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Scrobbling: a blessing and a curse

Scrobbling is when your computer sends short bits of data to Last.fm. This data concerns the music you’ve been listening to, based on the ID3 tags in MP3s. Last.fm provides plugins to scrobble with most popular media software, and even supports after-the-fact scrobbling from an iPod or iPhone. The Last.fm website collects this information about your music listening habits and creates a profile around it, cataloguing your favourite artists, songs, etc. It recommends new artists for you to listen to based on tagging by the Last.fm community, and ranks your musical compatibility with other people. You can even create groups with mini-forums to discuss music. Last.fm boldly introduces itself as the “social music revolution”, but I can hardly argue with it — that’s truly what it is. Other “social music revolution” websites have existed, but Last.fm is the only one I’ve ever seen that actually worked somewhat.

Scrobbling seems to have an interesting effect on most people (or at least some people). People on Last.fm will often leave music playing all day, while not listening to it, just to get higher play counts on their profile. Having high play counts has no practical purpose, of course, but people do this anyway. How do I know? I could point out that my best friend Ryan does it, and I would be right, but the honest part of me points out that I do it, too. Sometimes. I try to refrain, but sometimes I slip and leave music playing for hours just for the sake of it. It’s an egotistical competition, yes, but it’s kind of fun. Besides, there’s no real harm in it, right? The numbers really are meaningless, after all, and the competitiveness that so many people create actually has its positive effects: namely, the fact that it makes people listen to more music. I listen to music sometimes just because I want more plays on my profile, but I also enjoy music that I would normally forget about. That’s kind of admirable, I guess, in a dumb sort of way.

One serious negative quality about scrobbling, however, is the fact it is is completely dependent on the ID3 tags. These tags are filled in by the users, which inevitably leads to mistaggings that clutter up the entire website. For the more OCD amongst us, this can be infuriating, and take the joy out of music. I asked my friend Matt Rebeiro for an exploitable quotation related to this phenomenon, and this is what I got:

“I usually avoid listening to things that are tagged wrongly [and I] listen to video game soundtracks less because I’m always unsure how to tag those.”
–Matt Rebeiro, obsessive nerd

It’s not the catchiest quote in the world, but it gets my point across. I’ve ignored albums before because I didn’t feel like filling out the tags. Granted, this is a problem that doesn’t apply to most people (because most people listen to music that’s actually in music databases, so they don’t have to tag everything manually). It applies to me, though, and it’s a very annoying side effect of the Last.fm experience.

I’ve also used my Last.fm profile as a reason to stop myself from listening to music even when I really wanted to. If you look at my Last.fm profile, you’ll see that my top artist by a huge margin is Lemon Demon, which is probably one of my favourite bands. Yet the stats on Last.fm are somewhat misleading; Lemon Demon was basically the only band I listened to back when I first joined, and then my music taste evolved on a generic MP3 player that wasn’t able to scrobble. I only got an iPod (with scrobbling capability) recently, so you can only see the beginnings of other top artists now. Since getting an iPod, I’ve barely listened to a single Lemon Demon song because I want to give the other artists a chance to catch up.

It’s very annoying, because I’m genuinely embarrassed at the huge gap between my top artist and all the others — it makes me look silly, like I only listen to one band ever. Still, I want to listen to Lemon Demon every once in a while. The competitive quality I’ve assigned to Last.fm is having a negative effect on my ability to enjoy one of my favourite bands, which is slightly annoying. It’s all my fault, really, since there really shouldn’t be a competition here at all, but it’s an inevitable side effect of the website. I have an exchange from Twitter to prove it:

mattgcn: Manually scrobbling two weeks of listening? Don’t mind if I do!
RyanLalonde: What do you mean by manually scrobbling?
mattgcn: http://lastfmstats.livefrombmore.com/universalscrobbler/
RyanLalonde: Oh wow, you can really cheat from this. I won’t do it tho. 😛
mattgcn: Yeah, I only use it honestly but looking at the numbers it seems some people abuse it

That was an exchange between two people I follow, Matt Rebeiro (from above) and Ryan Lalonde. It demonstrates three ways that scrobbling’s competitiveness manifests:

  1. Matt wants to manually scrobble two weeks of music, something which he later described as “tedious“.
  2. Scrobbling music that you didn’t listen to is considered cheating. You can’t cheat if there’s no competition.
  3. Some people do abuse the manual scrobbling system to “cheat”, combining points 1 and 2.

This is all just my long-winded way of saying: Last.fm can easily turn into a competition. It’s actually pretty predictable if you think about it. Isn’t a large portion of the music industry funded by people’s egos? Many groups are defined completely by musical tastes, and some musical tastes are completely defined by groups — when was the last time you saw a nuclear physicist listening to gangsta rap? I didn’t even like the Beatles the first time I heard them, but I forced myself to give them a chance because a lot of people I respect like them, and a lot of bands I already liked listed them as an influence. I like the Beatles now, but that only proves the point. Last.fm’s “compatibility meter” only furthers attitudes like this.

Your musical compatibility with Niklasva is SUPER!

Last.fm is a lot of fun, but it might have some unexpected consequences. I do recommend that you join the site if you haven’t already, but I won’t hold it against you if you choose not to. Not everyone likes to be part of the high-horse circlejerk that Last.fm can easily become.

Written by Likes to Ramble

2 Comments

  1. Nizzlebop · November 14, 2012

    Thank you for sharing this essay. It was extremely informative about the subject matter AND enjoyable to read.

  2. Thomas · June 2, 2011

    Despite only just coming across this article, the status competition within last.fm and scobbling is still prevalent. And i can relate to having one artist’s play count much higher than the others.

    And like your example of The Beatles, I’ve forced myself to listen too and like bands just so they will appear on my top artists, so I look better. Although no one looks at the profile page, so it’s just for me. *sigh*

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