Bars, restaurants, and other venues that pay to play music while you enjoy yourself on their premises have a new tool at their disposal: Roqbot, a social music app which allows customers to influence the music being played at a venue with an iPhone or Android smartphone app, while venues use another app to play requested or recommended music over their sound systems.
Roqbot, which beat over 400 other music apps to win the SXSW Accelerator contest at SXSW last week, pipes music into venues — just like a jukebox, satellite radio, Muzak, or an iPod, but with a few twists. For starters, it plays through “any internet-enabled device” and covers licensing fees so that venues don’t have to worry about getting busted for playing music in a public place without a license.
The Roqbot iPhone app (for iPhone or Android) also lets patrons buy songs jukebox-style, rating them to change the play order or checking the profiles of the people who chose the songs. If they choose to purchase a given song from iTunes, the venue gets a cut of that revenue.
Meanwhile, Roqbot’s game-like elements (details below) evolve the concept of a digital jukebox by adding social gaming elements.
“The out-of-home music space hasn’t kept up with technology innovations, and we think we can bring venue owners something new and interesting,” Roqbot cofounder and CEO Garrett Dodge told Evolver.fm.
The idea for this digital social music app struck Roqbot co-founder and CTO Ketu Patel at a bowling alley.
“I’m from a small town in California, and one of the few places to go there is [Porterville Lanes],” said Patel. “I always got frustrated while I was bowling because I had to walk across the entire bowling alley to the jukebox to change the song. It was screwing up the bowling order.”
Rather than the dimes, quarters, and now dollars and credit cards gobbled by traditional and digital jukeboxes, Roqbot accepts credits that can be purchased with a credit card or earned when the user performs certain actions, such as confirming their email address, rating songs on a venue’s playlist, adding a profile image, or allowing the app to post their plays to Facebook or Twitter. The credits cost a different amount depending on volume; two credits costs a buck — enough for two songs at the end of the queue or one song at the top — while 25 credits cost $10.
In addition, users can vote on each other’s picks, adding a social dimension to the app, somewhat along the lines of Jelli’s crowdsourced FM radio programming. The system rewards highly-rated DJs with “a badge system based on picking good music that other people in the bar like” and generally increasing their prominence within the system, according to Dodge. (Roqbot, currently at version 0.4, is still a work in progress and the founders are currently seeking funding for further development.)
To make it easier to find personally-compatible music within the service, users can sync their Last.fm profile, iTunes library, or Facebook favorite bands into the app. Meanwhile, Roqbot-enabled venues can let customers choose between all five million songs available in Roqbot’s catalog — or restrict them to a subset to fit the style of the venue. The system can import the venue’s existing playlists and provide recommendations based on artists that already define a particular venue’s sound.
“We want to make it as easy and quick as possible for a venue to build a sub-catalog of music that’s appropriate for their business,” said Roqbot co-founder and CEO Garrett Dodge. “As we collect user feedback [for a specific venue] with the voting, we’ll continue to help algorithmically program a background music stream for them [which plays when nothing is requested].”
All of this often has the unintended effect of bringing patrons within a bar closer together, according to Patel, in a reversal of the usual effect of digital music.
“I’ll just go to a bar and hang out in the corner watching people who use it,” he confessed. “A lot of times, someone will pick a song and then they’ll see that it got three thumbs up, and they’ll try to find who voted their song up in the bar. It spurs a real-world connection between people, and I think that’s something totally new with this type of thing.”
Roqbot has many clear advantages over the traditional jukebox or a venue-controlled iPod, but it also offers much easier music discovery than internet-connected jukeboxes such as the Ecast jukebox — the first internet-connected jukebox ever installed (in Kennedy’s pub in San Francisco, which I covered 11 years ago as part of a CNET column that is no longer online), because it lets people see what’s playing from the comfort of their barstool, restaurant table, or bowling lane.
“Traditionally, you might have heard a new song on a digital jukebox — but in order to discover what that song was, you had to walk over or maybe start asking around,” said Dodge. “Through our app, I’ve actually discovered a lot of new music because you can see what’s playing right then, and click into iTunes to buy it.” (And unlike the song ID mechanism offered by Shazam or SoundHound, Roqbot’s gamelike elements give you an extra reason to check the song’s artist and title.)
Another side effect of this system: It knows with perfect accuracy what it has played, and so can pay artists and their representatives accurately rather than relying on random sampling or other less-reliable methods. As more businesses switch to Roqbot or something like it, the so-called “long tail” artists loved by hundreds or thousands rather than millions of fans should stand a better chance of receiving part of the royalty payments paid by restaurants, bars, and other establishments.
(Screenshots courtesy of Roqbot and Apple; Roqbot is still in beta, so the closest venue to the author is over 1,000 miles away.)