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Interview: Last.FM and RJDJ’s founder on his sonic experiments and startup struggles

Allan Swann
January 25, 2013

As anyone who has used Michael Breidenbrueker’s apps know, they are damn trippy. And useful.

Michael Breidenbruecker

Michael co-founded Last.fm and managed the company ac CEO from 2002 until 2005. Truly a pioneer of online radio (Last.FM used a weird algorithm that matched your listening habits to radical new tunes), he moved into apps – producing what I consider to be one of the greatest apps of all time – RJDJ.

Spotify, Rdio and all the other mobile radio stations/apps owe their money making successes to this man.

RJDJ used your headphones and phone microphone to pull in noises from the environment around you, weaving it into the audio you were listening to. It created one of the most unique forms of ‘personalised’ music you would ever hear – augmented reality music if you will.

Someone from the audience demanded to know if magic mushrooms was involved in its creation – Mr Breidenbrueker umm’d and ahhh’d and came down in the negatory… so there you have it fans.

In 2008 Michael founded Reality Jockey Ltd. which is the publisher of the RjDj mobile applications. While the original RJDJ app has now been retired, the company still produced weird and wonderful apps such as “Dimensions: the game”, “Inception The App” or “The Dark Knight Rises Z+” (see the RJDJ website here).

Thanks to Techhub, we were able to have a few moments chatting to the legendary app developer about the difficulties as a start up, through to the next phase of music evolution. One of the first things Breidenbrueker wants to make clear is that no good app start up works alone – you need a business savvy team to go with the boffins on the laptops. And don’t expect success straight away.

“You shouldn’t try and go it alone, you need to learn from your mistakes and make your next venture better.”

Breidenbrueker founded Last.FM in a university dorm with friends, after quitting a design agency he started with colleagues. He described it more as ‘an art project’ – it was never thought of as a company that would ever make money.

“In those days we thought having 60 users on our server was pretty awesome,” he said.

That was until a Spanish college radio station gave it a boost on air, and the server was flooded. Even after the media gave it some focus, the company struggled for money. His team ran Last.FM on no funding for the best part of its existence, only receiving funding in 2004-2005.  Nowadays the site boasts millions, but early even day to day living was a struggle – ‘when I say I had no money, I mean no money.’

Last.FM’s first proper office in London was his flat – as the business moved to consume most of the one bedroom flat, Breidenbrueker and his team ended up sleeping in tents on the flat verandah. While winter was brutal, summer was worse – the heat driving everyone out at sunrise.

“That was actually a pretty good time – it meant everyone started work early,” he joked.

While the company was growing listeners, the server regularly crashed from the pressure – an amateur set up.   Breidenbrueker said that the recommendation algorithm that made the site so famous was also a resources hog – they would often switch it off as a fallback to preserve processor power, leaving Last.FM’s recommendations on ‘random’. Hilariously,   Breidenbrueker said that at one point they forgot to turn it back on – at which point fans starting raving about ‘the best recommendations yet.’  Not hard to believe from the kind of ad hoc start up routine most young app developers still go through today.

In terms of being considered a market visionary, Breidenbrueker believes success was a strange occurrence. Rather than adapting his product to the market – the market appeared to adapt to Last.FM’s business model. In a world of easily accessible (and pirate-able) music – people were overly spoilt for choice; literally too much choice.

A radio station that observes your listening habits, and makes suggestions for music along the same lines, suited the mid-2000s market where listeners were drowning in freely available music on the internet – from newly accessible Bolivian Jazz to Cambodian hip hop.

“The analysts used to say – you can change your product to suit the market, but you can’t change the market. We kinda proved that wrong.”

Breidenbrueker says this example taught him to always anticipate the market – to see where its going next. Something that worked a treat with RJDJ – if Last.FM taught him that the market for music was becoming your fragmented and personalised – RJDJ enabled users to create an individual song, continuously evolving, never the same. “It was something new – the personalisation of the song itself.”

The idea for RJDJ came from his experiments in the late 90s, when he used to ride around London with microphones on his hat, attempting to produce a new type of music program.

“Everyone I showed it to said ‘what the f**k are you doing?”

The technology wash’t available then, but he held onto the idea until the tech caught up –   which all clicked into place when he first saw the iPhone being demoed by Steve Jobs. Once the App Store was made available in 2008, RJDJ was born and quickly won awards and raised the bar for innovative apps.

“In the end its about following your guts€¦ trusting your feelings. There was no long term planning here,” he said.

While   Breidenbrueker describes the eventual sale of Last.FM as a “personal tragedy”, his new projects still excite him. Musiczone (an app that allows you to adjust music ‘themes’ by personally changing the instruments involved) continues to be popular, and he says the company plans to build more music based apps from that base. Already his Dark Knight and Inception apps have received rave reviews.

The main difference between app developers in the modern day and 10 years ago is the support network –   Breidenbrueker describes it as a ‘completely different world’.

There were no technology incubators, no government support, and the Silicon Roundabout (London’s Old Street) didn’t even exist as a concept. Even the early days of the internet meant that the connected Europe we see today is a miracle, or, as Breidenbrueker puts it: “we kinda heard about some guys called Google out in California doing stuff, but there was nothing to compare it to in Europe.” It definitely puts the globalisation effects of the internet into context.

The biggest difference for small time app developers today is the same problem music consumers were having ten years ago – too much choice; especially in Apple’s App Store. He told What Mobile that it is too easy to get lost in the morass of apps available, even for someone as renowned as he is.

“Everything gets lost unless you are featured by Apple – its not a good environment for newcomers and start ups. Its a problem even we haven’t overcome yet.”
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Thanks to Techhub for arranging the chat.

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