Wednesday, March 31, 2010

It's a film, not Fort Knox

The events of 9/11 had the side-effect of making every American citizen in any kind of uniform feel that they could push their fellow citizens around with impunity. Now it seems the threat of piracy is having the same effect in the film industry, which has long been ground zero when it comes to self-importance.

I went to a preview of a picture last night. I can't tell you what it is because I had to sign a form promising that I wouldn't tell anybody about it for a couple of weeks (and particularly not by "blogging", note the inverted commas). There were a lot of people there and everyone had to hand in their mobile phones (or "anything which can capture sound or an image", as the blazered security people, ten in number, barked a little louder than was called for), then be electronically swept before being admitted to the theatre. Throughout the screening the security men stood at the back, sweeping the audience with night vision scopes in case anyone was recording anything. I'm not exaggerating.

If they're really that bothered about the threat of piracy that they have to put people through this tiresome, demeaning and presumably expensive ritual why not just put the bloody film out and let the critics come to their conclusion at the same time as the public? It might bother the odd magazine or newspaper but they'd soon get used to it. Either that or leave the process alone. If you want the hype around your release then you have to put up with the potential mischief that goes with it. The truth is that all the hoopla over pre-release windows has the effect of making all films and records seem far more significant than they are. A week after this film is released the very idea that anyone would bother to pirate it will seem laughable, a good deal funnier, in fact, than the film itself.

Gary Hamel says he stopped staying in hotels where the coat hangers were welded to the wardrobe because it was as if they were saying "welcome, thief". Know how he feels.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Is there a living to be made in hyper-local journalism?

I don't live in Stoke Newington but if I did I'm sure I'm sure I would appreciate Stokey Talk. This is a news blog devoted to issues local people care about, ranging from the really serious (knife crime) to the serious if you happen to be directly affected (the maintenance of the tennis courts in Clissold Park.) It's run by the estimable Matt Wells, who's a local resident as well as The Guardian's head of audio, and proves once again that if you want something doing ask a busy person.

Even before local papers came under the cosh of economic forces beyond their control it seemed they'd given up on the kind of hyper-local coverage you find in this and other local blogs. The nearest thing to a local paper in the part of London where I live was dealing with an area of thirty-one square miles with a population of 300,000. The chances of it being able to devote much coverage to the areas of my concern (the upkeep of the local bus station, the amount of vacant retail property, the argument about why they removed the speed bumps in the next road but not in ours etc) were pretty remote. In which case the local blog fulfills a local need.

At the same time I wonder if this kind of service could ever provide any kind of living for a journalist. I sometimes look at the area where I live, which is part of a suburban "estate" which was built around the railway line, and muse that there must be at least half a dozen recently redundant journalists living there, one of whom might be able to get at least part of a living out of a hyper-local news service, dealing in the daily stuff (schools, transport, planning, crime, local amenities) that people really care about. We're told that people will still pay for news, provided it's high quality, exclusive and relevant to them. Might this theory be put to the test more effectively at the bottom of the media food chain rather than at the top?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

What's a Hard Working Family anyway?

I caught a fragment of an interview with Bob Crow where he was saying his union's actions would try to minimize any disruption to the holiday plans of "hard working families". This invocation of the HWF, as it shall henceforth be known, is now one of the most frequently-heard dog whistles of contemporary politics. Apart from the amusing picture it inevitably summons of an extended family taking part in an Amish barn raising or a clan of shoe-making elves whose tiny cottage fairly trembles to the sound of their frantic industry, it raises the question "who is he actually talking about?" You can only assume, as you are no doubt meant to assume, that he is talking about you and not everybody else.

It's all a nonsense, of course, designed to get us on side with whatever plan the speaker is shilling for. Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot did a lot of talking about Hard Working Families. It was their hope that you would cheer the Hard Working Families just as you would revile anyone who wasn't HWF. You are a member of a hard working family. They are a feckless bunch of spongers. And that other lot are a bunch of leeches living off ill-gotten gains. The truth is that difficulties, whether they're little local ones or major catastrophes, are equally inconvenient for all of us. Time and chance are no respecters of whether we're Hard Working Families or not. The rain falls on everyone, Bob.

Friday, March 26, 2010

I predict the future of charging for news

The Times launch their experiment in June. I'm told that if their traffic drops to 5% of what it is at the moment, that's a result. If it goes lower they have a problem. The other newspaper groups either hope it works, then they can do the same, or pretend not to care because they're boldly predicting an ad-funded future where "new models" spring up like daffodils in spring.

Let's say it doesn't work. Let's say the take-up is 3%, it doesn't prove a fashionable thing to do, the name writers desert because they want to remain name writers and the Times and Sunday Times have to go back to the current state of affairs. Let's remind ourselves what that means: paid copy sales dropping inexorably, largely because the occasional reader who wants to read a match report or what they said about his employer, goes to the newspaper's site; on the advertising front they continue swapping off-line pounds for on-line pennies; they can't compete with Google, Facebook and any other monsters of aggregation. They keep cutting budgets and staffing, cancel print contracts and steadily reduce their distribution.

But their "product", if that's what original, professionally executed news is, remains popular. In fact the traffic to their sites goes up and up, speeded by new means of delivery. Then, one day, when I'm in a bath chair staring out at the English Channel, some bright spark in one of these organisations will pipe up, possibly at a conference (held on site because they can no longer afford a hotel), with the following:

"Since our research tells us that the thing people really value about what we do is the news, which the BBC only really scratches the surface of, why don't we just take the hard information, exclusive features and compelling comment, find a printing press somewhere and start publishing the best of it in a daily paper? Then we sell it. Some people would pay to have the core of what we do delivered to them in a form that's portable, easily navigable and requires no energy source. And at the same time, why don't we wrong foot the competition by not giving the same material away on our site? Because if they couldn't get it for free, might not some people feel that they ought to buy it?"

Just a thought.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

I love watching football down the pub

We don't have Sky and I don't have a season ticket but I do have a Premiership football habit. Since our son is either away at university or too tense on match nights like last night to be in the same room as his hyper-tense father, I've recently taken to watching matches down the pub. I'm lucky that there is a small pub not far from where we live that is patronised largely by middle-aged blokes who also want to watch the match. At first I was a bit nervous going in there alone. Now I've realised I'm not the only one who slips in just after kick-off, has a pint for the first half and a pint for the second and then slips out of the door the minute the final whistle is blown. Obviously you won't know what the result will be but no matter whether it's good or bad you are guaranteed that you get to share the experience, be it joy or pain, with some other people who feel the same way. I wouldn't miss it for the world.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The one thing TV never investigates

Last night's "Dispatches" certainly didn't look good for the former ministers who were caught plying for hire. This morning they've already been hung out to dry. Nonetheless there's something about this kind of latter-day current affairs programme and its reliance on having apparently taken the camera somewhere it's never been before that raises more questions than it answers. Once the producers have got Geoff Hoon saying that he's interested in making some money at some point in the future, which is not in itself illegal, I feel they're punching the air (and planning to run that one clip at least five times in the course of the programme in case we hadn't got the point.) The programme relies for its effect on the contrast between the hidden camera shots (from the low angle in which everyone looks furtive) and the endless covering footage of their journalist musing in a sceptical manner in front of a bank of screens (he's meant to appear as the intrepid guardian of our liberties).

I barely heard a completed sentence from any of the interviewees during the entire programme and I would like to have known more detail about exactly how they were targeted and then fished in. Either they're exceptionally credulous and greedy or the programme just picked five at random. The latter conclusion would be more worrying. In fact if they'd saved some of the time they spent re-capping what they'd already told you they could have put the programme in half an hour. I realise that TV current affairs only gets made nowadays when it promises pictures that appear to have caught somebody bang to rights. We can only hope that one day they will take the same searchlight and point it in areas that never seem to get investigated at all. Like TV, for instance.

Monday, March 22, 2010

An encounter with an arse

A young bloke got on the commuter train this morning. I'm guessing 18. You don't see many people that age on the train, not early on anyway. He sat there tearing up an old season ticket and then rolling it carefully into roaches. After a couple of stops he started playing music from his phone. Not through headphones. Just into the carriage. The middle-aged woman sitting opposite him, who was using headphones, asked him to turn it down. He just stared at her, like the very essence of insolence. She asked him repeatedly. "No," he said. "I don't feel like it." Various people weighed in in support of the woman but because nobody was offering to either stop the train or threaten him with physical violence he wasn't persuaded. He just sat there pointlessly spoiling the day for a bunch of people. I don't know what you do about people like that.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A pedant sees "Nowhere Boy"

Watching "Nowhere Boy" I realise that all those years spent obsessed with music have left me with a pedantic nature that makes it impossible for me to just enjoy pop biopics. I can't buy the young John Lennon pinching 45s from a rack in a record store in 1954 because even if I believed that 7" singles were widely available then I suspect they certainly weren't racked out where you could pinch them. Having stolen them John Lennon is disgusted to find they are all jazz and throws them into the Mersey. One thing I remember about the 50s is that nobody threw anything away. Records of any kind were unbelievably precious. They never threw anything away because they had no money. That's why I can't take the idea that he stops his mother in the street and gets her to give him five pounds to buy his guitar back. If anybody was carrying that much they wouldn't hand it over. Once that string is un-tuned the false notes in the script come one after another. The sex wouldn't have been anything like as easy as it's depicted and the swearing wouldn't have been as casual. Having been suspended from school for having a copy of a girlie magazine Lennon wouldn't have called it "pornography". That's a 70s notion. Teddy boys might have had flick knives but they didn't wield them on suburban streets in broad daylight. John and Paul wouldn't have formed a rock and roll band. They would have started a group. His mother wouldn't have picked up the banjo and said "think Bo Diddley". Would Mimi really have picked up the phone and dialled instead of asking the operator for the number? And on and on in that vein. It's a curse. You'll be like that one day.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Could I have done this and forgotten about it?

I don't know what Phill Jupitus was doing with a copy of the 1967 Radio One Annual. Anyway, he sent me this today. I don't think the David Hepworth who wrote that piece about Ed Stewart was me, largely because I'm not quite old enough. I'm also aware that I have forgotten about lots of things I've done professionally. People send me YouTube links to clips from old TV programmes of which I have no direct recollection. I get to the stage where I approach old events by assessing the likelihood. Did I meet the people? Did I go to the place? Therefore it's possible I may have been in that place with that person.

A couple of years ago a colleague of mine was talking to Robert Smith of The Cure. My colleague mentioned me. "Ah," said Robert Smith. "David Hepworth knows something about me that nobody else does." Obviously, he didn't say what that thing was or how significant or trivial it might be. I haven't met Robert Smith this century but back in the early 80s I interviewed him a couple of times and therefore it's possible that he did tell me something that I didn't write. He may have told me something that I didn't appreciate the significance of. I've thought about it and nothing comes to mind. Frankly I don't want to know what it is. Might make a good plot for a book, though. You know a secret but you don't know what it is.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Suddenly, I love going to the theatre

I did some dabbling in theatre when I was younger but I haven't been a regular theatre goer for years. Lately I find myself going all the time. Why?
1. It's oddly affordable. Going to the theatre used to be an exceptionally expensive night out. But compared to a night in the open air at a contemporary rock concert it's not any more. And if you get some kind of concession it can be not much more than going to the cinema. We went to see Alan Bennett's The Habit Of Art at the National for ten quid, which is what most people pay to see an unknown band in London.
2. Just about every other form of entertainment has been digitised to the point that it's no longer astonishing. Great stage acting, such as Bertie Carvel's performance in "Rope", is the last redoubt of hard-earned skill and it's particularly enthralling when you get to see it at close quarters.
3. At the same time the technology of illusion has moved on dramatically. Even truly lame pieces of work like Terry Pratchett's "Nation" can still stop you in your tracks with a stunning depiction of a shipwreck.
4. Theatre can do ideas in a way that neither film nor TV will allow themselves to do any more. Yesterday we went to see "Enron"(above), which is an examination of a corporate tragedy from every different point of view, borrowing its techniques from TV, film, musicals, documentary, puppetry and rock shows.
5. It's full. A few years ago I went to a couple of productions in front of half-full houses. It's no fun for the actors or the audience. That seems to be no longer the case. I'm told the West End is going through a good patch thanks to the number of Brits holidaying at home. Long may it continue.

Friday, March 12, 2010

If you're that bothered about the car you drive you've got problems

We flopped down in front of the TV last night and found ourselves watching a police procedural documentary. I never turn those kind of things off because I always learn something. In this case I learned about the technology used to combat the international trade in stolen luxury cars. One case involved a 7-series BMW (or something similar) that had been stolen and then recovered at the docks where it was on its way to Tanzania. The policeman at the port rang the owner to tell him that what was lost was now found. The owner was particularly relieved because he had failed to fit a tracking device in the vehicle and therefore the insurance company were refusing to compensate him. "I was going to have to sell my house," he said. The GLW and I simultaneously blurted the same thought. Why would anybody buy a car so expensive that its loss would immediately lead to having to sell the roof over your head? And why would they sell the house? To buy another luxury car? I even found myself thinking that people shouldn't be allowed to buy a house if they're also spending that much on a car.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The media professionals will be the last to realise the media has changed

A PR firm recently sent round a press release pointing journalists in the direction of their Twitter feed. I don't know that I've got the mental energy to begin to explain just how misconceived an idea this is. Journalists find the idea that they should follow a PR hilarious. It's like David Walliams following that woman home. It's like returning the call of that automated message. Of course it's perfectly possible that a PR could do a good Twitter feed but the proving of it would be up to them, as it would be with anyone else. This announcement suggests that they haven't begun to realise how the media is utterly, utterly changed and that it's no longer a feeding tube down which they can dispense warm milk to a load of eager mouths beneath. We're all at pitch level now.

When media events came out of a clear blue sky and made a pleasant distraction from the daily tedium it's conceivable that you might want to get the inside track on a press release. That is no longer the case since boredom was banished and we now compete in an attention economy where distraction is a permanent state. It doesn't really matter who you are, Universal Pictures or somebody trying to get a gig listing for a newly-formed indie band; you are no longer entitled to anybody's attention. Not the public's and not the media's. Whatever attention you manage to get you have to earn.

This seems to chime with the imminent withdrawal of CD promo copies. Journalists I talk to all shrug and say, "not my problem". And it isn't. I wonder how long it will be before the industry realises this.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

A Boy Named Hilary

I've just finished "A View From The Foothills", Chris Mullin's terrific diaries of his time as a junior minister. Hilary Benn is repeatedly flagged up as a potential party leader. I've met Benn a couple of times, late at night on radio stations where he was pursuing his role as Secretary of State for International Development. He struck me as too modest and self-effacing for the top job. Furthermore I can't help but wonder if the electorate would be happy voting for a man called Hilary. If Wikipedia's anything to go by Hilary Benn hasn't saddled his own children with a similar handicap. I don't know many baby boomers who named their children Michael, James, Jonathan and Caroline. His boys' names in particular remind me of those of my own classmates. Their fathers were Stanleys, Normans, Arthurs and Ernests who reacted against their own names by giving their own sons Famous Five names like Michael, James, Martin, Philip and Peter. In turn this generation reacted by giving their own children bolder, explorers' names like Oliver, Edward, Henry and Thomas. And so it seems that it goes on and on. Names are like tattoos, to misquote Joni Mitchell, and we can't help but wonder, from time to time, what was going on in the minds of those who decided on them.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The end of the promo copy

Something happened yesterday that could have great significance in what used to be called the record business. The boss of Sony Music in the UK announced that henceforth his company would no longer be sending out review copies of their upcoming product. Instead they would be making this music available digitally. This is significant not just because it will prevent hacks and radio producers making a little extra coin by selling their promotional copies. The bottom dropped out of that market long ago. This time it matters because it's part of a process which is going to see the end of "reviews sections" in magazines as we have known them.

When the first music monthlies were launched back in the mid-80s it was believed that big, alphabetically arranged review sections were a good idea because readers appreciated their apparently comprehensive nature, they attracted accompanying advertising and you could afford to run them at a reasonable cost because freelances liked the idea of getting hold of records before anybody else could.

None of these is any longer the case. Now that we have You Tube, Spotify and multi-channel radio and TV, any reader who reckons they can't get to sample something new isn't trying. Most records - and, ironically, there are more records than ever before - aren't supported by any form of print advertising so that imperative has gone. Now hacks won't even be able to get their hands on physical copies of records.

This will further change the way people talk about those records. Traditionally reviewers weren't just trying to communicate the pleasure of listening to something. They were also communicating the joy of possessing something. You can't do that if you're moored to your computer, listening to an incoming stream.

I know all the arguments about the decline of physical product but this move shows that record companies don't understand what goes on in the head of a hack who gets scores of new records every day, most of them by people he's never heard of. In a tiny minority of cases he just looks at the cover or the name, thinks "that looks interesting" and puts it on the office CD player. If it's any good somebody else in the office will say "what are we listening to?" and a short conversation will ensue. This conversation is the very first tiny step in getting known. It's a social event in the physical world in response to a physical object.

I'm sure there are lots of good reasons for Sony making this move. Should send a shiver through the Jiffy Bag business for a start. I also predict that within a year when they want reviewers to take notice of something they'll start sending out copies again.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Remembrance of radio protests past

In 1999 I used to do a radio show on GLR. It was a couple of hours on a Friday night. I loved doing it. I did it, one way or another, for ten years. They used to pay me next to nothing. It was so little that I only used to invoice them once a year. There had been rumblings for a while that the BBC planned to bring GLR into line. The management who had re-launched it as a speech and music station for adults had moved on and the powers that be wanted it to conform with all the BBC's other local stations. They had been running trails announcing a "period of consultation" about the changes.

One Friday night I turned up and Brian, the guy who used to handle the phones, announced that the changes were going to be implemented earlier than we thought. "This could be the last time," he said. (He didn't know any of this for a fact but we all know the first casualty of war is the truth and anyway he'd been to the pub. Meetings in the pub are always a feature of media disputes.) I immediately decided to go out in a blaze of glory. I started the programme with the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time" and peppered the rest of the two hours with a combination of similar message songs and trails about the period of consultation. It was my Rex Bob Lowenstein moment. There was nobody there to stop me and so I carried on. They rang up on Monday and asked if I'd resigned. I said I had.

The next few weeks were great fun as I found myself co-opted as a figurehead for a "Save GLR" campaign. I invoiced the BBC for the money they owed me for the show and used it to hire the Conway Hall for a protest meeting. I spoke. It was like Citizen Smith. At the same time I was using what little leverage I had to force the authorities into some form of negotiation. I wrote to the Chairman of the BBC, Sir Christopher Bland. I'd met him at a drinks party to thank those "experts" like me who'd been brought in to give the thumbs-up to various parts of the Corporation's output. I said that if our opinion had been worth something then it was clearly worth something now. Taking the point he arranged a meeting with Mark Thompson, who wasn't the Director General then but counted local radio among his responsibilities. Alongside him sat the middle manager who was charged with overseeing the changes. At least we were spoiling her day.

He said he'd get back to us. He never did. I'm sure he felt he'd made a gesture by seeing us. I don't much blame him. By then the steam had gone out of the protest, not least because many of the GLR people who were most likely to object had got their eyes on new roles at 6 Music, the new digital station that the Corporation was making ready at the time.

I learned a lot from that experience. I learned that righteous indignation tends to blow itself out quickly and that certain people like the idea of being a temporary member of an oppressed minority. I canvassed lots of GLR presenters for their support. Many gave it readily. Others made themselves difficult to contact. Bob Harris sent me a note saying "it's my experience that when management has decided to do something like this, they've thought about it a lot and nothing is going to change their mind." At the time I thought it was a cop-out. Now I think it's nothing more than the truth.