Ten Years On: It Could Never Last (.fm)

I’ve rarely felt ‘ahead of the game’ or even on trend when it comes to music and technology. But in 2005, I read an article by John Duncan, writing in the excellent Observer Music Monthly (back when I used to buy actual newspapers….remember them?) extolling the virtues of a wonderful new internet music service. This was at a time when Myspace reigned supreme in the social media landscape and iTunes was a relatively new means of listening to music for most of us. We ‘ripped’ CDs with all the effort and time it took to rip a phonebook in half. Uploaded the music to our tiny new iPod things and away we went.

As all I had was a dial-up connection to the internet, I didn’t join straight away. Music streaming and downloading seemed like a far off dream….a utopian universe where all the music would be at my fingertips all of the time. I read the article with curious interest, but was a little suspicious, nay, afraid, of this new technology. I didn’t really understand it. Was it radio? Was it social networking? Was it an audio archive? Well, actually it turned out to be all those things and more. It was Last.fm.

Last.fm came from the merging of two separate sources: Audioscrobbler and the site Last.fm. Audioscrobbler was the brainchild of Richard Jones, as a computer science project whilst studying at the University of Southampton. It was a multi-platform plugin for iTunes, WMP, etc which collated and charted the user’s digital listening habits.
Last.fm was founded by Felix Miller, Martin Stiksel, Michael Breidenbruecker and Thomas Willomitzer, as an internet radio station and music network. It used similar listeners’ music profiles to generate ever-changing, but related, playlists which were then recommended to other similar listeners. The inclusion of the “love” and “ban” buttons allowed listeners to gradually customise their listening and make new discoveries via other listeners’ recommendations. The more music you loved or banned, the more refined the recommendations became.

After the merger, Audioscrobbler became the tool by which Last.fm was driven. One collected the data, the other interpreted it in fresh and unpredictable ways; recommending similar music which the listener had probably never heard.

As Duncan wrote in his article,

“The really sexy bit is that it compares my tastes to other people’s on the system and gives me the charts and recently played lists of people whose tastes are statistically close to mine. So I visit the page of a person whose tastes are 40 per cent the same as mine and take a look at what makes up the 60 per cent I don’t play myself. There is usually something interesting there.”

(John Duncan, The Observer Music Monthly, 23rd January, 2005)

This was all fine and dandy. However, what really interested me as a musician was the ability of any subscriber (there were free and paid options) to upload their own music for streaming and/or download on the site. This was a very big deal at the time. The music/social networking link that exists today was in its very early infancy at the time. So, imagine being able to get your music on a site alongside Radiohead, The Rolling Stones, Aphex Twin and Kraftwerk, and be treated almost in exactly the same way. Most artists at the time didn’t offer their music for free download, especially ‘established’ artists with a record deal. But there was a whole host of independent/DIY artists who didn’t really care about copyright, didn’t care about licensing (apart from Creative Commons) who were more than happy to offer (albeit low-ish quality) free downloads of their music for public consumption.
And thus, I became one of them. Me and many others who I eventually forged bonds with. Ten years on from joining, I still have ties with those people; I’ve recorded with them, played (a few) gigs with them, remixed them and been remixed, I’ve appeared on their radio shows and on their blogs, I’ve encouraged them and they’ve encouraged me. It means a lot.

This was one of the great strengths of the site. The sense of community and sharing was the most persuasive element for many musicians. As listeners were able to comment directly on tracks, albums and playlists; those comments were often read directly by independent artists (though not by larger mainstream acts whose profiles were maintained by record label PR departments). This became a vital lifeline of communication between artist and listener, and between artist and artist. Also, genre and artist-specific groups sprang up. Another lifeline. Thus, Last.fm became a hub of activity. I formed my longest standing collaborative project with Marie Craven (Pixieguts and Cwtch). I was happy to find like-minded musicians and producers in SK123, Big Block 454, Healey Island, Nita Disaster and Northcape. I gained thousands of listeners as did most of the artists mentioned.

However, there was a disconcerting ill-wind in the form of corporate interference. In 2007, Last.fm was bought by CBS for $280m. It had been, miraculously, an ever-expanding cottage industry. Run by people who cared about their ‘product’, who loved music (and data!) and had nurtured the site to the point where it became unmanageable without a much larger corporate team infrastructure. It was inevitable, I guess. But within months of the buy-out some features changed. First out the door were playlists. A strength of the site was that users could form their own playlists, creating their own customised radio stations (old hat now, but pretty cool at the time). Another was that you could listen to albums in their entirety and sequentially. Now, I guess this may have ruffled a few feathers over at major labels’ legal departments as, potentially, listeners could use other devices or audio software to record the albums in full. But, really, as this was time-consuming in the least and the quality of the streams was 128kbps, most users wouldn’t bother, let alone try to distribute the recordings. It was a great feature for independent artists; to get heard. But was then withdrawn. For me, this was the start of a slippery slope.

Then Amazon, iTunes and Spotify really took off.

Fast-forward to 2014.

“CBS-owned online music service Last.fm made a loss of £2.1m last year, as revenues slumped more than 20% and staff numbers almost halved.
Last.fm, which has made a string of annual losses since being acquired by the US broadcaster in 2007 for $280m, at least managed to cut almost half the £3.94m pre-tax loss notched up in 2012.
Revenues fell 22.8% from £6.38m to £4.92m.
Of this £3.55m came from ad sales and just over £1m from subscriptions, the remainder came from affiliate sales.
UK revenues almost halved (from £1.28m to £693,000); US revenues fell by 22% (£3.6m to £2.8m); rest of world slumped by 60% (£725,655 to £288,859).
“Last.fm competes with other internet [music] providers, broadcast radio and other media providers for advertising spending,” the company said in its latest financial report. “As such, revenue decreased during the year and cost reduction plans continued throughout the year to minimise the impact of the lower revenues”.
Cost of sales almost halved from £5m to £2.78m year on year.
Staff numbers fell from 61 to 35 with the total cost of wages and salaries dropping from £3.7m to £2.75m.
Last.fm has moved to a collaboration model with services
such as Spotify and Vevo, moving away from streaming itself in March this year and killing off its “subscription radio” service.”
(Mark Sweeney, The Guardian 8th October 2014)

I rarely visit Last.fm now. Only occasionally to see if my listening habits are being accurately recorded. More often than not, they are not. Audioscrobbler seems to be a bit glitchy nowadays. Also, the site, which has had a recent-ish revamp and seems to have been in perpetual beta-test mode for about a year, looks terrible. Plain, boring, harder to navigate and lacking the simplicity and interactivity it once had. Artist uploads have been disabled, as have any editing features; the end would seem to be in sight.

As Soundcloud has recently posted massive losses in revenue, resulting in possible liquidation if investors cannot be found; I felt it appropriate to post this now. What alternatives are there? Well, a recent Twitter conversation with Jo Whitby of Laurence Made Me Cry confirmed to me that there is no longer one sole replacement to Soundcloud, nor to Last.fm. Not one that caters to the listeners, the artists, the mainstream, the niche, the majors, the indies, the experimenters, the bedroom boffins and the ‘little guys’ like Last.fm did. End of an era.
See you back at Bandcamp, buddies.

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2 responses to “Ten Years On: It Could Never Last (.fm)

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