Last.fm is an interesting company. It started off as two different projects one involving online radio, and one involving recommendations. It was born as the internet was beginning to recover from the dot-com bubble burst. While Last.fm might no longer be the coolest kid in the town, a lot of people, including me, still have a soft spot for it. Naturally, when I first noticed the title of Stefan’s TNW editorial How long is Last.fm gonna last?, I was outraged. How dare he! But as I read his post and deliberated on the issue, I could see why he had arrived at the conclusion that Last.fm is heading towards oblivion.
I may not have been the earliest adopter of Last.fm, but I had joined it at a time when it was still considered hip and fun. Besides MySpace, Last.fm was the go to website for music lovers. It had the neat ability to generate charts based on what I had been listening to. Of course, those charts weren’t generated in real-time, because back then almost nothing on the web was real-time. I would check last.fm multiple times at the beginning of a week to see if the charts had been updated. I had friends, who would do the same. We would spend hours every week comparing each other’s tastes, checking out Last.fm suggestions, browsing through the most popular artists, etcetera etcetera. In short, I loved Last.fm.
Then in 2007, Last.fm got acquired by CBS (and I went to college). As always, the news was treated with cautious optimism. While CBS had the money and influence to expand Last.fm’s reach, it could also potentially spell trouble for the website by taking away its trendiness.
Next year, Last.fm rolled out a design overhaul that added several new features, and made dozens of modifications. Although a certain (vocal) section of Last.fm’s dedicated user base didn’t like the changes, my impressions were mostly positive. It allayed my fears about stagnation at the hands of a large corporation.
Unfortunately, since then, it has been mostly one bit of negative news after another. Last.fm stopped providing free streams to everyone other than users based in US, UK and Germany. It allegedly leaked user data to RIAA. The founders left the company. It stopped providing free preview streams for a large percentage of the tracks. And last month, it stopped its free mobile service even in countries like UK, US and Germany.
Being a web based content-provider in the music industry is tough. The record labels are still mostly clueless about the web as a content distribution medium. I would have to admit that most of the stuff I mentioned above were things beyond Last.fm’s control. However, that doesn’t change the fact that they happened, and that they had an overall negative impact on the product’s quality and value. In the meantime, Spotify has come along, and conquered Western Europe. Grooveshark has won accolades by offering high quality music for free to everyone.
To make things worse, Last.fm as a product has stagnated. There has been very little in the way of new features over the past few years. The charting and recommendation engines are the differentiating factors for Last.fm. However, they have seen little in the way of improvements in the last four years. Tight integration of charts with profiles and communities has the potential to make Last.fm an attractive destination for music lovers. But the once coolest kid in the block seems to have lost all its creative energy.
So, are Last.fm’s days numbered? I don’t think so. Although I agree with Stefan’s overall assessment of Last.fm, I believe that Last.fm is still quite far from heading towards oblivion. It might have lost its chance to become the king of online radio; however, its core product is as appealing as it was five years back. Last.fm might no longer be chic, but it still is useful. Even switching to a premium model didn’t make users stop coming back, because Last.fm is a lot more than just an online radio. The thing that makes users coming back to Last.fm is Audioscrobbler, which works from pretty much any music player, and any device.
While I don’t believe that Last.fm is not going to go anywhere anytime soon, I would love to see Last.fm regain its edge. It needs to reorient its website and applications to make them an integral part of a music enthusiast’s life, instead of just being a website you visit a few times a week. Last.fm has to increase user engagement, and one way to do so is to completely revamp user pages. The shoutbox is currently relegated to the bottom of the page where it is mostly ignored by users. If last.fm wants to increase the amount of time users spend on their website, it has to find a way to make users interact with their friends more. The homepage has to do more than just displaying what my friends are listening to now. It needs to implement a site-wide playlist to encourage users to listen to music without using the desktop client. The mobile apps should encourage users to shout out their opinion. Last.fm should also try out of the box revenue generation mechanisms like allowing users to purchase and dedicate songs to loved ones. I don’t want to see Last.fm turning into a Facebook, but it needs to leverage the huge pile of data it is sitting upon better.
What do you think? Do you agree with Stefan? Do you still use Last.fm? Drop a line and let us know.