A recent Slashdot post reminded me of LAUNCHcast - and introduced me to Last.fm.
Back when my wife Phaedra first discovered Launch.com (I'm guessing it was in 1999) we both thought it was exactly the sort of innovative and flat-out cool thing that the Internet should be all about.
LAUNCHcast used a Flash-based interface to play streaming 'Internet radio.' In and of itself, this wasn't all that impressive. The audio stream wasn't very high-fidelity, in particular.
But the collaborative environment was the killer feature. You could rate songs, on a ten-point scale from 'never play again' to 'favorite'. The LAUNCH system would gradually learn your music preferences, and tune your streaming radio to play more of your highly rated songs. But it would also let you find other users with similar listening preferences, and subscribe to their stations - adding their choices to your own, and allowing you to discover new (or old!) music. You could also add your friends - allowing them to influence your station as well.
Suddenly, I was discovering and enjoying new music like I did back in high school and college. Yeah baby!
Let me pause for a moment to point something out: I'm 38 years old. I went to high school and college in the '80s. I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, The Who, Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, ELO - and got the full effect of 80s post-punk synth-pop new-wave hair-metal right in the middle of my teen-angst years. Peter Gabriel, Eurythmics, New Order, Prince, The Cars, U2, Ozzy, Def Leppard - bring em on! And MTV played music videos! Lots of 'em!
WMMS in Cleveland was a highly influential and eclectic station, and we could listen to it all day. (Now it's just one more Clearchannel station.)
We also had our own high school radio station - which is today, two decades later, basically devoid of meaningful student participation - despite the fact that it's still located on the high school campus. Shame on you, Kenston High!
Radio today is homogenized, soulless, and gutless - and it's not for me. It certainly isn't something I can use to discover new music!
So Phaedra and I each spent a lot of time listening to LAUNCHcast, evangelizing it to our friends, and tweaking our stations. I had close to five thousand songs rated in my profile - making me a 'fanatic.'
But it was too good to last.
ENTER THE RIAA
Because you could choose to listen to just your own LAUNCHcast station (without any other influencing stations) and choose to play only highly rated songs, it was possible to construct a LAUNCHcast station which would play a given song at a predictable time. Never mind that no one in their right mind would actually want to go through the trouble to do it - remember, this wasn't high quality audio, and Napster was providing a readily available method for copying specific songs, if that was what you wanted - all the RIAA cared about was that you could.
The RIAA sued LAUNCH in May of 2001 because the sevice was too interactive, and, they claimed, violated the level of licensing that LAUNCH had negotiated. This was my first clue that the RIAA didn't get it. I could understand the outrage over Napster, but LAUNCHcast radio was a licensed service which had substantially increased my music purchases (you could buy a song or album on LAUNCH by clicking on the Now Playing image) - I was actively buying music after almost a decade of commercial-radio-influenced apathy. I didn't see any reason that wouldn't continue.
That is, until the RIAA shut them down. Passionate e-mails to Hilary Rosen (then the president of the RIAA) went unanswered.
LAUNCH re-emerged after being purchased by Yahoo! But in order to use the new service, you had to create a new account! All the hours of rating music, artists, and albums by the old LAUNCH fanatics were gone. Your friends were gone. And Yahoo! filled my station with ads, and then encouraged me to buy a subscription to get rid of 'em again. There was also a limit on how many songs I could skip without a paid subscription. Phaedra bought one. I said "Screw 'em."
(I learned, from another Slashdot poster, that the same sort of thing had happened when LAUNCH was started from the ashes of Firefly.com. Microsoft bought Firefly to acquire the technology which would become Passport, and then let Firefly die. None of the ratings database that the old members had painstakingly created survived. What a missed opportunity for Microsoft!)
THIRD VERSE, SAME AS THE FIRST?
So now there's Last.fm. It's essentially the same idea as the old Firefly and LAUNCH services - you rate streaming music, the system learns your tastes, and once you've rated enough music, you acquire neighbors who influence your profile station.
It's still officially in beta, and there are a number of issues. (As I write this, a banner at the top of the home page reads: "Radio recommendation service restarting. You may experience 'random radio' for a while...") There aren't that many users yet, so you might not find a good match in the beginning. (Before you have your own profile, you can search for other stations by entering up to three artists. I entered Peter Gabriel, Annie Lennox, and The Prodigy. There were no matches. Uh-oh.) There's quite a bit of available music, but you might find that some of your favorite songs, albums or artists aren't available yet. Response to the 'Skip' button is slow, and the current track doesn't always update promptly - or at all. It might take a day or two of dedicated listening and rating before you have your own profile radio.
So, does it suck? No, it rocks! LAUNCH had a lot of the same problems, and it I put up with them because, ultimately, it still worked. Last.fm works.
What helps make Last.fm better is a family of plug-ins called Audioscrobbler. Rather than the occasionally flaky Flash-based LAUNCH control panel, Audioscrobbler plugs into your favorite media player - WinAmp, iTunes, XMMS - and there are versions for Windows, Mac OS, UNIX & Linux, and even Amiga! And not only does Audioscrobbler record your preferences when you're listening to Last.fm, but it also rates songs while you're listening to your own collection. Cool!
I'm using iTunes, largely because my wife has been actively importing our CD collection into iTunes on our old G4 Mac - making our music library accessible from any of the computers in the house. (She's been making compilation CDs for the car, but I think she's also planning ahead for her inevitable iPod purchase.)
I hope Last.fm avoids the fate of Firefly and LAUNCHcast. I'm loving it so far. If you sign up, give my station a listen.