I don’t tend to do a lot of listening to the radio. It isn’t that I have no desire for music; far from it, in fact. I was a music major in college, used to sing in a professional choir in Minneapolis, worked for half a year as the choir director and accompanist in a church and now teach piano lessons for a living. So I like music. I love music.
But I don’t tend to love radio. I don’t like all the talking and commercials, all the music I don’t really like or the fact that I tend to like to listen to similar artists, or even the same artist, for longer than just one song. So for the most part, unless a radio station is playing a concert or something, I don’t have much use for it.
Probably because of my general dislike for radio, and coupled with the fact that I have enough CDs and other music converted and saved to an external hard drive that if I wanted to, I could listen to my own music for more than a month without ever repeating anything, I have also never had much use for online radio. I’ve listened to it, of course, and there are a couple music blogs I like, but as far as streaming radio… never really got into it. And then I realized that there are certain artists (Phish, Tea Leaf Green, Grateful Dead), who I really like, that have streaming radio stations devoted to only their music, and I started listening to them.
Because of that, I took a closer look at LastFM, which everyone and his brother knows about. But for those seven people who don’t, LastFM is the brainchild of the same people who worked on Audioscrobbler, which keeps track of music you listen to, with the idea that other people with similar tastes might discover new music from each other. Most music players have Audioscrobbler plugins, which allows the player, every once in a while, to send your listening habits to Audioscrobbler, where they are added to a huge database. Numbers are crunched, and lo and behold, relationships found between music, and fairly accurate recommendations can be made, based on what you listen to and enjoy.
This is where LastFM comes in. The official LastFM website has a client application available, and to my surprise, it is available for Mac, Windows AND Linux. (It isn’t all that often that a Linux client is officially available, so I was happy, to say the least!)
I decided to check it out, since I knew I’d signed up for an account once upon a time, but had never really used it. Download and installation was simple, especially when I realized that the client was already available in Ubuntu’s software library. I installed it and started it up. The only thing I really needed to do was enter my username and password, and then pick a band I like and that I wanted to listen to, along with similar music/artists.
Two things really popped out at me immediately. The first was that the sound of the streaming audio was really, really good. It’s not as if LastFM is streaming 256 KB/S mp3 files or anything. In fact, I’d imagine it’s somewhere around 80 or 96 KB/S, or maybe 128 (at the most), but in the hour or two I’ve been listening, not once has it sputtered, and I’ve never had a moment when I wished the stream was higher quality. So in that regard, I’m really impressed.
The second thing I noticed was that the music LastFM picks as similar to the artist I input is quite accurate. For instance, I put in “Brian Wilson” (main songwriter for the Beach Boys) as an artist I’d like to hear, and to my amazement, the first song by a “similar” artist was by Bruce Springsteen. The second was by Donovan. Neither of these artists would been anywhere near the top of a list of similar artists to Brian Wilson, but the songs selected definitely fit the mood!
And that’s probably more the beauty of Audioscrobbler, as opposed to the LastFM client I’m supposedly reviewing, but artists themselves aren’t categorized by very strict means… it’s more about the song, so a group such as Guns ‘n’ Roses could very likely end up in the same category as Elvis Costello, as long as the Guns ‘n’ Roses song was “November Rain.” It’s very accurate.
But back to the player. In some ways I’m really impressed, and in other ways, not quite so much. First, the player is really easy to use. There are only seven buttons in the toolbar. Four are related to song management; these allow the user to recommend a song to someone else, to tag a song with certain characteristics, to add a song to your “Love it” list, or to ban a song. Two other buttons let you stop/start the music and skip a song (and there’s slider for volume as well). The last button lets you see your LastFM profile, which slides into the main window when being viewed.
In your profile, you can switch to a different station, see songs you’ve recently played, songs you love and songs you’ve recently banned, as well as any tags you’ve used, friends you’ve made, neighbors in your area network, and your listening history. If you are a paying LastFM user, you can also listen to a radio station catered directly to your listening habits, as well as one made up solely of tracks you’ve identified as songs you Love.
Overall, the LastFM client does practically everything I want. It has a toolbar icon, which is fantastic, since the player window is actually a bit too large for my tastes. It would be really nice if the song and artist information (which is also the space where the user’s profile appears), could be hidden, so that the only buttons visible would be the song management and control buttons, which would basically be the top inch or so of the window. If this was the case, the client would be practically perfect. It would also, I suppose, be nice if the features not available without donating would be grayed out. I don’t feel any overriding urge to donate to LastFM, since I’m happy enough just listening to songs similar to my favorite artists for free. But since I’m not a paying customer, I don’t see much room for complaint, either!
I can honestly say my first experience with LastFM has been overwhelmingly positive. The network seems quite robust, the official client full of features I can see myself using, and the song and artist selection, via Audioscrobbler has been very good. It is sometimes surprising in the leaps that it makes, but the music has always been to my tastes. I will definitely be using this piece of software again.