The Founder of Last.fm Is Creating the Future of Audio Technology
"It took me almost 40 years to understand that I am not into music, but into listening. There's a big difference. But once you get that, everything is music."
This article was originally published on VICE Alps
For the last six years, I've had a music streaming app on my iPhone that doesn't exist anymore. I've been transferring it from phone to phone, like a digital gem I must save from oblivion. The app is called RjDj and when it first appeared in the AppStore in 2009, it was the most immersive app to date—and also the trippiest.
What made RjDj so special was that each of the tracks it streamed came with a different auditory experience. It sampled beats from the noises around you and transformed voices into strange, otherwordly sounds. Once, I was using RjDj on the subway and it made me completely forget where I was headed. Another time, when I had to cough, it morphed the sounds my body was making into high-pitched trumpet tones.
Recently, RjDj got a re-release on the AppStore. Back then, I couldn't put my finger on what was so strange about it—I just knew it was the weirdest thing I'd ever experienced. Today, I know: RjDj wasn't about music—it was about listening.
The creator of the app is Michael Breidenbrücker—a charming, bearded man from the Austrian province of Vorarlberg. He is also be founder of music website Last.fm. I met up with him to get some pointers on what the future of audio technology holds for us all.
I asked myself, 'What would happen if high-end technology could be used for something totally useless?'
Michael was born in a very remote area of the Austrian Alps—so remote that he literally spent his summers milking and herding cattle, and his winters skiing. Apparently, this isn't as romantic as it sounds: "I know, it seems fascinating—and it actually was quite nice for a week or so," he says. "But the cultural hotspots were someplace else. All I wanted as a kid was to get out of my small town." So, after school, he moved to Sweden to pursue an engineering degree and got a job with SAAB Space. "One day, while at SAAB working on a rocket, I asked myself, 'What would happen if high-end technology was used for something totally useless?'"
He went on to study art in London, which is where he built a first prototype for RjDj, way before its time—in 1999. "That year came to be synonymous with the birth of the digital age. I put together RjDj and walked through the city, laptop in hand, enjoying the weirdest sound experiences ever. However, I discovered pretty soon that there was no market for it." So, Breidenbrücker put the app on the shelf and switched from personalizing a single song to personalizing a whole sequence of songs.
Hence the invention of Last.fm—a music website that creates recommendations for playlists based on user profiles. With Apple Music and Spotify dominating the scene at the moment, the idea doesn't strike us as particularly new. But that's because it precedes those streaming services by more than a decade.
"I created Last.fm in 2002, in London," Michael remembers. "As was the case with RjDj, I was building a product for a market that hadn't been established yet. This time however there was one big difference: I was predicting the market so when it finally came into existence about four years later, Last.fm was already there ready to take advantage of the space."
Needless to say, this kind of business model takes balls. After all, investors aren't particularly keen on ideas that can't be monetized for several years to come. But as Michael puts it, when it comes to predicting the market, "having balls is my specialty."
But last.fm was about more than that—it was a first step into understanding what later on became known as "Web 2.0." With peer-to-peer technology and sites such as Napster going strong in the early 2000s, access to music wasn't the problem anymore. Instead, the focus shifted on handling all this access.
"Suddenly, people had all the songs they wanted at their disposal but didn't know which ones to play," Breidenbrücker says. There was a cultural shift from producers to users, and Last.fm was among the first companies to capitalize on it.
It took me almost 40 years to understand that I am not into music, but into listening. Once you get that, everything is music.
The democratization of media led to loads of new ideas revolving around the consumer. "Think about it", Michael emphasizes. "Before the Web, there was no way a person could just publish something on their own. You had to run your ideas past the established media companies. Compared to today, it was like being muted."
This is when RjDj really came into play. "It took me almost 40 years to understand that I am not into music, but into listening," Michael says. "There's a big difference. But once you get that, everything is music."
He goes on: "The ear is the next tech frontier. With RjDj, we were among the first teams in the world to explore auditory environments and aural experiences."
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He then gets to talking about his future plans which include different approaches to "hearables"—from designing soundscapes in order to focus on certain tasks (extraction) to providing people with holistic experiences about their environments (transformation).
"American inventors usually go with extraction. They are all about optimizing processes. Like making your mom's voice disappear from your soundscape when you're learning for an exam," he says, only half-jokingly. "For me, it's about transformation. Like transforming annoying sounds, such as your mother's voice or the background noise in a café and generate a new, more focused soundscape. I think it's a more elegant way to go about the world."
This isn't just about fun and games, though. "Probably the most important feedback I got regarding RjDj was from guy with Asberger's, who told me that he could focus better on a certain task when he was using our sound app. He told me that was because we made all those distracting sounds part of his active listening experience. So he had no trouble coping with them."
After our talk, Breidenbrücker went back to his remote house in the same Alpine village a younger version of himself once fled. He doesn't have to herd cattle any more, although sometimes he still chops wood. As I left him, he told me that he's in the middle of planning another big move for 2016.
Maybe his predictions will turn out correct a third time, maybe he's in for another four years of waiting for the market to become ripe. Either way, it seems like his early cowboy experience prepared him for those years he might spend waiting.
Download the revamped version of RjDj here.
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