Saturday, January 14, 2006

Mind-reading, spontaneously generated radio stations

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Every time the internet goes through a stale period where I start to wonder if all the really ground-breaking ideas have already been implemented, a web service comes along to blow away the cobwebs, taking my breath away in the process.

Last.fm epitomises this cycle. It's a social 'music-marking' community web site for curious audiophiles. You begin by creating a profile and introducing your favourite audio player to the 'Audioscrobbler' plug-in. From then on, the artist names and track titles of whatever you listen to are transmitted to the Last.fm web site and stored under your profile.

The site's clever, back-end scripty stuff (sorry if the science behind this is going over your head) then compiles this data to establish a representative snapshot of your musical tastes. The algorithm doofer looks at other people's snapshots too and tries to identify correlations between their favourite artists and bands. For instance it has been demonstrated that many people who are fans of Ben Folds also enjoy listening to Belle and Sebastian, Radiohead and Weezer.

Yes, Amazon also has a "if you like this band you may also like blah de da" system, yet what Amazon can't do is introduce you to new music by streaming an around-the-clock, ad-free, chatter-free, bespoke radio station to your computer. That's precisely what the Last.fm Player does! All you are required to do to kick-start your personal playlist is type in the name of a band or artist you appreciate and poke the 'go' button. The player responds by generating a continuous stream of genre-related or 'taste-linked' media. There's no annoying DJ to tune out between tracks, each of which is identified as it plays - the artist, track and album names are displayed at all times. Any tracks you'd rather not listen to can be skipped, and there are even options to give the thumbs up or down signal to tracks you either love or loathe. I assume the player reacts by 'spooling' more of the bands you give the nod of approval to, and banishes those you can't stand so you never have to suffer them again.

Last.fm don't keep an all-embracing database of music on their own servers. Instead, the music is streamed from member to member, radically reducing the bandwidth costs levied by the service operators. Unlike file-sharing, this is perfectly legal because the music is not being exchanged in the traditional sense, rather it is 'aired' and then it perishes. The player has no built-in facilities for storing the tracks it plays, though there's nothing to stop you recording the stream for delayed playback or replays. This of course would be totally immoral and surely buy you a one-way ticket to hell, once the RIAA had confiscated everything you own, your life's savings and the right to sell your family and pets into slavery.

The threat of eternal damnation aside, Last.fm easily gets my vote for web service of the year, if not the decade! I'm fortunate enough to work in a super-chilled out office where we're allowed to listen to music so I predict the Last.fm Player and I will soon become inseparable.

1 comments:

yankunian

right on! I love Last.fm and this it's only a matter of time before it catches on over here ...

 
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