Streaming Internet radio sites, such as Pandora and Slacker, provide a simple and direct way to connect people with the music they love. But for serious music fans, the site that blows them all away is Last.fm.
If you're new to Last.fm or just a casual fan, here are some tips on taking your experience to the next level.
At first glance, Last.fm works just like any other streaming music service. The home page gives you a little text box where you can input your favorite artist, and with just a few clicks you're listening to a mix of their songs along with similar bands.
(Disclaimer: Last.fm is a property of CNET's parent company, CBS. Our enthusiasm for it is genuine, but we don't blame you for being suspicious.)
What Last.fm does better than all the other streaming music services out there is its ability to track your listening behavior and connect you with similar listeners--or what Last.fm calls "Neighbors."
Your listening history also gives Last.fm the ability to recommend local concerts and serve up free MP3 downloads that you may be interested in.
Once you have the basics down, there are three main ways to push your experience with Last.fm: you can improve the data you put in; you can do more with the data you get out; and you can listen to Last.fm on more stuff.
The first technique means finding ways to make Last.fm's record of your listening habits as accurate as possible. If all you ever do with Last.fm is stream easy listening music at work, it's going to have a distorted view of your taste in music. In the example shown here, you can see that my listening history is a little out of whack since I listen to a lot of Tim Hecker tracks at work (sounds weird, but all that white noise helps me focus sometimes). Unfortunately, because Last.fm doesn't yet integrate with my Zune MP3 player (fingers crossed), my listening data isn't very accurate--but that's another story.
Ideally, you want your profile page to reflect all the music you listen to--this means every song on your iPod, every tune on your computer, or even music you hear on other sites.
The trick to getting all your music tracked by Last.fm is to download the Scrobbler application. This program monitors your song plays in popular programs like iTunes, Winamp, and Windows Media Player, and updates your Last.fm profile automatically. In iTunes, it'll even keep track of songs played from your iPod or iPhone.
If you listen to a lot of music from sites other than Last.fm, search the Web to see if anyone's created a mash-up site that combines Last.fm's open API with the other site you're using. For example, Pandora users can use a site like Last Pandora to get their Pandora tracks counted on Last.fm.
Some sites, like Hype Machine, have Last.fm integration built right in, if you snoop around in the account settings.
OK, so that covers getting more data into Last.fm. Right off the bat, all that listening data is going to allow Last.fm to give you better song recommendations and help tailor your personal radio stations. But there's tons more you can do with this stuff.
If you head over to build.last.fm you can find hundreds of ways to do something cool with your Last.fm profile data. There are album cover screensavers, standalone desktop radio players, plug-ins for blogs and social networks, and options for showing off your listening trends using all kinds of crazy charts.
One of my favorite uses for my Last.fm stats is right on the profile page. Under Top Artists you'll find a feature called Paste Your Taste.
If you've ever joined a social network or some site that gives you a profile page asking about your taste in music, this feature lets you copy and paste all your Top Artists out of Last.fm in one shot. It's not the most exciting feature, but it sure beats skimming through my iTunes collection and painstakingly writing in all my favorite artists individually.
All right, so you're hooked on Last.fm, you're obsessed with scrobbling all your songs, and your Last.fm radio stations have been cultivated to play nothing but awesome music. At some point, you'll want to break Last.fm out of your computer.