“May I have your attention please! Welcome to the Wide World of Music! For songs you already know, please stand in the Spotify line to your left. For songs you haven’t heard that sound like the ones you know, use the Pandora line to your right. Radios are available in the back of the room for those who wish to take a completely passive role.
“That is all.”
If you responded “bump that” to any of the above, meet TheSixtyOne. Part indie music radio, part social network, and part XBox Live, it is the best thing that ever happened to me as a musical adventurer. While it offers completely free streams of music without commercials for listeners of every mood and interest, it excels as a vehicle for those who want to ambitiously explore the unknown.
And it’s dying. But we can revive it.
What If Pandora were a Video Game?
The year is 2014. We, as a culture, have been invited to “discover new music” by websites ranging from the old MySpace to the new Myspace. (Yes, they changed the S.) In youth, I was satisfied with PureVolume. Years later, I spent an entire summer hooked on Grooveshark. There was even a time I hoped MoonPlayer would fill the void in my life. But nothing ever earned my daily login like the internet haven fans call T61.
When you arrive, autoplay instantly kicks off the tunes and you’re greeted by a full-window graphic provided by the artist whose work you hear. There’s a nav bar across the top, more icons will appear when you move your mouse, and you can flick through songs with clicks or keystrokes. Basic streams to jump into include Top songs, Hot songs, (recently) Posted songs, and others, along with separate channels for any of a dozen Moods you might be in.
There’s an overriding feature, though, that brought me back again and again: gameplay. As a registered listener, you have a Level that you can increase by earning Reputation Points. You can also earn Hearts, which are Facebook-style Likes of which your supply is limited. Your Reputation goes up when other people Heart songs that you have previously Hearted. You get both Points and Hearts (and eventually unlock a vault full of Achievements) as rewards for completing random Quests—such as, “Listen to songs in four different Moods”—that are assigned to you fresh each morning.
There’s also an Open Mic mode, where you set your own Adventure Meter on a scale from 0–100 earn Points for every song you listen to. This is where it’s possible to hear anything, truly anything, that has ever been uploaded. The higher your Adventure Meter is set, the more diversity you’re likely to encounter, and the more Points you earn per song.
But it’s Hearts that are at the core of T61. You have to put in work to earn your Hearts, which you then lovingly distribute to the songs that you like best. If other users share your tastes, your Reputation goes up: even more so if you were an early supporter of a song that eventually gains a lot of hype.
What It Feels Like to Find
Panning for gold is exhausting. The reason we so often allow the radio to screen new music for us is that combing Google for undiscovered talent would be such a low-yield affair. Let me emphasize again that T61 was designed with streams filtered by genre or popularity in case you want a more accessible experience. You can also search for specific songs and artists, construct your own Playlists, and loop songs over and over without limit. But T61 does something unique by creating an environment in which the “panning for gold” endeavor is not only sustainable, but enjoyable.
Since anyone can upload their music to the website, there’s a lot of junk. Plain and simple. You can avoid it by streaming Hot tracks or setting your Adventure Meter low, but I like to sift through everything. Honestly, the muck is part of the reason it’s such a thrill to stumble upon something beautiful amidst it all.
Those spikes of joy might come twenty times a day, or twice a day, or sometimes only twice a week. In between, we need little cookies to eat: small pleasures to keep us satisfied and engaged in the hunt. Those cookies come in the form of Points, Hearts, Quests, and Achievements, and they are incredibly effective. Facebook is addictive, isn’t it? Video games are awesome, right? Trust me, the system works.
The outcome is that you spend time listening to music, sometimes skipping tracks after just ten seconds or zoning out for half an hour, but also frequently tuning in to make sure you’re maxing out your Reputation earnings. Then something catches your ear, and you dig into an artist with potential, freely listening to every song they’ve uploaded. You drop a Heart here and there, and maybe add their song to one of your carefully curated Playlists so that your friends will discover it when they check out your profile. At the end of the day, you’ve got a new pet band that you want to share with the world… plus you’ve earned 12 Hearts, gained 40 Reputation, and gone up to level 3!
Even if you’ve read this far, you may doubt T61’s credibility. You’ve never heard of it; who’s to say that there’s any good music there at all?
In late 2011, my then-girlfriend shared with me a song she’d Hearted called “Safe and Sound.” In January 2014, as we honeymooned in the Philippines, she and I saw a billboard downtown advertizing the upcoming stadium show in Manila on Capital Cities’ world tour. That “Safe and Sound” song was used in two different commercials that aired during SportsCenter this morning, for crying out loud. And they got their first airplay on T61.
To this day, “Safe and Sound” only has about 2,400 Hearts, as compared to all-time favorites like Caro Emerald’s jazzy “A Night Like This,” which has over 14,000. If you’re unfamiliar, this vocalist scored a #1 album in the UK just last year, and basically every American on T61 heard her first.
Before their music was used in One Tree Hill, before any of their four appearances (to date) on Letterman, Atlanta’s own Manchester Orchestra posted “I’ve Got Friends” on T61 as soon as it was released. Since coming out this April, Cope has become the boys’ most successful album yet.
A good friend of Earn This, The Voice‘s Sam Behymer has three full studio albums available on T61, each having been posted there years ago when it was first released. While her most popular track, “Oz,” comes from earlier in her career, you can find the video for a brand spanking new song on her YouTube as of this week.
There are so many bands I met on T61 and fell in love with who never have and probably never will achieve international notoriety. I advertize those above—only a sampling, I could go on—as proof that genuinely popular songs are there on the site. But my cravings for brilliant music are usually satisfied by more unique sounds. I’ve fallen in love with the electro-classical creativity of Anchorage, the soft-voiced robot pop of Beautiful Small Machines, the St. Louis garage rock of Burrowss, and dozens of others. And every once in a while, it’s refreshing to get blown away by the only band that parties harder than Andrew W.K.: Bankai.
A theme among the “big name” artists I referenced above is that they started out on T61, and are still actively writing and performing their own material to this day, but they’ve stopped posting to T61. In truth, the user base has declined over the past couple of years as well. Hope isn’t lost: new music continues to be uploaded every week, Hearts are still being earned and spent by loyal fans, and despite a couple bugs in the code, TheSixtyOne.com remains operational, with every song ever posted still available at a click.
We just don’t know how long it can last.
Out of a deep-seated love for the site’s vision, one man has started reaching out to T61’s two founders in hopes of convincing them either to work on the site again or to sell it to someone who will. There’s a Twitter hashtag, a Facebook group , and a page at Change.org:
If you hadn’t heard of T61 until today, I urge you to try it out. It’s not for everybody, but I’d recommend it to anybody. If you like it, if you’d use it, if you can see what it could become, connect with those of us who are trying to bring it back to its heyday and to still greater success. A community effort seems like the right way to save a community-driven site.
My username on TheSixtyOne is trombonerbyday. I’ve registered just over 2,500 song plays, and I’m currently Level 12. Friend me there! I’ve got some Playlists all set to introduce you to a world of indie music you’ve been missing out on. Then, like so many before, you can set out on your own adventure and actually discover something while having fun, completing goals, and connecting with friends and musical artists alike. I’ll see you there.