LastFM and Scrobbling

LastFM is a community driven website that builds a database of its members music listening habits.

By a technique called “Scrobbling”, the site can document the tracks, albums and artists each of us are listening to on our various music playing devices. In collecting all this data, LastFM has built a huge resource of music information including artist and song details, album artwork, discographies and tour information.

Crucially, LastFM makes this wealth of information available to anyone by means of its APIs - Application Programming Interfaces - a technology that enables others to tap into this vast pool of info and reuse it elsewhere.

1Radio made extensive use of this facility to provide information about the music and artists we were playing at any instant. By connecting to the LastFM database, we could provide the bio details of an artist, display their pic and, when the wind was in the right direction, even a synopsis of the song that was playing as well as lyrics.

In truth, the API can be a hit and miss affair. It all hinges on the quality of the data that is enclosed within each MP3. The MP3 file format is a cunning container of info, as well as the music you hear. It has the capacity to store information such as artist name, song title, album info, associated music genres and a wealth of other meta data in what’s technically referred to as ID3 tags. The MP3 file might even contain an image of the artist or an album cover. There are many competing flavours of ID3 tags and it has evolved over the years to encompass more and more information.

When you rip music (that is, convert CDs or vinyl recordings to MP3 files), the ID3 tags are assembled automatically. Depending on how accurately this is done, the quality of the information contained in the tags can vary wildly in quality. It’s this fuzzy accuracy that ultimately scuppers your scrobbling efforts. For example, a track by the Beatles might be credited in various ways such as “The Beatles”, “Beatles”, “Beetles”, “John Lennon and Paul McCartney” etc. The LastFM API does a great job of intelligently matching these woolly queries with the right artist. When it doesn’t however, it can return some funny responses that seem to be admonishing the person making the query. “Check your tags”, “check your spelling”, “There is more than one band called XXX”  seem almost aloof. And of course, these moody instructions would show up on the 1Radio now playing page.

The best aspect of LastFM is that the music database operates like a Wiki. Anyone can contribute to the database of artist info. This was first exploited by Espy who began creating entries for 1Radio and some of its presenters. When an MP3 was played that was tagged with the 1Radio name or a presenter’s DJ handle, the system would obediently return the entry lovingly crafted by Espy. The effect in the shoutbox was hugely entertaining, particularly the first time it would appear.

On the other, if the information stored about a particular artist was incorrect, we'd sometimes get the performer contact us and ask for the information to be corrected. I, of course, would have to explain that we didn't maintain the info ourselves but merely republished it in good faith. I'd then send them off to Last.fm and encourage them to update their details personally.

I've lost count of the number of times I had to repeat that conversation and instructions again and again and again.


Posted by Tim on Tue 10 May at 10:51 and viewed 1,367 times.

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