The Web-wide jukebox
Something exciting has just happened to online music, and it has nothing to do with Google's new music service garnering all the headlines.
If you Google search for music related terms, like an artist's name, some results now come with links to audio previews for relevant tracks. It is easy to use, but the service taps into just a few of the online music streaming sites. Lala and iLike are included but others with large libraries like Spotify and Last.fm are ignored. It also only works in the US. But more importantly, Google's service only helps people find music, and what they really want is to listen to it.
If a friend tweets about a song, for example, I don't want to have to search for it: I want a play button to appear in the tweet. I don't care which server the song is stored on, I just want to click it and hear the music. The same goes for tracks mentioned in emails, blogs or anywhere online.
A new service called Playdar tries to do just that. Its creator is Richard Jones, a programmer who developed some of the technology behind Last.fm. Playdar's stated goal is to do one thing: "Given the name of a track, find me a way to listen to it right now."
You can think of Playdar as a language that lets music players like iTunes or any music website talk to music libraries such as Spotify. Players that "speak" Playdar can ask libraries for a track, and if the library has the right song, it starts streaming without the user having to think about where the music is stored.
There are plenty of stores out there – Spotify alone has 6 million tracks – many people have gigabytes of music on their hard drives, lesser-known bands publish on MySpace, and music blogs post rarities. Playdar provides a way to pull all those sources together into one giant jukebox.
Playdar's creators would like it eventually to be built into existing music programs like Apple's iTunes. But you can test a clunky stand-alone version now, which lets you make use of Playlick, a playlist-sharing website. Playlick lets users upload playlists of music that they own and then streams those tracks on request through the site. In effect, it makes your music library portable.
The basic Playdar protocol could make it possible for your player to request music from any other source with Playdar installed, whether another person's computer or a streaming service.
That might sound legally dubious and a threat to existing streaming services, but Playdar's technology could rather save them money. Streaming services pay per-track fees to music companies, but if a user already has a track on their hard drive, Playdar could play that version instead and save the streaming provider money.
So far, though, none of the streaming sites have said anything about Playdar. None of the ones I contacted would comment. Nor would Apple. That may be because they want to avoid aggravating music labels concerned about people streaming music from one another's collections for free.
Even without the industry's cooperation, though, Playdar could still change the way we access music. If it proves popular, it may force music labels to experiment with new ways to get music to listeners, just as illegal file-sharing services have. Playdar's success may be measured not only by take-up of the software, but by the reaction it provokes.