last.fm, Richard "Mr Scrobble" Jones. We're running the interview in 3 parts, over 3 days. This is Part 3 about design and features; following on from Part 1 about last.fm and its competition and Part 2 about business models.This week we interviewed one of the founders of online music service
In this post we explore last.fm's feature set, how it compares to MySpace Music, and what we can expect to see from last.fm in the near future. Richard Jones also discusses how last.fm has managed to avoid the legal difficulties that have plagued Pandora.
RWW: One of the enduring features of last.fm has been its mashups, based on your awesome Audioscrobbler database. RJ, what are a couple of your favorite recent last.fm mashups that you've seen (external apps or internal)?
RJ: Well, we liked the Last.fm/YouTube mashup Tim Bormans made so much that we hired him! Internally we've been working on multi-tag search which is available at our Playground, which allows you to search for music using multiple genres (folk + rock + gabba, etc); also on Playground we've been tweaking our Musical Soulmates app, which you could possibly consider the prototype for a future Last.fm dating service ;)
And of course, scrobbling continues to be an almost default setting for new music services now - from Hype Machine to Muxtape (RIP) to Blip.fm to the new version of VLC (which has 4 million downloads already since launch a couple of weeks ago), it seems like everything has to integrate scrobbling now. Great for us obviously, and great for our recommendations which will continue to improve as more people scrobble. People are scrobbling at a rate of 800 million times a month currently.
RWW: In terms of features, Pandora is similar to last.fm, in that both services have great recommendations and allow the user to discover new music. Both are streaming music services, yet it just seems to be Pandora - of all the 4 major services we've discussed so far - that has been having legislation issues. Can you clarify for our readers how last.fm has managed to avoid those sticky issues, when Pandora hasn't? I think many people are confused about that.
Last.fm is about more than just online radio. We've got millions of tracks available free-on-demand as well, and beyond that there's a massive social network element to the site. We also offer videos, the biggest events listings on the web (personalised to your taste), and our own audio and video content under the Last.fm/Presents banner. So the point is, online radio is only one of the things we do, so the legislation affects us only in one particular area of the Last.fm experience. As online radio is pretty much the single focus for Pandora, it understandably hits them harder.
The wider issue here, of course, is that royalty rates are high, and the debate around this needs to continue so we can reach a mutually beneficial and economically workable resolution. We don't want to see legitimate online broadcasters stifled by this - it's not good for music fans, artists or the wider music industry.
RWW: Lastly, one of the most interesting aspects of online music is its ability for new artists to be discovered. It's something MySpace has done well in the past, but we get the sense the perfect solution hasn't been found yet. As our own Marshall Kirkpatrick asked recently:
"How about a service that scans my iTunes library and my online listening history, determines my genres of interest and then never plays music from artists I've already listened to. Or makes sure to play some that I haven't."
Does last.fm have a feature like that coming up? ;-)
RJ: Do you think Myspace has done this well in the past? As you can tell from my reply to your first question [see Part 1], I would argue that Myspace has been a rather difficult site to navigate unless you're after popular stuff - and it's possibly going to be more of the same on Myspace Music, as the major labels jostle for frontpage real estate and push more indie/obscure music off the page.
Our recommendation system is being constantly refined to give music fans the best music discovery service on the web. I think we've got that covered. What's equally important is that these artists being discovered, if they're Long Tail or DIY, get the same kind of licensing and royalty breaks that more established artists get, which is why our Artist Royalty Program exists.
We've been doing this for 6 years, as I said, which is why it's kind of funny to be talking about this now because of Myspace Music. They're just catching up to free-on-demand after we pioneered the model almost a year ago. Now they've got to figure out how to make it easy to discover music that suits your taste (sharing playlists is one thing, but how do you find that music to share in the first place?), which we've been doing since 2002. After that, maybe they'll start paying unsigned artists. I would hope all this will come to Myspace Music at some point in the future - but it's happening on Last.fm now.