This week Last.fm announced that they are now offering a service (in beta) where anyone can listen to a huge selection of complete tracks and even albums online for free. They say there’s already millions of tracks up there and more are being added daily. What makes this service special is that it’s completely legal.
Last.fm (which was bought by the CBS Corporation for $280 million last May) has made deals with all four major record labels (Universal Music Group, Sony BMG, Warner Music, and EMI) as well as more than 150,000 independent labels and artists. The artists (whether on a major label or a pile of goo in the basement with a keyboard and an Internet connection) will be paid royalties based on how many plays they get. The royalties come from a portion of the advertising revenue the site makes, which isn’t surprising because that’s pretty much how the Internet works. (Now, should I feel guilty that I use adblock to get rid of any potential advertisements, and so won't be contributing much to this economy? I say no. But I'm biased.)
It seems to work basically like this: you can stream any track or album that has been licensed for inclusion in the service up to three times for free, and a monthly subscription fee will soon be announced to make that limit disappear. Some of us, such as myself, are out of luck for now because the service is only immediately available in Germany, the US, and the UK, but more countries are promised soon. As with any service like this it will take a while for it to get into full swing.
Last.fm has built a pretty impressive database of artist and album info. It does get a bit sketchy for lesser known artists, particularly as far as album track listings are concerned, but if artists and labels are contributing the info, it should become considerably more accurate. (Currently a lot of the information is based on the often inconsistent id3 tags submitted by users, such as myself, who use the service primarily to track and catalogue their music listening habits.)
Last.fm has already been billing themselves as "the social music revolution" for quite some time, and now they’re taking quite a step toward “redesigning the music economy.” That’s the claim at least, and a lot of people are getting quite excited about it. It should be noted, though, that there are many other services that offer music subscriptions in a similar way, such as Deezer, Rhapsody and Napster. Napster’s model in particular is quite similar (i.e. three free plays per track sans subscription), but the difference here is that the basic Last.fm site is far and away better than the others: a Web 2.0 based, community driven music hub, with minimal advertising that is extremely useful even without the promise of free or paid music. It’s a great place for avid music fans to research, network, and learn about concerts. In fact, Last.fm is one of my most visited sites, and I’ve never even once listened to any of the music they host there.
Nevertheless, is this really going to be much of a revolution? I’m no economist, but I think it will be very hard to tell until the specific royalty details are revealed. It certainly has potential, especially because they allow any independent artist with no record label to upload tracks as they please, competing directly with the major record labels (which makes me wonder if major labels will become even more useless; they must not think so if they all signed onto this).