When the MP3 revolution hit its stride, the coolest thing about it was how much control we were given over our music. Weightless files and tiny players let you carry your entire library around with you, all the time. Anything you wanted to listen to - so long as you had already hunted it down - was available instantaneously with a swipe of the finger. No longer would we be limited by what we could physically carry, or what a radio network chose to play.
It quickly became clear that while this level of control was great some of the time, there was still something nice about having someone (or something) else pick your music. Basically, we needed a way to recapture that heady feeling of being surprised by an old favorite, or enjoying an artist we'd never heard of before.
The shuffle feature recaptured some of those feelings: Dump an iPod or a playlist into a pot, draw songs at random, and hope for the best. Today, we have better ways to hand over the reigns than just counting on dumb luck. The second digital music revolution lets music fans decide with precision how we'd like our music to be chosen - even if we aren't the ones doing the choosing.
Apps like Pandora and SpotON Radio create virtual stations based on artists and like/dislike buttons. Songza shuffles through playlists curated by music experts. Turntable.fm, Soundrop, and Rolling.fm let users hang out in communally-DJed listening rooms. There's even an app that you listen, "CB Radio"-style, to songs broadcast over the internet from another user's iPhone. All of those apps focus on music you may not own.
A smaller group of apps curates your own music for you in new ways - a kind of "smart shuffle." Apple iTunes Genius is the most obvious example; pick a song, and iTunes builds a playlist of similar stuff from your own collection.
PlayGrit's nice-looking interface represents your music library as a grid of mulitcolored dots.
PlayGrit ($2 for iPhone and iPod touch), released this month, takes a more novel approach. It represents each song on your device with a colored dot. It organizes these dots by genre, play count, or release date. To create a playlist, simply draw a line to "connect the dots," adding each one you touch along the way to the playlist. This makes it nearly impossible to hit a specific song intentionally, but in this case, that's a good thing, because the whole point is to rediscover your tunes. A fair amount of randomness is built in, but the organizational principles let you exact some control.
The app looks fantastic, but we don't envision using it on a daily basis.
ITunes Genius, PlayGrit, and their ilk have mostly failed to attract the enthusiasm garnered by the other apps mentioned here, which could be because they're tweeners of a sort. I generally want to choose exactly what I want to hear or give my ears over to whoever (or whatever) wants to DJ more completely, from a pool of music I might not know. This middle approach doesn't make as much sense (unless, perhaps, you're the type to download randomly and voraciously from bit torrent).
That objection aside, we're intrigued by the way people seem to be retreating from the original promise of digital music (total control), and gravitating towards apps that choose music for them.
A decade after the iPod promised that we could master our musical domains for the rest of time, music fans are rediscovering the merits of a good DJ, human or otherwise.
(Photo courtesy of Flickr/Josh Itiola)