Music Recommendations

John Siracusa is on this week’s Unprofessional talking about music and recommendations.

Him and the hosts discuss the ugly truth about music recommendations from friends: They don’t really work. They’ve stopped recommending music to their friends because almost all the time they aren’t followed up on. “You gotta check this out” is code for “I like this a lot and you probably won’t like it as much as I do so just ignore what I’m telling you.”

My friends’ tastes vary widely and recommendations from them that hit are rare. Even in 2013 I don’t really know where most of the music recommendations I enjoy come from. I hear new music on music podcasts, or in movies, or I read about it on a blog, or it was recommended through iTunes Genius and Last.fm. In some cases I’m still hearing new music I like on the radio.

This is the problem with social music services. They’ve banked on this idea of “listen with your friends” and it doesn’t work. My friends aren’t good at knowing what I like. They’re good at knowing what they like. Sharing tracks is my least used feature on Spotify. When someone shares a track with me it’s because they’re playing games. The last track someone sent me on Spotify was Holding Out For A Hero. I can’t let that slide, so I have to respond with something equally silly – like Let’s Hear It For The Boy.

The ultimate music recommendation service would be like if Last.fm became more Twitterized.1 I want there to be a site where I can post music to a wall, and follow other people with similar tastes (who probably aren’t my friends) and check out what they like. That’s what This is my jam is trying to be. I haven’t checked it out in a bit. I wish I could skip the player and have music from people I follow go directly into the Spotify inbox.2

Once in a great while music recommendations from friends work. This morning Joel told me I should check out Disasterpeace’s Atebite and the Warring Nations. At just a $1 I couldn’t resist. I probably wouldn’t have heard about it any other way.


  1. It’s boggling to me why Last.fm doesn’t send me an email each week saying “here’s what people are listening to” or “here’s what your friends and neighbors are listening to.” Last.fm should be this glue between every single music service (iTunes, Spotify, Rdio…even Winamp can be set up to scrobble) and recommendations from friends or whoever else you choose to follow. But the site’s functions have gone largely unchanged since 2005 or earlier. Following someone still requires they follow you back

  2. There is a This is My Jam app for Spotify, but it doesn’t work like that. It shows me my jams. I just want a feed of jams from people I follow. TIMJ doesn’t do that in fear of “duplicating” the TIMJ website experience. But I don’t want the website experience. I want something better. 

Scrobbler For iOS

Last.fm’s Scrobbler for iOS came out last week with little fanfare.

We’ve long known that scrobbling iPhones has not always been a seamless process, so we wanted to create an application that alleviates this pain. We also wanted to offer our users with something new, so we built playlisting services that get applied to your digital library. For the first time, the algorithms that power Last.fm Radio can now be applied to the libraries you’ve spent years curating.

There’s one function I really like – hit a button that says “play more like this” and Scrobbler will use Last.fm’s database to generate a playlist on the fly. Think iTunes Genius, but powered by Last.fm. (Only problem is that it STOPS the currently playing track.)

Imagine how powerful this would be if it were combined with Last.fm’s radio services. Say you like the currently playing track, hit that “play more like this button” (like the Genius button in iTunes) and got Pandora-like stations combining your music with Last.fm’s radio. When a track comes up that you don’t own, and you really like it, one tap sends you to the iTunes store where you can buy it, instantly adding it to your collection.

Anyway, check out Scrobbler for iOS. However, if all you really want is to scrobble from your iPhone or iPod touch, maybe you should check out Ecoute for iOS, which supports scrobbling and may be a better music player than iOS’s stock music.app. The navigation is nicer, it’s more visual, more album artwork, and just look at that top filter bar. No genius button, though.

New Audioscrobbler Beta

Screen Shot 2012 03 24 at 4 42 22 AM

Looks kinda cool, like Tweetie for Last.fm, and introduces keyboard shortcuts for loving and banning. I’m not sure the previous version had that.

You don’t want this for scrobbling. There’s plenty of decent iTunes controllers that already do that well. You’ll want it for a decent way to get Last.fm Radio and recommendations on your desktop and to take a quick peak at what your friends are listening to.

Still needs a Heavy Rotation feature, so I can see at a glance what my friends are listening to a lot of lately. And walls. I need a way to share music posts to nobody in particular.

The Slow Death of MP3 Blogging

I used to follow a lot of those kinds of blogs that would post music recommendations to Megaupload or whatever site, but Spotify and Rdio put a stop to that.

The main problem with social music is that it’s mostly just scrobbling. Nobody takes the time, at least from what I’ve seen, to write a paragraph or so about the music they like. All we get is a stream of scrobbles.

That’s actually why I like things like Ping, This Is My Jam, and Rdio posts compared with just scrobbles to last.fm and Facebook music. When someone posts about music on these services it’s usually mindful, not just a scrobble. They picked one thing out of hundred or so things they might have listened to recently. They said “Hey, you—don’t miss this.”

What we’re missing is an independent platform which would make it easy to follow people who recommend music and add it to your Rdio, Spotify, or whatever service you’re using. Last.fm could be that. They should steal borrow the idea of the Facebook wall and Rdio dashboard.

Last.fm Discover

Trying this out now.

Last.fm Discover is a personalised music player that introduces you to bands from around the world by letting you browse through musical styles that you may already know or want to learn more about. You won’t find the latest X-factor winner or the latest plastic boyband manufactured by evil scientists in a lab somewhere. Some of them are quite rough around the edges – make use of the ban button when you come across something unlistenable – but you’ll also reach for the love button as you discover diamonds in this amazing library of tracks.

It’s a good reason to go to the Last.fm site if you haven’t been in a while. The strength with Last.fm radio has always been how specific you can get.

But, as one commenter points out, this is for artists that have free/unrestricted licensed tracks on Last.fm. You’re likely to hear something you’ve never heard by somebody you’ve never heard of.

Cloudscrob

I’ve been looking for a good way to scrobble my iOS device music plays to my last.fm account. Both Rdio and Spotify have built-in scrobbling, but if you don’t use either of those services then you should check out Cloudscrob.

The thing that makes Cloudscrob stand out from the rest of the crowd (like iScrob, which I think is actually the developer’s OLD scrobbling app) is that it realizes that the built in Music application is already pretty good. It doesn’t try to replace it. Just launch Cloudscrob after playing some songs and it submits those songs to Last.fm.

“Spotify Apps Are Inside Out”

Is there any music application that uses the “open web” for content resolution? When it comes to commercial applications it’s like they think it’s a good idea but say “uh…you go first.”

Facebook and Last.fm

Garrett Murray after Facebook introduced Places:

Here’s the thing about Facebook that really gets under my skin: They are slowly incorporating the features from every other independent web application on the internet. This is not inherently a problem—companies get bigger and they begin to have the resources to widen their feature set—the issue is that Facebook doesn’t do these features any better. They win simply due to how many users they have. It feels like mass-produced mediocrity.

Facebook’s speculated scrobbling will do the same thing to Last.fm as Places did to Foursquare and Gowalla.

But the thing with Last.fm is that maybe they deserve to have that taken from them, or at least deserve to be challenged. Things have changed a lot in the past few years and Last.fm feels like 2008. The radio component has been replaced by Pandora, Rdio, Mog, and Spotify, which leaves friends, recommendations and statistics.

The friends component on Last.fm feels too committal since it requires reciprocation.1 And while the 2008 update may have grown the site by 20%2 it’s still full of people I don’t know.

The automated recommendations are pretty good3, but the human part of it is missing. Sure, last.fm has neighbors, people who they think I should follow because we have overlapping music tastes, but I can’t follow them. I’d have to friend them. On the internet sending someone a friend request is like asking them to marry you.

Which leaves statistics, which is great for people who obsess over things like play counts, top tracks, and top albums. Most people aren’t like that.

Last.fm is the best music profile service on the internet, but they haven’t had many challengers (the only competition that I can think of is iLike). If Facebook launches Last.fm-like music profiles it could feel more like Last.fm for 2011 and not simply a mediocre version of Last.fm.


  1. Previously I wrote about how Last.fm should drop the friends model and adopt the follow model. Rdio gets this right because I can follow people’s music tastes and activities without them needing to reciprocate. Spotify falls a little short because all I can see is what people send me. 

  2. Last.fm claims controversial re-design a success

  3. I’ve found Last.fm recommendations to usually be spot on, but they’re even better if you set things up to get them without thinking about them. My favorite way is to set up soundmatch so you get a recommended playlist right in Spotify. That’s easier to do than tune in to Last.fm’s recommendations radio, especially if you’ve gone flash-less. 

The Last.fm Age/Gender Plot

Stick your last.fm username into this demo and see where you fall on a gender/age plot.

This plot shows artists from the chosen top for each of the given users. The positions are determined by the average age and gender of their listeners. The dots indicate the combined score of the top ten for each user.

Here’s what mine looks like for the past 6 month of scrobbling:

plot.png

Here are a few things I find not surprising:

  1. Groups like Chicago and Tangerine Dream are at the upper end of the age spectrum.
  2. Lady Gaga is almost exclusively scrobbled by females.
  3. Women don’t really like Squarepusher.

And some things I thought were out of the ordinary:

  1. The Beatles fall with Last.fm users around age 23 more than older age groups.
  2. Most men don’t like Morrissey…ok – maybe that isn’t so surprising.
  3. Giorgio Moroder, who wrote tons of movie soundtracks and disco tunes, is scrobbled more by men around age 27 (maybe that’s Midnight Express showing).

Of course the dataset consists only of people who use Last.fm and set up their music software to scrobble, meaning the data is already skewed towards technically adept users (note how the chart doesn’t go much further beyond 35 years of age), which isn’t quite representative of the general music listening population.

But I think it’s the best data available for playing around.

Last.fm abandons on-demand playback

Last.fm is getting rid of their on-demand playback system.

They know what they’re good at.

…Last.fm users are among the first to adopt new music technologies. Accordingly, many of these new services are now adding — or have already added — scrobbling support. Our scrobbling data shows that, for some time now, people have been using multiple music services and devices, then coming back to their Last.fm profiles to answer the question “what should I hear next?” and to see / show off all their listening united in one place.

…we are retiring our own on-demand track streaming…We feel strongly that we can better fulfill our core mission by instead connecting our users to services in the ecosystem that, unlike us, focus primarily on a jukebox-in-the-sky streaming experience…

We believe that this renewed focus on Last.fm as the definitive online home of your music taste and your base for music discovery – regardless of where you listen – will help improve not just our users’ musical lives but the overall online ecosystem as well.

I suspect that all these new services, like Spotify and Mog, got different licensing agreements than Last.fm did. So rather try to directly compete they’re choosing to supplement.

Which I think is a good idea. It keeps Last.fm active no matter which method is the preferred way to listen to music.

I never used the on-demand playback for some reason.

Facebook apps are a cesspool of advertising

Earlier this week, Last.fm did some cleaning up around their server rooms. It looks like they’re preparing for their upcoming growth with Xbox 360 integration. They also added some more methods to their APIs. They also decided to close down their Facebook apps.

The reasoning is simple enough; they don’t want to work on apps that might be redundant anyway. They have a whole user community that can do that for them.

Since I’m the kind of narcissist that enjoys letting people know what I’m listening to all the time I began my search for a new last.fm Facebook app. I landed on Last.fm Profile.

Last.fm Profile works well enough. Some things it does even better than Last.fm’s own Facebook apps. But the installation is ripe with problems, and it’s all about ads.

Look at this screenshot:

I hate Facebook apps #1

The top three links lead you to your profile, options for the app, and Destroy Your Friends – which seems like a link for the Spymaster app advertised below it. Only after all this stuff do you get to the actual meat of why you’re even on this page.

Same thing happens in this screen where you’re setting up the Last.fm Profile Box so that this information is available on your profile as a tab.

I hate facebook apps #2

The problem with many Facebook apps are the ads. It’s not that they’re there, it’s that they’re placed at the expense of holding a users hand during the app setup. Inline ads, like the Destroy Your Friends link, are clearly not meant to promote a product or help users. They’re meant to trick users into clicking on something they don’t even want.

This doesn’t help the user. It doesn’t help the advertiser. It only helps the publisher.

I don’t recall Last.fm’s official apps ever having this problem. They make their money on their own site, and they don’t do it through inline ads. Sure, they do the freemium thing, but free accounts have ads placed outside the content they’re looking at.

It seems that most Facebook app developers don’t have a method to generate income – so they compromise their apps this way.

That’s discouraging – why should an app that’s meant to share your Xbox 360 Gamercard with your friends announce that you may have a secret admirer?

App devs – I’m not sure of the best way to make money with your apps. You work hard on them, you have to host and maintain them. It costs time and money to provide these apps. If they’re good and people get enjoyment out of them you should be compensated in some way (monetarily or not).

But the best way to mess all this up is to make your app at the expense of the experience you provide your users. As soon as something better and more respectful of the experience comes along they’re gone.

iTunes should use the Music Genome Project to determine Genius Recommendations

With my criticism about iTunes Genius it seems to make perfect sense, at least to me, that Apple should use the Music Genome project as the source for Genius playlists and recommendations.

Which may be odd, considering I’ve been down on Pandora before, but there’s a big difference here between Pandora and Last.fm. Pandora and iTunes Genius have the same goal of giving you music that sounds similar to another track that you already know. When I use last.fm I’m not looking for that – I’m looking for something new.

Pandora seems to use a much more in-depth analysis of music to determine what sounds similar to what you’re already listening to – which is exactly what is at the core of iTunes Genius (besides selling your more music). iTunes Genius appears to just look at artists. This article from the New York Times details the incredible amount of data that is collected on each track they analyze.

Plus, I like this part:

He likes to tell a story about a Pandora user who wrote in to complain that he started a station based on the music of Sarah McLachlan, and the service served up a Celine Dion song. “I wrote back and said, ‘Was the music just wrong?’ Because we sometimes have data errors,” he recounts. “He said, ‘Well, no, it was the right sort of thing — but it was Celine Dion.’ I said, ‘Well, was it the set, did it not flow in the set?’ He said, ‘No, it kind of worked — but it’s Celine Dion.’ We had a couple more back-and-forths, and finally his last e-mail to me was: ‘Oh, my God, I like Celine Dion.’ ”

This anecdote almost always gets a laugh. “Pandora,” he pointed out, “doesn’t understand why that’s funny.”

Pandora’s Music Box

Has a friend ever lent you a CD? “Here, take this – you might like it,” they say. So you press play on it and wait to hear what happens.

And you don’t like it. It sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. How could your friend be this far off in his recommendations? What does he hear in it?

And then you listen again only to realize its greatness. Your buddy was onto something. If you had dismissed it immediately you would have missed out and, whether you realized it or not, you would have suffered a little bit. Your music world would be poorer.

The same thing happens with movies. Same thing with books. Same thing with a new restaurant in your area. It’s new or different than what you’re used to, and because of that you’re afraid of spending any money or time. You’d rather spend that energy in what you know you like; what’s safe – like a room, or box, you lock yourself into because it has everything you like in it, or so you think.

This is why I find things like Pandora to be such an odd discovery tool for new music. Pandora is that box. When you hand this job over to supposedly complex algorithms it gets the job done, but I get the feeling that something is missing.

Netflix gets that same feeling, which is why they are constantly trying to improve their own recommendations and go to extreme measures to do so. They offer the Netflix Prize. If you can figure out how to make their recommendation system better Netflix will give you monetary compensation around the area of a bajillion dollars.

The obvious thing to do, I guess, is to look at previous ratings, see what other people rated those movies, what they’ve rated other movies, and then mish-mash those results together and hope for a miracle. Of course, it’s more difficult than that; there are fragile, complicated human brains involved here.

Part of the benefit of Pandora is the claim that it’ll only play music you love. But I don’t want that. I want there to be a chance that I may hear something so different from what I’m used to that I have no idea what to make of it. Pandora reminds me of that Twilight Zone episode where the crook goes to what he thinks is Heaven. He thinks its heaven because he keeps winning when he gambles – except after a month of having every desire satisfied he grows bored of it and realizes he’s in Hell.

That’s part of why I prefer Last.FM over Pandora. Pandora is built upon the Music Genome Project, but Last.FM’s is built more around its community. Their Neighborhood radio is so vast that there’s a chance that you might love something or hate it – which keeps the search for new music interesting. If you want something more like Pandora there’s recommendation radio. Last.FM has more options. It seems more organic to me.

When you hand this job over to a recommendation service like this, I get the feeling you make a decision to trap yourself in the box and try to look out, when what you really should be doing is looking in from the outside of that box.