Know What Imeem?

The abundant culture of playlists


In the small Midwest town where I grew up, the only access I had to current pop music that wasn’t Top 40 was the local college radio station. On a clear day, if I stood in just the right spot of my bedroom with the radio antenna pointed just so, the college station broadcast would be mostly audible, albeit ridden with static.

If a user-friendly music-sharing website had existed in those stone-age days , I’d probably have gobbled it up, and my mother, instead of repeatedly asking me to cease watching late night television and finish my homework, would have had to instead drag me away from the computer.

It sounds great, doesn’t it? A virtual land of countless songs free for the listening, pre-selected for quality by scores of celebrities, friends and strangers—or, in hopeful terms, friends-to-be. And that’s what makes websites like so popular. Remember Napster, the ill-fated, oft-sued charter of free Internet music sharing? After that empire toppled, Napster’s Jan Jannink cofounded imeem in 2004, and, after a fairly short gestation period, the site exploded; late last month, Wired reported that imeem is now the most popular social music site in the country.

There are a couple different reasons for its popularity, but the main one is imeem’s breadth of content, focus on high-profile playlists and ease of use. Last year, College Music Journal posted a free playlist over 270 songs long, featuring acts appearing at their CMJ Music Marathon and Film Fest. And they’ve made deals with all four major record labels, allowing imeem to be a veritable Candyland of streaming music: click on the song, the whole thing plays for free, and if you like it, you can download it from iTunes or Amazon for a small fee.

Shortly into my own excursion with imeem’s ad navigation and playlist browsing, I began to think of more exciting things to do. There was too much of everything—ads, songs, videos—and I don’t even have enough time to listen to the music I already have to begin with.

All of the playlists categorized as “shoegaze” sucked. I could have created and posted my own superior shoegaze playlist, but that would have taken time and effort. Truth be known, it would have been something I did not for the greater good of shoegaze music, but because I wanted people I’d never met to know how much cooler I was than them.

While vacationing recently in a small town adjacent to a national park, I stumbled across an antique mall. One section held shelves and shelves of country music records, most of them from the 1960s, and most of them in excellent condition. They were 50 cents each, and I felt my pulse quicken. Although we’d just visited the only temperate rain forest in North America, I knew I’d come away from the trip boasting of 50 cent country music records. It took restraint, but I only bought two albums, seeing as we don’t actually have a record player.

But I love the way the records smell, and I love the photos on their covers of my favorite Nashville Sound divas with their bouffants and puffy-sleeved prairie dresses, and the men with their pompadours and Nudie suits. And that’s the difference between me and a satisfied imeem user. These music-sharing sites—save ads and videos and user profiles—are pure music, scads of it, but the context is a computer screen and a set of speakers. To me, I guess music is a bunch of musty records I can’t even listen to.

That’s too bad, maybe, because sites like imeem give music lovers more control over what they listen to than ever before. For those who care about Nicole Richie, imeem shared her own Best Of 2007 playlist (number five is Maroon 5’s “Wake Up Call”). But for those who, like me, could care less if Nicole Richie fell off the face of the earth, imeem posted dozens of other year-end playlists to choose from, compiled by artists like Spoon or Aesop Rock.

It’s almost as if Spoon made a personalized mix just for you, except they didn’t. Spoon made a playlist of stuff they like, not stuff they think you, specifically, will like. If Spoon came over and brought one of those record players you could use to upload songs to your computer, I’d make them a playlist of my new Loretta Lynn and Porter Wagoner gospel albums. No one would ever have to settle for standing on one foot just to listen to the college station ever again. Unless you wanted to.