I hate it when websites gather more information about me than is necessary and more than a few sites now have nonsensical entries in their marketing databases as a result; however I have found one site recently that I’m more than happy to give information too – because I get something in return. You see, as I write this, I’m listening to a mixture of laid back beats, chilled house and trance, recommended to me by Last.fm (incorporating audioscrobbler). It’s being streamed to me over my Internet connection, free of charge, based on my musical tastes. How did it find out what I like? Well, I have a client application on my computer, which hooks into iTunes and each time I synchronise my iPod, play a track in iTunes or listen via the Last.fm website it “scrobbles” my recently played tracks to my profile.
I’ve been using the service for a few months now and still can’t get my head around just how useful (and varied) it’s many features are – so I’ll point you to this review by Steffie for a better idea of just what Last.fm can provide for your listening pleasure. For a review from a more mainstream media source, try CNET. Meanwhile, Steve Krause looks at the differences between Last.fm and Pandora – another popular music recommendation site that is often referenced alongside Last.fm but which, as Steve explains, is fundamentally different in the way it determines its recommendations.
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering how sites like Last.fm can stream music free of charge whilst others wrangle with the complications of DRM-protected content. Well, that’s because it’s not just a free online music library – whilst you can hear “radio stations” based on your preferences there is no choice in what is played next and if you do search for a particular track then only a 30 second sample is played. As for the viability of the site (a question that should be asked of many “web 2.0” sites) – it’s viable enough for CBS to buy it (for $280m – and hopefully not just to shut it down). The theory is, that if I like what I hear, then I’ll buy some more music and to some extent that’s feasible. If I enter the name of a well-established band then I’ll probably recognise the names of similar artists (those who like Kylie Minogue may also enjoy Madonna or Britney Spears – or, closer to my tastes, if I like Faithless then why not try Groove Armada and Moby, etc.) but for something more obscure (e.g. The Age of Love), then I’d never have known to try something by Kamaya Painters, The Thrillseekers or Nalin & Kane. As for CBS, they get access to a huge database of musical tastes (whilst others are relying on a combination of software and intuition to predict their next hit).