CBS’s £142m acquisition of music recommendation service Last.fm caused something of a stir at the beginning of the month. One of the questions asked repeatedly was why it wasn’t a UK broadcaster that had bought the UK’s only high-profile Web 2.0 company. But it would be a mistake to think of Last.fm, and other music recommendation services such as Pandora, as merely personalised radio. As James Cridland, director of digital development at Virgin Radio says in our feature on page 31/ “Radio is about more than music. It’s about companionship. People tune for more than just the music.”
In fact the real importance of Last.fm derives from a bigger industry trend, that of outsourcing. Over the past 20 years, technology has brought the tools to record music within reach of almost everyone. The internet then offered the means to distribute that music. The result is that an unprecedented amount of music is available to listeners; research earlier this year found there were 1.4 million bands on social networking site MySpace.
At the same time, the music business is hurting. In its attempts to increase revenues and cut costs, it has focused increasingly on short-term projects such as TV talent show winners, and less on finding and nurturing acts through long-term careers. The end result is that the task of searching through the proliferation of music, both new and reissued, is falling to consumers. This is the real story behind the success of the Arctic Monkeys. They used both traditional means (relentless gigging) and new media techniques (sharing MP3s via social networks) to build an audience that was too big for the music business to ignore.
The problem is that the time spent finding new music erodes the time available for listening to it. Part of the price you’re paying for illegal downloads is the increased time you have to spend finding new music you like. This is where recommendation comes in, whether it’s Amazon telling you that people who bought that also bought this, or recommendation engines performing a similar function based on the music you’re listening to on your computer. It’s one of the roles that radio has traditionally performed, but you only have to consider the proliferation of oldies stations and the sainted status of the late John Peel to realise that the function of most radio is no longer to help its listeners to discover new music.
At this point you might ask why the enthusiasms of a relatively small number of music fans matter in the grand scheme of things. The point is that these people are the taste-makers. Research into online communities suggests that in every community, about 10% of members are creating new things, another 20% are commenting on what’s being created, and the remaining 70% are silently lurking. Among other things, recommendation engines are a tool to reach those key opinion-formers.
Michael Nutley, editor in chief, NMA