It wasn’t until after I left full time work at Real in July 2004 that I (ironically) began to get re-connected with the web. In my final years at Real, because I spent so much time working on our own web services, I had neither the time nor energy to explore other folks’. Plus, after nearly a dozen years in digital media, I had gotten sick of the internet, my computer, my mobile phone, my iPod, my digital life. I wanted, and was ready, to unplug.
Which I did for about three months. By October 2004, I was back on the Net. First, to follow in excruciating detail the election from London, followed by a gradual re-immersion back into the world of technology. I dived back in because, well, I was refreshed after some time away. But more importantly, I was excited about a bunch of new services like flickr, del.icio.us, and rss feed readers like bloglines. These are now hailed as canonical “web 2.0” offerings, but I wanted to give a shout out to my favorite, one that seems to get less attention.
That would be Last.FM (powered by sister service, audioscrobber). More than any other service launched the past few years, theirs has had a real impact on how I consume, and enjoy, media. In this case, music. For those of you who haven’t tried the service, there are two essential components: Audioscrobbler, a plug-in for your jukebox that tracks what you listen to in iTunes, WMP, WinAmp etc. The second is Last.fm, which hangs a bunch of useful services off of your listening habits as tracked by the audioscrobbler plug-in.
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The best of these services is last.fm radio. Last.fm will be radio playlists for you based on tracks you have listened to, artists that you like, or “musical neighbours” — other last.fm users who have similar tastes. It also allows its users to join groups, and then tracks listening habits in aggregate for those groups. This is useful because you can see in what other folks in the group listen to, and even better get a radio feed informed by the group behavior. I’m an alt-country fan, and belong to one group dedicated to that genre called “Postcard from Hell.”
I am listening to that group’s radio feed now, as I have been for much of the past week (I also love listening to my “musical neighbours” feed) and have found it to be the best way to discover new music — ever. About fifty percent of the tracks played I’ve not heard before, and of those, the hit rate is greater than 50%. For me, that ratio of hits to new songs is better than Launch, Pandora, or Rhapsody radio.
When I don’t like a track, I can just skip it, or if I really don’t like it, I let last.fm know not to play it again. If I love it, I can likewise tell the Last.fm that.
Last.fm has lots of social networking features, and I’m sure some users like them. But for me, what is important is that they use the social networking features as a means to an end: to help you to discover new music efficiently. That’s a useful service.
Finally, I should note I am just using Last.fm after a six month absence. But that had more to do with how and when I was listening to music (not through my computer) during that time than the actual benefits of the service. I should also note that Last.fm is not the service I used most: that award would go to Google search, Bloglines, MyYahoo, and my various e-mail services. And of all those services, I would probably give up Last.fm before the others. The others are simply necessary tools for my work. Last.fm is just something I enjoy. There are few web services about which that can be said.