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Digital Audio Insider is David Harrell's blog about the economics of music and other digital content. I write from the perspective of a musican who has self-released four albums with the indie rock band the Layaways.

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August 21, 2007

By the Numbers: Using Last.fm Statistics to Quantify Audience Devotion
by David Harrell
One thing that music sales figures don't tell you is how much people actually like (and listen to) the music they've acquired. While artists/record companies are initially competing for your attention and dollars, after you've bought the music, they're still competing for your listening time. And it seems likely that success in this competition is the best indicator of the future willingness of an act's audience to buy its music, go to live shows, etc.

I thought it'd be fun to use Last.fm statistics to try to devise a measure of "audience devotion." Using the most popular act in the Last.fm database (The Beatles) as a comparison point, I looked up the total number of listeners and the total number of plays for 49 other acts. They include some of the biggest names in "indie" rock, some fairly unknown local acts, and a few various names from my iTunes library. I divided the number of plays for each artist by the total number of listeners to create a "plays-per-listener" ratio and then ranked the spreadsheet by that number.

A few caveats: Obviously, this type of analysis is skewed somewhat by the biases of the Last.fm audience as it's only a slice of the total audience for each artist. That is, the people who have actually downloaded and use the program. And it only accounts for music listened to on a computer -- spins in the car, on the home stereo, and the iPod don't figure, so the total number of Last.fm plays-per-listener is probably significantly deflated from the real number. Finally, the age of act probably matters a lot, as a new-ish artist has had less time for its fans to listen repeatedly to its music.

Still, the following chart, based on Last.fm statistics as of 8/13/2007, shows a few trends:

plays per listener chart


For the most part, popular artists tend to have the highest plays-per-listener ratios. Acts with less than 10,000 Last.fm listeners (like my own humble outfit) have the lowest ratios. But there are a few exceptions, which is where things start to get interesting.

While I'm not much of a fan, Sufjan Stevens seems assured of a long and healthy career. His 53.85 plays-per-listener was second only to the 64.48 plays-per-listener of the Beatles. And other well known acts like Death Cab for Cutie, Bright Eyes, the Mountain Goats, Modest Mouse, and the National all do extremely well by this measure. Yet the most surprising number was the 52.44 ratio for Hammock, the ambient instrumental band. Its total Last.fm audience is relatively small, just 6,427, but it's clearly an extremely devoted one.

On the other hand, the Last.fm numbers don't look good for the long-term prospects of the Bravery and the Walkmen. Of all the acts in this analysis with Last.fm audiences of more than 100,000 listeners, these were the only two with less than 20 plays per listener. My suspicion is that bands that receive a fair amount of mp3 blog attention might have their ratios pulled down because there are a large number of Last.fm listeners who have only heard a single track or two via a music blog. Yet Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, probably one of the biggest recipients of mp3 blogger love, has obviously managed to do a better job of converting those casual listeners to fans, as shown by its more-respectable 21.49 plays-per-listener.

A few years back, you'd read stories about young bands getting attention from labels because of huge numbers of MySpace friends. I haven't seen any such stories lately, probably because everyone quickly figured out how inflated those "friends" numbers could be. But given that Last.fm stats are harder to fake and inflate, it seems like a growing number of total listeners within Last.fm (and other music social sites) and increasing plays-per-listener ratios might be the best indicator of future success, and something of interest to labels and A&R folks...

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    THE LAYAWAYS

    Out Now -- "Maybe Next Year" -- The New Holiday Album:

    <a href="http://thelayaways.bandcamp.com/album/maybe-next-year">Joy To The World by The Layaways</a>

    "This is a sweet treat, deliciously musical without being overbaked for mass media consumption." -- Hyperbolium

    "Perfect listening to accompany whatever holiday preparations you may be making today." -- Bag of Songs


    O Christmas Tree - free mp3 lyrics and song details
    Away In A Manger - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, iTunes, Amazon MP3, or Bandcamp. Listen to free streams at Last.fm.



    album cover art from The Space Between

    <a href="http://thelayaways.bandcamp.com/album/the-space-between">Keep It To Yourself by The Layaways</a>

    "...about as melodic and hooky as indie pop can get." -- Absolute Powerpop

    "Their laid-back, '60s era sounds are absolutely delightening." -- 3hive

    "...melodic, garage-influenced shoegaze." -- RCRD LBL

    Where The Conversation Ends - free mp3
    January - free mp3
    Keep It To Yourself - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, iTunes, Amazon MP3, or CD Baby, stream it at Last.fm or Napster.



    album cover art from We've Been Lost

    <a href="http://thelayaways.bandcamp.com/album/weve-been-lost">Silence by The Layaways</a>

    "The Layaways make fine indie pop. Hushed vocals interweave with understated buzzing guitars. The whole LP is a revelation from the start." -- Lost Music

    "Catchy Guided by Voices-like rockers who lay it on sweetly and sincerely, just like Lionel Richie." -- WRUV Radio

    Silence - free mp3 lyrics and song details
    The Long Night - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, Amazon MP3, or iTunes, stream it at Last.fm, Napster, or Rhapsody.



    album cover art from More Than Happy

    "These are songs that you want to take home with you, curl up with, hold them close -- and pray that they are still with you when you wake up." -- The Big Takeover

    Let Me In - free mp3
    Ocean Blue - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, Amazon MP3, or iTunes, stream it at Last.fm, Napster, or Rhapsody.

    More Layaways downloads:

    download the Layaways at eMusic download the Layaways at iTunes

    the layaways website