Song, by Toad

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“Last.fm and Pandora are Fucking Pointless.” Oh dear.

 Given that, for all my ranting, no-one really cares what I think about anything, I may have been a little careless in Brighton when I was talking at The Great Escape.  I was on a panel about new broadcasting models, which discussed internet radio, podcasting and stuff like that, as well as, belatedly, streaming, algorithm-based services like last.fm and Pandora.

When asked about these services I said “As far as I am concerned, last.fm and Pandora are fucking pointless.” It’s needlessly provocatively-phrased, I suppose, but not far from the truth when it comes to my own personal opinion.  But of course, that’s the pull-quote everyone seems to have taken from the panel, and it appeared in Wired as well as last.fm’s own blog, where they have a few digs back at me.

Now, to be absolutely fair, if last.fm had called labels, music blogs or podcasts ‘fucking pointless’ then I imagine I’d be bristling with indignation myself, so I can understand them being a bit irritated, but there are a couple of misconceptions as to what I was actually trying to say that I reckon I should try and clear up.

Firstly, I was not trying to express a general truth, more a personal opinion.  I am well aware that this kind of service is doing very, very well, and that plenty of people find a lot in last.fm and Pandora to love.  I also agree with some of the points made by last.fm about the market share that they are capturing, although funnily enough the last time I worked in an office we tried using last.fm as a radio station for a while and it didn’t prove very popular.  Nevertheless, I can easily see how it would suit office environments perfectly.

Also, if you aren’t relentlessly wading through a tidal wave of new music as I am, I can also easily see how saying ‘I like The National and Smog’ and then being recommended, say, Kurt Vile, would be a very welcome introduction.  As they point out as well, last.fm introduces people to a significant amount of music from ‘the long tail’, so they are also helping people discover relatively unknown bands, who they might not necessarily happen across otherwise.  This is all good.  I applaud this, and I genuinely think the service they provide makes a lot of sense, and I think it is a/ a very good thing, and b/ something a lot of people would be into (as they clearly are).

The core point I was trying to make, however, beyond attention-grabbing soundbites, was somewhat lost in misquotation.  What I have been quoted as saying is that whenever I have used last.fm it has played me twenty things I already know, and this is not quite right.  What I actually said was that whenever I use last.fm it plays me twenty things I already know I like, which may not seem that different, but is.

Twenty things I already know, would be a bunch of bands or songs I had already heard, or at least heard of, which is not what last.fm does and not what I was trying to say.  Twenty things I already know I like, on the other hand, can include plenty of bands and songs I have never heard of.  The criticism is not that they just play me back my own music collection, it is that they play me stuff which is, if anything, too appropriate to my taste.

The nature of digital music means that I and a lot of people like me have an incredible amount of music in our iTunes (or whatever library), so the service provided by last.fm is – for me at least, I recognise that this will be different for a lot of people – is actually bettered by sticking my own music library on random, not least because it is far more likely to jump from Ella Fitzgerald to The Dead Kennedys to Jackson C. Frank to The Pet Shop Boys to Slowcoaches to Barna Howard and on to Lower Dens, than anything I have seen on last.fm. And that’s important, because what makes your music taste interesting and characteristic is often not the stuff you listen to all the time, but more often than not the stuff you listen to only occasionally (and of course the blend of the two).

So when I listen to a new music discovery platform, whatever it is, I don’t want it to extrapolate from my favourite music and play me a pile of stuff which is roughly related and therefore almost certainly in the right ballpark.  Or, put simply, I don’t want to listen to too much stuff I am very likely to enjoy, I want to listen to some stuff it would probably not make sense to suggest to someone like me, because that’s how you learn and expand your horizons.

This applies to more than music, too.  If you and I use Google News to look up, say, the Sudan conflict we may well get very different results.  I will get a lot of ‘angry liberal’ sources, whereas depending on what websites you use, you might get the Daily Mail and Fox News*.  Google is now, depending on where you already get a lot of your news, tailoring your search results to give you stuff which basically reinforces your existing biases.  Now, I can see the attraction in that, but disappearing into these self-reinforcing bubbles is not good for understanding, nor for learning.  In fact, I would actually go as far as to say that in a broad sense it is downright bad for society as a whole.  Learning how other people think and being forced to face opinions other than your own is a crucial part of being a functioning human being, and it is how we still manage to function when crammed together in the kind of numbers you see on the planet at the moment.

Now, music is leisure, not politics, so it is of course far less important to broaden your mind if you can’t be bothered, but I don’t want to just be played an endless stream of stuff similar to what I have already found for myself.  Now, as was said on the panel, a lot of people simply do not want to be thrown constant curve-balls by a radio DJ.  And somewhat hypocritically having said all this, I myself found John Peel tended to be a bit too eclectic for me, actually, so however much I respect him I rarely listened to his show. But in general, for me personally, I want to be more surprised – more challenged – than I am by the music being played on most of these hyper-tailored services.

What I try and do on my own podcasts is court massive digressions, such as ‘Oh fuck it, I’m in Canada this week, let’s pepper the show with forgotten Canadian songs from the mid-nineties’.  Of course this may not please everyone, but I think people’s music tastes are more unpredictable at the margins than they are given credit for, and yet this is nothing I have seen an algorithm capture properly, because for all it’s unpredictable, it’s never entirely random.  Your age, your parents, your friends, your personal history… all of these things provide unique strands which hold together pieces of music which wouldn’t really make collective sense without them.  So when people put together playlists, as long as you find the right people, I tend to find a happier blend of surprises and familiarity than Pandora or last.fm or even their precursor, the Amazon recommendations, have ever given me.

Although, of course, I don’t know all about last.fm, and they have some very interesting features, such as Discover, and their ability to provide a localised gig listing service based on your music tastes is absolutely brilliant.  They have a Spotify app now too apparently, and I can’t think of anything better to guide you through Spotify’s featureless wasteland of unlimited availability than something like last.fm, which at least knows where to start, so please don’t think I think last.fm is shit, because I certainly do not.

I can absolutely see why people like last.fm so much.  And actually, I really like it in theory myself, it’s just that in practise I have always somehow failed to really click with it as a new music radio station, somehow.  If I want to listen to stuff I know I am going to like, then I am better off with my own music collection, and if I am looking to be introduced to something new, I want something more surprising than these services tend to give me.

 

*Although I deeply, profoundly hope not.

31 witty ripostes to “Last.fm and Pandora are Fucking Pointless.” Oh dear.

  1. avatar

    Hey Matthew,

    It doesn’t take too long in your company to realise that edgy/glib/fun hyperbole is part of your (ahem, idiosyncratic) method of discussion, so I can see why people who weren’t physically there may have misconstrued your comments.

    I am slightly surprised that some who were there did the same, but humour does not always translate to all and sundry.

    I do understand what you’re saying, even if I don’t 100% agree – but yes, the non-human element of music discovery sites can be disconcerting or disappointing.

    We have not, and (happily) never will, replace the wildly unexpected nature of say, John Peels’ radio show.

    I’ve not used Pandora, but there are elements of Last FM that I think are brilliantly useful: recording my music playing history and linking it to Spotify/This Is My Jam/etc will be useful for ever, in whichever way music consumption evolves form hereon.

    As a player of music, I’ve found it only partially useful, and my experience do mirror yours somewhat. I want wild variety, the unexpected, and also stuff that tests my boundaries. I understand that the bulk of their user base may not want this, however.

    The Last FM app in Spotify is very useful for the reasons you stated, but I prefer Sounddrop, the user-sourced ‘radio’ app: which brings us back to the matter of human intervention.

    Finally – I have a (minor) vested interest in Hype Machine, but I think their model is closest to what works for me.

    I can listen to a selection of songs that a (filtered) human system has put together; I enjoy some, and skip some.

    But I’m hearing new things all the time, and none of them (on the ‘Popular’ stream, for example) are ‘tailored’ to me beyond the idea that I will probably be at least *interested* in what’s being thrown up on the screen, because I trust the aggregated list of bloggers to at least screen out the obvious and the dross.

    Joe

  2. avatar

    It’s so much nicer when someone recommends something a la Natalie Portman to Zac Braff in Garden State. Even someone like Mark Radcliffe, or any other DJ for that matter, who can contextualise and sometimes do a quick ‘who this is’ for a minute leaving you licking your lips to hear the track.

  3. avatar

    Joe – yep, for Spotify I imagine it will be brilliant. Even with the amount of music I listen to I find the blank search box in Spotify rather intimidating. And as you say, it is quite likely that a personal collection of mp3 files will become obsolete very, very quickly, so that combination could become really important in the next couple of years.

    Jonny – I would agree with you. Although I found their ‘vested interest’ comments a little dubious, I would certainly admit that I strongly prefer some sort of context when it comes to listening to music for the first time. Whether it’s ‘this person used to be in such and such a band’ or ‘we’re playing this because it strongly influenced this current group’, it’s always nice to know why something should be interesting, above and beyond the ‘sounds a bit similar to this, that and the other’.

  4. avatar

    I’ve never been a big fan of either Pandora or Last.fm because I found myself getting bored with the choices rather quickly but never bothered to consider why – and I think this sums it up rather well.

    I like having some songs or at least bands I know and like peppered between someone else’s tangents which means it broadens my perspective. Yes sometimes I will have to turn off the radio or FF the podcast when something I truly hate comes on, but normally it’s just refreshing to hear something different and not in the same vein as what came before. Enjoyment of art has never stayed roughly to a linear progression or even close to it, and as such algorithms just don’t cut it if you want interest.

    Don’t even get me started on Google’s Personalised Web Search – it’s awful awful awful, makes everyone think they’re right, and as such ruins real debate. Ugh.

  5. avatar

    Well this is just about music, so really not that important, but when it comes to current events and political debate, the kind of echo chambers we are increasingly leading ourselves into do rather worry me.

  6. avatar

    I think as well there’s actually a link with why I prefer the whole browsing in record shops as opposed to buying it off Amazon, iTunes or whatever. There is the chance exposure and out of the box time experimenting.

    The most recent release on 17 Seconds was the Matt Norris and the Moon EP; the last time I checked on iTunes, it said that customers had also bought albums buy, umm, Journey and The Kooks. They may well have – I think this is unlikely to be the next stage for fans of any of the bands – but it’s why I prefer the personal recommendations, rather than simply the sales ones.

    Years ago, I remember trying one streaming service, and because I said I liked The Cure they then selected lots of American college rock bands for me. Not really what I had in mind (I do wonder if the like this? try thi principle will vary from country to country)…

  7. avatar

    [...] At The Great Escape, he announced that “Last FM and Pandora are fucking pointless”, and a selection of music/tech people blew a collective gasket. (Matthew later addressed what he said in a more eloquent manner here.) [...]

  8. Interesting read, Matthew. Cheers for responding. I’ll update my story with some of your comments.

  9. Oh and to add to that, it sounds like you’re already aware of this, but in case other readers aren’t, what you’re talking about is the Filter Bubble: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filter_bubble

  10. avatar

    My music sourcing hasn’t really moved on for 5 years. I like trawling through elbo.ws for bands with interesting names, more often than not if a band has the imagination to give themselves a good name the music will be worth a listen.

    In my search for more local bands, elbo.ws pointed me here and I’ve been an avid reader for a few years now.

    I’ve never understood these streaming services or new smartphone apps. I think blogs are great because they are personal from a music fan. Someone tells you what they really think, or some weird fact about the band.

  11. avatar

    i’ve been a fan of last.fm for a couple of years now, but for the reason that was mentioned above, recording my listening habits. although i listen to a lot of music and can’t always scrobble it because i might be on another computer. however, i cannot even begin to tell you how many times it proved useful, especially when trying to see the differences of whatever i was listening through different periods of time. given the fact that i am a very forgetful person, what last.fm had to offer in that section was perfect for me.

    when i first registered, i gave the recommended radio a shot and i have to say it was interesting, but to be honest, i did not care for it so much as to try and take advantage of all its features.

    the most important part of this conversation, for me, is that, as you stated, one’s taste in music consists of experiences, mostly. it connects to memories, people, circumstances. and that goes beyond any recommendations given by an algorithm. if my last.fm says i am into electronic music , say 95%, believe me, i would not like to get all electronic music in the world as a recommendation.

    it is true, no music app or streming service is perfect. so you choose and use only the features that satisfy you.

  12. avatar

    I definitely reached the same point with the last.fm “radio” stuff that everyone else is talking about and like ASILVERHOMEGHOST, i mostly use it to keep a record of what I listen to. And then at the end of the year, I do a podcast where I play a song from the top 10 bands I played that year. It lends a context and a retrospective and all that. I love last.fm, but, as I heard on a different podcast, “it tends to go around the same block”.

    For Pandora, the workaround I have found is that I do a quickmix with like 20 or 30 different stations of varying genres (i make sure i have old school hip hop, ramones-esque punk, smashing pumpkins grunge, etc.) and I also have a station for the current #1 song on the chart I watch for my countdown and the previous year’s winner of the CP Festive Fifty. And those last two can sort of change the flavor of what I hear.

    I think that if I’m putting on Pandora, it’s because i’m in a “doing other things but want some music on” mood. I agree with Duncan and Joe above in that when I’m looking for *new* music, i’ll go to elbo.ws or (to a lesser extent) Hype Machine.

    Basically, what I’m saying is that you can get a pleasingly eclectic mix from these sites, but you have to mix in a bit of yourself first.

  13. avatar

    Well for geographical licensing reasons I haven’t actually used Pandora for a while now, so can’t really comment all that much.

    In terms of last.fm, I too am fascinated by the listening stats it gives you, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why, especially as mine are becoming increasingly distorted by listening to mixes for the label again and again and again. Still fascinates me though.

    When looking for music I look to a small handful of radio shows, blogs and podcasts though. I just like hearing someone talk me through it, and Phil Collins is much more fun to listen to if you hear someone embarrassedly explain why they like it first than if it just turns up on a randomiser!

  14. avatar

    Can we expect a Philcast next week, Matthew? Collins, Spector, Ochs. There’s three to start!

  15. avatar

    Holy shit, that would be (mostly) awesome. Like in Championship Manager where you could win the European Cup with a team made up entirely of people called Wesley!

  16. avatar

    You could say that I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life. Oh lord.

  17. avatar

    It’s the least you can do.

  18. avatar
    rampant chutney consumerism

    Last FM is shite……Pandora is over there shite

    why do these people bite?

  19. avatar

    As I said, if they’d called blogs/podcasts/labels/whatever shite then I reckon I might have been a little riled too.

    So your considered opinion, after weighing all the arguments and considering the past, present and future of music is ‘shite’ is it? Thank goodness we got that cleared up.

  20. avatar
    rampant chutney consumerism

    What do the artists get out of these ‘services’? (exposure i guess, tho i don’t know any bands that have ‘made’ it via them)
    Do the artists get a fair royalty rate? (no, from what i understand)

    And blogs/podcasts/labels and even whatever are a whole lot closer to center of what music is all about i.e. generating advertising income for the owners of the site. There is no altruism going on here…….

    so yeah they are shite!

    Better sir?

  21. avatar
    rampant chutney consumerism

    hold on i missed word or two out!

    should read like this

    And blogs/podcasts/labels and even whatever are a whole lot closer to center of what music is all about i.e. not generating advertising income for the owners of the site, there is no altruism going on here with Last FM et al

    typing fast at work with the CEO sitting behind me doens’t help!

  22. avatar

    I haven’t used LastFM for years, so can’t comment on its present use. Back in the day it always seemed better for sharing what I was listening to rather than discovering new music.

    I like Pandora if I’m in the mood for a particular artist or song, but not for discovering new music. Even when it introduces me to an artist I haven’t heard, they sound exactly like another I have heard. Which is good, just very limited.

    I think TuneIn radio does a better job since it connects to actual radio stations (including local) as well as internet radio stations, all of which are searchable by country, city, genre, decade, etc. I’m somewhat addicted to browsing the plethora of ’90s stations on there, but I’ve been using the TuneIn app more than blogs or Pandora to find new music these days.

  23. avatar

    Saying that neither Pandora nor Last.fm are my cups of tea is putting it mildly and it’s for the exact reason that you’ve outlined: that their algorithms are too good at predicting things that I know that I will like, or as I call it — everything on whichever station I’ve chosen sounds too bloody alike that I’m bored after an hour. But I know a lot of people who love, love, love it.

    Matthew, there’s an article in The Economist about how Americans are more self-segregating today than ever before and how this is leading to an increased polarization in politics, and that more liberal and conservative types are more likely to choose to live in certain places. It also claims that the rise of cheap personal air conditioning has lead to this change as more people who would self-identify as conservative no longer just spending winters in the South but moving to the South as the ability to make “the climate” more hospitable. In light of your fears about information bubbles, I think that you’d find it interesting because it’s not just that conservatives are receiving news that justifies their worldview (insert liberals here) but that they rarely encounter anyone in their personal lives who might counter that opinion.

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2012/05/personality-and-polarisation?page=1

  24. avatar

    Muruch – Thanks for recommending TuneIn Radio. I had no idea it even existed.

  25. avatar

    Chutters, for some you are right, but there are a lot of blogs out there that do whore it up for ad revenue. Shit ones, admittedly, but there’s plenty of them.

    Muruch, nice call, I hadn’t heard of TuneIn before either.

    Ducky, that’s incredible, that people actually geographically segregate themselves to that extent. I had no idea it was so bad, but that’s pretty much exactly what I was talking about. I suppose as national boundaries break down, people need to find new ways to express their inherent tribalism.

  26. avatar

    I don’t care, I like the soundbite. I also agree that for the pull quote to be coming from Matthew I would expect he is honestly speaking his mind and in no way being malicious about it (as it was portrayed by others in discussing it). He was simply giving his comment some SbT flair.

    I love Last.fm and have been on board since mid 2005 and I pay them my $$ monthly to be a subscriber – but I do not use them for discovery at all. I just like the stats, finding similar users to connect with and also the stats. Did I mention I liked the nerdy stats? Discovery…nada. Maybe for a more casual user it could possibly be of assistance but for those that actually follow music – no dice.

    Pandora is also geographically opposed to my nationality (Canadian) so I don’t use it but from what I had used of it years ago – that was the point of it, discovery. It was at best, average.

    This thread needs more swearing.

  27. avatar

    I too love the stats. Although now I’m recording and mixing my own stuff, it’s become rather distorted – hundreds and hundreds of listens to fractionally different mixes of the exact same track!

  28. avatar

    [...] Philcast is named after the detestable little Tory weasel Phil Collins, as a result of this comment on this post by James who writes Appetite for Distraction.  So you can all blame [...]

  29. avatar

    Hey there, nice read. What do you think about lateral reccomendation systems (from lst.fm I mean) like http://www.stereomood.com?
    Don’t you think that moods can be a good way around the problem you described in your post?

  30. avatar

    I’ve seen where you’re coming from with the last.fm site. I haven’t used Pandora or any other site to a notable degree, so I’ll stick to last.fm here.

    When I first started using last.fm, I did notice the “related artists” feature was a bit lacking. It still is, since they are built half on tags, half on who listens to what similar bands (so a small band with the same exact tags as Nickelback won’t be listed in the top related bands). A lot of artists from small labels get roped together sometimes, even if one is dance electronic and the other is lo-fi rock.

    The main improvement I saw was when I listened to a lot of my own music and really built up my library (to about 500 artists, at the very least), my “recommended radio” started really helping me find some good music. It still throws a lot of crap my way, and a lot of watered-down sound-alike bands, but after it is registered that I’ve listened to them two or three times, it stops making me listen to them.

    What I mostly end up using it for now is to point out some vague form of “listening experience” I have when people question me about it.

  31. avatar

    All the fuss over people’s attachments to a particular form of music discovery or distribution. Who cares? Artists spend so much time debating Spotify, Last.fm, submitting to music blogs, Sonicbids, on and on, I wonder how much time they leave themselves to actually promote their music. Too much conversation can paralyse one from action. By the time the technology changes, thousands of whiners are left in the wake, still discussing the merits or downsides…but not acting.

    I’ve never used Last.fm much myself…I prefer to find a blog where I like some of the music picks, and it becomes exciting to get suggestions from a real person.

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