Over the past year, a number of startups have released location-based music apps—each aspiring to revolutionize the way we listen to music.
Wahwah.fm, the most innovative of them, enables users to listen to music and simultaneously “broadcast” the session to a larger community. Meanwhile, other users can join the audience, and all can send messages back and forth in real-time. The app has the potential to give users a window into what music people are listening to nearby and what’s trending in places far away. This is significant, because it hints at how music culture and user habits may evolve.
Location has always limited our access to distant music scenes, and while the web has upended the tyranny of geography for some listeners, it remains an everyday constraint for most. But as more music listening activities become linked to location—thanks to apps like wahwah.fm and others—it’s clear that connected devices will continue to lower such barriers.
What happens next? Here are three insights into the future of geosocial music:
1. Invisible culture emerges.
A new layer of music culture is emerging all around us, built not from brick and mortar, but lines of code. It’s located everywhere, but because it’s independent of place, it’s situated nowhere.
Welcome to invisible culture, where music culture is not tied solely to places in the physical world, such as record stores or concert venues that can be reached by foot, but linked to locations through apps on connected devices. The digital revolution made our music and players invisible and weightless, and it has now made a layer of culture that’s invisible and placeless.
When a user views this layer through a device, they’ll be able to see a map of the area and the density of listener activity and music experiences linked to it. These can range from personal radio stations and group-listening rooms to user-tagged songs and photos, and maybe even the location of low-key artist events like jam sessions and house shows. Users will be able to move between digital and physical worlds, dropping by a local Turntable.fm room—either from the comfort of home or while out and about—and even request an invitation to attend a listening party that’s being held at someone’s place later that week.
On the one hand, the physical world is going digital, making it invisible. On the other, the digital world is becoming visible, making it physical. Music culture is everywhere, but situated nowhere.
2. People are portals.
Wahwah.fm often uses radio as a metaphor to describe what it does: Users listen to music and “broadcast” the session as a “radio station” that other users can “tune in” to.
But that’s not quite right. In science fiction, a portal is a magical or technological doorway that connects two distant locations separated by space-time. If you think about it, a portal is exactly what a person becomes when they air songs through wahwah.fm, as it opens up a doorway that enables faraway users to connect to another city’s music scene and hear what people are listening to there.
This distinction is important, because the connections being made through wahwah.fm are to people and not to places. Users can be connected wherever they are, whether at home or out of town, driving in a car or sitting in a coffee house.
Prior to the web, the music culture that formed in many places consisted of communities of people drawn together around physical locations—such as record stores, clubs and radio stations—whose social activities in the aggregate created a local scene. After a decade of disruption and consolidation brought forth by the digital revolution and other market forces, the scene-making activity at many of these locations has ceased, causing their attendant communities to fracture and move elsewhere.
More and more often, the new “where” for members of these communities is online. As smartphones made the web mobile and integrated with GPS, it provided developers with the platform needed to build geosocial apps that connect listening activity to individuals and enable communities to form around them.
The person is becoming the portal—the primary hub of connectivity.
3. Scenes become global.
Since listening sessions in wahwah.fm are linked to your location, it means that user activity in New York or Los Angeles could be measured to reveal artists who are popular there. Those results could then by filtered to include only local artists, thereby creating a list of the most popular artists in that area. In this way, local scenes could be turned into a local music stations.
A wahwah.fm user who lives in New York could tap into Los Angeles and experience the sounds of the local scene, or perhaps enable a shuffle-like feature that would take him or her on a virtual tour of major scenes—like Nashville, Atlanta, or Montreal—and highlight trending songs in those areas.
While a user listens to a song on this platform, they could be shown biographical bits about the artist, fan-captured photos from their latest live shows, and facts about the area to provide context.
Of course, listening to a scene isn’t the same as being there. Roaming the streets of Los Angeles in Google Maps isn’t the same as walking them. A scene is a place regarded as having a sound, but it’s the people and artists that shape it. What a listener hears then isn’t the scene itself, but the musical essence of it.
That essence, though, gives users insight into scenes existing outside of their own. It also provides those of us without a local scene access to distant locations and the sounds attached to them.
As people become portals, scenes will become global. Trending music will spread more quickly from one area to another, further influencing the sound artists produce and the music listeners hear.
To many, this future may seem far out, but in some ways, it’s already here. The web continues to teach us that the communities that form in the digital world eventually seep into the physical one.
Take Jelli, the social radio service, for example. Last year, a few broadcast radio stations in Las Vegas fully integrated Jelli into their offerings. This enabled a station’s listeners to participate in a group chat and vote for songs in the service to be played on the air.
Over time, strangers became friends and regular users started hosting meet-up groups around town where they used the digital service in a physical space. The radio station and the music it played gave them something to talk about, and soon people discovered they had other things in common.
"They came for the music and to get their song on the air, but they stayed because of the people they met in chat and the real-world meet-ups,” says Jelli CEO Mike Dougherty. “These listeners are a great example of what a 'local scene' can be in the age of social media, mobile, and participatory media."
Indeed, the new music community is just that: a community. The culture and technology evolves, but human nature remains consistent. We’re made to be together, and often, music catalyzes that impulse.