Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Last Frontier

Myspace is sunk. While certainly not a long-time subject of the thinly-veiled advertisement and demographic-research schemes known as ‘social networking utilities’, I can easily make that conclusion. It’s like a one-horse villa in there these days, complete with the digital tumbleweeds of automatically-generated friends and other such spam. While I’d like to remain indifferent as to which conglomeration facilitates my self-adulation, there is one glaring cultural setback buried within the transition of popularity from News Corp’s Myspace to Mark Zuckerberg’s ostensibly independent Facebook. Facebook doesn’t feature a utility for independent musicians, their proliferation or their promotion. While some features of the site vaguely mimic the ‘profile song’ concept, none truly approach the accessible, standardized style of ‘Myspace Music’. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t give a sweet fuck about Myspace’s market share. I’m simply interested in the questions raised by this simple, yet poignant difference.

Enter last.fm. For the uninitiated, this site is essentially an elaborated version of ‘gnod’ and the ‘music-map’ paired up with the online social-networking platform. Simplified, it automatically monitors your music listening patterns with a free, downloadable program via whichever music-player program you use, recommends you new music based on your tastes and pairs you up with other users of similar sonic alignment. So what?

Well, it dawned upon me that the highly viral, ironically organic nature of online musical popularity fostered by Myspace and its ilk made up no small part of the ‘indie’ (the concept, not the genre) boom we have witnessed since the turn of the millennium. That boom read doom for major music labels. Why buy $20 CDs of corporate kipple when you can catch the latest buzz from the Hypemachine? Again, enter last.fm.

While we’re happily listening away and getting samples of potential new-favorite-bands as well as buddies to gab with, last.fm might seem to be the logical surrogate mother for independent artists. But if the historical harnessing and bondage of Gutenberg’s printing press by jealous despots is any lesson, we should wonder what the agenda behind this technology’s proliferation might be.

If the developers of the site are to credited with any ingenuity or prophetic prowess, I’d guess that last.fm’s got some pretty sophisticated methods of graphing listeners versus all sorts of criteria – location, age, gender, time of day, whatever. I’d also extrapolate that they’ve got a good idea of which users are consistently listening to given artists shortly before they become popular. If I’m right about that, these ‘ahead-of-the-curve’ listeners – the music nerds – are essentially vehicles the site’s owners can use to determine the subtle patterns of the music biz without actually having to engage in the musical culture driving the popularity of the artists.

Break it down. By supplying entertaining services for free, social-networking websites are able to amass voluntarily-provided personal details about members of the public. Big, fat companies are desperate to find a way to keep making money off of music sales. It’s tough because it’s getting harder to cram manufactured icons down consumers’ throats. If only the companies could know which bands to invest in before they became popular…

Did I mention that CBS Interactive bought last.fm for $300 million dollars last month?

Call me paranoid. Jack.oatmon@gmail.com