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Summary:

Last.fm is returning to its roots as a music data and discovery service, launching a new product that lets users tap into a database of independent artists and musicians with a click.

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Last.fm is one of the grandaddies of online music services, but it’s surrounded by upstarts and rivals who keep launching new products and expanding.

To combat this, the site has just gone public with a new service of its own, last.fm/discover, aimed at helping users find independent artists and fresh music.

Music discovery tools aren’t new, but Last.fm’s betting that its huge trove of data — 40 million or so users, going back to the site’s inception nine years ago — can help uncover acts that might be unfamiliar to you. Specifically, it’s based around a library of some 2 million tracks mostly from independent artists, but also from some labels that have licensed their music for this purpose.

Unlike most other attempts at music discovery, which use the traditional iTunes-style lists or cover art, Discover uses a cute HTML5 interface to guide people through.

On loading the page, users are presented with a view of rolling hills stretching into the distance, each labelled with a tag related to a genre or sub-genre of music. Up close are the broader categories — “alternative”, “indie”, “electronic” and so on — while other less popular ones are visible in the background: like a sort of 3D word cloud.

As you click on tags and dig deeper, genres split into sub-genres, which split into incredibly specific meta-genres — fancy listening to some hiccup or kl4bb1n d0wn, anyone?

It’s all based on user data, yours and the rest of the site’s self-defined tags, and each tag represents a radio station: simply click to play a based on the tag you’re currently browsing. You can then ask for more of the same, shuffle off to something different or drag and drop tracks into a playlist for sharing.

This isn’t revolutionary, but it is fun. That makes a big difference in a market that relies, to some degree, on novelty. While I appreciate the utility of most music streaming services, the ones I tend to really enjoy are those that convey a sense of emotion or connection with music — services like The SixtyOne or Turntable.fm, for example. As Last.fm’s head of product, Matthew Hawn, told me, too often online music “ends up looking like a spreadsheet”.

That makes this an interesting move from Last.fm, which is really trying to gain back some ground and get back to its roots as a tool for helping music lovers get more out of their listening — not simply go toe-to-toe with Spotify, Pandora or the rest.

Earlier this year I met up with Hawn, who outlined in an interview how the site wanted to stay relevant: looks like this is the first real fruit of that labor, but I’m told there are more launches in the pipeline.

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