Turning your infinite playlist into a “record collection”

This article was published in the June/July addition of The Big List NI

According to LastFM.com, on January 26th 2006, I started scrobbling for the first time – LastFM was called “Audioscrobbler” at the time and it tracked via iTunes and the internet the music I was listening to every day (each play of a song was called a “scrobble”).  It soon learned to track my iPod plays, saving the data until I synced my iPod and sending the scrobbles to the service to keep an “accurate” account of my listening habits.  Since then I’ve amassed over 76,000 scrobbles, via iTunes and more recently with Spotify.

Of course, there was plenty of music I listened to that wasn’t scrobbled – conservatively, I’d guess about ¼ of all of the music I’ve listened to in the preceedeing 6 ½ years hasn’t been recorded by LastFM.

But that’s still a LOT of information and I’ve begun to wonder how I can use that data and why it’s even important at all.  Something like LastFM which runs “in the background” of my music-listening life can just be left to tick over.  But digging a little deeper, I’m seeing real benefits for the data that’s locked in those little charts.

One of the biggest complaints I hear about digital is that people don’t “value” music as they once did.  One aspect of that “devaluing” is that without a permanent physical record of the music, people flit from one band to the next, year on year, never having that CD or LP sitting on a shelf to remind them that they LOVED that band.  Who can actually connect to 50 TBs of music, anyway? 

For me, LastFM offers that marker: – a quick surf through my scrobble data and I’m reminded of bands like Arrah & The Ferns, Brightblack Morning Light or David Axelrod, like flicking through my record collection – which I can then quickly access again via Spotify. 

For people like me, whose primary interaction with music involves online streaming services or MP3s, LastFM offers a chance to renew your acquaintance with albums you’d all but forgotten about.

Scrobble data offers a time-stamped record of this music and that for me was always a hugely important part of listening to music.  For example, I moved from San Francisco to Belfast in February of 2008 – a pretty massive shift in my life.  And the soundtrack?  Right there in my scrobble data for that year and month:  lots of Miles Davis, Billy Cobham (jazz keeps me sane during chaotic times), San Francisco band GoodMornings as well as, would you believe, Tony Bennett.  I learned the words to the song “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” the night before I left for the airport.  Or how about that amazing weekend in Golden Gate Park in June 2007, which was soundtracked completely by Brightblack Morning Light?  And all that Mongo Santamaria I was listening to in 2006 because I was playing a lot of Afro-Cuban stuff in the band I was in at the time?

Data like this also allows you to go above and beyond what is possible with physical media.  LastHistory is a service which takes LastFM listening data and represents it in visual forms, like the graph below.  From here, I can search for Otis Redding, highlighting the many late night (1-4am) talking sessions with friends and colleagues.  Or because I know I listen to less music when I’m acutely stressed, I can see the periods where graph thins out.  And I know bands like Phoenix or Justice are go-to music for dancing at parties, I can see where some of their scrobbles are concentrated.  It can be read as an emotional map of my life – the good times and the bad, the ups and downs, the downright humanness of it all.

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In the long term, what LastFM offers is the infinite record collection archive.  I imagine in the future – when I have 15/20 years of listening data – my daughter digging into my lastFM archives in search of inspiration, me walking through it with her and pointing out highlights, which she immediately adds as a playlist to her mobile device.  What I wouldn’t GIVE to have my Grandfather’s LastFM data – he worked for the BBC in the 1950s and folklore archivist. Or what about Thom Yorke’s data? – what was he ACTUALLY listening to when he was making KidA?  Or John Peel’s!?

What’s really interesting is that there are thousands of services like LastFM running throughout our digital lives – running in the background, recording our foibles and humanity, without our even knowing.  And with music, LastFM can give you a more detailed, more nuanced and ultimately more impactful emotional connection to music than physical media ever could.

Turning your infinite playlist into a “record collection”