Or just another over-hyped search engine? From last week's Guardian Guide:
Last.fm is an interesting way to discover new tunes. Load up their software and it'll start building a profile of your music taste depending on what you play. You can then listen to a radio station based on similar artists or tune into music people with a similar taste to you are listening to.
Basically, you either chose a series of 'tags' (genre descriptions added by other users), or type in a list of bands or artists and let it 'scrobble' for you. It will then stream a series of tunes by these and related artists for your listening pleasure, complete with a bit of blurb and biography about each artist. It's not the first such site though, the Pandora site does a similar thing, though only for US citizens last time I visited it. Last.fm seems to be attempting to bring this technology to a much bigger market, and so far so good. I'll give you an example of what Last.fm might throw up for you.
First I typed in 'Mogwai' and the search engine brought up, among others: Sigur Ros, A Silver Mount Zion, Explosions in the Sky, Sonic Youth, Do Make Say Think, Tortoise.
I then tried 'Coldplay' and I got: Radiohead, The Killers, Muse, Keane, The Beatles, U2, Pink Floyd, David Gray, plus some others.
Now, I'm no fan of Coldplay, but I do like Mogwai, and the related bands were all similarly interesting. Many of their tracks already graced the dustless shelves of my iTunes library. A problem: isn't this all a bit boring? Do I really want to listen to music by very similar bands playing music that sounds rather alike all day without interuptions from something different? Is it perhaps, maybe, more than a little narcisistic? 'My music', 'me' x 1000, all day, with no surprises. I'm reminded of the character from Nathan Barley who plays his own horrid techno 24/7 under a glaring blown-up image of his own face. This might sound overly critical, but hang on, the site is claiming to be a 'revolution' - what exactly is revolutionary about the similar? (Sorry for all the rhetorical questions, and the brackets)?
When I first moved to Liverpool I discovered the wonderful Probe Records (above); a small independent rock and pop specialist with rather eclectic stock. James (Bainbridge - fellow filterer) and I would frequent the shop and buy a CD by someone we'd never heard of as often as possible - using the staff's own small written descriptions as guides. We discovered The Muffins (below), and our lives were changed forever. I discovered records by Red Stars Theory, Autechre, Godspeed! You Black Emporer and Owls. Of course, all of these artists are available through last.fm, but you'd already have to be aquainted with them, or very similar groups, to find them. You would be unlikely to stumble on something by accident.
I also used to enjoy listening to John Peel's Radio 1 show, for the simple reason that it was always surprising. I'll never forget a piece of electronic music that sounded like tiny fireworks bursting over the sound of a hoover. Then there'd be an old music hall song or a scratchy blues record, not what you'd be expecting. Of course, you could have this combination with last.fm, but only if you'd decided to have it beforehand.
Interesetingly, in the same issue of The Guide quoted above, was an extended piece about London's Resonance FM (above); a small pioneering station that broadcasts a wide range of music, noise and chatter:
Its oldest presenter is a 73-year-old ex-bank robber, its youngest a 15-year-old school boy. Its programmes span the outer reaches of music, sound art, polemic and comedy...Recently I tuned in, and was greeted by a sound that was really just noise...Obviously preferable to James Blunt.
So, out of a station that plays music just like that in your record collection and that you're therefore destined to like, or a station that broadcasts music and noise the likes of which you've probably never come across; which would you describe as a 'revolution'? Last.fm might be an interesting use of new technology, but as for interesting music I know which one I'd choose.