Fudging The Numbers With Last.Fm

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Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.

I was thrilled five-ish years ago when I found out about Last.fm, the music recommendation service that doubles as an obsessive analyzer of one's listening habits. I had long been fascinated with the play count feature in iTunes, since previous mediums of music enjoyment were lacking in the statistical department. Last.fm took that concept and ran with it. If you need to retroactively find out the third most heard artist in your life during the second week in June of 2009, the site can tell you in chart form.

Last.fm's stats are accurate, detailed, and utterly unfun. Many moons ago, Dismemberment Plan singer Travis Morrison posted a list of the 100 albums he has listened to the most in his life. I believe It Takes A Nation Of Millions... by Public Enemy was number one with XTC's Skylarking as runner up. The list was labor intensive and unnecessarily indulgent, and it was compiled completely by his memory.

There were surely mistakes in Morrison's list that Last.fm would not have made. He had no way of referencing the amount of times he put on the Public Enemy record, no comparison with the XTC album. I imagine things got extra fuzzy when he got into the list's mid-fifties. But his method was far more meaningful as a true measure of the impact of music on him than Last.fm's soul-less "Scrobbling."

The reasons for the divide between Last.fm's lists and reality are many. The site doesn't count music you listen to outside of your computer or iPod, and a twenty minute song is equal to a forty-five second song when all is tallied. Plus, unless you signed up for an account the minute you are born, all music you loved before Last.fm will be absent. I know that the band I have listened to the most in my lifetime is Dismemberment Plan, hence remembering something as trivial as Morrison's list. According to Last.fm's analysis, the group ranks #33 in my library.

An alarming phenomenon of Last.fm is the way its statistics about our listening habits can affect said habits in turn. It was fascinating to see that after years of not paying attention to my profile, The Mountain Goats had crawled into my top artists. After noticing this, I saw that the band received fewer total plays in my library than Tokyo Police Club, who I am kind of over at this point. I would be lying if I said I didn't intentionally listen to The Mountain Goats a bit more than usual to help the group earn its rightful spot. If you are thinking that sounds pathetic, you are correct.

Equally disturbing is the way people respond to the public aspect of Last.fm. Years ago, I used to secretly peek at my friends' most played songs on their iTunes whenever I used their computers. I felt like I was voyeuristically learning about what they did when nobody was watching. But when something as personal as what you listen to becomes common knowledge, this truth is compromised.

If you think Metallica is cool, you can say you like Metallica on Facebook. If you want to say the same thing via Last.fm but the band is not in your top artists, you'd better start putting Ride The Lightning on repeat. Inversely, if you like "Rolling In The Deep" by Adele but you don't think it's particularly cool, you don't have to send out a Tweet when you listen to the track. Last.fm is less forgiving of guilty pleasures; "Rolling In The Deep" was song most deleted from people's accounts last month, heading a top ten list dominated by Lady Gaga hits.

There are flaws in Last.fm, just as there are flaws in each of us. These tools can be captivating, even powerful ways to learn about music or maybe even about yourself. But let us never allow the digital coldness of statistics to define us, to use it as fodder for judgement of self or others. Music is too important; it is larger than any numbers can adequately express.

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