eHub Reviews last.fm

Posted by LaSean Smith on Monday, July 23rd, 2007. Filed under: eHub Features

Recorded music is an important part to many of our lives. However, the way that we consume recorded music varies greatly. Additionally, the separation is not clean. How we consume music depends on our mood, location, and other things we may be doing at the time. There are five categories that can help define how we interact with recorded music. These categories are collection, personalization, ambiance, discovery, and sharing. Note, sharing can be as simple as a playlist of songs. Now the pure collector may not see the need for discovery. They’ve built their 70GB music collection and may believe they have everything they need. But how did they build their collection in the first place? Exactly. Enter last.fm.

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last.fm is a social music network with over 15 million users. The word social is sorely abused these days so let’s add some details to that definition. As you listen to songs and interact with the last.fm service a personal musical profile is built. This information is combined with profiles from other users to deliver intelligent recommendations and radio streams. The recommendation engine is called Audioscrobbler and uses a plug-in for your music player or their stand-alone application to build your profile. Plug-ins have been developed for iTunes, physical iPods, Skype, WinAmp, Windows Media Player and many other applications. You can listen to music on their site if you want to avoid the plugins and dedicated application. The site also connects users with similar tastes, supports an artist wiki, and has an active forum–that’s the social part.

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Let’s take a look at the key features.

  • Artist Information – There are placeholders for common artist information (e.g. album lists, videos, photos, bio, events). Most of the content is managed by the community. Unfortunately the information isn’t very deep outside of popular artists. This is understandable, but I don’t need to read a bio for Fall Out Boy. Artist and labels can also upload their music and other content to the site. That feature should help build the depth for more obscure artists.

  • Community – The standard community features such as friends and groups are here. In addition the last.fm community provides various charts and information on local music events. Notice I spoke earlier to recorded music. Live music is an entirely different experience. The bridge between recorded and live music is powerful. This will be one of the site’s strongest features if they can build up adoption.

  • Languages – 13 languages are currently supported on the site. Music is global and it’s great that last.fm recognizes that.

  • Recommendations – The recommendation engine and Audioscrobbler API is the foundation of the platform. It does a great job if there is depth to what you’re listening to. Some of the recommendations for niche genres and specific artists are way off. For example, I entered Stevie Wonder as an artist name. A radio station was created that played nothing but Christmas music after three songs. Huh? The people on last.fm are far more interesting that the generic recommendations. When you’re listening to a song there’s a list of ten users on the bottom right called “Weekly Top Listeners for this artist”. Check these users out if you like the song you’re currently listening to. Listening to radio stations from other users is where I’ve found the most interesting stuff.

  • Video – The site has a decent selection of music videos. However, most of them aren’t very entertaining once you get pass the top ten. Personally, I’d rather watch something silly on YouTube that an indie artist with a small budget taking themselves too seriously. The quality of the videos may change, but for now I’ll pass.

  • Web-Based Player – Similar to Pandora, finetune, and others the last.fm web player uses Adobe Flash to stream radio stations and personalized play lists in your browser. This is a common feature among social music networks, but last.fm does a good job of keeping things clean.

  • Widgets – You can embed a last.fm music player on your own web pages. Useful for your personal start pages and other social network pages.

Genres aren’t always the best way to categorize songs, but they are useful. Tags are used heavily on the site. In many cases genres become synonymous with tags. The most popular tags on last.fm at the time of these review were alternative, electronic, indie, rock, and “seen live”. I found the user’s tastes on the site too homogeneous for me. However, there’s plenty to keep you busy regardless of your musical tastes.

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last.fm has a well designed site that makes it easy for you to get around and discover new music. The site is one of the most feature complete and active music social networks. They continue to add new features, and the plug-in technology makes it easy to build your profile. One feature I would like to see is a feed for songs you’ve tagged as favorites (without digging into the Audioscrobbler API). Ultimately, it comes down to how you want to discover music. last.fm is much more than a web-based radio player. If you spend a bit of time you can discover some incredible music and very interesting people.

Also see: eHub Interviews last.fm (from Oct 19, 2005)