Inside the rise and fall of Last.fm, the social network that understood how online music worked and that resembled bits of Facebook, Songkick, Blogspot, and Spotify.
The logo of Last.fm.
A version of this article originally appeared on Noisey Italy.
My first profile on Last.fm was called "Nergal-Behemoth," in honour of the song by my favourite Polish death metal band. The first two tracks I scrobbled, on February 21, 2006, were "Africa" by Toto and "Electric Crown" by Testament. I didn't know it at the time, but the keyboards – soft as Steve Porcaro's velvet – had broken my faith in the God of Metal. As time passed, I'd start listening to folk music, and then classical, psych, and prog rock; I'd become obsessed with Johnny Cash, I'd go through a phase in which I resembled a fanboy of De André; I would discover emo and electronica and indie and hip-hop, and then more classical music and pop. And since I've always kept my Last.fm account active, today, more than ten years later, I can study how I listened to music throughout a good part of my life. Day for day, song for song.
Between two profiles, the aforementioned Nergal-Behemoth and the subsequent "EliaSingsMiFaMi" (dedicated to that splendid album), I listened to 164,624 songs. I've listened to Sufjan Stevens 1864 times, Drake 1120, Kanye West 1058, and Caneda 985. Forty times – many more than necessary – the notes of "Follow the Reaper" by Children of Bodom entered into my ears, whereas I don't regret the 48 times I listened to the crystalline ambience of "Requiem For The Static King Part One" by A Winged Victory For The Sullen. If I hadn't read the comments and messages that I received on my profile, I would've probably never met a few of my closest friends today. If it hadn't been for the site's diary feature, I wouldn't have a list of all the concerts I attended between 2006 to the present day. But time passes, and today all that remains of Last.fm is the promise of a musical democracy based on exchange and sharing – a promise that wasn't kept and which was obliterated by the evolution of the musical market and by the internet economy.
Last.fm was born shortly after the start of the millennium as the union of two projects. The first was an idea by Richard Jones, an Englishman who developed, for his Bachelor's thesis in Computer Science, a project called Audioscrobbler: A plug-in that tracked all the songs you listened to on your computer once installed. The information gathered – the songs scrobbled –was then uploaded to an online database, one that users of the service could access and create a library of their personal listening history, which they could then compare with that of other users. The second project, Last.fm, was a web radio created by a group of German and Austrian boys who used the same program to gauge the tastes of each individual user, using an algorithm with two buttons that the user could click to express a positive or negative judgment about the track they were listening to. Jones and the boys of Last.fm started collaborating in 2003, and in 2005 they united with a single website. They gave their users the ability to scrobble songs from different players. It was the beginning of a unique, collective musical experience, one that seemed impossible to replicate in the future.
In the time that the site flourished, the music market of the previous decade wasn't prepared for the foundational revolution that Last.fm brought shortly thereafter. The traditional gatekeepers of content – record labels, print magazines, radio, and television – were always addressing a formless public, and they moulded the tastes of their audience through the use of commercial entities and criticism from high to low, which had been consolidated in the preceding decades. Listeners who didn't identify with this top-down approach united in online communities such as forums in order to create, on a smaller scale, a musical democracy that functioned laterally.
Even within forums and messaging boards there were structures of power, defined by admin roles and by the number of posts a user made during the course of a year; a symbol of authority earned through tenure. Instead of enjoying a flux of content on various music-related topics – things that, to listeners who experienced music solely through mainstream means, and fleeting, impalpable moments (a phone call into a radio or TV show, a text message confined the screen of your phone) – forum participants united and created online communities endowed with their own values, communication codes, and musical tastes that were constructed collectively over time. Last.fm captured this spirit, seized upon it to perfection, and made its users feel like they were playing an important role in the creation of a common musical discourse.
The site functioned like a personal musical museum ("Here's everything that I listened to!") based in part on competition ("Look how much I listened to!") and recognition ("You listen to what I listen to, so we're compatible" – there was even a compatibility meter that ranked how much you had in common with other users). The site's structure encouraged such interactions: Everything was clickable, organised, up to date, and accessible in real time. The idea wasn't to apply this structure to a set catalogue of music, but to the unorganised ecosystem of MP3 files on an individual's computer. That way, even if you'd ripped the demo of a local band, you could find other people who'd also listened to them through the artist's dedicated page and talk to them about it.
These exchanges were the driving factor behind the platform's implementation of various communication methods: A comment section on every artist page and on a user's personal profile, a private messaging service, and the ability to create groups. Since it was a site for people who were passionate about music – and in turn easily intrigued by other people who shared that same passion – it wasn't rare that friendships and loves were born between one scrobble and the next. It wasn't all that weird to come across the profile of someone who listened to that very tiny post-punk band that broke up after their first EP, the one you loved so much, and fall head over heels for a 180 x 180 pixellated avatar. What could start as a "Hey, your library is bomb!" could turn into a tangential conversation about your respective message boards, and possibly turn into something more.
Last.fm predicted the shift of online communication towards something hyper-fragmented and specialised. No one chose the music you listened to: You were the person who created a personalised stream beginning with an artist, a tag, or the profile of another user, and then tweaked that algorithm until it produced a track agreeable to your ears. You weren't obligated to insert yourself into a general discussion; instead, you were able to make connections with people who listened to things that interested you, in an online environment designed to foster micro-conversations. There was also a blogging element, which today has disappeared: Each user could create a personal diary, which prompted different forms of posts adopted by other profiles (surveys, lists, advice). "All the concerts I've gone to" was the one most people took to, taking advantage of a function that also stopped being used later on: Events that could be added and updated directly by users, and searched according to geographic criteria.
The golden year of Last.fm was 2007, when it was acquired by CBS. The network's investment was poorly timed – a year later, Facebook (which barely resembled what it does today) experienced a popularity boom and started to dominate the internet. The music site's problems started a few years later, when it found itself in the middle of its first major media crisis: In 2009, No Line On The Horizon by U2 prematurely appeared online. TechCrunch accused Last.fm and CBS of having provided the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), an organisation that safeguards the interests of the music industry (and which fought with peer-to-peer and torrenting services for years), with the personal data of all the users who'd listened to songs from the album before its release date.
Both the website and the network denied it, but different users cancelled their accounts as a gesture of protest. After it was acquired by a major player in the media market, the site had started to devolve into something different and less free. Even in 2007, the radio started charging a membership fee of €3.00 in every country except Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom. They removed the ability to stream individual tracks in full, swapping in short previews or a few sample songs selected by the artist themselves. The whole thing sawed the legs off of many small, independent bands seeking visibility. In 2013, the radio was resized for the first time, then issued exclusively to several countries, then substituted entirely by a series of embedded YouTube videos and by a now-defunct partnership with Spotify – an admission of surrender from the streaming component of the site, clearly crushed by the weight of competition that was already too strong and too organised for its predecessor to keep up.
All of this was compounded by a series of redesigns that pained the platform's long-standing users. The profiles became more standardised and less personal, which made Last.fm feel more sterile overall. Where there used to be an "About Me" bar on the left side of the page that each user could fill with words and images (it was common to make enormous PNG's with the logo of your favourite band, worn like a badge of pride above quoted lyrics, a link to your blog, or a list of concerts you'd recently attended), today, a user can only upload a profile picture or a link, and up to 200 characters of text without any formatting.
Unfortunately, the height of Last.fm's success coincided with the moment that online music fell under stricter regulations. First came the crackdown on peer-to-peer services like eMule, Limewire, and Bearshare (but not Soulseek), which was a death knell for RAR services like Megaupload, Rapidshare, and Mediafire – all of which later culminated in attempts to kill torrenting. Before contemporary streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Youtube came along and became the standard – bringing with them the constant presence of a 3G WiFi signal – discovering music meant downloading it and constructing a personal trove of files. Last.fm was the service that had leveraged this necessity, allowing its users to discover new music and, after a generic search like "[ARTIST NAME] [ALBUM NAME] blogspot megaupload," show it off on your scrobble history.
At present, Last.fm has a lot of difficulty generating a profit. Possibly because it no longer serves a purpose aside from logging what its users are listening to. It's no longer a catalyst for discussions and events, given that there's already Facebook and Songkick; nor is there need for a personalised radio thanks to algorithm-driven recommendations from various streaming services. In the end, the music industry to which Last.fm was a counterpoint no longer had to the power to create renowned musicians from meagre local artists, nor direct public tastes: Today, labels only try to acquire, through an artist's name, a preexisting community of fans that the artist garnered themselves. Last.fm didn't pay a central role in the changing of this paradigm, maybe because it never understood how to make itself flourish economically. Investing in the concept of a personalised web radio and deciding to charge a fee for it turned out to be an unwise choice in an environment where music was practically becoming free and accessible, through tenuously legal YouTube uploads and the rise to prominence of streaming services.
"The idea of creating such a personalised space on the web acts as a counterpoint to the prevalent 'mass mentality' of the charts and invites the user to orient himself in an autonomous way, distancing himself from the typical consumer mentality," Europrix.org, an entity that awards the best European multimedia products each year, wrote in 2006. "The user decides, criticises, and therefore selects the music best-adapted to his taste or humour. [Functioning] in this way, Last.fm will always be relevant." Fifteen years after its founding, "relevant" isn't the most suitable word to describe Last.fm's role in the digital media landscape. It's more the relic of a passionate moment of the online musical experience, a miniature era of rebellious freedom in which discovering music wasn't a question of algorithms but a personal undertaking or shared mission.
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