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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

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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