Saturday, January 27, 2007

This is the Last.fm time I use the iTunes Store


[This article will run in Inprint, the student newspaper at the New School, this coming Tuesday]

Judging by the arrest a few weeks ago of DJ Drama for producing thousands of unlicensed mixtapes that hype up-and-coming hip hop artists, the Recording Industry Association of America is chafing at what little control they hold over the intricacies of cultural exchange. Unfortunately for them, even though the cops snagged 81,000 CDs from the DJ’s Atlanta studio, scores of his compilations were still available on Web sites, and even the iTunes Store.

That may have scored Steve Jobs and his increasingly ubiquitous Apple Experience some hip points. But don’t be fooled: He has also taken plenty of opportunities to conquer the free, unlicensed sharing of music. Thankfully though, these purveyors of intellectual ownership and media-buying software are facing competition from a free, interactive, educational and convenient digital radio interface called Last.fm.

If by chance you collect music, spend a lot of time on the internet, are taken to blogging, have an extremely tedious job, or all of the above, add “scrobbling” to your lexicon of corny Web tags. The “Scrobbler,” available for download on the London-based Last.fm Web site, keeps a record of artists you listen to on Winamp or iTunes and enables you to create a personalized music profile. Then, with a radio interface that runs on your desktop, you can create a personal, digital radio station or search for artists to play music other users find similar.

The users, evidently, have interesting tastes and a knack for detail. When I ran a search for Rodan, a band from Louisville, Kentucky known for some of the first brash and intricate “math rock” grooves, selections included a track with a disjointed bass-line and distorted vocals by Braniac, a herky-jerky new-wave throwback from Dayton, Ohio; a lush guitar-strummer by Cul de Sac, an instrumental group from Boston; and the jumpy “Equators to Bi-Polar,” with a skittering drum beat and quintessentially indie out-of-tune vocals by June of 44. All of those bands, incidentally, are from the 1990s. Who knew?

Each selection contains a bio of the band, with a link to the Last.fm Web site so you can read a longer bio or make friends with users who love this particular song. From there, you can generate a digital radio station composed of music your “neighbors,” as they call them, enjoy. Or you can keep on listening, whereupon the radio will make increasingly disparate connections. At one point, my stream went to “Metal,” fifteen minutes of metal pieces clanking along, by ‘70s British band This Heat. Very nice.

Brad Buckles, executive vice president for antipiracy at the Recording Industry Association of America, has evidently been too busy rounding up mix CDs with bootleg rap tracks on them to catch notice of the flagrant disregard for copyright law on Last.fm. He told the New York Times last week that, “When you start selling [mixtapes] by the tens and hundreds of thousands, I don’t know that anyone is saying that’s of great promotional value.”

Likewise, any number cruncher could argue that when listeners have access to hundreds of thousands of songs over a free Web service, which enables them to meet others users to exchange music on their own terms, promotional value goes way down. Yet, record labels still contact Last.fm to post songs. Perhaps they have more faith in youthful vigor, and that ever entropic Web universe, than the statistician's hoary wisdom. Or perhaps they just know that culture is, and will always be, a free-for-all with marketable concessions.

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