Tuesday, April 01, 2008

That's the sound of my street cred shooting itself in the corner.

Oh, Last.fm, how you amuse me.

Last.fm works on the principle of the long tail, similar to the way that Amazon works. The idea is that you track absolutely all your users' behaviour on your site, and then use that information to make recommendations. Users' reactions to the recommendations get recorded as well, and eventually referrals become more accurate, or supposedly.

But we have to remember that it is some sort of computer algorithm that makes these decisions, so when it says "this band is similar to these other bands" that may not actually be true. What is true is that the people who listen to that band also listen to these other bands. Do they sound similar? Not necessarily.

Take Beirut for example. The band's sound has a lot of Eastern European and folk influences but judging by its similar artists you'd never guess that. It's a mixed bag of indie music there, mostly. 'Balkan' and 'gypsy' music that may sound more similar doesn't show up there because the majority of the people who listen to Beirut don't know about or don't listen to it.

I find that often for more obscure music, bands tend to be grouped geographically or by 'scene' more than by things that sound the same. Say a band that you've never heard of is from Chicago. If they have a limited number of listeners, a large portion of their similar artists will be from the Chicago indie music scene.

Time period seems to make a difference too. I think this is most obvious with bands that have a 'retro' sound. You'd think that if a band was trying to sound similar to another style of music or group of bands that this older music would show up as similar artists, but it often doesn't. This is most apparent with tribute bands. You'd think that Bjorn Again would have ABBA somewhere near the top of its similar artists but no.

I've noticed this through my recommendations too. A lot of stuff shows up there not necessarily because I'll like it but because say, it was on the radio at the same time that some other band I listen to was on the radio a lot. That's why they think that I'll like Edwin so much. He kind of fits into the category of "Canadian alternative rock that got overplayed on major radio stations in the 90s."

Don't get me wrong. I love Last.fm and I've found tonnes of great stuff through it, but sometimes the computers just get it... wrong. Case in point? This week in my recommendations one of the most unlikely things showed up. Prozzak. Prozzak? I had to do a double take and then I started screaming.

Prozzak is an animated pseudo brit dance pop band that sing songs with whiny lyrics that are almost exclusively about being depressed and having no luck with women. It's one of those sorts of bands that you really, really love when you're between the ages of 10 and 12 and then abruptly you start to become embarassed that you ever liked them when you realize that it's overhyped, overplayed on the radio and really not all that good.

Top of the pop charts, 1998.

Don't lie. You all have at least one of these albums. Most likely it took you a long time to get rid of because you don't want to admit that you even have it or because you told your parents that you really, really wanted it and wouldn't stop bugging them until they bought it for you and you don't want them to know that you're tired of it already.

Thank you, Last.fm for bringing back a bunch of suppressed memories.