Last.fm interview: Behind the music

Last.fm has streamed an incredible 275,000 years of audio around the world. That's just one astonishing factoid we gleaned from our exclusive interview with Last.fm's Matthew Ogle

People who listen to Last.fm have scrobbled an incredible 275,000 years of audio around the world. In the time it took you to read that last sentence, they scrobbled a whopping 4,000 songs. In its first week on Xbox Live, 120 million minutes of music were streamed. The company is also in love with open-source software and Intel.

We know this because we hung Matthew Ogle, the company's head of Web development, over a barrel of piranhas until he sung like a canary.

When we got bored with the piranhas, we tickled his feet until he told us how Last.fm pays labels and artists, the kinds of hardware and software it uses to ensure smooth streaming, and how the London-based company plans to bring about the destruction of Spotify. (Disclaimer: Last.fm is owned by the same company as CNET UK, CBS Interactive.)

Yeah, we're pretty good to you. The full, undiluted interview is below. Grab it while it's hot.

Tell us about the hardware and software used to stream music from Last.fm.

"We stream all music directly off our servers in London. We have a cluster of streaming nodes including a bunch of powerful machines with solid-state hard drives. We have a process that runs daily which finds the hottest music and pushes those tracks on to the SSDs streamers that sit in front of our regular platter-based streaming machines. That way, if someone is listening to one of our more popular stations, the chances are really good that these songs are coming off our high-speed SSD machines. They're fast because every song is sitting in memory instead of being on a slow, spinning platter.

"This is something that worked really well for us during the launch of Last.fm for Xbox and it's one of the reasons we were able to handle the launch without hiccups. The SSDs are made by Intel. We actually contacted a few guys and said, 'Give us your craziest, most cutting-edge SSDs,' and the Intel ones came out on top. Beyond that, our streamers are all running Linux and using MogileFS -- which is an open-source distributed file system, which is a little bit like a software RAID system."

How much data passes through Last.fm?

"One number that's pretty cool is relevant to our recent Xbox launch. In our first week of use, 120 million minutes of music were streamed.

"One thing that's even more popular than our radio-streaming service is scrobbling -- the process of sending the name of the track you're listening to to Last.fm's servers. You can scrobble from over 200 different online music services and desktop clients, such as iTunes, Winamp, Hype Machine, etc.

"During peak hours, we get more than 800 scrobbles per second which translates to about 43 million scrobbles per day. Since 2003, which is when we invented scrobbling, we've broken 35 billion scrobbles. That translates to about 275,000 years of  scrobbled music."

How big is the Last.fm music library?

"Thanks to scrobbling, again, we have pretty much the largest library online. Even if we don't have a piece of audio available for streaming, by virtue of scrobbling, we still know a lot about every track. Even if it's from your friend's garage band, scrobbling automatically creates a page for that artist and that track. Other users can then come along and fill out the wiki, upload images, and as more people listen, that track will get automatically connected to other tracks and become part of our recommendation system."

How do artists and labels make money from Last.fm?

"It's complicated, but we essentially pay per stream. Depending on which country you're in and what catalogue is available there, we'll stream tracks and produce regular reports to all the content providers that we work with and pay them royalties based on that. It's then up to the labels to distribute the wealth to their artists. We give the labels a breakdown of which artists should be accruing what royalties, so they have fairly good information on what they should be paying who.

"A lot of our content also comes from indie artists that aren't signed to a label. They can sign up to our music manager, upload their tracks to us, and get stats on how many times they're being played. For those guys, we have an artist royalty programme. There are more than 100,000 artists using that. You upload your music, tick a few boxes, and get a similar deal to the majors -- every time a track is streamed, you earn royalties and if you reach a certain threshold, you can request we cut you a cheque.

"The amount per stream depends on territory and on the advertising revenue that Last.fm makes in the given quarter, so it's not a fixed amount."

What are your plans to bring about the destruction of Spotify?

"We all admire Spotify and think they do a great job of being an online jukebox in the sky. One of the first features that Spotify rolled out in response to user demand was scrobbling. That's because, to a lot of passionate online music consumers, no matter where they're consuming music, if they're not scrobbling, then the music is being wasted.

"Even before Spotify reached out to us and we talked, they had engineers working on implementing scrobbling and it's been really successful. That's something we want to encourage more of in the future.

"We think we're part of a much larger online music ecosystem that our users are already aware of. They're already using a variety of sources to consume music and our role is to be the place that feeds back into and essentially that way we can act as the home base for your music life online. We don't think any other service, Spotify included, is really positioned to do that right now."

Click continue below to read about Last.fm's plans for radio and what the most popular artist of all time is...

 

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