Bring up Twitter #music’s default main page, whether in a browser or the slick, currently iOS-exclusive app, and you’re immediately confronted by beautifully stylized, edge-to-edge stacks of squarish, super-sized Twitter profile art — in the default “Popular” view’s case, colorful pics of the most Twitter-visible artists and songs. There’s @taylorswift13 with “22,” @robinthicke with “Blurred Lines,” @MumfordAndSons with “I Will Wait for You,” and of course @psy_oppa in the number one spot with his “Gangnam Style” followup, “Gentleman.” If your musical interests tend toward trends, in other words, this is precisely the app you’ve been looking for.
And what a lovely app it turns out to be from a design standpoint, easily (and ironically) outclassing Twitter’s own native iOS client and web interface. The iOS version, in particular soars, letting you quickly swipe left or right between its four primary views, alternatively tapping a drop-down menu — the website’s sole navigation mechanic — if you’d rather shortcut-hop around.
Take “Popular,” the default screen, which drops the top 140 (get it?) most popular artists and songs “trending on Twitter” into a 3 x 5 scrollable grid. Click on an artist’s square and you zoom on it, iTunes-style, where you can then listen to an iTunes preview clip, fire off a tweet about it, drill for Twitter-related information (like “Artists Following”), or opt to follow an artist outright.
Slide over to “Emerging” and you can fiddle with the service’s more intriguing music view — another 140 artists, though chances are you’ll recognize fewer of them off the block. Twitter defines this view as “Hidden talent found in the Tweets,” whatever that means. I won’t guess what sort of algorithmic voodoo the company’s working here, but this list seems to turn up primarily the sort of groups — nothing against them, mind you — that you’ll find gracing a site like Pitchfork, i.e. hip-to-be-Indie stuff: Grizzly Bear, Yeasayer, Fitz & the Tantrums, Ladyhawke and so forth. What you won’t find is genuinely off the beaten path wonders like @gretchenparlato, or @SteveReich, or @GreyboyAllstars, or [insert your favorite semi-obscure artist from whatever genre]. But then this is Twitter #music, not Twitter #allgenres or #representative or #comprehensive; what can you do?
Visit “Suggested,” I suppose, which in theory brings you closer to recommendations of relevance, based, it seems, on name-dropping in your Twitter feed. I’m primarily a jazz guy, so seeing @patmetheny, @billycobham, @marcusmiller959, @dejohnettemusic, @espespalding, @herbiehancock and @bobbymcferrin come up (among others) was heartening, even if these artists fall more on the well-known side of the tracks. The other slight downside to the way Twitter #music handles suggestions is that you have to follow artists you like to feed Twitter’s data pool (and expand your buffet) whether you really want to see their tweets in your feed or just listen to their music: a great way to bring followers to artists, but absent the sort of feed-filtering tools Twitter decries, it complicates things for those of us who don’t follow just to be followed.
Swing one slide further to “#NowPlaying,” the last of the bunch, and you’ll find a list of artists “Tweeted by people you follow.” Trouble is, it’s limited by (a) the number of people you follow, and (b) how musically chatty said people are. I keep my who-I-follow count low so I can actually read what these people have to say; the flip side is that all Twitter shows me are nine accounts, most of those tweeted by just one person (here, former TIME scribe and music sophisticate @chrisgayomali).
To Twitter’s credit, you don’t need a Twitter account to fool with the app (or web interface), but the preview clips are in fact mere clips, meaning you can’t set Twitter #music to shuffle between full songs, focusing your attention elsewhere until something interesting hits the mix. If you want to hear full songs, it’s possible to, but you’ll need a Spotify or Rdio account, in which case Twitter #music finally rolls out the red carpet.
While Twitter #music technically qualifies as a discovery tool, it’s probably more accurate to describe it as a rediscovery tool. That’s because it’s fundamentally an extension of Twitter itself: a crowdsourced populist catalogue — a social networking barometer of what’s trendy. If you’re seeing/hearing it in Twitter #music, well, chances are you already have.
The upside is that, to the extent you’re into trend-watching, you’re getting a sort of realtime version of the “Billboard Hot 100.” In fact, you have to wonder if Twitter #music is or can eventually become sufficiently representative of populist taste, whether it renders legacy ranking systems like Billboard’s obsolete.
There’s an adoption curve, of course, but it’s arguably self-fulfilling: You have to be on Twitter to engage in this conversation, which I suspect means we’re about to see musical artist Twitter holdouts — to the extent they even still exist — hop on the social bandwagon to lure as many fans into their 140-character tents as possible.