'Free on-demand not successful for us'

Head of product on the decision to go premium

Last fm, the music discovery service, was the subject of criticism in February when it decided to go premium-only with its mobile apps and hardware-based services - like those on Sonos and Logitech Squeezebox.

So, two months on from that, has the move helped or hindered the organisation? We met with Matthew Hawn, recently installed head of product for

Hawn arrived at the London-based, CBS owned company in December after a stint in the record industry "because, you know, I like an underdog". He joined Universal in 1998 to work out how to digitise its catalogue.

"Some of my early suggestions weren't well received if I can put it like that, then I helped with digital distribution dealing with people like Apple and Nokia."

After Hawn's arrival at the company, he set about figuring out's strengths. "So we've been listening, trying to figure out what we are and what we're going to be when we grow up.

"Are we a data company that has radio or a radio company that has data? I think we're both but… the scrobbling is the one thing we do differently, that's the heart of our service. It's really key to who we are."

Scrobbling - the word used to describe sending your music play data to - is now available on 600 different devices and the service receives 800 scrobbles every second.

"[People] ask 'do you guys compete with Spotify, do you compete with whoever.' Not really, we're a different part of the ecosystem."

The cost of on demand

Talking about the move to subscription, Hawn isn't slow to point out that the UK is unusual in having a free model - a subscription is the only way to get in many countries - and that it still represents good value for money.

"It's an ad-free experience for £3 a month which I feel pretty good about." On the move to premium for the mobile apps and device-based listening he says, "we got some noise on our boards about that. I understand we made a shift, and you have to respect [opinions]."

"We recognise now 45 million unique tracks. We have 12 million tracks [to stream]. Us and Spotify are right at the top of that but we're in more places because of our subscription product. We're really popular now in Brazil.

" started off flying the rebel flag, saying 'we're going to break the music industry' - that's not eventually what happens. We tried free on-demand for a while and it wasn't a particularly successful feature for us."

On Spotify's move to a "more premium" model, Hawn says "I feel for them. There's definitely a place for ad-supported services. Don't forget, radio has always been ad-supported, it is a very successful model.

"Free on demand as an ad-supported model hasn't had the same illustrious history. We were in that space, we had a rough time in that space - it didn't really move our numbers and it costs a lot.

"I won't comment on Spotify's [move], I think they've got a different model to us and it's good that they're trying stuff out. We tried it a few years ago and made a decision that it wasn't who we are.

Future developments

Hawn says is "up there in terms of the big data companies" and cites the company's Xbox Live interface as a best-in-breed service. "The Xbox [has] a very simple interface, it's a great experience."

"Our mobile apps have four or five things they do. We chose to make [those] a premium service in February because it's growing and because we can offer an ad free environment.

"We looked at it and thought 'can we make this a good advertising experience' but we decided we couldn't make it a good one.

So what else is on the horizon for "Things like higher quality audio, being able to play your local files, all these things are on the roadmap for this year," says Hawn. "We want to develop a premium service in which we do better things for our customers."

He says always comes back to what's successful, the scrobbling. "Xbox radio is the most-played radio we have. All those things are really positive and the number of people scrobbling is going up."

Hawn also talks positively about open systems. "Android phones are outnumbering iPhones - in terms of our users - five to one. The Android app is now scrobbling five times [the plays] the iPhone app is. Open just wins. We want to remain open.

Scrobbling radio coming?

Hawn is also keen to stress that is a great radio company - it now sits in parent company CBS' radio division. He is also a passionate follower of radio in the UK. "I'm a 6 Music listener, I'm a big fan of how radio works in this country. I love how it works and I love how it's moving.

"I'm a huge John Peel fan. He's the patron saint of music discovery. 'What would John Peel do?' should be the motivating factor behind music discovery services."

But what about scrobbling radio plays, we ask? "Now they've moved [the BBC] Radio Player out of iPlayer and onto its own platform there's a good conversation there. That's as far as I'll go on that one. Scrobbling radio makes a ton of sense.

Hawn says it doesn't really matter to him where people get their music from as long as they are scrobbling their plays to "Where you stream doesn't really matter to me - the bigger the ecosystem gets, the better it is for us.

"We're a good recommendations engine, right? A lot of people use algorithms, turns out the useful thing is the more people you have and the more data you have the better the recommendations are.

"It's the difference between Yahoo categorising everything versus [Google] PageRank. Our recommendations are based on 40 million experts that we've got signed up. That isn't exposed enough to people as they use our service.

"The [music listening ecosystem] is getting more diverse, it's getting bigger. The ecosystem is getting more confusing but we're in a great place for that because we can become the connective tissue between those services.

Hawn talks about as the connection between different music services online. "If you listened to something on iTunes or you bought something on Amazon, we'll scrobble that wherever you listen to it. I scrobble in, like, 20 different places now. My music is in a lot of places. That's why I want to make sure is a connective tissue for services."

"As the cloud begins coalescing that. You'll see features from us this year that build on that, bringing great playlisting and recommendations to you.

"Think of as a great recommendation engine that has great radio attached to it and a great way to track your musical history. If Twitter knows what you're thinking, Facebook knows what you're talking about and Foursquare knows where you've been, I want to be what you listened to."

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