The slow, sad death of Last.fm

Last.fm used to know about bands before they were cool. Alas, there’s nothing up-and-coming about Last.fm these days.

The hybrid social network/online radio station/recommendation platform/music chart announced yesterday that it would shutter its streaming subscription radio service in view of continued losses. And that’s only the latest in a growing string of “repositions” and “refocusings” that shuffle around an inevitable truth: The Internet has moved on, and Last.fm just isn’t moving with it.

Let’s consider the things that, back in the heady days of the mid-to-late aughts, Last.fm did really well. You could stream free, legal music from a ton of (largely independent) artists, long before that was an easy and commonplace thing to do. You could see when and where your favorite bands were playing shows. You could connect with other fans in forums and comment sections, where people discussed everything from Radiohead’s best album to schizophrenia. But most importantly — in my mind, at least — you could use this novel little function called the “Audioscrobbler” to (a) track every song you listened to, (b) display those metrics publicly, as a monument to your good taste and (c) get recommendations for similar artists and songs you might like.

This was an amazing, revolutionary bit of brilliance … circa 2007. In fact it predicted some of the major trends that dictate our consumption of digital culture now: algorithmic recommendations (see Netflix, Amazon, Goodreads); self-quantification, that peculiar fad that now drives Jawbone, MyPlate, Reporter and an endless array of other apps and tools; even the careful preening of an idealized online identity, a phenomenon much decried in more recent years.

Maybe that’s the problem, actually. While Last.fm advanced a lot of cool ideas, other companies have grabbed that baton. Want to discover new music based on stuff you like? Consider Pandora, which logged more than 1.5 billion listener hours in February. Trying to stream free music? Spotify has a catalog of 20 million popular songs. Many of those songs are now available on Last.fm as well, thanks to a deal between the services brokered earlier this year. But even that partnership seems less a cause for optimism than a mark of irrelevancy: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em — right?


Last.fm’s weekly web traffic, in blue, versus Pandora (orange) and Spotify (green). (SimilarWeb)

Meanwhile, Twitter’s repeated attempts to get in on the music game — its latest venture, launched today, is a real-time chart in collaboration with Billboard — seem to promise that future innovation will come from elsewhere.

Then again, innovation isn’t everything! Nostalgia brought vinyl back … maybe hipsters can revive this bit of “old-school” music culture, too. Last.fm does boast a popular group called “I Still Buy CDs,” after all.

Read more from Style.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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