If even one commercial music station were better than warm spit, I might have been in the position to hear the Eels and Vertical Horizon, two of my new favorite bands, when they started out in the '90s.
But because radio stations all play the same 10 songs or are as
stuck in the past as my music collection used to be, I never listen to
them. For a long time, that meant if a pal didn't turn me on to new
music, my collection stood still.
But now I have Audioscrobbler.com, and I am loving it.
Begun in November by Richard Jones, a 20-year-old who graduated university last week in Southampton, England, with a degree in computer science, the site uses my musical tastes to tell me about bands I haven't heard but will probably like.
It's fun, practically effortless, and free, not only of fees but of ads. So far, at least, it's a little-known gem that serves up whimsy and quirky community with its utility.
Here's how it works: Jones and his fellow code warriors have devised a set of plug-ins for desktop music players, including Winamp (2 and 3), Windows Media Player, and iTunes. Download the one for your machine, and whenever you play a song with the plug-in running, its name and other data are transmitted to a file server in Britain.
As of Wednesday, after six months or so of using it, I've logged 351 hours and 34 minutes of listening time, for a total of 4,782 songs: 226 by U2, 224 by Radiohead, 191 by Sonny Landreth, and so on. The site is like that, endlessly compiling stats. (See mine, if you care.)
Obsessive-compulsive types like me love it just for the numbers, but it's how Jones and company "scrobble" the data together - it's a made-up word that seems like it should already have existed - that turns trivia into trove.
By using algorithms, they are able to tell me who among 8,500- plus fellow scrobblers listens to music most like my own, and I can go to their pages to see for myself. The first time I did it, I found that seven of one listener's top 10 were in my heavy rotation, and I'd never heard of the other three. So I popped off a message, asking not only about the songs, but about the scrobbler.
I learned that the bands - MxPx, All-Star United, and Bleach - were punk or Christian rockers, two neighborhoods pretty far from where I hang out. Though the music didn't stir me much, realizing that my semirandom musical guru-of-the-moment was a 23-year-old software developer from Auckland, New Zealand, certainly did. (Since then, scientifically insignificant polling has shown a fair amount of diversity, but scrobblers are generally not unlike my software developer: male English speakers in their 20s and 30s who are interested in computers.)
Another neat feature allows you to view the universe through a performer's prism instead of a listener's. If you like, say, Beth Orton, you can see the bands other Orton lovers listen to. (Top three answers: Radiohead, Massive Attack, and Morcheeba. Note to self: Massive Attack?) For now, the site provides only tips, not links; I've used Limewire to look up most of the leads I've gotten, though now I also check out the iTunes Music Store.
Jones has been running the site, a college dissertation project, on donations, and although it was several months before I sought to interview him, I should say in the interest of disclosure that I sent him $25. But in one of the first steps of his postgraduate life, Jones has hired on with Last.fm, a London outfit mining a vein similar to Audioscrobbler.
Described as "profile radio," Last.fm starts playing music for you randomly upon sign-up for no fee. If you like it, keep listening. If you don't, request the next song. Over time, Last.fm gets an ever-clearer picture of what you like to hear and refines what it sends you. It becomes your personal radio station, not only without commercials but without chatter of any kind. Music is available for sale, and other commercial enterprises are planned, but streaming will remain free, said Martin Stiksel, founder and codirector.
Part of Jones's deal with Last.fm is bandwidth and server support for Audioscrobbler; he said the projects will be independent of each other. Though it seems his Last.fm duties would keep him occupied, he and a couple of fellow programmers intend to revamp Audioscrobbler substantially within a couple of months. He said he won't resort to banner ads but wouldn't rule out other advertising.