Let's continue our look at music recommendation services ...

last.fm is a personalized streaming radio and music recommendation system. Last.fm builds up a listening profile for each user and based upon their listening habits can make recommendations and generate a 'radio' station (streaming audio) customized to the tastes of each listener. What makes last.fm unique among all of the music recommenders out there is that it uses an audioplayer plug-in to track what the user is playing, instead of relying on user ratings or uploaded playlists. When you enroll in last.fm, you can download and install the audioscrobbler plugin. Whenever you play a song, the plugin 'phones-home' with the details about what song you played, when you played it, and who you are. This means that last.fm can track not just what songs you have, or what artists you collect, but what music you are actually listening to. I think this is an extremely important advantage that last.fm has over other recommenders. Most people have songs in their music collection that they never listen to (for instance, my 10-year-old daughter's DisneyMania CDs are part of my music collection), a recommender that bases recommendations on what is in your collection is going to use those songs that you never listen to and give you bad recommendations. With the last.fm model, only the songs that you listen to factor into the recommendations. The more you play a song, the more weight that song is given. It is like having an automatic rating system for your music.

There are some other advantages to the last.fm model. Since it relies on an instrumented player to automatically send info back to the server, last.fm has been able to amass a very large database of music profiles. For any kind of recommendation system, the more data the better. Last.fm gives very good music recommendations (the best I've seen) with very good coverage (it is extremely rare to encounter a band that last.fm doesn't know about). Just to give you an idea of their coverage, here are some stats. In the last.fm database:

  • 1,240,919 people have listened to the Beatles
  • 698,795 people have listened to Weezer
  • 18,324 people have listened to Dave Brubeck
One really cool thing about last.fm is that since they are watching what thousands of people are playing, they have extremely accurate and up to date music charts. One can watch a new song or CD rapidly climb the charts. No need to wait a week for the new Billboard to arrive.

There are some downsides to the last.fm model. For one thing, having to download and install a music player plugin is a technical barrier to a very large class of listeners. The non-technical users are definitely under-representated in the last.fm database. Looking at the top artist charts we find bands like Coldplay, Radiohead, Weezer and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, definitely a geek bias here, (not that that is necessarily a bad thing though...). And of course there's the whole privacy issue. Some folks just don't like the idea that their music player is sending information about their music listening habits to some remote server.

Last.fm seems to be doing a lot of things the right way. They are friendly to developers, they publish their plugin protocol, they expose their derived data via a web services interface. They even release dumps of their database under a creative commons license for use by researchers.

It will be interesting to see if last.fm can compete even as the mega-music sites like Yahoo and iTunes move into this space. I think they have a lot to offer.


there is also the stunning musicplasma.com which I had the intention on writing about ages ago, but I'll let you have a go (and then just post a small blog entry to point back to here once your'e done Duke). Inaccurate in places, but I do like the interactivity of it and the way it re-alligns the "planets" when you jump from a to b, ie type in Kraftwerk, hit on Brian Eno to get to Biosphere and then watch the circles resize, move around or just disappear. Quite presize on Townes Van Zandt as I see it - Gillian Welch, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash generating some large circles.

Posted by Halvard Halvorsen on October 06, 2005 at 09:56 AM EDT #

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