February 23, 2006

Last.fm makes Internet music social

Author: Dmitri Popov

Nowadays, the Web is all about being social. We have social bookmarking, social photo sharing, and social browsing. So it's not a big surprise that now we can also enjoy social music listening, courtesy of Last.fm.

Although Last.fm is not the only player in town, and it relies on some tried and tested ideas, it outshines its competitors when it comes to implementing these ideas. If you are getting tired of your music collection, or you just want to try something new, you should take Last.fm for a spin.

The basic idea behind Last.fm is simple: the service streams music to your computer, you select whether you like or dislike each song, and Last.fm will adapt the stream accordingly.

Last.fm offers a broad selection of artists from 4,500 labels: Johnny Cash, Dire Straits, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Norah Jones -- you name it. Independent artists and labels can easily register and upload their music to the service too. Last.fm guarantees airplay and provides weekly airplay statistics. More importantly, all artists get royalties: Last.fm uses the MCPS-PRSs alliance in the UK to distribute royalties to the artists.

To get started, create an account with Last.fm. Basic accounts are free, though Last.fm does offer a few extra perks for a $3 a month subscription.

Next, install the Last.fm Player on your computer. The player is distributed under the GNU General Public License (GPL) and it's available for a wide range of platforms, including Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and FreeBSD. Last.fm even offers a portable version of the player that you can put on a USB key and use at the office and while you are away from your computer. Launch the player, enter your username and password, and you are good to go.

The easiest way to "tell" Last.fm about your music likes and dislikes is to simply start listening to streamed songs. To do this, switch to the Search tab in the Radio Control window. If you don't see the window, press the Options button and select Change Station. If you want to listen to, say, artists similar to Leonard Cohen, select the Similar Artist Radio option, enter "Leonard Cohen" in the field below, and press Go.

Once the player returns the search results, press the Listen Now button and enjoy the music. Alternatively, you can select Tags from the drop-down list and enter the desired tag. Pressing Go will return a list of found groups, and you can then select the one you want and press the Listen Now button.

You can create your own radio station using Last.fm's Radio page. Type the artist's name in the Search field, hit the Search button, and click on the Play Music link to launch the created radio station in the Last.fm Player. Alternatively, you can create a radio station by clicking on one of the available tags.

Last.fm player - click to enlarge

When you listen to the streamed songs you can use the "Love this track" and "Ban this track" buttons to tell Last.fm about your music preferences. Based on this data Last.fm attempts to match the stream to your music taste. While you are listening to music, you can tag particular artists, albums, or tracks using the "Tag this song" button. You can even blog about the music on your Last.fm personal page using the "Write a Journal about this song" button.

Using Last.fm Player requires you to do some work: you have to specify what kind of music you want to listen to, and then sort the incoming tracks. However, Last.fm also offers the Audioscrobbler plugin, a nifty tool that can do all the work for you.

Download and install the plugin for your favorite music player. Last.fm supports iTunes, WinAmp, amaroK, and XMMS, and it will send the title of every song you play on your computer to Last.fm. Based on this information, Last.fm automatically finds people with a similar taste, and generates music recommendations for you.

As you continue to listen to Last.fm radio stations, the service gathers additional information about your musical preferences, which is then used to configure other useful features on the Last.fm site, such as Neighbours and Recommendations. Your neighbours are people with a taste in music similar to yours. Last.fm automatically calculates your neighbours several times a week. According to Last.fm, you have to listen to about 300 tracks before the service can generate a list of your neighbours.

Recommendations offer another way to find music you like. Last.fm-generated music recommendations are based on the songs you've listened to. To view Last.fm's suggested tracks, click on the Recommended link under your profile and then click on the Recommended Music link. Besides a list of suggested artists, this section contains a slider that allows you to broaden the list so it includes less known artists, or narrow it to only more popular names.

To listen to the recommended songs, simply click on the "Play My Recommendation" radio link. The Recommended section includes not only the music recommendations but also entries in other users' journals that the system thinks may be of interest to you. Last.fm also displays a list of recommended users that have music preferences similar to yours, and you can tune into other users' radio stations as well as see what kind of music they listen to.

Users can also recommend music to each other. For example, to recommend a track to a friend, find the song in Last.fm's database, press the * button, enter the friend's email address or user name (if she is registered with Last.fm), and press the Send button. The song then appears on the friend's list of recommended music. Users can receive recommendations from several sources, and Last.fm marks sources with appropriate labels such as Neighbour (recommendations from your neighbours), Group (recommendations from the groups you are a member of), and Label (recommendations from record companies).

The Last.fm site has even more social features available. You can create and join groups of users with similar music tastes. Last.fm's friend finder allows you to type an artist's name and find users that like a particular artist. You can also use friend finder to find users from a particular country or of a certain age. You can make friends with other users and send them music recommendations as well as receive song suggestions from them.

Last.fm has the potential to become the Flickr of music, which means two things: it will attract hordes of new users, and it will probably be bought by either Yahoo! or Google in the near future.

Dmitri Popov is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Russian, British, and Danish computer magazines.

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