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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

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The war on poaching

More than 1,100 rhinos were killed for their horns in Africa in 2016. Quasi-military conservation units are trying to stop the slaughter.

The Savé Valley Conservancy, 900 square miles of pristine wilderness in the Lowveld of south-eastern Zimbabwe, seems like a paradise.

Drive along its dirt tracks, past flat-topped acacias and vast-trunked baobab trees, and you scatter zebras and warthogs, impalas and wildebeest, kudus and waterbuck. Elephants lumber through the bush, leaving destruction in their wake. Giraffes placidly return your stares. Baboons cavort in the trees. A crowned eagle flies overhead with a rock rabbit in its talons. A pack of exquisitely patterned wild dogs lie on the warm red earth. There are lions and leopards, too, but out of sight.

My guide and I meet Bryce Clemence, the stocky, bearded outdoorsman who heads the conservancy’s Special Species Protection Unit (SSPU), by a muddy waterhole so that he can show us the most special of those species. He and a couple of his armed men lead us a few hundred yards into the bush before silently motioning us to stop. We wait, move on, stop again. Clemence points. Thirty yards away stands a two-tonne rhinoceros, a 15-year-old bull. It cannot see us, for rhinos have poor eyesight. It cannot smell us because we are downwind. But it senses our presence. Its ears revolve like miniature satellite dishes.

As we study this magnificent, primeval beast through our binoculars, one thing quickly becomes apparent. It has no horns. Normally it would have two, weighing seven kilos or more, but they have been removed in an effort to protect it. Rhino horn fetches around $60,000 a kilo in China and other east Asian countries, where it is considered an aphrodisiac and a cure for diverse ailments. This animal’s horns would have been worth more than $400,000 – a fortune in Zimbabwe, where the average household income is $62 a month and unemployment exceeds 90 per cent.

Sadly, not even de-horning works. Poachers will kill de-horned rhinos for any residual horn. In February 2015 they shot a six-month-old calf for just 30 grams of horn, Clemence tells me.

Savé Valley may look idyllic, but it is a front line in a war against rhino-poaching. More than 1,100 of the animals were killed across Africa in 2016, leaving barely 20,000 white rhinos, classified as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and 5,000 “critically endangered” black rhinos. What distinguishes Savé Valley is that it has begun to turn the tide, but only because it has access to the sort of funding that most African national parks can only dream of.

Clemence’s quasi-military operation consists of 35 highly trained men, all expert trackers, supremely fit and equipped with semi-automatic rifles and radios. Working in pairs, they do ten-day stints in the bush, monitoring the conservancy’s 168 rhinos from dawn to dark and endlessly searching for human tracks – or “spoor”.

They are supported by a canine unit whose two Belgian Malinois dogs can track at night and over rocks; a substantial network of paid informants in the surrounding communities and beyond; four 4x4 vehicles and 12 motorbikes; and nearly 100 armed scouts employed by the two-dozen private ranches that make up the conservancy.

Even that force is insufficient, Clemence says. The poaching gangs are growing more sophisticated. They now use high-powered hunting rifles with silencers to shoot the rhinos, and AK-47s to ward off the rangers. Sometimes the poachers use AK-47s against rhinos too: in 2014 one was hit 23 times.

They have begun using poison. One poacher was caught after laying oranges and cabbages laced with the pesticide Temik in the path of a rhino – Temik is nicknamed “Two-step” because that is how many steps an animal takes before dying. Another poacher planned to poison a waterhole, but was thwarted by an informer. “Poisoning is disgusting because it’s totally indiscriminate and has the potential to do massive harm,” Clemence says.

He has also caught poachers preparing to use the sedatives ketamine and xylazine. Having darted a rhino, they would then hack off its horns before it woke. They once hacked off the horns of a rhino that had been knocked out by a bullet and it woke with half its head missing. The creature survived for a week before Clemence’s unit found it. Vets had to put it down. “When you catch a poacher you want to beat him to death with a pick handle and very slowly break his bones, but you have to be professional,” says David Goosen, manager of the 230-square-mile Sango ranch, which forms part of the conservancy.

The odds are stacked against the SSPU in other ways, too. The poachers are paid well by the syndicates that run them – perhaps $5,000 each for a kilo of rhino horn. And even if caught, their chances of escaping punishment are high. Thanks to bribery or incompetence, just 3 per cent of prosecutions for rhino poaching in Zimbabwe end in convictions.

“You have to virtually catch them in the field red-handed, and even then they often get away with it,” Goosen says. “As soon as they get to the police station, a well-connected lawyer turns up, which means someone higher up is looking after their interests.” The maximum sentence for intent to kill a rhino is nine years for a first offence – less than for stealing cattle.

The SSPU is prevailing nonetheless. In the first three months of 2012, when Clemence arrived, the conservancy lost 14 rhinos. In 2015 it lost 12, last year three. It has also defeated Zimbabwe’s most notorious rhino-poaching gang.

Tavengwa Mazhongwe learned his craft from his older brother, “Big Sam”, who was killed poaching in 2009. Mazhongwe was responsible for at least 150 rhino killings, including many in Savé Valley. In December 2015 Clemence learned he was planning another attack and put his rangers on alert.

They found the gang’s spoor at 6.30 one morning, and tracked the four armed men in intense heat for nine hours. The gang took great care to cover their tracks, but late in the afternoon the rangers found them resting in a river bed. The rangers opened fire, killing one and seriously wounding a second. Mazhongwe and one other man escaped, but he was arrested near Harare two weeks later and given a record 35-year sentence for multiple offences. A judge had to acquit an officer in Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation who drove the gang to the conservancy in a government vehicle because, he complained, the police did not dare investigate govenment officials. The rangers recovered an AK-47, a Mauser rifle with silencer, an axe, rubber gloves, a medical kit, tinned food and a phone-charger pack.

“You’ll never get to where you say ‘we’ve won’, but we have won in the sense that we’ve brought poaching down to a manageable level,” Clemence says. “We’ve taken out some of the most notorious syndicates. Victory will simply be breeding more than we’re losing and having sustainable numbers to pass to the next generation.” He hopes that the conservancy’s rhino population will reach 200 within two years, enabling it to relocate some animals to other parts of Zimbabwe where the battle is going less well.

The SSPU’s success comes down to skill, motivation, organisation and – above all – resources. The unit costs $400,000 a year, and is funded mainly by foreign NGOs such as Britain’s Tusk Trust. It receives practical support from the conservancy’s private ranches, some of whom – given the dearth of tourism – have to generate the necessary funds by permitting limited elephant and lion hunting for $20,000 an animal.

Zimbabwe’s national parks have no such resources. That is why private conservancies have 80 per cent of the country’s rhinos but 1.5 per cent of its land, while the parks have 15 per cent of the land but 20 per cent of the rhinos. Within a few years most of those parks will have no rhinos at all.

Martin Fletcher’s assignment in Zimbabwe was financed by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

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