March 27, 2009
To the management of last.fm,
On Tuesday, 24 March 2009, last.fm announced that it would begin discriminating against last.fm users outside of the “Big Three” countries—the UK, the USA, and Germany—by charging the outsiders for formerly free radio streaming services, while the same services remained free to users who constituted geographical insiders. This letter of protest is written in the name of all last.fm users, both subscribers and non-subscribers, insiders and outsiders, who object to the adoption of this borderline unethical business practice, and to the arrogant way in which the announcement was handled.
Charging different groups of people a different price for the exact same services offends our universal sense of fairness. It is our deeply held conviction that all people in the international community should be treated fairly and equally, regardless of national origin. Although the decision to extend free radio services to some privileged countries while charging a fee to others may be a trifling injustice in the large picture, even a small act that strikes deeply at our most precious principles of equality must be objected to vigorously.
Reasonable users understand that last.fm is a venture for profit, and that it must obtain revenue, whether through advertising or subscription fees, to pay for server space, music licensing fees, salaries, and other costs. This recognition does not prevent us from objecting to this ill-conceived discriminatory pricing plan.
Although we are not privy to last.fm’s corporate board meetings, we believe that last.fm could have taken less offensive measures to solve any revenue issues they may be experiencing. Increases in advertising content, or scaling back the free catalogue for non-subscribers, are possibilities that come to mind. Of course, the most logical solution would be to raise the subscription fees slightly—but for all last.fm users equally, not just for those in favored regions that last.fm considers outside its core market. Any of these moves would be met with predictable grumbling from the last.fm community, but none would be as patently offensive as the option to discriminate against certain users that last.fm has actually chosen.
Which brings us to our second complaint: the dismissive way in which last.fm has treated its users with the announcement of the new charges. Last.fm badly bungled their notification; the official made no attempt to justify the necessity of this move to affected users. The official announcement gives no reason for the move, but brusquely states “we need to ask our listeners from countries other than USA, UK and Germany to subscribe for €3.00 per month.” Only after outraged users demanded an explanation for the discriminatory pricing scheme in the comments on the announcement did a last.fm representative supply a business justification for the move, based on a greater ability to sell advertising within the “Big Three.” Even accepting the reasons for the business decision at face value, affected users—who have promoted last.fm to their friends, provided valuable content for the site in the form of artists’ descriptions and pictures, and formed the loyal base of visitors which allows last.fm to set the advertising rates which provide it with revenue—deserved an honestm upfront explanation for this painful policy change. By giving no explanation for this change until pressed, last.fm has deliberately fostered the impression that they are sacrificing users outside the “Big Three.” Last.fm betrayed the loyalty these users invested in the company.
Predictably, waves of users from the “outsider” countries have already fled the last.fm community, either because of the decrease in services or from offense at being treated as second-class world citizens. More are sure to follow in the coming days and weeks. Part of last.fm’s appeal has been the creation of an international community, united not by nationality but by love of music. The ability to discover a common bond of music between users in Japan and Holland, Russia and the United States, to exchange ideas and develop lasting friendships, is one of the Internet’s noblest abilities, and last.fm was the most visible outlet enabling such musical connections. Sadly, last.fm’s latest corporate decision will diminish those opportunities and impoverish its community of users—a community which is its greatest business asset.
It is still not too late for last.fm to change course before alienating such an immense portion of its user base. It is as difficult, perhaps even more so, for a corporation to admit it has made a mistake, to say “I’m sorry, I was wrong and I will fix it,” as it is for an individual. But for last.fm to suddenly reverse course and scrap the discriminatory pricing scheme would not be a sign of weakness, but of rare corporate strength and courage. We hope that the management of last.fm will hear and consider our complaints, and make amends.
A user from a “Big Three” country, on behalf of the last.fm user community