Easy Exploration: Last.fm Merges Marketing and Musical Discovery

What would a major label's version of

Feb 13, 2008 at 2:06 pm

What would a major label's version of CBS deserves credit for not interfering with the established "scrobbler" social network. The biggest change after the takeover is more music, including downloads and streams. Discovery is a crucial link in the business of music, and knowing what your friends listen to has value. "Free-to-user" models, whether music or dead-tree weeklies, only work when they meet the real needs of all parties. Last.fm is a clever solution, giving artists control of how and what they deliver, while encouraging fans to share music. It's a small step forward when majors can tacitly accept a user's right to something as innocent as a MySpace playlist that actually works!

But what if you're not into scrobbling? What if you don't IM and prefer to keep your nasty Screamo obsession under wraps? For you, Last.fm is YAMS (Yet Another Music Site™). From birth, Last.fm has been about music discovery. In some respects, scrobbling is the ultimate SoundScan, capturing listeners' tastes on the fly. So Last.fm can collect and aggregate the listening habits of scrobblers and use what they learn to drive the discovery side of the business. It's a new way to use the proverbial wisdom of the crowd, similar to but significantly different than Amazon's lists and sales ranks. It will be interesting to see how CBS uses it.

But until you actually listen to some tracks or install a scrobbling plug-in for your player, Last.fm is closer to Best Buy than Shake It. You're presented with all the usual suspects from the majors on the front page and a bunch of artists you've never heard of in the download area. The AudioScrobbler plug-in helps, as it scans your library, checks what you've played, and uses that data to suggest new music. The problem is that I'm not sure I really want CBS poking around my iTunes library any more than I want my friends to know what I'm listening to at 4 a.m.

Big Brother nightmares not withstanding, Last.fm is helpful, even without the plug-in. Type in an artist and you'll get whatever tracks are freely available (including the aforementioned clips), videos and a listing of related artists and streams. Thanks to less paranoid folks, the database is huge, with useful links and connections. For example, when I searched for local hellbillies Hogscraper, I wasn't surprised their tracks weren't there but was excited to find tracks from related artists I didn't know. Fellow locals The Sundresses are represented with downloads and streams. Related links included reasonable connections to other Cincy bands like the late Morals Galore. Finally, in both cases Last.fm offered up a mix stream under the "Radio" button. Generated on the fly and based on your tastes, these streams are a natural way to discover new music, kinda like a radio station that only plays songs you haven't heard!

So Last.fm doesn't compete directly with iTunes, Amazon or even LaLa, nor does it replace radio. It's another new way to discover new artists and songs, based on your own tastes and the tastes of other fans (as opposed to label execs, DJs and program directors). If you care to share your tastes, I suppose you could even make new friends. If nothing else, it provides CBS and other majors with a more egalitarian way to discover and evaluate talent.

DAVE DAVIS makes records and designs new media at Sound Images.