The day the music died
A friend from Belgrade told me about Last.fm about a year ago, when he and his wife stopped in Zagreb on their way back from a Patti Smith concert in Germany. Aside from the fact that I was jealous about the Patti Smith concert, last.fm was a real find. Wow – music I like, no commercials, and finding similar artists. Really great overall, and I fell for it like a real Seth Godin “sneezer” – recommending it to everyone I talked to and writing about it in my monthly column in Mreza magazine. Over time the novelty wore off but still, every now and then it was fun to plug into last.fm when we would have friends over for drinks, cards…
So it was a real shocker to learn (from Twitter, where else) that last.fm is going commercial. Paying for online music sounded just like an optimistic notch above paying for newspaper content, which I already wrote about here. Not surprising – music and newspapers are the media and information formats that are feeling the ongoing platform shift most profoundly and are being similarly unimaginative when thinking what to do about it. But at least the music industry has Apple, iTunes and iPod as a working, succesful model.
This attempt to force users to pay for online music is clearly ill-fated. Yeah, it’s not much – 3€ monthly should be no big deal for most users in developed countries. Nevertheless – so much music is floating around the Web in various formats that users are used to getting it or finding it for free. It may not be fair to the musicians and especially to the music labels who make most of the money, but that’s the way it is. Not only that – last.fm itself played a huge part in cementing this expectation – free music. And now, after becoming popular, here it goes: you people need to pay now. Why? “Because we can’t support our sales team.” Really? Do users care if you can or cannot support your ad sales operation? It doesn’t take a lot of scientific analysis to understand that many, many users feel outright betrayed by this change of course coming from a service they’ve grown to love over the years. Inevitably, of course, there’s the corporate aspect: AHA! CBS bought them and there goes the relationship! True or not, that’s the perception.
So the idea of paying for streaming music may or may not be very very smart (it isn’t!), and the customer expectation management might have been better handled (it should have!). But the really really gigantic disaster comes one step later. “We’re not going to charge everyone. The users in the richest countries – US, UK, Germany – can continue to listen for free.”
Wow! Talk about marketing 101 and alienating your customers. “You guys need to pay, but those guys get to keep listening for free because they live there and you live there.” If there was a global court, surely there would immediately be a class-action lawsuit by millions of embittered fans. It’s interesting reading through the many, many bitter comments on the last.fm blog where this brilliant new strategy was announced. Even listeners from the “free” (rich) countries commented that they would stop using the service, they were so disgusted at last.fm management’s decision. Most of the people commenting did not mind the payment requirement so much as they resented the distinction between the privileged countries and, as the last.fm’ers said “some parts of the world” (meaning everyone else).
I expect that, besides this being the beginning of the end for last.fm, this “curious case of last.fm” will long be analyzed and discussed in business schools worldwide as a case study in blindness. Of course there’s always the chance that the folks who made this decision will change their minds – but it seems quite unlikely.
And yes – it was a pleasure listening to blip.fm while writing this blog post 🙂 🙂