Using a music recommendation system called "Audioscrobbler", Last.fm builds a detailed profile of each user's musical taste by recording details of all the songs the user listens to, either on the streamed radio stations or on the user's computer or some portable music devices. This information is transferred to Last.fm's database ("scrobbled") via a plugin installed into the user's music player. The profile data is then displayed on the user's profile page. The site offers numerous social networking features and can recommend and play artists similar to the user's favourites.
Users can create custom radio stations and playlists from any of the audio tracks in Last.fm's music library, and are able to listen to some individual tracks on demand, or download tracks if the rights holder has previously authorised it. Registration is required to acquire a profile but is not necessary to view any part of the site or to listen to radio stations.
Audioscrobbler began as a computer science project by Richard Jones while he attended the University of Southampton School of Electronics and Computer Science in the United Kingdom. Jones developed the first plugins, and then opened an API to the community, after which many music players on different operating system platforms were supported. Audioscrobbler was limited to recording music its users played on a registered computer, which allowed for charting and collaborative filtering.
Last.fm was founded in 2002 by Felix Miller, Martin Stiksel, Michael Breidenbruecker and Thomas Willomitzer, all from Austria and Germany, as an internet radio station and music community site, using similar music profiles to generate dynamic playlists. The "love" and "ban" buttons allowed users to gradually customise their profiles. Last.fm won the Europrix 2002 and was nominated for the Prix Ars Electronica in 2003.
The Audioscrobbler and Last.fm teams began to work closely together, both teams moving into the same offices in Whitechapel, London, and by 2003 Last.fm was fully integrated with Audioscrobbler profiles. Input could come through an Audioscrobbler plugin or a Last.fm station. The sites also shared many community forums, although a few were unique to each site.
The old Audioscrobbler site at the audioscrobbler.com domain name was wholly merged into the new Last.fm site in 9 August 2005. This launched audioscrobbler.net as a separate development-oriented site on 5 September 2005. However, at the very bottom of each of the Last.fm pages there was an Audioscrobbler "slogan", which changes each time the page is refreshed. Based on well known sayings or advertisements, these originally appeared at the top of the old Audioscrobbler website pages and were all created and contributed by the original site members. An update to the site was made on 14 July 2006 which included a new software application for playing Last.fm radio streams and for logging of tracks played with other media players. Other changes included the improvement of the friends system and updating it to require a two-way friendship, the addition of the Last.fm "Dashboard" where users can see on one page relevant information for their profile, expanded options for purchasing music from online retailers and a new visual design for the web site (including an optional black colour scheme).
The site began expanding its language base on 15 July 2006, when a Japanese version of the site was launched. Currently, the site is available in various other languages, including German, Spanish, French, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Swedish, Russian, Turkish and Simplified Chinese.
In late 2006, the site won Best Community Music Site at the BT Digital Music Awards in October. Last.fm, also, teamed up with EMI on Tuneglue-Audiomap. Furthermore in January 2007 it was nominated for Best Website in the NME Awards.
At the end of April 2007, rumours of negotiations between Viacom and Last.fm emerged, suggesting that Viacom intended to purchase Last.fm for about £225 million.
In May 2007 it was announced that Channel 4 Radio was to broadcast a weekly show called Worldwide Chart that reflects what Last.fm users around the world are listening to. There are also plans to add a video section, enabling users to create their own personalised video channels.
In July 2008, the "new generation" Last.fm was launched featuring a completely new layout, colour-scheme and several new features as well as some old ones removed. This was, however, met with dissatisfaction amongst some users, who complained about, among other things, the "ugly and non-user-friendly layout," numerous bugs and slowness of the site. The new design has also removed most mentions of Audioscrobbler. A month after the redesign was launched a press release was issued by CBS crediting the redesign with generating 20% growth in the site's traffic, however industry observers pointed out that this still leaves last.fm in a distant second place behind imeem.com.
There are currently 82 staff members, all of whom are currently based in East London.
Once an artist has had a track or tracks "scrobbled" by at least one User, Last.fm automatically generates a main artist page, even if there is no music available for streaming on the radio. This page shows details of the total number of plays, the total number of listeners, the most popular weekly and overall tracks, the top weekly listeners, linked groups and journals, a list of similar artists, most popular tags and a shoutbox for messages. There are also links to events, additional album and individual track pages and similar artists radio. If the artist has music available for streaming or download an embedded flash player is also included with samples of the most popular tracks.
Official music videos and other videos imported from YouTube may also be viewed on the relevant artist and track pages. Users may add relevant biographical details and other information to any artist's main page in the form of a Wiki. Edits are regularly moderated to prevent vandalism. A photograph of the artist may also be added. If more than one is submitted, the most popular is chosen by public vote. User submitted content is licensed for use under the GNU Free Documentation License.
Last.fm currently cannot disambiguate artists with the same name; a single artist profile is shared between valid artists with the same name.
In February 2007 Warner Music, the world's third-largest music company, announced that it had signed a deal to allow its entire catalogue to be played on Last.fm. Warner's music would be made available over Last.fm's service in Europe and North America. The site's co-founder, Martin Stiksel, said they were also in talks with the other three major labels and content holders. However in June 2008 Warner cancelled its deal with last.fm and removed all Warner artists from the site's on demand streaming catalogue, Warner have indicated that they are in disagreement over the financial compensation offered by last.fm.
In October 2006, Last.fm brought back its free download service which allowed users to download select tracks as specified by the artist or the label. The service only includes tracks on "indie" labels or by bands who upload their own material, although some artists who have since moved onto a major label (such as Coheed and Cambria and My Chemical Romance) have kept their free songs available for download. More than 100,000 songs are currently downloadable, and there is a separate free download chart, updated weekly, showing the 200 most popular tracks.
On 23 January 2008, Last.fm changed its business model with the Free the Music initiative. Most tracks and albums can be streamed from the website free of charge up to three times. The artists are paid each time the track is played. This service is still in beta mode and free on demand listening is currently only available to users in the US, UK, and Germany.
Subscribers are also able to create personal tag radio stations containing only tracks and artists that they have tagged themselves. All tag radio stations (including subscriber's personal tag stations) can be played by anybody, including non-subscribers.
Additionally, charts are available for the top tracks by each artist in the Last.fm system as well as the top tracks for individual albums (when the tagging information of the audio file is available). Artist profiles also keep track of a short list of Top Fans, which is calculated by a formula meant to portray the importance of an artist in a fan's own profile, balancing out users who play hundreds of tracks overall versus those who play only a few.
As the information generated is largely compiled from the ID3 data from audio files "scrobbled" from user's own computers, and which may be incorrect or misspelled, there are many errors in the listings. Tracks with ambiguous punctuation are especially prone to separate listings, which can dilute the apparent popularity of a track. Artists or bands with the same name are not always differentiated. The system does attempt to translate some different artist tags to a single artist profile, but does not attempt to harmonise track names.
Charts are also available for user groups, thus providing a view into a demographic slice, and can reveal interesting new music based on the preferences of similar users.
The Last.fm artist charts currently do not take track length into consideration. For example, an album with 22 short tracks will boost that artist's popularity for a particular user's rankings much more than an album with only five long tracks, even though the user spent the same amount of time listening to each. The impact of this problem is limited to personal charts. All other charts are calculated using reach, that is, the number of users who play a certain artist or track, rather than the total number of plays. This is also a defence against users who in the early days of Audioscrobbler submitted spam data in order to boost the rankings of a particular artist or song or their own ranking as a fan.
Last.fm generates weekly "global" charts of the top 400 artists and tracks listened to by all Last.fm users. To prevent the artificial boosting of an artist or song by deliberately repeated tracks from a single listener, these charts are based on the total number of individual listeners (the reach) and not the number of actual plays.
The result is notably different from traditional commercial music charts provided by the UK Top 40, Billboard magazine, Soundscan and others, which are based on radio plays or sales. Last.fm charts are less volatile and a new album's release may be reflected in play data for many months or years after it drops out of commercial charts. For example, The Beatles have consistently been a top 5 band at Last.fm, reflecting the continued popularity of the band's music irrespective of current album sales.
The main reason behind the differences is that the charts reflect the musical taste of the particular demographic of the service's users, not that of the general public. Last.fm users generally have an Internet connection, may be more computer-literate than average, and may have wide collections of music from which to choose, due to the ability to download music from the Internet.
The Global Tag Chart shows the 100 most popular tags that have been used to describe artists, albums, and tracks. This is based on the total number of times the tag has been applied by Last.fm users since the tagging system was first introduced and does not necessarily reflect the number of users currently listening to any of the related "global tag radio" stations.
Stations can be based on the user's personal profile, the user's "musical neighbours", or the tracks that the user has marked as loved when listening to any station. Groups based around common interests or geography also have radio stations if there are enough members, and tags also have radio stations if enough music has the same tag. Radio stations can also be created on the fly, and each artist page allows selection of a "similar artists" or "artist fan" radio station. (As of December 2006, it is no longer possible to create a "multiple artist" station i.e. a station based on music similar to that of more than one artist. Last.fm has cited copyright restrictions as the reason for this change.
Under the terms of the station's radio licence, listeners may not select specific tracks (except as previews), or choose the order in which they are played, although any of the tracks played may be skipped or banned completely. The appropriate royalties are paid to the copyright holders of all streamed audio tracks according to the law in the UK.
The radio stream uses an MP3 stream encoded at 128 kbit/s 44.1 kHz, which may be played using the in-page flash player or the downloaded Last.fm client, but other community-supported players are available as well as a proxy which allows using a media player of choice.
An "in-page" Flash-based player is provided automatically for all listeners; it is not necessary to download additional software in order to listen to any of the music available from the Last.fm music library. It is necessary, however, to download the Last.fm client if a user also wishes information about played tracks from their own digital music collection to be included in their personal music profile.
Prior to August 2005, Last.fm generated an open stream that could be played in the user's music player of choice, with a browser-based player control panel. This proved difficult to support and has been officially discontinued. The Last.fm client is currently the only officially supported music player for playing customised Last.fm radio streams. The current version combines the functions of the music player with the plugin that transmits all track data to the Last.fm server, and effectively replaces the separate Last.fm Player and the standalone track submission plugins. It is also free software licensed under the GNU General Public License and available for GNU/Linux, Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows operating systems.
The player allows the user to enter the name of any artist or tag which then gives a choice of a number of similar artist stations, or similar global tag stations. Alternatively, Recommendation radio or any of the user's personal radio stations may be played without the necessity to visit the website.
The player displays the name of the station and track currently playing, the song artist, title and track length as well as album details, the artist's photo and biographical details, album cover art when available, lists of similar artists and the most popular tags and top fans. There are several buttons, allowing the user to love, skip, or ban a song. The love button adds the song to the user's loved tracks playlist; the ban button ensures that the song will not be played again. Both features affect the user's profile. The skip button does not. Other buttons allow the user to tag or recommend the currently playing track. Other features offered by the application are: minor editing of the user's profile including removing recently played artists and songs from the loved, banned, or previously played track lists; lists of friends and neighbours, lists of tags and a list of previously played radio stations. Users can also open their full Last.fm profile page directly from the player.
The client also enables the user to install player plugins, these integrate with various standalone media players to allow the submission of tracks played in those programs.
In the latest version of the Last.fm Player application, the user can select to use an external player. When this is done, the Last.fm Player provides the user with a local URL, through which the Last.fm music stream is proxied. Users can then open the URL in their preferred media player.
Since Last.fm consists of a Shoutcast mp3 stream it is possible to listen on Last.fm using the player of your choice.
The following services support sending service-specific recently-played track feeds:
Plugins are available for the following applications:
All Audioscrobbler plugins are open source and the listening data it collects is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. The data is available from Last.fm's Audioscrobbler site.
As of March 2008, the website has added a section titled "Build" where third party applications can be submitted for review, and then posted to the page.
Last.fm partnered up with the SXSW festival by creating an application embedded in the corresponding group page that filters the various artists at the festival by a user's listening statistics, and then uses Last.fm's recommendation service to also suggest other performing artists that said user hasn't listened to.