If you're a Last.fm user, you may have noticed some changes at the popular music site, one of which is that the company will no longer offer on-demand track streaming, but instead refer users to third-party partners like MOG and Hype Machine.
Previously, fans and artists could check out a wide variety of full song streams right on site, as well as enjoying its more radio-like features. Indie musicians flocked to the service to create their own artist pages and surf through a robust registry of other artists, big and small. Last.fm's "scrobbling" technology tracked plays across various platforms like iTunes and web widgets, turning the passive act of listening into a vast game of online show-and-tell.
In 2008, Last.fm launched an "Artist Royalty Program," which let artists and labels who opted in to accrue royalties for streams within the Last.fm system. So the recent decision to cut on-demand streaming seems at odds with the company's prior direction of compensating artists for plays.
Last.fm may have realized that these changes might annoy indie artists who have come enjoy a fuller feature set. So last week, the company announced that it would continue to allow unsigned artists to offer full track streaming via their Last.fm pages.
But there's a catch.
Going forward, these plays will be considered "promotional," meaning indie artists who use this system won't garner any compensation via the Artist Royalty Program. (Plays on Last.fm radio, however, will accrue royalties to be paid via ASCAP, SEASAC or BMI on the songwriting/publishing side and SoundExchange on the performance/sound copyright side.)
While there's no doubt that sites like Last.fm provide an important promotional platform for independent and unsigned artists, this seems to us like a step backwards. It could also set a poor precedent — we don't like it when artists are compelled to give up their right to compensation in exchange for access to potential audiences. Because that sounds an awful lot like Music Biz 1.0.
Don't get us wrong — we're all Last.fm fans. But we'd be slacking if we didn't point this out, at the very least to ensure that artists understand what they're getting into. You may recall a few years ago when we took Clear Channel to task for forcing indie artists to waive their digital public performance rights in exchange for consideration for commercial radio play. That situation was particularly galling, as the radio behemoth was only "considering" indies as as a result of the 2003-2007 payola investigations.
Now, we're not trying to compare Clear Channel to Last.fm here. We're simply pointing out that it seems odd to make a big to-do about compensating artists and then move to a system where you do the just opposite.
Hey artists, what do you think of the changes at Last.fm?