Last.fm and misinformation

I need to retract a decision I made based on seemingly false news.

Just over a month ago I posted an announcement that Simulacre Media would be removing its entire catalog from the Last.fm service due to the imposition of user fees in countries other than the US, UK, and Germany. I read a misleading Canwest story (and others) that missed the memo about how the new user fees would apply to Last.fm Radio only. Seemingly, I missed this memo too. More correctly, the memo was never explicit about what the changes would actually mean.

Before I posted my original decision, I consulted the original source (Last.fm’s Blog) to clarify what the changes actually meant, and for whom. The responses, as well as the original announcement on March 24 (to be fair to the many naïve journalists who rode the wave of hype) were actually never explicit about how this affected the availability of free music on the site. The Last.fm announcement reads that “scrobbling, recommendations, charts, biographies, events, videos etc. will remain free in all countries”. There is no explicit mention of free music, downloads, or streaming (as distinct from “radio”, if it were to be a distinct thing) in this announcement. So I made and posted my decision anyway, decoding this as surreptitious PR jostling – after all, it is still CBS at the end of the day, right?

Even after a wave of international user feedback expressing much confusion (not to mention feelings of betrayal) over the impending changes, the Last.fm team followed up with another announcement on March 30 about the change that still did not clarify what would happen to free music hosted on the site. There was no clear indication at the time, either, about (1)  how a “subscription” would be distinct from a “user account” on Last.fm, nor about (2) whether individuals providing music for the service would be exempt from the fees, which only compounded everyone’s confusion (not to mention feelings of betrayal). It felt like we were losing control over the right to manage our relationships with fans in the ways that are consistent with our business model/ethos/philosophy (as the case may be). User fees would end our ability to share music for free, wouldn’t they?

I decided to wait and see what would happen before removing the music. April 1 came and went, and the Simulacre catalogue was still all available, all free, for download or streaming. I checked a few weeks later – the streaming links were gone, but the “free download” links were still functional.

I checked again today, and now I see some links to a subscription page on some sort of radio widget that I’ve never seen there before. Still, our catalogue is available for free downloading. Streaming is gone, which hurts Last.fm’s extensibility in the social media world immensely, but it’s not really a deal-breaker from an artist’s or label’s point of view, to my mind (it is still a free service for us). Overall, the changes are not as drastic as at first they seemed, according to the vague Last.fm announcements, and the wave of media hype that followed them.

I cannot presume that this story is over (we’ve seen mammoths in this space rise and fall spectacularly before, haven’t we?… transforming eventually into things that barely resemble their original selves). However, for the time being, it seems we’re still able to give our music away on Last.fm. So long as a platform permits users to download our music for free and interact with our artists in meaningful ways, then we will continue to share our catalogue and support said platform.

It’s simply weird to charge user fees in a music economy that is increasingly devaluing its former prime currency (the recorded artifact) in favour of new sources of revenue, and doing so likely marks the beginning of the end for Last.fm (no more sharing and capturing friends’ streams or playlists, kids!), not to mention how Last.fm radio (with its widgets, extensibility into desktop apps, other social media sites, etc.) will likely become a crippled version of what it could be if free.

I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.

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