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Last.fm upgrades – how do they hold up?

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The question of how to adapt to new times and technology has always been a troublesome one. Some want to abandon the past, others cling to it with heels-in-the-ground determination. Finding a middle ground is, of course, not only the goal, but very difficult as well.

The music business is no different. 50 years ago, you couldn't even really take music with you, outside of your car. You had your radio, and that's it.

Now mp3 players are available that will easily fit in the palm of your hand. Players that boast about being able to hold over six albums of data. This isn't even the largest or most drastic paradigm shift. It's now very easy to copy and re-produce music, legally or otherwise.

What to do? How can we adapt to the new technologies and abilities that are available without compromising our integrity?

Last.fm is one take on this problem. It's an innovative hybrid of the old and the new – music sharing and, as the name would imply, FM radio. You select the bands you like and adore, and the service plays selections based on that. They mix your old favorites with other artists in the same musical vein, giving you the best of all worlds. Best of all, it's free, legal, and growing fast.

Last.fm is a service I've had my eye on for quite some time now. Unfortunately, I couldn't use their service because I couldn't install the client – I lacked admin privileges on my computer, which both the install and authentication needed. So all I really had for internet radio was Yahoo LAUNCHCast. Sadly, I quickly grew annoyed with that style of doing things, and I wasn't about to shell out $5/month or $30/year for 192 kbps WMAs. I had grown quite sick and tired of lossy encoding and wanted a much fuller sound. I don’t think 320 kbps MP3s are too much to ask for, if not outright lossless sound.

So naturally I greeted the news about Last.fm's update – in particular the introduction of the flash client – with excitement. FINALLY! Something that just needs a browser and flash, that will work anywhere! Sounds like a dream come true, yes?

Well, mostly. You see, it's brand-new code – it doesn't have the stability the installed clients boast. Often times (for me, at least) connection errors stopped the music cold. Granted, most times you can just press "Play" and it'll start right up again, but it does get mildly annoying. If it's determined not to play, it will give a "Not enough content to play station" error message. That's because I didn't put enough bands in the list. Last.fm is licensed as a radio station, and as such, they cannot play more than one song from any artist within a certain timeframe.

Another thing I noticed is that, unlike LAUNCHCast, Last.fm plays the artists you select far more often. LAUNCHCast tends to focus on artists related to one of your favorites, only tossing you a personal favorite once in a great while to keep you pacified. This annoyed me a great deal, as I felt they (LAUNCHCast) were trying to introduce to me new bands (and, by extension, get me to buy their material) instead of play the music I actually wanted to hear. New music is well and good, and a core reason of the radio medium itself, but who doesn't want to hear old favorites in the mix as well? Last.fm is truly about preferences, it seems. It picks music you will like – both music you already know and music you would want to be introduced to. LAUNCHCast is a far more commercial outfit – they are trying to sell music, not just play it.

On that note, perhaps it's my imagination, but Last.fm's selection seems a lot wider. The first Nine Inch Nails song I heard was titled "Intermission". This confused me somewhat, as I'm quite familiar with the NIN discography, but had never heard this song. I googled around and was deeply surprised that it was off the Quake soundtrack. This blew me away – a game soundtrack on internet radio? I've died and gone to heaven!
This has its downsides, of course. For example, they played a cut from Interpol's live album – the radio announcer introduction. So you have the same kind of feel of a 5-disc CD player on shuffle. You never know what will come your way… in fact, sometimes you have no clue whatsoever. But sometimes that's half the fun. One thing I'd like to see (maybe) is if they could combine the intros and the songs into one track so you don't get left hanging.

One thing that LAUNCHCast has over Last.fm, however, is a far more refined rating system. LAUNCHCast gives you a full rating system, anything from 0% (never play again) to 100% (Loved it), in 10% increments. Perhaps this is illusionary control, given the fact that Yahoo seems to ignore what you love many times, but it is something I miss. Slightly.

One other detail I miss from Yahoo is being able to pause tracks. Again, since Last.fm is licensed as a radio station, they can't legally offer it. A minor detail, and in my opinion a fair trade for the lossless sound. Yes, I'm quite the sucker for that little feature.

The other new features are quite nice, too. For one, every artist now has a concert listing, so you can get a quick overview of both the artist's material and when/where they are performing. In addition to that, your dashboard will record what concerts you want to go to, and show reminders. This seems rather silly to me (how could you forget a date to see your favorite band?) but maybe it's for the shows your friend makes you come along to.


Another new toy you can tinker with is a music compatibility rating. This may sound like Last.fm meets Match.com, but it's fun to make your friends sign up and see how you two match up. If music means a lot to you, it's a great way to meet new people as well – you're guaranteed to have something to talk about right off the bat.

Last but not least, they are also starting to offer free music downloads at their site. This is another feature they have over LAUNCHCast. While the Yahoo! service does offer downloads, they are $.99/each. The ones you get with the monthly/yearly subscription expire when the subscription does, which is a large annoyance to me. Good news is, the Last.fm downloads are completely free and never expire. You do have to do a bit of hunting to find them (don't expect to find U2's latest single) but they are working on a way to make them easier to find as we speak.

Overall, my impression is the same I had when I stumbled across Last.fm – wonderful idea, exactly what I want, and I can't wait until the bugs are knocked out. Until then, your experience will be positive, but likely rocky.

If you just want to hear music, and don't care if you're getting the full sound, LAUNCHCast is probably your best bet. It "just works". However, if you're more selective both about what music you hear, and how you hear it (i.e. you don't want half the sound ripped out before it even gets to your speakers/headphones) Last.fm is your best bet, by far. I'm quite sure the bugs in the system will die a quick death.

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About Adam V.