Shutting down blaster.fm, my side project of two years

Monday 25 Feb 2013

I started blaster.fm in late 2010 with only a vague idea of what I wanted to do with it. Over the next two years I would work on it for at least a few hours every week; tweaking, refining, all-out rewriting, trying to get it as close as I could to the image in my head of what it could be. It was a one-man project and I was the only developer, though I had the support of friends and early users (with a large amount of the former making up the latter) to keep me going.

I speak in the past tense because I’ve decided to let it go. I’d like to sell it, but if it has no value, then I’ll just shut it down.

It seems like a good time to look back on the journey that led me to this point.

Getting started

Basically, I wanted somewhere to post a song and be able to link to it and discuss it.

As a long-term user of both Twitter and last.fm, I had a vision of a beautiful Venn diagram in which these two services overlapped, and that overlap was my site. I was frustrated that you could do very little in the way of “social” on last.fm, and thought I’d have a go at addressing the issue with a service of my own. My other side project, Twitterscribe, was running happily without needing any maintenance, so I had plenty of time. Using last.fm’s API for most things, including user authentication, I would essentially wrap last.fm’s functionality with a social layer on top (I even picked a name with “last.fm” within it). I started a new Django project and got to work.

Real users!

I launched to the public in February 2011. This is what it looked like.

Blaster.fm Feb 20 2011

A small group of friends had been privately testing for a few months prior, so I was fairly confident that most of the bugs were ironed out.

I tweeted a link. I posted to Facebook. I submitted a “Show HN” post.

Very little happened.

My Hacker News post did not make it to the front page, but one or two people signed up. Most of the other signups were from friends of friends, or twitter followers. The site had constant activity, but mostly from a core group of 20-30 people.

Still, I was optimistic.

I submitted a link and a pitch to TechCrunch, to The Next Web, to Lifehacker, to others I can’t remember. Martin from The Next Web signed up, but didn’t contact me further. After I pushed for some feedback, he told me it wasn’t big enough to warrant a story.

“It needs a mobile app to be interesting.”

He was probably right. It wasn’t much to look at. It was vaguely responsive and worked on mobile, but it was clunky. It needed to be better.

I got back to work.

Persistence

From the start, my unrealistic-but-vaguely-possible best-case scenario was that “last.fm will see the value in social and acquire it”. The developer page encouraged developers to “show us the cool things you’ve made”. I emailed last.fm several times and submitted blaster.fm to the app gallery. I never heard back.

I decided that was okay, it could be its own thing. If last.fm doesn’t need me, then I don’t need last.fm. I would try to build as much of a platform as I could and achieve popularity without relying on integration with other services. I would appeal to indie artists, or indie labels, or create an API of my own so that developers could build cool things with its data.

Partly this attitude came from the limitations of the last.fm API. I had limited write access to user accounts. I couldn’t create new friendships, or allow users to message each other. Early on, I had thought that using last.fm as a foundation would enable me to build quickly, and would increase popularity as last.fm users could signup without creating a separate profile. In reality, it created confusion for everyone who came to it without having heard of last.fm. And it took away my ability to control the entire experience.

Meanwhile, it still needed to provide a more enjoyable, prettier experience.

I created a new RESTful API, and a new front-end using backbone.js. The front-end would talk directly to the API and allow users to navigate the site without losing what they were listening to. I redesigned the site. I only required users to link their last.fm account on signup, instead of using it to login. I started creating an Android app which would use the same API. Once I had a mobile app, I reasoned, I would have an entire platform which users and bloggers would take seriously. Then I could get some real traction.

Finally, by May 2012, over a year later, I launched the new design. I was pretty proud of it.

Blaster.fm 2012

Faltering

A trickle of users jumped ship from blip.fm to blaster.fm. Some hung around, but the majority signed up once and never returned. Of those who did post tracks and interact, most only lasted a month or so before drifting away. I don’t blame them. I wasn’t doing much to actively attempt to keep them around.

Meanwhile I still had to finish the Android app, which was only my first native Android app, and seemed to be an ever-growing task. I grew resentful of working on it. And I was still reluctant to seek more publicity until it was done. Once the platform was “complete”, I reasoned, then there was something to be proud of, something that would be featured on tech and music blogs alike. That’s when I would go into marketing mode.

But that time never came. I had pretty much abandoned the site. It ran itself. I checked in weekly to post a track, but no longer considered it in active development.

Ironically it was at this point that I was approached by the guys at Melbourne Geek Night to give a talk about what I’d learned from building the site, and what I hoped to get from it. I gave my talk, which wasn’t entirely terrible. I went on to pick up some work from people who saw me talk, and to be offered another job later on. But only maybe one or two people in the crowd actually signed up.

Shutting it down

Choosing to let it go wasn’t easy. “Why can’t you just let it sit there and keep running?” I have been asked several times. But even though it doesn’t require active maintenance, it still exerts a mental toll. It weighs on me, the site-that-could’ve-been. The site that missed its opportunity to get big.

I still consider it an excellent demonstration of what I can do, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons from it, both technical and otherwise. But I can’t do anything more for it.

I’m hoping someone else can, though, which is why I chose to put it up on Flippa. It works well, it was refined over a long period, and it does still have active users. Maybe someone else with more “hustle” can make something of it.

Please check out the listing if you’re interested. I’ve compiled some more stats on there as well.

About the Blog

I'm a web application developer in Melbourne, Australia, occasionally writing about related tech things.

If you need web design, development, or usability consulting, contact me via my business, Recursive.