Making every play count

How to scrobble everything to your Last.fm profile with Scrobblr for Android and iOS

This month an experimental third-party app has come our way that’s really piqued my interest. It’s called Scrobblr, and it uses the microphone on your android / ios device along with the Gracenote API to identify music and scrobble it to your Last.fm profile.  

Scrobblr

Scrobblr potentially allows you to scrobble everything to your Last.fm profile — broadcast radio; MTV; your car stereo; music playing on your games console; CD, Vinyl, and Cassette; as well as music services that don’t scrobble natively such as Soundcloud, Youtube, Google Play, and Xbox Music.  Imagine if an app like Shazam or Soundhound could scrobble to your profile, that’s essentially what Scrobblr does — if you can hear it, you can scrobble it.  The developers even claim (though we’ve had mixed results ourselves at Last.hq) that you can scrobble music heard out and about at pubs and clubs.

To give you an example, one of the more frequent criticisms / feature requests we’ve had regarding the Last.fm Xbox app is that it doesn’t scrobble music in the background whilst playing games — using this app you can do just that by simply placing your phone near to your speakers.  My favourite use of this is to scrobble the radio stations on Grand Theft Auto V. Even against the chaotic background of police sirens wailing, cars exploding, gunshots rattling, frightened pedestrians screaming, and Trevor Phillips yelling obscenities at the police; Scrobblr can carefully pick out Britney Spears – Gimmie More on Non-Stop Pop FM and log it on my Last.fm profile.  Much to my shame.

Another example, I often listen to Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour via the iplayer app on my phone.  As the show is pre-recorded, it doesn’t scrobble to BBC Radio 6 Music’s own Last.fm account.  In the past, if I’d wanted to scrobble the tracks from this show, I’d have to manually scrobble each track by hand using the Universal Scrobbler.  With Scrobblr, I can stream the show through iplayer and simultaneously scrobble it directly to my account.  It’s pretty awesome.

The app is still in its early stages of development and it’s not without issues — matching isn’t always perfect, and like I said, our “field tests” in local pubs and clubs have so far been a bit hit and miss.  Even so, I’m very excited in its potential and I’d be interested to know what you think, especially if you listen to music on platforms that are difficult to scrobble (like broadcast radio, vinyl, and cd). I’d also be curious to hear more obscure ways to scrobble music using the app. :)

You can download Scrobblr for free here:

Android: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=net.scrobblr
iOS: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/scrobblr/id698063218
Developer’s website: http://www.scrobblr.net/

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Mercury Prize 2013 – Listening trends on Last.fm

With the nominees for the Mercury Music Prize 2013 announced yesterday, I decided to compile snapshots of the listening trends data displayed on Last.fm for all of the nominated albums. Last.fm (the company I work for) is a music discovery service which allows people to keep a record of every track they listen to on their computer, mobile device, or mp3 player, as well as supported music services like Spotify and This is My Jam. Last.fm then aggregates this data to compile weekly charts based on what people actually listen to around the world.

These snapshots show the number of registered Last.fm users listening to the nominated albums per week, for the last 6 months. Also displayed is the total number of plays (called scrobbles) and total number of unique listeners.  Although the Mercury Prize is decided by a panel of judges, I personally think it’s interesting to follow the relative popularity of each album, and speculate on whether that has any impact on the decision.

I leave the interpretation of the data to you.

Arctic Monkeys - AM

Arctic Monkeys – AM (6 September 2013)

Disclosure - Settle

Disclosure – Settle (31 May 2013)

Foals - Holy Fire

Foals – Holy Fire (11 February 2013)

Jake Bugg - Jake Bugg

Jake Bugg – Jake Bugg (15 October 2012)

Rudimental - Home

Rudimental – Home (29 April 2013) (also see the deluxe edition )

Villagers - Awayland

Villagers – {Awayland} (January 11, 2013)

Music

I don’t believe in ‘good’ or ‘bad’ music, as such;  assuming an artist or performer is competent at what they do.  I’m not a musician, so I don’t feel qualified to judge.  There is simply music I like, and music I don’t like.  And it’s not a fixed constant – what I like today, I might not like tomorrow.

When it comes to artistry, I think there’s a place in the world for both art and entertainment.  I see popular music as as a doorway to discovering even more music — a foothold, if you like, to higher ground.  I don’t begrudge the entertainers of the world, because the best ones are damn good at what they do — they encourage us to dance, sing, and feel grateful for being alive.  However, I’m wary of those who try to pass superficial entertainment off as something deeper than it actually is.  Nevertheless, I think the best artists somehow manage to find a happy middle ground between art and entertainment (or accessibility), without compromising their integrity.

When it comes to personal tastes, I prefer to characterise music taste in terms of breadth and depth.  There’s music you know well, and music you’ve yet to discover.  Patterns you understand, patterns that are currently beyond your comprehension.

We  are really lucky to live in an age where technology can let people discover and explore music.   Let’s not throw that away.

HEALTH – Max Payne 3 soundtrack

To round off the year, I thought I’d quickly take a look at my top albums for 2012.

Most of it isn’t too surprising, except for the Max Payne soundtrack.  What can I say here?  Obviously due to my modding background and past ties with Remedy, I had high hopes but low expectations for Max Payne 3.  It’s been almost nine years since the last game, and the idea of a bearded Max Payne with a skin head, shooting gangs in Brazil seemed wrong on paper.

Yet Rockstar exceeded them on almost every front — both in singleplayer and multiplayer.  Say what you want about the story, McCaffrey is in fine form and delivers some wonderfully cynical put downs (my favourite: “Rich parasites with delusions of humanity.“).  Maybe I just identify with bitter and broken anti-heroes a little too much these days.

But what took me, and clearly many others, by complete surprise was the soundtrack.  Of course, it shouldn’t have — Rockstar have proven many times that someone in their office knows their music, both old and new.  What’s evident though, is that they clearly understood both what made the Max Payne soundtrack work in the past games, and what was missing from them.

The first two Max Payne games were scored by Kärtsy Hatakka & Kimmo Kajasto, who set the tone of the series with dark, ambient pieces, mixing electronic, rock, and classical arrangements.  The second game also closed with a single from Poets of the Fall, a Finnish band who have continued to work with Remedy on their next game series, Alan Wake.

While I love these soundtracks, when it came to making new levels for them (particularly in Mona The Assassin) it became apparent that there are actually very few action tracks in the score.  Max Payne 2 literally has only one track , and as a level scripter you simply can’t use that one over and over again.  Considering that this is a game series that revolves around violent gunfights — mostly in slow-motion — it’s a strange omission.

What HEALTH have successfully managed to do with Max Payne 3 is carry over the dark, melancholic ambience from the first games, and inject a pulse into it.  From the moment you load the game up, the music immediately sets a steady pulse going and it never lets up as the action intensifies.  During gameplay, as Max takes cover you become aware of a drum rhythm, which then builds to a frenzy — mirroring the on-screen violence.  It reminds me of stories (I’m not sure of the origin) of warriors or soldiers driven mad, because of an unrelenting drumming sound in their head.  The drums of war, so to speak.  Certainly, when I hear it now, my pace quickens and my focus sharpens.

Modern game designers often talk about a concept called ‘flow’ — the careful control of tension and release in conflict based gameplay, which (if done skilfully) can heighten the experience.  Although it’s an obvious thing to do, Max Payne 3 is one of the few games I’m aware of that very consciously uses its soundtrack to manipulate the feelings of the player.  The audio is layered into the game in such a way that the transitions between chaotic gunfights and ambient introspection are subtle and go mostly unnoticed.

But it’s not just the use of percussion that makes the Max Payne 3 soundtrack great.  The game has many melancholic and reflective tracks, that evoke (for me anyway) that dark electronic sound you hear in 80s films like Manhunter.  For me, the more introspective tracks like Pain, Torture, Dead, Panama, and Future are the most interesting to listen; and as a whole, they give the album a sense of balance.  That’s important, because it feels like a complete music piece – a concept album – rather than just a movie or game soundtrack.

It’s not an easy album to listen to, and ambience and noise is always an acquired taste, but I think it more than stands up alongside other releases this year.  That said, it’s a dark album, and in the context of the game there are undertones of loss, regret, failure, violence, and self-hate.  This is the soundtrack to a man who indulges in self abuse, labels people as “chumps” and “parasites”, and unconsciously sets himself up for repeat failure — which he then wallows in.  It’s a soundtrack to a man who finds escape and release through being shot at.  In some respects, Max Payne is exploring just how far down the downward spiral he can go before reaching catharsis; and HEALTH’s soundtrack perfectly reflects the pain, anger, and conflict of a man trying to piece back together the fragments of his broken psyche, cutting himself on the shards in the process.

On a personal level, it’s a  dark soundtrack to what has been a surprisingly difficult year —  full of failure, change, uncertainty, doubt, and loss.  Bleak as this record might sound, it’s important to remember that when facing difficulties, the message is not to wallow in self-pity, alcoholism  and violence.  Max Payne isn’t an ideal hero, nor is he a protector — a role he continually miscasts himself as.  When stripped to his core, Max Payne is a fighter.  If there is a message to take from the story, it’s to keep fighting.  Keep fighting for what you believe in;  fight for change; fight for hope; fight to make a difference.

Whatever it is you think is important, don’t give up on it, no matter how bad things might seem.  A simple message, but one that gets clouded in the day-to-day haze of modern life.  This is something I learnt many years ago, and having faced absolute failure in the face on more than one occasion, I believe you have to match difficulty with the tenacity to keep on going forward, to never give up, to keep fighting.  This record somehow captures that sense of hope,  surprisingly enough in the track entitled Pain.

You can listen to the whole album on Spotify here: Health – Max Payne 3 Official Soundtrack

Is Christmas actually getting later every year?

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Is Christmas actually getting later every year?

We all like to grumble about how Christmas is getting earlier every year — at least as far as supermarkets are concerned. But is this true for people’s listening habits? This afternoon we decided to take a look at our data, which curiously suggests that perhaps the opposite is true…

Like all of the best ideas, this graph came about it after a few rounds at the pub last night, and may or may not be scientifically valid. But it is scientific, which means it’s true.

Custom Last.fm stations

With RQL and Combo.fm

Some of the most frequent questions and complaints we get at Last.fm include:

  • “I’ve added hundreds or thousands of artists to my library, but it doesn’t play them.”
  • “Is there any way to filter my music by a tag or genre?”
  • “Can I ban artists from my stations?”

Fortunately, there is a way.  Read on.

Radio Query Language (RQL) lets you combine Last.fm stations (artists, users, tags) and allows you to filter them with basic logical operators (or, and, not).

For example, if I want to filter my library radio to only play jazz, I can do this with the RQL string:

library:Maddieman and tag:"jazz"

If I want to exclude ‘Lady Gaga’ from ‘Pop’ tag radio:

tag:"pop" not simart:"lady gaga"

If I want to combine two unrelated stations:

tag:"classical" or tag:"electronic"

It’s perhaps easier to illustrate these as diagrams (click any image to launch the station):

Intersection between My Music Library and the tag ‘Jazz‘.

Exclusion – Pop tag radio, but not artists similar to Lady Gaga

Union between Classical and Electronic tag radio.

If you want, you can make more complicated stations, such as “1980s, Rock, Female Vocalists“, which hopefully will give music like Blondie and The Pretenders.  In practise though, this station didn’t give me the results I wanted (use the 80s tag at your own risk), so this one required a slight adjustment:

tag:"80s" and tag:"rock" and tag:"female vocalists" not tag:"pop" not tag:"hair metal"

However, be forewarned that overly complicated queries are unlikely to work. If you just want to listen to a very limited range of artists, you’re probably better off just creating a Spotify playlist.

Combo.fm

That’s all fine and good, but how do you actually create your own stations? Fortunately one of our moderators, tburny, created a very nice user interface for RQL, called Combo.fm.  It might not win any awards for web design, but it allows you to quickly and easily create custom radio stations.


On the left hand side, you pick the stations you want to include (from personal stations, artists, users, and tags). In the middle of the page you can edit the query and adjust the operators (or, and, not). On the right hand column you can launch your custom station, and you can also tweak the mainstream/obscurity of the artists played, as well as the repetition rates.

As a reminder:

  • Or = Union of two or more stations, gives you everything.
    • e.g. Pop OR Rock will play artists tagged as either pop or rock.
  • And = Intersection of two or more stations, used to filter a station by tag.
    • e.g. Pop AND Rock only plays music tagged as both Pop and rock.
  • Not = Excludes content from your stations, used to ban artists and tags.
    • e.g. Pop NOT Justin Bieber plays artists tagged as pop, but not those similar to Justin Bieber.

Discovery Mode is an advanced feature that attempts to play only music you haven’t listened to yet.  It effectively treats your scrobbles as banned tracks.  However, due to a quirk in its design, it doesn’t work with your standard Library radio by default, so simply selecting ‘Discovery mode’ won’t make any noticeable difference to your station.  In order to activate it, you need to include a dummy tag as well, for example:

library:Maddieman not tag:"pornogrind" opt:discovery|true

None of the music in my library is tagged with “pornogrind”, so nothing is actually excluded; all this does is enable Discovery Mode to launch, and play me music from my library that I haven’t listened to yet.

That’s basically all there is to it. I tend to use it mostly for filtering my library or recommendations radio by a particular tag (e.g. french + female vocalists). It also works well with friends and neighbours radio, and for setting up multi-user stations (good for parties, etc). Give it a go, and see what you can come up with!

Further Reading:

Save 6Music – an open letter to the BBC

When faced with outrage and injustice, most Brits generally respond in one of the following ways:

  1. Mind their own business and hope the problem resolves itself.
  2. Find a queue to join and complain about the weather until they forget what originally annoyed them.
  3. Write a stern letter of complaint.

I chose the latter.

…and got a pre-written response back about how it’s still just a rumour, nothing’s confirmed yet.  But still, it’s the principal that matters here.  I believe that British music is one of the few cultural threads we’ve got left these days, and something worth fighting for.  Moreover, I can’t help but feel that if we let this issue slide, pretty much anything is forfeit in the coming years.  The Rage Against The X-Factor thing was a bit of fun, but arguably this is much more important.

For further details and to show your support please join the facebook group  Save BBC 6Music and write your own letter of complaint.

Dear sir/madam,

I’m writing to complain about the recent announcement to close 6Music, the Asian network, as well as other related cutbacks and layoffs.  Personally I think 6Music is by far one the best radio stations being broadcast in the UK, let alone on the BBC network, and I am confident that it would gain much larger audience figures were it available on FM radio and not just DAB/internet.  Not only would it be a mistake to pull this station from the airwaves, but it would be an outright betrayal to your customers.

To be perfectly frank, I can’t believe you’d even consider this when you’ve managed to recruit so many high profile musicians to DJ the station.  In particular, Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour and Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service are exceptional programmes, representing the best of BBC programming, with wide ranging, eclectic playlists.  Likewise, Chris Hawkins’ concerts and sessions programmes are fantastic — fully utilising the (largely wasted) BBC archive.  From what I understand, it’s precisely these kind of programmes that have helped 6Music build not just a dedicated audience here, but a strong, critical reputation overseas as well.

In addition, I’m also very concerned about possible cuts to the BBC internet/web services.  Although not directly related to daily programming, I’ve found the BBC Languages site to be a wonderful resource, and invaluable in helping me learn French. To pull the plug on these and similar services would be a thoughtless and wholly unnecessary mistake.  Likewise, the In Our Time and Woman’s Hour archives are an amazing resource of information, and I would be incredibly disheartened to see them go.

Guy Garvey

Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour – arguably the best music programme on the radio right now.

What’s most troubling, however, is the fact that it’s plainly obvious that these proposed closures and associated layoffs are merely a gesture of good faith towards the Conservative party, in the run up to the election.  More than anything else, I find this incredibly insulting and a betraying.  I have to ask you if this is a stark warning for things to come?  I realise that the economic situation is particularly trying right now — for all of us.  Nevertheless, if the BBC are willing to buckle under the slightest political pressure without defending or even asking for the views of their customers, then I honestly have to ask myself whether they have the licensee’s best interests at heart anymore.

I’m sure there would have been a bigger outcry had you shut down Radio4 or BBC4; but all the same, this action clearly demonstrates that the executives of the BBC have lost interest in everything it used to stand for — a dedication to high quality programming, British culture, impartiality, and representing both majority AND minority interests.  To be blunt, it’s been heading down this path for several years now; however I used to be content paying my tv licence knowing that, even though most of it was being wasted on celebrity presenters, at least some of it was going towards truly worthwhile channels and stations like BBC4, Radio4 and 6music.  However, in light of recent events, I seriously wonder if the BBC wouldn’t be better off funded through advertising and sponsorship, because apparently the license fee is going to be wasted entirely on cheap, disposable, mainstream programming from now on.

I would strongly urge you not to make this tragic mistake.  If the audience figures really are as low as you claim, then perhaps some kind of on demand service can be arranged?  For example, instead of hosting an entire radio station, make the most popular programs available as podcast/iplayer exclusives?

I realise some of this may have been written in anger, but I am, like many listeners, extremely passionate about preserving high quality stations like 6music, and I trust that you will take my views, criticisms, and suggestions seriously.

Yours faithfully,

Jon Hallier

Further reading:

Killing BBC 6 Music would be a slap in the face to licence-payers

BBC to close radio stations, shut half its website and cut staff

Don’t ditch 6 Music

http://www.bbc.co.uk/aboutthebbc/licencefee/