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.