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Last.fm provides free tracks on demand

Last.fm has been a popular Internet music player, despite rarely playing exactly the music you want. You tell it what artist you like, and it plays music from similar artists – but not your favorite. The idea was to give users a way to explore new music and learn about other artists they might like.

CBS Corp., which bought Last.fm last year for $280 million, announced Wednesday this has changed for visitors to Last.fm’s Web site. They can now play specific songs by clicking on them.

Visitors will be able to play a song three times before they’re prompted to buy it through partners like Apple Inc.’s iTunes or Amazon.com Inc.’s Web site. Last.fm co-founder Martin Stiksel said the company is making 3.5 million songs available for on-demand play.

The “Similar artist” radio was a neat way for Last.fm to avoid the cost of providing music on demand, like iTunes does. Instead, it paid the lower royalties associated with being an Internet radio station.

The music is financed by advertising on the site and by referral awards from music merchants.

Last.fm also is providing a chance for unsigned artists to make money. The service will pay them whenever the tracks they upload are played.

Music on demand may become available later on Last.fm’s standalone player program, which currently plays “Similar Artist radio,” Stiksel said.

Last.fm isn’t the first site to provide free, ad-financed major-label music on demand. Competitors include Imeem.com and SpiralFrog.com. All of them focus heavily on making listening to music a social activity, promoting contact among users.

Last.fm, founded in Britain in 2002, has 20 million monthly users, according to CBS.

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