Last.fm, CBS and the future of music

OK, I was going to take a lot of time and write a measured and considered manifesto, but in the spirit of the impulsivity, that, according to my friend Jason, haunts, and characterizes the blogosphere, I’ve decided to have a little blurt and then go enjoy the blistering West Coast sunshine. Blogs are for blurts; journals are for more careful screeds. Or maybe I’ll think differently tomorrow morning.

Last.fm was just bought by CBS Corp for a whopping $280 million US. According to the site’s blog, CBS “gets it”, which can imply a lot. Or not. Let’s try and untangle this problem, shall we?

Last.fm’s brand image is cloaked in thought-choking terminology including “the social music revolution”, “the wisdom of crowds”, “discovery”, “exploration”, and “sharing”, the usual stuff of second generation (Web 2 point oh) utopianism. So what would it say about CBS’ strategic vision, to say that the company “gets” this? To my mind, it indicates the following:

CBS wants to monetize what they predict will be fundamental changes in the way music is distributed and shared – changes that center around the evolution of taste publics, and Last.fm – with its mode of connecting users into taste publics, and its recognition of the way music earns value via its social contextualization – is the most valuable indicator about how these processes unfold.

I agree that Last.fm is probably the best indicator yet developed (partly due to the fact that it has scaled to a large user base, which means that it has now become useful to CBS by having generated a critical mass of aggregate data) of how taste communities are formed and evolve.

And like Nancy at Online Fandom is, I am also uncertain whether the users of Last.fm will revolt against the company, fearing ads, the commoditization of their listening habits, or whatever other evils of the commercial Internet they may anticipate. I doubt there will be much of a backlash, so long as users derive value from it and it does not devolve into a top-down or non-neutral barometer of taste.

But what is the potential impact of this buyout? I think the answer, for now, resides in questions. I’ve thought of a few, anyway:

Now that a major media company has thrown its money behind it, how will CBS reproduce its business model through the Last.fm paradigm of music consumption/dissemination? Will CBS be responsive to changes in taste, or will it still try to foist dull things upon listeners? Will they respond to a supposedly “organic” evolution of taste publics, or will they steward or even manufacture these publics? Will they adequately represent minority/fringe interests, or will these suffer from the tyrrany of the American Idol-obsessed “majority” of music fans?

How will Last.fm account for the distinctive modalities of cultural reproduction in different taste publics? Consider the use of fan fiction in sustaining fan communities around particular bands or artists. This is a mode of social reproduction that works by a logic that simply doesn’t exist in other musical circles (consider art music, or folk traditions, where dissemination depends on a whole other set of genre rules).

And finally, how will the CBS Last.fm make use of indie content on the site? Currently, labels and artists on the site enjoy a you-get-the-organic-viral-stuff-for-free-but-you-can-pay-for-real-promotion system (which is far better than the opaque system over at the News Corp. Myspace, which hand-picks featured content, following supposedly ‘old-fashioned’ music industry practices*).

How will independents fare under the new arrangements? I think that the minute Last.fm gives indies the short end of the stick and emphasizes featured content (they already do this a little bit, using banner ads and other paid promotion features), the accuracy of their engine for tracking user tastes depreciates. Additionally, under such conditions the site becomes more an instrument of managing or “programming” taste (to borrow the evocative, and appropriate terminology of conventional radio) than an instrument that reflects it – in Gramscian language, a hegemonic institution rather than a site for counterhegemonic resistance.

I acknowledge that these questions could also be relevant to a discussion of the pre-CBS Last.fm, which was built-for-buyout, despite the obvious benefits users derive from it. But the buyout forces these questions into the spotlight, and there’s no better time than now to raise them, while everyone’s paying attention.

Comments? Questions? BS barometrics? Holler back.

One thought on “Last.fm, CBS and the future of music”

  1. I think the question is less how CBS will buy into the music networking/collaborative filtering etc, than what they will do to take these ways of thinking/operating into video and television. How will a last.fm approach to taste work when applied to non-music taste? I think that’s a big part of what CBS seems to be after with this purchase.

    Regarding the indies, a valid concern, and one I share. But indies can pay for those promotional spots too if they’ve got money to spend. Push-promotion into on-site ads and streaming radio is currently done by indies on the site, so the question is whether they’ll be priced out of those routes in.

    On the other hand, with CBS building its radio empire and relaunching its record label identities, it might have a lot to gain from having inside scoops on which indie bands are gaining the most traction on Last.fm, which would be an incentive to keep the indies involved on the site.

    I really question the people who announce they are leaving or have left Last.fm for [fill in the site] here now that it’s been purchased. As though [fill in the blank] isn’t hoping to do the same eventually.

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