Last.fm may have been a pioneer of personal radio, but since its $280m acquisition by CBS in 2007, it’s receded from the spotlight even as its category became more important – first with Pandora in the US, and more recently with the radio features added to pretty much every major streaming music service.
Yet for all the predictions that the service is on its way down the dumper, it remains a valuable stash of data on people’s listening habits – especially for those who’ve connected it to newer services like Spotify.
Is a comeback on the cards for its core radio service, though? It emerged yesterday that a new beta version of the Last.fm Music Player has gone live, using YouTube to play music (with videos) rather than the site’s own player.
“Ever wondered what radio would be like with video?” asks a prompt on the site encouraging users to try the new version. Although from a business perspective, it’s more about wondering what a personal radio service would be like with YouTube absorbing the licensing costs.
As a business decision, it’s not a huge surprise. Last.fm shut down its radio service in a number of countries in December 2012 “due to licensing restrictions”, while taking its desktop version subscription-only in the US, UK and Germany – the last three markets where it had been free (Bulletin, 14-Dec-12).
Meanwhile, its interest in video was signified by a deal with Muzu.tv in May 2013, making that service’s music videos playable on artist and track pages on Last.fm. It’s unclear for now what the new beta player’s use of YouTube means for that partnership.
The company ended 2012 with 23m users but pre-tax losses of £3.9m for that year, while recent Ofcom data suggested that 4% of UK adults use it, behind the 29% for iTunes and 11% for Spotify, but level with Google Play, and ahead of SoundCloud (3%) and Myspace (2%).
Plenty of work to do for a comeback, then, but it’s worth noting that if Last.fm was launching in its current form today, as a YouTube-scraping personal radio service with big-data features in the background, it’d be all over the tech blogs as the Next Big Digital Thing.
While its recent history (including criticism of CBS’ stewardship of the site) can’t be ignored, Last.fm’s latest evolution will be worth watching over the coming months. But the usual questions apply: how will the new version be marketed to bring back old users and attract new ones; and is there a successful business model in YouTube-powered personal radio?