically a way for us to play music we liked over big speakers and showcase our friends' bands. Still, we had a problem: People would show up throughout the night, and leave when they saw a mostly empty floor. Another group would do the same thing, and so on. If they all arrived at the same time, that night may have gelled.
Likewise, when people try a paid music service today, they are isolated. The chance that all of their friends will decide to subscribe to the same music service is virtually nil. If you share a Spotify, Rhapsody, MOG, or other link on Facebook or Twitter, only your other friends who have that service can play it. YouTube is a cross-platform exception.
There's not much "connective tissue", as Reuters' anonymous source described Facebook's upcoming music strategy, to bring these paid services together. (See also "4 Ways One Big Database Would Help Music Fans, Industry.")
Facebook will announce an initiative to integrate tightly with multiple music services on September 22, according to various reports. Apparently, and here GigaOm's June 19 report is particularly instructive, the company plans to introduce new sections that show us what our friends are listening to, giving us something else to talk about, which is a reason to stay logged on. Nice move.
You can already share songs on Facebook with multiple services, but the upcoming reported integration would show you what I'm listening to in real time among other things.
We should be able to comment on what they've been doing, in classic Facebook style, and listen to their songs if we use the same service, which is already possible with Spotify, Rhapsody, MOG, Rdio and others (screenshot to the right).
Hopefully for music fans, Facebook will also figure out a way for people to share songs across music services so more of us can hear shared tracks in full. Even if it doesn't, people will reportedly be able to track each other's listening and figure out how to hear stuff by searching on their own.
We've seen similar functionality elsewhere, but Facebook is massive. People use it daily. Prominent music sharing features there could bring to the mainstream all sorts of formerly nerd-like behaviour — stuff like scrobbling music from Turntable.fm.
Social music on Facebook could be big. What will it look like?
First, it will be cool, because the non-stop hangout on Facebook would have a socially customised soundtrack for those who want it. We can already sit near our Facebook friends at shows courtesy of Ticketmaster, so we should be able to listen together at home, too.
The Social Network makes no secret of letting app developers and outside marketers see what we do there. Earlier this year, we learned that our faces could end up in Facebook ads if we don't set our preferences right, among other seemingly-periodic issues. If Facebook's reported music plan succeeds, it will know who listens to what, who influences them, who they influence, what they did while they listened (to an extent), and more.
That might be fine. Apple won't even tell the Financial Times or any other app developer who their customers are. But for Facebook, that sort of user information appears to be the name of the game, and music is another way to get a lot more of it.
On the other hand, who cares? Many of us (present company included) like using Facebook today despite the privacy issues. Group listening among so many people can only add to the fun. Who knows, it might make more people pay — happily — for music.
Image: Flickr/Jason Steinschaden