Tag Archives: music

Last stream for allothercountries.fm (including Italy)

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!

Last.fm pins

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.

Going down

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.

Proud subscriber

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”.

New visualisations from Last.fm playground

At Last.fm, we enjoy being mad scientists, playing with data and infographics — stay tuned for more in the visualization department!

via Last.fm – the Blog · Mad Science + Awesome! = New playground apps.

The “Tube Tags” map snipped above is a visualisation of alter‘s listening habits, using music tags and related artists as this fictional Tube main lines and stops, and changes as lines directions (so e.g. as I was listening more of Mozart the corresponding classical music brown line goes up or “North”, and the same for the yellow “Folk” line as more of Stefano Miele was scrobbled).

The link above from Last.fm official blog has more on the topic — in short, the team has beefed up the service “playground” area with some new visualisations, available only to subscribers but visible to everyone.

I like the idea very much, even though no practical implication is evident at the moment — or maybe exactly for this reason. This is also really on the same lines that were discussed in Vertigo, a conceptual design and exploratory research work on which I have been active over the last few months (in Vertigo the scope was larger than music and included movies, pictures, linear media in general).

I am fascinated by the idea that visualisations can be informative and entertaining at the same time.  It’s a blend of functional and aesthetic (or edonistic) values that to me is badly needed in the digital space, where they are often separated (so that you might have applications or services that are either overtly functional or overtly easthetic-driven, or let’s say dominated by formal technological and media experimentation — not a bad thing as such of course! in both instances).

See here below another example, a collage of top artists pictures (again, alter‘s view).

9th of November 2013 update: the pics originally inserted into this post got lost in this blog Oct. 2013 crash, so I replaced them with the one below, taken from the Visualizing Music blog – thanks them! not that I asked before…)

Last.fm Tube Tags visualization
At Last.fm, we enjoy being mad scientists, playing with data and infographics — stay tuned for more in the visualization department!

via Last.fm – the Blog · Mad Science + Awesome! = New playground apps.

“City soundtracks” at CitySounds.fm

The city is a living organism with distinct character, taste, smell, sound. Its thriving music scene offers a special kind of storytelling about the city’s personality quirks and cultural passions — an auditory window into the soul of the city.

CitySounds.fm opens a dozen such fascinating windows by delivering the latest music from some of the world’s most interesting cities, from Sydney to Stockholm to San Francisco.

via Global Soundscape: CitySounds.fm | Brain Pickings

This is a fascinating way of listening, or, better, explore music, especially new music – one of the most attractive aspects to me in services à la last.fm. The idea of connections between media and real world contexts is also one of the guiding principles of Vertigo.

9th of November 2013 update: the service seems to gone, but thanks to this post at Maria Popova’s Brainpickings (ode to her! in general of course, not just for this one) I can re-publish here an image of it (the one that I captured back then has been lost during this blog crash in October 2013).

Citysounds.fm visualization
Citysounds.fm visualization


Vertigo on paper

One of the most interesting projects on which I have been working over the last few months is finally on paper — at least part of it (download available from the publications list). For once, there is even a better name than the usual acronym: it is “Vertigo”, from the Hitchcock 1958 movie. But the proper meaning of “the sensation of spinning or having one’s surroundings spin about them” (Wikipedia) is not irrelevant: the only difference is that the surroundings investigated by the project are the media surroundings, or a mix of media and “real world” surroundings. The main goal here is making possible a more enjoyable and interactive exploration of movies, videos, music (linear media in general) by shaping, following and sharing “media trails” or traces. As reported in the paper, this is an idea well rooted in the early history of hypertext. The work has been done in very close cooperation with Jukka Huhtamaki, researcher at the Hypermedia Lab of Tampere University of Technology, and Renata Guarneri, a former project colleague in MobiLife (with Siemens, one of the main industrial partners in the consortium led by Nokia) now Principal Technologist at CREATE-NET (I am consulting them on different initiatives), plus several people at various research organizations in Europe.Renata has just presented the paper at Digibiz 2009,

I am very grateful to Jukka, Renata, CREATE-NET and all the others for the opportunity to delve once again in the intriguing subject of bringing interactivity to screen based media and music, to the living room context in general.

Vertigo movie poster
Vertigo movie poster (from Wikipedia)

It is now about ten years since the first time I tried some serious effort on the topic by contributing to an essay on TV and interactivity (in a book edited by Laura Tettamanzi and published with the sponsorship of Italian public broadcaster RAI). Ten years is a long span of time: we have seen the dotcom boom and bust, the social media explosion, the 3G come of age etc. Yet TV and movie watching haven’t changed that much — compared to music say. It is no chance that this work started with very inspiring discussions about Last.fm