On the Last.fm buyout

I woke up this morning to gobs of emails and PMs telling me that CBS Corp has bought Last.fm. In a comment on my last Last.fm post I said I didn’t think users would really care that much. But I’ve just been reading the user feedback and I’m going to heavily qualify that statement. There are 2 main spots to see user feedback: the Last.fm blog (about time they got that launched!) and this Last.fm forum thread. The tone in blog comments is considerably more congratulatory, no doubt due to the sense of talking directly to founder RJ, who goes to some length to calm fears in the blog post. The tone on the forum thread is vicious: filled with anger, disappointment, and certainty of the forthcoming worst, with only a few congratulations sprinkled in.

I am of a few minds myself. It’s been apparent to me for at least a year that a buyout was inevitable, it was just a question of who was going to do the buying. I’m not sure any buyer would have been an obvious “yay! it was them!” although it would have been cool to see what Google’s search capabilities could have added to the site. There are certainly some companies I am glad did NOT buy it. And if anyone deserves to get rich on the Web 2.0 bubble its the brilliant minds that came up with Last.fm.

Sure, I would have liked to see Last.fm really be a collective by and for the users, but it hasn’t been that for ages if it ever was. Despite their community-centric rhetoric, I have never been convinced that the site’s development is truly user-driven. (Last.fm team, please feel free to prove me wrong!)

On the other hand, I don’t see any automatic need to assume that this really changes anything for the worse and I can see some ways in which it could make it better. I can certainly imagine ways it could make the site worse, but I also see plenty of indie sites like Facebook doing things that I’m not comfy with, and I don’t think that corporate ownership necessarily dictates more evil than independence. It’s a lot like when an indie band signs with a major label. Sometimes the music starts to suck, sometimes they get screwed then dumped, but lots of times they just go on doing their thing, but with better funding and access to markets they couldn’t reach before.

But back to the user response… they are clearly going to lose a chunk of devotees. And they will need to roll out new subscriber benefits quickly if they want to keep subscription as part of their business model given that most subscriptions to date seem to have been done in the name of small donations to help build the site. But I still think that in the long run the disenchanted user chunk is going to be tiny in comparison to those who won’t pay much attention. Afterall, how many gazillions of users rely on the evilest media empire of them all in their daily devotion to MySpace?

Update: Now the forum thread has taken a congratulatory turn as users are pointing out that Google didn’t kill YouTube, other sites have been bought out and stayed good, and corporate ownership could result in more resources that would benefit users. But the fear of forthcoming “soullessness” continues and is a challenge the Last.fm team will be wise to attend to in the coming weeks.

Comments (5) to “On the Last.fm buyout”

  1. I moved to http://soundcrank.com a few months ago when the began talks with Viacom. You are right most people don’t care if they are tools of an evil media empire but I do.

  2. Hey Nancy,

    Here’s an interesting datapoint for you. We’ve had around 430 user accounts deleted in the last 24 hours, compared to 250 or so in the previous 24 hours. So most of these threats seem to be empty, at least. It’ll take a while before we can see what effect it has on subscriptions.

    (amusingly, the anti-spam word on this post was “rabid”)

  3. Interesting datapoint indeed — thanks Russ.

    It doesn’t make the threats empty, if everyone who chimed in that they were bailing really did leave, it still wouldn’t be enough to account for the difference. A few people can make a lot of noise.

    Still I’d be concerned about more creeping pervasive effects. It’s one thing to have the loyalty of people who are true to what they perceive as a small group of nice guys providing them a free service, and another to keep that good will when you can be interpreted as “tools of an evil media empire” (see verbal’s comment above).

    I’d expect it to take a little more user-loving than it has in the past to keep the You Rule vibe that’s characterized your users’ attitude toward you so far. On the other hand, maybe such a nice big cash infusion will help to provide the (wo)man power to have more communication with users. The blog is a good start, but only a start.

  4. I think part of the reason is that people still saw last.fm as some sort of small indie site run by a few guys. We have more than 50 employees and spend millions per year on hardware.

    We had to get more funding this year somehow. It was a case of either taking in more VC funding, losing control of the company and bringing in new management, or going for this deal, which keeps the existing management.

    I guess most users would be happier if last.fm *was* still run by 10 of us living in tents on the roof. But that’s not a sensible way to make money.

  5. A couple things I’ll be keeping an eye on are 1) that the data feeds are at the very least kept as open as they are now (I’d like to see more.) and 2) that there’s some kind of guarantee that stations aren’t being corrupted by payola. I’ve been suspicious of last.fm payola in the past, and will be more so with CBS as the parent.