Likely you scrobbler or even occasional Last.fm listener have already heard the bad news: on the 15th of January 2013 Last.fm stops streaming to a large number of countries, including mine – Italy.
The announcement came to me first as an almost unnoticed clickable display on the top of the personal page (not linked here because I’ve never been there with my real name), which at some point I decided to check, with inevitable disappointment. Judging from the related thread on the Last.fm forum, this decision has upset a good number of folks in “all other countries”, i.e. all over the world except the US, the UK and Germany (where Last.fm will keep also the ad-supported free Web radio), plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Brazil (where radio has been and remains a subscription feature only, as they say). Link to the official announcement.
I won’t delve here into considerations specific to Italy
(if you are from my country, I have a few lines on the other side); instead, I jotted down some general commentary. And let me copy here a pic of the pin that I got as a gift from Alberto D’Ottavi @dottavi brought back from London after his brief interview with Last.fm co-founder Martin Sticksel published in English on infoservi - (the blog has also more Last.fm and related themes coverage, in Italian). Well, that pin was something!
Others keep streaming anyway
In short, what came out for Last.fm is that licensing costs for streaming music and insufficient ad revenues are pushing them to this new restricted geography. Have a look at the Paidcontent or Techcrunch posts for more. Anyway, it’s not new to anyone that streaming music on subscription models have stll to find solid business ground. But it’s also a fact that there are a number of services pushing it — to name two European-based big players, say Spotify (from Sweden, not available all over Europe though) or Deezer (from France – I started using it right now). Then there are also a few more already well established brands and startup, all with its own history and positioning, from Pandora to Rdio, from Soundcloud to whatever you can pick. The thing is, while they are different, all of them seem to pursue an enlarging trajectory when it comes to geographies, even if at different paces.
As it can be read easily all around, I also think that Last.fm is not new to a downwarding spiral since when the founders left, sometime after the well remembered 280 millions pound acquisition from CBS, a historic name of the media business (and big in radio as well – but as people noted, no visible result in that regard yet). And by the way, the two co-founders and former leaders are now up for a new general-purpose content discovery startup called Lumi, as I just learned from another Techcruch post.
Seeing this decline unfolding over time has been quite sad for people that have been hanging around for years (2004 in my case). I’ve always been a service enthusiast, praising and recommending it to friends at all times, and paying the subscription not just for the add-ons, but also for support. Not only Last.fm has been the eponymous streaming music machine: I think that their mix of music discovery, community and recommendations has made it quite unique for years – perhaps still unique in some respects.
Best jukebox ever
By encouraging people to be creative with tags and personal stations and following in the listening steps of others, be they “neighbours” or “friends”, with the variety of custom stations that the service has offered over time (some unfortunately well gone, from the famed loved tracks radio to the tag ones), I think that Last.fm has been incredibly good in exploring new music consumption paradigms. Now “consumption” might appear reductive: actually it’s not. What I mean is that Last.fm to me was still very much a music consumption machine, a place primarily for listeners, novice or expert, fan or not. Last.fm was and still is a kind of uber-jukebox, an entertainment machine. In this respect, it’s not very suitable for the music connoisseur, for those that want very high quality sound and even more the orderliness and quietness of album listening; but that entertainment is not trivial, nor it passive. Quite the contrary: on top of music there is an all set of added meaning that is distinctively social and interactive, as opposed to other more traditional types of music-related experiences, such as, say, going to a concert or chatting about your favourite album or song over a beer. Beside shouts and messages, not particularly original as such, e.g. I think that groups on Last.fm have often created very nice sort of music venues, especially when it is about getting across conventional music genres of even cross-linking media bridging different services, e.g. with ANobii+Last.fm books&music groups (or viceversa; then I noticed that some of these hangouts turned into social games, not always that funny).
Getting kicked out is not like opting out
Now that these days I’m really stopping using the service, there are a couple of phenomena that caught my attention. The first is related to the nature of this specific interruption for all of those “in all other countries”. Usually the big drama in this consumer internet world is getting people use something, more and more, or provide a decent way to opt out if they want to. I mean, the usual problem is getting users *in*, not *out*. And this is quite different from the paywall concept, where you can still have a (premium) chance to get in. On the other hand it’s reasonable to expect that this is going to happen over and over again. Service and companies can obviously fail the deliver to all of the intended markets. Yet it’s utterly frustrating from the user point of view, and surely very bad for branding.
Plus, UI habits can get very deep, and sometimes emotional
Moreover, to me some of the Last.fm UI distinctive features, namely those of the desktop player, have become such a strong element of my music listening habits that I feel like something rooted in my daily routines is being stripped away. Once you have hit the love, skip or ban buttons a few hundreds or thousands times, that’s get really deep. And it goes beyond routines. It’s well known that some of the best physical design features nurture some form of emotional attachment, as the thing becomes part of our mental landscape, and of our social realm.
Online services tend to continually evolve over time, and paradoxically keep being unstable, forcing people to change habits from time to time (at some point Last.fm redesigned its Web UI spurring waves of protests and a number of “bring back to old Last.fm” groups), except that some very characteristic aspects might continue to stay and they become the hallmark of the service, a sort of “experience anchor” that one can’t remove altogether easily. In this respect, it’s interesting to see how these emotional qualities perhaps are finally beginning to transit from the mighty world of “pure” physical objects to the relatively more fragile and liquid world of software and services. I guess that the interaction design and service design literature will have already papers and papers on the topic… just don’t know so if you have readings to recommend, please do, much appreciated.
Playing with it
Last.fm APIs have also provided a playground for many inventive minds. Last.fm has held a series of hackatons in which they invited people to build on top of the service. As for me, I have a very vivid memory of @jnkka showing his Last.fm+YouTube visualization mash-up exploring Italian oldies like Venti chilometri al giorno transformed into 00s cult pieces with the voice of Mike Patton. Go for a break with this amazing cover of Nicola Arigliano.
It was in a Bergamo hotel conference room, if I remember well; after Jukka’s speech we started chatting about the thing, sharing our common enthusiasm for the service and the inspiration it provided for new ways to listen to music and enjoy it, as for instance it somewhat could do with new and promising combinations of audio and visualizations. We moved from there to writing a project idea with a number of friends & colleagues. It was about music and media “trails”, or hyperlinks of sort, an idea still causing a bit of Vertigo to us (project paper here with all references and credits).
Research folks, look here for a moment
Even before, I think it was 2005 or 2006, I presented Last.fm as an early, brilliant and simple socially-aware content discovery case from the consumer internet at one of the large WWI R&D mobile&wireless projects meetings, raising bright gazes from the youngest guys in the workpackage team and some skepticism from others (“yeah pretty interesting but mobile is different, these Internet models are not going to change everything”). When later on Last.fm got that huge 280 millions pounds CBS cheque I had the minor satisfaction of saying, you see? it seems that they are on something relevant…
Better must come
Now of course those skeptics might come back and point to me that the Last.fm decline proves that the model is wrong. Well, I think they are still wrong. The fact is, this stuff is so still in its infancy. As said, for a Last.fm retiring back to its song-tracking scrobbling roots, there is a very lively squadron of others already battling for music streaming leadership, not to mention the likes of YouTube and others. Clearly there is a big question here on licensing costs, business sustainability, industry changes and everything, but to me it’s difficult to argue that music streaming is here to stay. All of these providers will compete based on prices, sure, but also on the service, the interaction qualities, the user experience, call it as you like. In this respect, I think Last.fm has done quite a lot.
The corporation & the startup
Oh, of course I think that all of this story can also be cited as an example of yet another brilliant startup gone down when ingested into the huge corporate world. Some coverage offers support for the argument. But who knows, it’s easy as well to bash the bad big guys. If one wants to stay away from easy generalizations, the only way to go would be proper investigation and analysis of the company history.
Best of luck to the Last.fm team
As for the change and its possible effects on the future of Last.fm, I wish all the best to the team. Honestly I think that I’ve really got a lot of music & media pleasure for a few euros (I’d have given more, that’s sure, at least something closer to what you pay for proper on demand services).
Stay calm and keep scrobbling
So, at least for me that’s the end of the unpredictable, but very often enjoyable streaming story: no more love, skip, or ban, it’s a stop — with Last.fm I mean, thanks God there are alternatives out there. For sure, Last.fm has made me addicted to 1, music streaming in subscription mode and 2, scrobbling (i.e. tracking) + tagging + getting music suggestions + enlarging my (virtual) library as core aspects of the whole experience. I suspect it happened to many others, “in all other countries” as in the lucky ones. I’ll try to see if scrobbling keeps me attached to the place. It’s like one of those old bars long gone from the fashionable list, but where you keep going, because you get used it, and you have spent endless hours in good company, and well you just like it too much. “We’re ugly, but we have the music”.