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25.06.09 | Rest in peace, Last.fm! You’ll be greatly missed…
Filed under: Music — Tags: — Dr. Ivan @ 12:37 — Comments (0)

I have been blissfully unaware of all the mess at Last.fm (RIAA-business, mandatory subscription payment, CEO-s quitting) until today.

I guess I should explain. First of all, Last.fm is a social music networking site which lets you register what music you are playing, getting recommendations and finding friends based on your submissions as well as playing web radio streams – dynamically mixed but optionally alterable.

Until recently that is – as this very popular site’s existence seems to hang by a thin thread.

A long string of events has led up to this situation. As far as the its deep roots go, it all began with the acquisition of Last.fm by CBS a couple of years ago – which in itself didn’t change much although many perceived an inevitable commercialization. The website continued nonetheless its operation unimpeded and rose in popularity without any major restructuring.

The more recent events triggering the current hiatus occurred in February 2009 when a rumor surfaced that Last.fm and CBS had cooperated with the RIAA in disclosing data about users who scrobbled the then yet unreleased Bono album. Both organizations denied the claims and in the end it all faded into nothingness.

Then came another shocker in late April when it was announced that the long-running free radio streaming service provided by Last.fm equally to all its visitors would be for paying members only. This would have been bad enough in itself, but Last.fm managed to upset the international audiences by providing approximately the same functionality for free to users in the US, Germany and the UK. Full furore among users ensued, even to the point where Last.fm staff felt the necessity to disable commenting on the blog post in question.

A month later yet another scandal hit the now boiling community. It was again reported that Last.FM or its parent company, CBS, had handed user data including IP-adresses and playback logs to RIAA. And, once again, all parties denied the accusations; source of the leak was consequentially given the boot and threatened with legal action.

Finally in mid-June the three founders of Last.fm blogged their decision to “begin the process of handing over the reins” of the site which they initially put together in 2002. Not citing any particular reasons their departure was left to interpretation, but the motivation behind the move could not have been clearer. Some have suggested that there has been mounting tension between Last.fm and their parent company. Whether or not this is true, pressure must have been enormous on the CEO-s of the former company – which isn’t really surprising after the past six moths’ debacle.

The tension has as well spread to the Last.fm community and pretty much everyone is holding their breath to see what’s coming next. There are apparently several users who have quit over the payment row, but numbers are impossible to estimate for those not within the inner circle. Besides, while summer vacation is on-going, everything is more quiet than usual. The resolution of this situation and appointment of new CEO-s at Last.fm will probably not happen until the summer is over.

Personally I do believe that this is a very unfortunate situation. Now being at mercy of CBS in its entirety, Last.fm is in danger of ceasing to exist – which would have been a real shame as the service they have so far provided has indeed been very good (of course certain problems have made their mark here as well – but then again nothing is perfect).

In connection with this, there is something that tells me that those of us who have seriously used the site to keep track of listening statistics, should run and retrieve all scrobbling info and store it locally until we have any clue as to what is going to happen in the nearest future. This in itself is not difficult given that the API is freely available, but due the amount of information that should be retrieved it still is laborious.

It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if in the end scrobbling will become a service only available for paying users – which may supply CBS with a new source of considerable income, even if the majority of the subscribers quit in protest. In the long run though such management is of course not sustainable and will eventually lead to far more grave consequences. CBS having gotten their money and seeing the lessened popularity of the site would sooner or later consider it not profitable and shut it down permanently.

Or perhaps it would turn out quite the opposite in terms of operation, but as disastrous for the users: RIAA (which has been accused in playing a role in the unfolding sequence of events) is more than interested in getting their hands on data supplied by users to choose suspects for monitoring and legal action. Therefore the service might be kept free of charge for scrobbling. In this scenario it only makes sense to charge for the radio thus discouraging it: It indeed separates those who actually want to pirate music and are unwilling to pay for anything from the more sincere listeners. In theory this sounds ingenious, but is marred by many ethical dilemmas and in general challenges the legal aspects of such conduct. Not that it would hinder RIAA from enforcing it.

Now I’m probably doing an all too perfect impression of a doomsayer, but in the end it’s better to be safe than sorry. Take backup, tuck in and wait for the resolution of this mess.

Rest in peace, Last.fm. You’ll be greatly missed…

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