“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.

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