The Color Of Music

Color, the $41-million app designed to share photos with those in your immediate proximity, struck out its first time at bat. MyStream works much the same way, but lets you eavesdrop on friends and strangers' songs instead of pictures. Founder Richard Zelson on why sharing sound is more appealing.

The Sound of Music

Unless you're a synesthete (or deep into LSD), you won't see bright red hues for soft tones or dark blues for a high riff. But there's still a way you can experience the Color of music.

That's Color, as in Bill Nguyen's $41 million proximity-based photo-sharing service. MyStream, an app that launched in late March, is a music-sharing app for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad that lets users listen to music on the devices of other nearby users. Like Color, and an increasing number of social location-based apps, MyStream is optimized for "elastic networks."

Rather than base its social graph on friends or followers, the users that will show up in MyStream's "elastic network" are only those in one's vicinity. Open up the app, and you'll see users who are in the same Bluetooth range or on the same Wi-Fi network; you can't listen to a friend's music library if he or she is on the other side of town. If a user is nearby, a library of selected music will appear, which you can stream for 90 seconds or so and have the option to purchase via iTunes.

"The point is not to share your music with all of your friends or followers," says founder Richard Zelson. "It's more about real-life: Who's around you? Who are you with?"

While it's plenty fun to share pics with friends nearby (Color's UI issue aside), photos are only really social when you or people you know are in them. But even two strangers can get into the same popular song. And whether it is Pandora's discovery engine, Spotify's shared playlists, or Turntable.fm's virtual DJ party, there's already a mess of music services offering playlist sharing with friends. MyStream mixes in strangers and a healthy dose of serendipity. You likely won't know or care about the people pictured in the photo sets of your fellow commuters, much less care to strike up a conversation or ask about them. But without saying a word, you can discover that the guy on the other end of the train is grooving to the new Beyoncé, and the two of you can share a head-bob or a subtle shimmy. One of you might even decide to buy the album and keep the experience going after you arrive at your destination.

MyStream's Zelson is just 24 and worked in real estate before coming up with the idea while traveling abroad with friends. "Sometimes my friend would let me use his headphones, and sometimes we'd use a portable speaker," Zelson says, recalling how he shared music on the trip. An idea popped into his head: Why not create a platform to allow real-time streaming between devices?

After putting together a business plan, Zelson raised $300,000 from family and friends to hire developers and build the service; he's raised another $500,000 from investors since then. The app, which is free at the moment, will eventually go on sale for a small price; additionally, MyStream earns a standard commission from Apple for every song purchase it helps drive through iTunes, and plans to incorporate banner advertising in the future.

For Zelson, it was all about "creating the real-time sharing experience." When firing open MyStream, there is no login--just the option to add a nickname, if you'd like. When playing with the app around the office, a coworker was able to stream Sisqó's "Thong Song" (the remix, naturally) via his iPhone, from down the hall. It's a very convenient and fun way to share music quickly, just as you might via the iTunes desktop client with roommates on the same Wi-Fi network--and without the hassle of sending an MP3 via Dropbox or exchanging headphones.

But, as with most proximity based elastic networks, the issue is scale. Without nearby users, the app is pointless, akin to broadcasting shortwave radio in the middle of the Pacific. Color has experienced similar issues thus far, and is looking for solutions.

But Zelson believes audio sharing is a big enough draw to populate a network. "Music will be the driving factor," he says. "That's where we may differ from Color."