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The celestial jukebox

When the music streaming service Last.fm was sold to CBS in 2007, its geekish founders became poster

Richard Jones spent the long, hot summer of 2003 living in a tent on a rooftop in Whitechapel, east London. He’d get up with the sun, before it burned through the canvas, and would then go downstairs to sit in front of a computer for 18 hours. He didn’t mind the tent. Jones had just graduated from university and it felt like some kind of strange extension of student life. It helped that he was doing what he loved: spending the hot days building a website that was going to change the way we listen to music.

In some ways, Last.fm began like a love story. Martin Stiksel, 34, and Jones, 26, two of the website’s three founders, remember their first meeting. There was, they say, an immediate connection, a shared desire to liberate music. They were talking the same language, as if they’d known each other for years. And there was the beautiful element of chance, too. Stiksel and his friend Felix Miller, 32, had happened to read a newspaper article about Jones and the work he was doing for his computer science degree. They sent him an email, went to Southampton where he was studying, and talked. Soon after, Jones moved to London, set up the tent, and started work.

Within four years, Last.fm had turned the three romantics into multimillionaires thanks to its sale in 2007 to the American media giant CBS. The founders became the poster boys of the London tech scene, leading the streaming revolution. On 10 June, two years on from that defining moment, they announced their imminent departure from Last.fm on their blog: “This is the latest stage in a long journey for us founders, which began in a living room in east London . . . and took us to the headquarters of one of the biggest media companies in the world.”

The journey began with music, naturally. If there is one thing that unites the three it is not technology, or entrepreneurship, but a devotion to music. When I met them in April at Last.fm’s offices in Shoreditch, Stiksel, sleekly dressed in black, talked about how he still buys CDs and how Miller obsessively collects vinyl. There is a love of the physical object of music that still consumes them, the touch and the smell. They have a music room in the office, with a drum kit and guitars. Jones says he plays the didgeridoo, but badly.

The musical evangelism was there even before that first meeting. Back in 2000, Stiksel, a DJ, and Miller were running an online label in Germany for unsigned bands. All their friends were making music but had no way of getting it heard.

So they built a website, uploaded their friends’ work, and soon found themselves inundated with new music. Jones, meanwhile, was creating his own musical universe at university in Southampton. When friends asked him who his favourite group were, he wanted to give a numerical answer. “I was always curious to know exactly how many times I played everything.” So Jones invented “Audioscrobbler” – a plug-in that could collect data on what you were listening to. He gave it to his friends, who installed it, they told their friends, and “before long I was seeing people sign up from all over the world who I didn’t know, and I couldn’t trace how they found out about it”.

Jones wasn’t just interested in the numbers. He wanted to make the act of listening sociable, to form a community. He is, in his own words, a “technocrat through and through”, someone who believes in the democratising power of technology to bring people together. Once the data started flooding in telling him what people were listening to he realised he could play with it. He began collaborative filtering, a system that uses the data of someone’s listening habits to predict what other artists they might like, and then make recommendations. He saw that once you knew what different people liked, you could link them together through their taste in music. And so, in 2003, Last.fm was born as a music-based social network. It even created an online radio station: you could type in an artist and it would play you a stream of music from similar-sounding bands. As newcomers often said, the service seemed to have an uncanny ability to read minds, to know what you’d like before you did.

It couldn’t have been a worse time for an internet start-up. The dotcom bubble had burst spectacularly a couple of years earlier and “the whole internet was in a big slump”, says Stiksel. Yet it didn’t worry them. “We came from a more music background,” Stiksel continues, “so we totally slept through the first internet bubble. We saw people running around Brick Lane with laptops doing presentations, but we didn’t quite know what they were doing.”

Nor did they care. From the start, the Last.fm founders had a degree of self-belief that guarded them against doubts, questions, slumps. Their first investor, Stefan Glänzer, a former DJ, music obsessive and entrepreneur, says they were of a different mould from most start-up types. “Felix once told me, ‘You know, Stefan, we are not serial entrepreneurs, we are convinced entre­preneurs. What we want to see is our idea, our vision of Last.fm finally happen, no matter how long it takes.’”

Glänzer believes it was this conviction that saw them through the early days, giving them “enough energy to continue, continue, continue”. It also gave them the arrogance, according to Stiksel, to call their idea Last.fm. They wanted to say that “this is the last place for music, the ultimate place for music”.

One afternoon I met Glänzer at an opulent restaurant in London, and as he sipped jasmine tea he recalled how he had first heard about Last.fm through an online blogging community he ran in Germany. He noticed that hundreds of his users were talking about the site, so he arranged to meet Stiksel and Miller. “It was one of those rare meetings where you actually feel a lot of energy, a lot of understanding in the room . . .” He was captivated by their intensity. “But it wasn’t only passion – these guys had existed for the first two or three years on hardly any money, on hardly any budget. Just with the power and the will.”

The first cheque was written, Glänzer says now, on a handshake deal (he won’t disclose the amount). It helped them survive, and released Jones from his tent. Glänzer formalised his investment in October 2005 and quickly got hooked, spending five days a week in the office. Soon they were attracting interest from elsewhere. Index Ventures, a venture capital firm, invested $5m in March 2006.

With Index’s cash, they were able to invest in technical infrastructure, product development, staff. By 2007, Last.fm had 15 million users. Stiksel says that hardly a month went by without a major company knocking on their door, but the offers never felt quite right. When CBS approached, it was different. The Americans didn’t want to integrate Last.fm, or take over the management. In fact, they seemed happy for the founders to carry on exactly as before, and were attracted simply by Last.fm’s largely youthful following. CBS wanted, says Jones, to reach out to a different generation who were interacting with the media in unprecedented ways, digitally, online, on the move. On top of that, says Glänzer, “they added a pretty nice price tag”.

On 30 May 2007, CBS bought Last.fm for $280m (roughly £140m then). Stiksel, Miller and Jones received £19m windfalls; Glänzer and

Index reaped financial rewards, too. The British press reaction was histrionic, describing the three founders as being “among the most successful – and potentially wealthy – Web 2.0 pioneers in the world” and ambassadors for a “resurgent London tech scene”. Many users congratulated them on the site’s blog, genuinely pleased about their success.

Communicating relentlessly with users through the blog is what defines Last.fm, keeping them informed of progress, decisions, events. On the day of the CBS sale, Jones wrote a blog post reassuring users: “CBS understands the Last.fm vision.” It was all going to be all right, he said – the same, in fact, just with more clout, and more money. “We will continue to execute our world domination plans.”

But how could it have stayed the same? At first, the changes were cosmetic – a redesign of the site which enraged users who had become as protective of their profile pages as teenagers of posters hanging on their walls, says Stiksel. Then, in March 2009, Jones announced that users in all countries, apart from Germany, the US and UK, would be charged €3 a month to use the radio service. Users were outraged, not by the amount, but out of principle. As one replied: “IT’S NOT ABOUT THE DAMN MONEY . . . it’s bloody heartbreaking to watch such a beautiful, fresh, modern and clearly revolutionary concept like Last.fm go down the drain in such an ugly, distasteful way . . . You’re not freeing the music any more, you’re burying it.”

Jones defended the decision on the blog, saying it was impossible to support the radio service in every country by selling adverts. Or, as Stiksel puts it, “It’s just not realistic to sell advertising in Afghanistan.” Jones ruefully acknowledges the difficulty of their position. “We knew there was going to be a shit storm . . . We had slogans like ‘Free the music’ and we did play a little bit to that. ‘The social music revolution’ was our tag line for a long time. So I can understand why people are a bit pissed off.”

The move also revealed a commercial pressure. Just before Christmas 2008, Last.fm had

to make 20 people redundant. It happened the day after the office Christmas party, so the story goes, when the company had hired an entire bowling alley in east London for the staff. (Not the “happiest day”, says Jones.) Ask anyone in the music industry and there is a tacit agreement that ad-funded streaming services are not yet economically proven as viable businesses. It’s not just the recession – the model isn’t necessarily working. User numbers might rocket, but that doesn’t mean profits follow.

Last.fm was also starting to see the competition swell. Spotify, a Swedish streaming service launched in October last year, provoked an immediate flurry of excitement in the industry. There are others, too – We7 in the UK, and Pandora and imeem in the US. None, so far, offers quite the same service – the recommendations, the social network – but they all face a similar financial challenge: how to pay for the music they use. Stiksel claims Last.fm has always prided itself on playing fair: “You saw so many other platforms not giving a damn about copyright or licensing,” whereas his firm created a royalty program to which artists and independent labels could sign up and get paid, depending on how much their songs were heard. Stiksel says labels recognise that Last.fm is “essentially a force for good” because it encourages people to listen to new, independent music.

But the labels don’t necessarily agree. One of the majors, Warner, withdrew its music from Last.fm in June 2008 because, says a spokesperson, “the rates they were offering were below industry standards”. Stiksel says that Warner is “generally not active any more in the online space”, although it seemed happy to strike a deal with Spotify. Some of the independents are equally unenthusiastic about Last.fm. Simon Wheeler, director of strategy at Beggars Group, which encompasses a group of small labels including Rough Trade and XL, says he has had numerous conversations with Last.fm over the years. Before, he says, “you could talk to them as a young, developing, cool service that’s trying to do something right”. But they never had a licence for the labels’ music and still don’t. “We regularly have to send them take-down notices.”

Wheeler says he likes the service personally, but since the CBS takeover he has been running out of patience. The Last.fm guys used to play the card, he says, of being precarious, running on a shoestring. “Now that CBS owns Last.fm they’re not exactly short of money, so pleading poverty doesn’t wash with me, I’m afraid.” He suspects that CBS is exerting tighter controls over the company’s finances as profits fall (CBS’s February 2009 results showed a 52 per cent drop in income for the fourth quarter of 2008).

Many in the industry speculate that the Americans bitterly regret having bought the start-up for such a startling sum. It was back in the times of extraordinary deals, when Google bought YouTube for $1.65bn and eBay bought Skype for $2.6bn (both now seen as vastly overvalued: Skype has already recorded huge losses, and YouTube seems to be on the verge of losing $470m this year). They make Last.fm seem cheap, but there is no doubt that CBS took a gamble on the service’s potential profitability. Either way, the directives from on high – such as the description in a recent CBS press release of how the company had “taken substantial costs out of all our businesses, in order to help margins going forward” – cannot have helped relations with the founders. TechCrunch, a technology blog, speculated on the announcement of their departure that “the founders may well be tired of living under their corporate overlords”.

In their official leaving statement Stiksel, Miller and Jones express loyalty to CBS, as you would expect, saying how being a part of the company “continues to open up many opportunities for Last.fm”. But they save their emotion for their “incredible team” and, ultimately, their users. “A huge ‘Thank You!’ has to be said to all of you in front of your computers. With your contribution, enthusiasm and scrobbles you have helped to make Last.fm into what it is today: the best place for music online. Big up yourself for that, as we say here in east London.”

The founders leave Last.fm with as many as 37 million users from all over the world. So what now? “The answer in the short term,” says Jones on the blog, “is ‘a much-needed holiday’. Then we need to plan an epic farewell party, so stay tuned for invites.” In April, Stiksel had described the whole Last.fm operation, with its millions of users, as a “big party to keep going”. When I visited the offices then, it felt to me like something much less formal than a corporate American enterprise.

It wasn’t just the ping-pong and table football, or the multicoloured teddy bears that light up when something is going wrong on the site, or even the army of young, headphone-clad developers. It was something about the founders themselves – a fascination with music that goes far deeper than their interest in multinational business. Jones was at his most animated talking about the power of open source, the free sharing of information to advance technology. Stiksel was visibly excited as he imagined the future of music: the “virtual cloud” that will allow someone “in the deepest countryside, in the middle of the night”, with only a mobile phone for company, to discover a new band.

So, after the holiday, and the party, what really is next? Many will expect a new online venture, another start-up. But the founders deny having any firm plans. There is talk of opening a music venue. That would seem right, too, somehow. Back to fundamentals, to where it all began – a simple love of music.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran