The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'last.fm'
Data wonks at the social music-streaming site last.fm have been taking advantage of their vast repository of recorded music to correlate analyses of the music (made using cold, hard signal-processing algorithms, not anything more subjective or fuzzy) with data from sales charts, determining how the characteristics of popular music have changed in response to cultural trends. The results make for fascinating reading.
Among findings: by looking at how percussive tracks in the charts were (i.e., how strong and regular a rhythm they had, according to spectral analyses) they pretty much pinpoint the rise of disco in the mid-1970s, a change towards more strongly rhythmic tracks which has never been reversed:
The rise in percussivity was followed by a rise in rhythmic regularity in the early 1980s, when drum machines and MIDI came into existence. Unlike the increase in percussivity, though, this was a temporary hump, which waned in the 1990s, as people got sick of drum machines, grunge/alternative did to overproduced 1980s studio-pop what punk had done to prog, and/or simple 16-step drum machines were replaced by Atari STs running Steinberg Cubase, and equipped with more humanlike quantisation algorithms. Interestingly enough, the same study found that the hump in rhythmic regularity was accompanied by a rise in tracks with a tempo of 120 beats per minute, either out of laziness or from some folk wisdom about 120bpm being the optimum tempo:
Our first thought was that songwriters in the 80s must have turned on their drum machines, loved what they heard and wrote a song to that beat - without changing the default tempo setting of 120 bpm. I would love this to be correct, but I have a hunch that it's not, especially after having found this highly interesting manual for writing a hit single written by The KLF in 1988. They say that "the different styles in modern club records are usually clustered around certain BPM’s: 120 is the classic BPM for House music and its various variants, although it is beginning to creep up", and also, "no song with a BPM over 135 will ever have a chance of getting to Number One" because "the vast majority of regular club goers will not be able to dance to it and still look cool".Time, as the KLF said, may be eternal, but time signatures aren't; dance music (which remained strongly clustered around 120bpm at the time of acid house and the Second Summer of Love) soon started creeping upward past 130bpm, while tempos of charting music in general moved down.
last.fm's DSP algorithms also pick out the rise of punk, with its simplistic rock'n'roll arrangements and emphasis on DIY enthusiasm over polished virtuosity, and the vanquishment of prog rock, glam and other more experimental genres; this manifested itself in a steep rise in the proportion of the charts occupied by records of low harmonic and timbre complexity (i.e., both simple melodic/chord structures and unostentatious selections of instruments) between 1976 and 1979, and map the Loudness Wars of the past few decades, as the rise of the CD and a competition for sounding louder and more kick-ass than all the music that came before conspired to annihilate dynamic range:
Finally, another cultural trend that shows up in the data is the steady decline of the Truck Driver's Gear Shift (i.e., the tendency of songs to shift their key up one or two semitones before the final chorus, for some extra heartstring-tugging oomph) from the 1950s to the present day; presumably because that shit got old. When the incidence of gear shifts is plotted by month, however, few will be surprised to find that December has 2-3 times as many as the rest of the year; after all, 'tis the season to be cheesy.
The percentage of loud tracks has increased from 10% in 1964 (by definition) to over 40% in recent years. So music has got louder. Well, isn't that in the spirit of Rock'n'Roll? Sadly, it isn't, because the increase in loudness has led to worse sound quality. Granted, it's louder, but boy is it flat!
Two years after last.fm was bought out by CBS, who ran it as an autonomous unit, the three founders have handed in their resignations; they will stay on as consultants until September, after which control will be handed over entirely to CBS. After that, we can probably expect the servers to be boxed up and shipped to the US and the site to be rebranded as "MTV Online" or something, plastered with intrusive ads, and generally stripped of anything that made it cool in the first place.
So where do you go after last.fm? How do you display the superlative coolness of your musical taste to the world once last.fm is no longer fit to point people at? Well, there's libre.fm, which is still in alpha, doesn't look very good and has next to nobody using it. Libre.fm, though, is open-source, so you could easily run your own server. Perhaps the future will consist of people running their own scrobblers, or social networks providing scrobbling services to their users; your music stats will be available as standard XML feeds, with a XFN-style microformat link from your profile/homepage, letting the world know that this is what you've been listening to. Of course, one advantage a centralised site like last.fm had was that it could easily crunch the data and find recommendations or determine the compatibility of musical tastes, though if it's a web service, someone could write a third-party site to crunch exported music profiles. (Perhaps that someone will be Google or Facebook? Or perhaps Murdoch's struggling MySpace will leap at the opportunity, implement scrobbling, and then make a hash of it with obnoxious in-your-face Flash ads and a garishly unpleasant user experience.) As for finding upcoming gigs, event sites like upcoming.org, or Facebook's Event facility, could be expanded to be aware of band/artist names and search by user profiles.
Guardian correspondent and self-styled "new media whore" Paul Carr investigates the last.fm/CBS/RIAA rumour, comes to some somewhat ambiguous conclusions:
Fact One: Last.fm is innocent.Chances are, Carr writes, the rumour was a hoax, sent in to TechCrunch for some uncertain motive:
Fact Two: And yet, there are certainly trust issues between some at Last and some at CBS.
Fact Three: Techcrunch is not full of shit. Any more.
Fact Four: Techcrunch made every attempt to verify the story.
The answer, as I head towards my penultimate paragraph – the one in which a columnist is suppose to tie everything up with a neat conclusion – is that I don't know who's to blame. And neither does Last or Techcrunch. Something is still missing and sources at both companies remain equally baffled at why so much effort would go in to smearing one or other of them. Only one man, or possibly woman, can say for sure what the truth is – Techcrunch's original tipster. And, wouldn't you know, he or she has since vanished off the map, despite Techcrunch offering both anonymity and expensive legal representation.
Regarding the last post about last.fm: one of last.fm's staff has posted a rebuttal on their web forums, to wit:
* Nobody at Last.fm had any knowledge of our user data being fed to the RIAA (or any labels directly), before or after the alleged incident, or at any other point in the history of the company.Make of that what you will. Assuming the denials are true, last.fm and/or CBS will have no choice but to sue TechCrunch for libel to protect their reputation; it'll be interesting to see how that unfolds.
* We've been in communication with CBS and they deny that they gave any third party any of our user data.
If TechCrunch have any evidence which contradicts any of the statements I've made here, I'd love to see it, but I think someone is taking them for a ride. I'm not sure why, though.
Nonetheless, even if this isn't true, the possibilities it raises are thought-provoking:
- Last.fm's scrobbling software originally sent over only the title, artist and length of tracks as they were played. More recently, it was extended to send a fingerprint of each track. The difference between these two is crucial; it is the difference between hearsay and admissible evidence. In short, when you scrobble a track using the last.fm client, it sends over cryptographic proof of your possession of the recording. You can disable the fingerprinting function in the last.fm client software, assuming that you trust it, of course:
- How much you trust last.fm's closed-source client software is another matter. Assuming that last.fm had been compromised by the MAFIAA, what's to say that the software didn't trawl your hard drive for things that looked like MP3s (slowly, as not to arouse suspicion), fingerprint them, and then send the list over to MediaSentry or someone, along with some juicy forensic information about your machine (serial numbers, MAC addresses, &c.)?
- Of course, this would be totally illegal and even more unethical. But, then again, so would waiving the EU's privacy laws to send user identifying information to CBS (as is alleged). And it's not like the RIAA haven't been known to use underhanded tactics in their dirty war against music fans.
- Even assuming that last.fm are 100% above board and CBS are sufficiently law-abiding to not undermine them, handing over potentially compromising information imples a trust that the information will be kept secure; i.e., that there are no weak links. Given the fact that everybody from TK Maxx to Her Majesty's Government seems to leak personal information left, right and centre, this may not be a safe assumption.
Further corroboration of the claim that last.fm handed over user data to the RIAA's enforcement arm, or rather that their parent company requested the data "for internal use only" and then handed it over. Of course, the good folks at last.fm had nothing to say in it, and their denials were sincere, but that doesn't diminish the fact that, if the allegations are true, last.fm (owned by Big Copyright corporation CBS) is now effectively part of the RIAA's intelligence-gathering apparatus:
We provided the data to the RIAA yesterday because we know from experience that they can negatively impact our streaming rates with publishers. Based on the urgency of the request they probably just wanted to learn more about the leak but who knows. Seriously, can you blame them? [______] Our ops team provided the usual reports along with additional log data including user IP addresses. The GM who told them to do it said the data was for internal use only. Well, that was the big mistake. The team in the UK became irate because they had to do it a second time since we were told some of the data was corrupted. This time they transferred the data directly to them and in doing so they discovered who really made the request.Meanwhile, in this thread, several last.fm staff members swear up and down that this didn't happen, and would not have happened, as it would have been against EU data-protection laws and triggered too many red flags. Which could be true, or it could be a plausible cover story. (The RIAA and their goons aren't above bending the law, after all.)
If you don't like lawsuit-happy copyright extortionists keeping a beady eye on your listening habits, you may want to refrain from sending information to last.fm. Fortunately, someone is coming up with an open-source AudioScrobbler-compatible site named libre.fm, which may well end up taking the place of last.fm.
Rumours are abounding that last.fm, a music-based social networking website which voluntarily collects music-listening data from users, has been voluntarily handing data concerning unreleased albums to the RIAA, allowing their search-and-seizure SWAT teams to track down the criminals listening to unreleased U2 albums. Well, some anonymous tipster says that some guy who works for CBS (the Big Copyright corporation which owns last.fm) told them that this is the case, whereas last.fm and various last.fm people (including co-founder and executive Richard Jones) have emphatically denied this. (Which, of course, they could be expected to, as if this turned out to be true, the bad PR would effectively kill last.fm as it currently is (as a social networking site for those passionate about music).)
Of course, even if this isn't true, it could happen; it could be one directive from head office or bad "war on piracy" law away. As such, if you're listening to anything you could be prosecuted for the possession of, turn off your last.fm scrobbler. Or set it to a different account with the identity of the CEO of the RIAA or something. (Hypothetically speaking, of course; The Null Device does not condone identity theft, or, for that matter, listening to U2.)
I wonder how long until some hacktivist writes a bot that is fed with the track listings of unreleased recordings and, when run by a user, automatically reports to last.fm that the tracks had been listened to as an act of anonymous protest. After all, they can't raid everyone, can they; and the existence of such a bot would make the "evidence" useless for prosecution or search warrants.
Is anybody else having problems scrobbling tracks to last.fm using third-party software?
My home music-playing setup consists of a Linux box running MPD, a client-server music playing system. To this, the mpdscribble client is attached, monitoring its status and sending the details of tracks played to last.fm. As of a few days ago, though, mpdscribble stopped working; it connects to last.fm's servers well enough, though once the time comes to send a track, it reports an authentication error, as if the password were incorrect.
I have tried the same username and password combination for logging into the website, and for using the official OSX last.fm client, and it works. I have also tried two other, independent, MPD/last.fm clients (scmpc and lastfmsubmitd), and found that they had the same problem; as, indeed, does the (somewhat old) third-party iScrobbler client for OSX. (This was, needless to say, on two different machines.)
Could last.fm have broken an older version of the AudioScrobbler protocol used by a lot of open-source software? (It appears that these clients use protocol 1.1, whereas there is now a 1.2 protocol.) Oddly enough, a Google search fails to reveal anybody else reporting this problem.
Oh-oh; music-based social networking site last.fm has just been bought by old-media dinosaur CBS, for £140m. CBS say that last.fm will retain its own identity (as opposed to being rebranded as "MTV 2.0" or something) and its managing team will remain in place, so hopefully it won't turn to dross immediately.
Last.fm is currently temporarily down, and displaying a grey page with text, in various languages, informing the user of this fact.
Interestingly enough, the English message reads:
We're sorry, but our database servers are currently overloaded. Please enjoy a quick cup of tea and then try refreshing this page.whereas the Italian one reads:
Siamo spiacenti ma i nostri server sono momentaneamente sovraccaricati. Gustatevi un caffè veloce e provate ad aggiornare questa pagina.Which, literally, invites the user to have a cup of coffee (which, when one thinks about it, is more culturally appropriate than literally translating it to a cup of tea).
The Portuguese translation seems to also mention coffee, though the French, German and Polish ones seem to stick with tea; the Spanish one doesn't seem to mention any beverage. I don't know what the Russian, Japanese or others say.
Which gives a concise tea-vs.-coffee map of European cultures. And it made me wonder whether, were it written in Australian English, it would refer to coffee rather than tea. And what about American English? Perhaps "please enjoy a Mega-Grande Lattucino™" or something?