How Last.fm fails to work for non-Western music

While using Last.fm personalized radio rather extensively during the last day, I again noticed a problem of this service I had stumbled upon before. I had turned to Last.fm to listen to music rooted in Western Africa’s (and especially Mali’s) griot culture (if you by the way know a good novel influenced by griot culture; or a piece of non-fiction dealing with it, I would be grateful for a hint).

This music has become known under various labels in the West: It was named “Desert Blues”, categorized as world music, even the term “griot” is an English one most probably derived from a Portuguese expression. And here the trouble begins.

Since I wanted to listen to Afel Bocoum, Oumou Sangaré and Toumani Diabaté, just to name a few, I usually started with one of these musicians, using the “similar artists” radio function to get a broad mix of related songs. What I got was indeed a broad mix (and a very nice one, too) – but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted.

Quite often, music from other genres would interrupt my stream of precisely this Malian mix of folk music and modern influences from pop, blues and rap that I was looking for. I admit, I don’t know how to call what I wanted to listen to. And that’s exactly the problem Last.fm is struggling with.

For Western pop music you will find that tags are often extremely precise – e.g. Black Box Recorder, another band that I have recently discovered through Last.fm, is tagged as “indie, female vocalists, indie pop, british, britpop” (that’s the five most used tags for the trio). A group found to be “similar artists”, Cinerama, is tagged as “indie, indie pop, britpop, chamber pop, pop”. Three different types of “pop”: With this information, Cinerama can be located pretty well on the map of pop music.

Now let’s have a look at said Malian musicians. Oumou Sangaré is tagged “african, mali, world, africa, world music” – that is exactly no distinctive genre. “World music” can be anything from Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club to Siberian overtone singing; “Mali” and “Africa” are but regional tags. While “Mali” might be indeed helpful, “Africa” certainly is a category much too broad to be of any use. Would you even think about tagging any music as “European”?

In the case of Oumou Sangaré, her biography (on Last.fm) gives a hint how to correctly tag her music: She is a prominent performer of wassoulou, a Western African style of pop music. In the case of Toumani Diabaté, there is at least one correct tag. It’s “kora” – the 21-string harp-lute he plays. But this is a rare example – “Africa”, “Mali” and “World” are the words used by far most often to tag this kind of music. Which explains why occasionally, some Ugandan singer’s voice would interrupt my stream of Malian music.

This is a problem Last.fm is suffering from in about every branch of non-Western music: As its users are not precise in tagging it, its radio functionality is not precise in playing it. I have always thought of Last.fm as a great example how web 2.0 and crowd-sourcing can broaden your horizon. But its lack of functionality when it comes to non-Western music shows: The crowd needs to be familiar with what it tags. A bunch of Western neo-hippies listening to Afel Bocoum’s tracks out of exoticism obviously aren’t.