Friday, April 30, 2010

Who wants the official X Factor magazine?

The producers of X Factor are inviting bids from publishers who would like to publish the official magazine. I understand the fee for the licence is £2,000,000. Amazingly, there are still two companies in the running.

I've always been sceptical about official magazines. Usually by the time they've got round to doling out the official licence then the unofficial publishers have made hay. First time I came across this was around the time that Adam Ant was the biggest thing in British pop. You weren't allowed to publish posters of him because his image was owned, beauty spot and all, by the Merchandising Corporation of America, who sent their lawyers round to make sure you weren't doing anything they didn't make money from. Felix Dennis, who had made at least some of his fortune from unofficial Bruce Lee magazines, instructed a designer to simply shift the beauty spot from one cheek to the other, thereby getting round the image that they had copyrighted.

The other problem with official merchandise is the very fact that it's official, which means that it primarily has to please the people who granted the licence, who know nothing whatsoever about publishing and tend to be over-sensitive. They've usually got wildly unrealistic ideas about the kind of advertising they can get, based on a conversation that somebody had with somebody they were sitting next to in First Class. This is further complicated in this case by the rumour that the producers are looking for a magazine which is weekly during the run of the programme and then monthly thereafter. This would be different. I predict lots of fun and games.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Is discovery really the greatest thrill in music?

There's a new music sharing service called mflow. I haven't tried it yet. Its tagline is "Discovery - it’s the greatest thrill in music".

Well, I know why they've said it. I use something along those lines myself. It plays well with advertisers. It's one of those uncontroversial sentiments that goes through on the nod in any company. Everybody likes to think that nothing gets them more thrilled than the prospect of another new group. People with no more than a passing interest in music ask me "what should I be listening to?", which I've decided is the single most dispiriting sentence in the English language. What you should be listening to is whatever makes you happiest. I've no idea what that is unless I've known you for a few years.

I don't think discovery is the greatest thrill in music, not unless you're a night time DJ looking to get the jump on your competitors or an A&R man for a publishing company. I can see how you might get thrilled if you thought that your fortunes would rise in lockstep with the act you've discovered. But the rest of us have got lives to lead, lives that are full enough with work commitments and entertainment options not to be sitting around saying "it's Thursday and I haven't discovered anyone new this week."

And we've already got tons of music to listen to, much of which we hardly know. In fact a lot of it we don't have much interest in. We "discovered" it at some point in the past but then the thrill didn't last very long. The really precious commodity is not "new music". It's our proper attention. This is governed far more by mood and all sorts of things swimming through our lives  – how we're feeling, what we're reading, where we are, who we're with – than it is by the arrival of a previously unheard talent.

I discovered some music recently – the early albums of Cat Stevens. These came out forty years ago. Of course I'd heard them before but I hadn't listened before and I certainly hadn't listened sympathetically, which is the only kind of listening that matters. That's the thing about music. You have to lean towards it. "Discovering" it means that you have to first discover something within yourself.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

You went *how* far for *how* long?

I wonder if the ash cloud business will prove to be one of those quietly pivotal moments. Suddenly we're hit by the dismaying realisation that we have built a world where closing a few airports for less than a week means the economy all but seizes up. I've heard of schools with 17 teachers who were unable to get back into the country. And this isn't even the main holiday period of the year. It's as if the music stopped suddenly in the middle of a holiday and you got a unique opportunity to see how far away so many people had gone for such a short time. Before cheap, easily booked air travel nobody would have considered travelling to certain destinations at all and certainly would have had difficulty understanding the idea of taking a five-day holiday a thousand miles away. Maybe we'll start thinking about it now.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Don't put your daughter in the meeja, Mrs Worthington

At this time of year I get more emails than ever from young people either looking for work experience, sixth formers wondering what A levels they should do if they want to be a star journalist or graduates who are wondering if we have any staff vacancies for young writers ("I am enthusiastic about all kinds of music, movies and contemporary culture, well-motivated and good at working as part of a team". This makes me wonder if they have any sense of what kind of "team" works on a monthly magazine and what they all do.)

It was never easy to know how to respond to this kind of enquiry in the past. Nowadays it's impossible. I turn down requests to address students because I can't think of any experience I could draw upon that might be of any use to a person making a start in the turbulence of today. Other than, are you really too late to think about doing something else? The sort of things you might have told people in the past – start as a freelance contributor, be available for holiday relief and if you're very lucky you might get a staff job - no longer apply. I have a fuzzy sense that young people would be better off if they developed a more entrepreneurial mind set and started aiming beyond the reviews section of the NME but I don't know how to tell them to go about it.

This generation, who have been the victims of "education, education, education" and have grown up being told that they could be anything they wanted to be, are finding that this is anything but the case. Among the twenty somethings I meet there's a palpable sense of betrayal. I wonder if we're seeing the trend of the 80s reversed. During that decade people who'd been prepared for quite mundane jobs and professions found themselves hitching a ride on the economy into an altogether more glamorous milieu. Hardly any of the people I worked with in those days had trained to do the job they ended up doing but there were more jobs than there were good people to fill them. In response to this surge, billions of pounds were then pumped into training people to take their place in Britain's allegedly booming creative economy. Now we find ourselves with all these people being unleashed into the market at the exact point that the creative economy has slammed on the brakes.

We're already starting to see the 80s trend in reverse. The people who have been trained for the glamour jobs are taking whatever there is, no matter how mundane. There's nothing wrong with mundane, of course, unless you've been raised to expect something altogether different.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Watch the skies

The thing I can't take seriously about elections is the manifestos. Where else in life do organisations or people come up with a whole booklet detailing all the things they intend to do over the next few years, outlining how their measures (what a silly, misleading word that is) will change things and what's more change things for the better? I can't take it seriously, particularly on a morning where the biggest story of the moment, the planes crisis, wasn't even in anyone's thinking a whole week ago.

If this government had known that its time in office would be dominated by an unprecedented terrorist outrage perpetrated with Stanley knives, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, a national fit of righteous indignation over MPs expenses, the violent death of an estranged member of the Royal Family and the worst worldwide financial crisis since 1929, to name but a few, or that its last days in office it would be spent dealing with the fact that Middle England was stranded in its holiday resorts because of a volcano in Iceland, I don't think they would have spent quite so long dotting the i's and crossing the t's on their policy plan.

When Harold Macmillan was asked what he feared most in government he said "Events, dear boy, events". In his, relatively slow moving world, events came as single spies. In our connected one they come in battalions. The wise prime minister would say, I'm just going to sit here and wait for events.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The thing that parenthood really takes out of you

Up early again to enjoy the cloudless, planeless blue sky. A Twitter acquaintance, struggling with small children, envies me being able to sit in the garden with a book and a cup of tea. I assure him that the storyline of parenthood begins with them waking you in the middle of the night, continues with them getting you up early in the morning and then settles into a long period when the only person getting up is you. At that point you might have to wake these lanky young adults for a meal in the middle of the afternoon. In fact there are times when if you didn't intercede they would sleep right round the clock. My Twitter friend says, at least that means he can look forward to some lie-ins in the future. I didn't tell him that the experience of parenthood left me incapable of lying-in. It's one of those things that kids seem to discover the joys of just as you find you can do without it. I didn't want to spoil his day.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Danny Rose accelerates from nought to myth in a heartbeat

Last night Spurs played Arsenal. It's one of the most charged rivalries in sport, made even more electric by the fact that both teams still had something to play for as well as the usual pride. Both teams were diminished by injury. Spurs picked 19-year-old Danny Rose for his first Premiership start. He hit one of those volleys from a distance that usually disappear into the stand to the accompaniment of jeers. God knows what combination of skill, good fortune, fate, physics and atmospheric pressure brought it about but his shot went in the net. I've seen it probably thirty times since then. It will no doubt be one of the goals of the season. It's now become a TV event rather than a sporting one, its accompanying commentary imprinted on our consciousness. When we watch it we know the precise sequence in which the events will unfold; the commentator's delighted roar, the post-orgasmic run back to accept the adulation, the inevitable feeling that he will be lucky if anything in his life ever equals that one second in which he made contact. This Sky clip may have been removed by the time you get to it.

However another clip probably won't have been taken down because it was shot by a Spurs fan behind the goal on a cameraphone. He captures the same event but without any of the hindsight and narrative tidiness which TV instantly stamps on any bit of experience. It appears to be another attack breaking down - in that respect football is like a game of Jenga played at high speed - and when the ball goes out to Rose (0.35 on this clip) there's no sense of what's about to happen. There's relative silence as he hits it and not much more as the ball travels through the air. The crowd don't realise what's going to happen until it's clear that it has happened. Then the noise rends the air, crashing the phone's limiter and forcing its owner into a chaotic scrum.

It makes we want to have a machine that can undo TV. Imagine if we had the same kind of simple eye witness to the Maradona Hand of God or the Shane Warne Impossible Ball. If only we could take myth and turn it back into just experience.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The different between upmarket and downmarket magazines

The story in the current Vanity Fair about at least some of Tiger Woods's women once again proves that the only difference between upmarket and downmarket magazines (or "upscale" and "tabloid" as the Americans prefer it) is how many stylists are involved.

Mark Seal's immensely readable piece is based on an interview with one former associate of the golfer's and a bunch of women, at least one of whom is in the prostitution business, who have ministered to his apparently limitless appetite. It hints that his father was a nasty piece of work and that his marriage was a show put on for the sponsors and that he was "enabled" by all manner of people who should have known better, but the bulk of it is a standard bedroom shag'n'tell. I loved it.

When the News of The World do this sort of thing it's usually "he was an animal" or "he liked to wear a Liverpool shirt when we did it". When Vanity Fair do sin they do it in the way their readership prefers it. It's full of unblushing references to penis size and the precise cost of hotel suites at Las Vegas hotels. It is however the very same thing, ministering to exactly the same prurient desire to catch the mighty with their trousers down.

But most of all it's about the pictures. The highly-styled Marc Seliger shots of four of the women in the midst of five star luxury have the effect of turning the events into the stuff of a Jackie Collins airport novel. The women themselves, having been primped, preened and digitally smoothed by some of the finest specialists in the world, look as if they can't believe their good fortune.

Meanwhile Woods returns to golf, VF smuggles a bit of smut past its advertisers, Nike sell a few more gym pumps, world turns.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mark Damazer and "Clashes"

Mark Damazer is stepping down as head of Radio Four, after what appears to be a successful period. The most impressive thing I heard about Damazer concerned his chairing of a regular Radio Four meeting called "Clashes". At this he looked at the plans of the scores of different programmes and decided which of them could "have" various different topics. It stands to reason. There's only so much ether and only so many ideas that can be floating around in it at any given time. When it's Christmas or the Olympics is coming up, when there's a big story going around, every speech programme wants to have a piece of it. "Clashes" is the meeting at which they decide who's allowed to have what story. From what I hear, and if this is not the case I don't want to know, Damazer doesn't encourage discussion (probably because he knows it's not going to lead anywhere) and just allots subjects to programmes in the briskest possible fashion. "You and Yours can have that. Front Row can do that. In Business can have that. The Book Programme can interview her. A Good Read can have him as a guest. Loose Ends can't. Next." And so on. It sounds like a very satisfying way to pass half an hour. I love a good Chair. Somebody told me that when Paul Myners was the Chairman of the Guardian Media Group every meeting started and finished on time, no matter what was being discussed. A very rare skill.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Is this what they call extending choice?

If you happen to be up early on a Sunday morning and put on the TV or the radio you're assailed by programmes largely comprised of people reading from and commenting on commentaries that are in the Sunday papers. I find this a puzzling way to organise broadcasting. If I felt that what the Sunday papers had to say was a major priority in my life then I would have bought them and would be reading them, wouldn't I? What I really want is an old black and white film, preferably about a war. Nobody's providing that for me, are they?

Friday, April 09, 2010

A most unusual luncheon venue

Don't often do media dining clubs but yesterday was invited to lunch at an old Georgian house in Greek Street. This has been put to charitable use throughout its history and most recently was some kind of women's shelter. It now houses, temporarily at least, Quintessentially Soho at the House of St Barnabas. You go in and it's got the usual features of a media club: receptionists in twos who tap your name into a laptop, a doorman who looks as if he's wandered in from Savile Row and enormous, slightly frightening paintings lining a very beautiful old staircase. Media types sit on low battered sofas pitching apps and discussing commissioning rounds while the next generation of Alexander McQueens dispense champagne and salmon. The decorations only go so far since the club is squatting in these premises. It reminded me of a scene in a World War II film where the officer finds his old club still functioning despite bomb damage. "Most of the regulars have been evacuated. We have spam fritters for luncheon. Your usual, sir?" When I went upstairs to the gents it was like wandering into the unused wing of a stately home. In a bare room off the landing sat a homeless man eating the remains of a takeaway. Odd.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The single most valuable skill in journalism

The human race is divided into two groups: those who are always late and those who are always early. The first group are no busier than the latter group. They have simply decided that being on-time is somehow beneath them.

The same divide exists among journalists. Here it causes more problems because it usually relates to copy and the lateness thereof. I've dealt with hundreds of hacks and can count on the fingers of both hands the ones who are always on time. I can count on the fingers of just the one hand the writers who are so infallibly reliable that I would happily put my house on their delivering their copy not just on time but early. In fact I've just counted again and I still have a spare finger.

There's a slightly larger group who generally deliver on the day. Then there's the majority who, sad to say, only deliver after nagging. You would have thought that a combination of professional pride and the recession would have brought about a change in these people's behaviour. It hasn't.

The sign of a proper magazine professional is that they deliver early, partly because they know that they need to build in some screw-up time, but also because they wouldn't dream of starting something so near to the deadline that it was likely to be botched as a result of haste. Anybody who tells you "it'll be ready later today" has not done what the professional would have done, which is stay up late the night before to complete it and then got up early the following morning to give it another read before sending it off.

They also never ever tell you what else they've got to do, whether it's personal or professional. They know that's not your concern. They realise that they are being hired not merely for their artistry or professionalism; they are being hired because they take an editor's load and lighten it. They are providing that most invaluable service: once something is handed to them, the editor doesn't have to think about that bit of the flat plan for a few days. Finally, the really odd thing is that the same people who are on time always deliver copy that is to-length and spelled correctly. Now explain that to me.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

If I may be so bold, Prime Minister

I read Andrew Rawnsley's The End of the Party this weekend. As well as a reminder of just how big a comeback the c-word has made in the last ten years (it comes to something when Mrs Alistair Darling is using it about the people next door), it's a valuable inoculation against the claims we'll be hearing from politicians of all parties in the next few weeks. The present government, being largely made up of lawyers, introduced a new law for every day they were in power. Many of these laws didn't have the anticipated effect, which caused immense frustration in Downing Street. In the midst of one of these bouts of soul searching the Cabinet Secretary pointed out to Tony Blair, in front of witnesses, "you have no one around you who has got any experience of managing anything". In most spheres of endeavour this would be considered a fairly basic requirement. Not in government, oddly enough.

Friday, April 02, 2010

ECOST - a practical solution to the problem of school parties in London

After spending most of the the day in the West End I'm more convinced than ever the European Community ought to pick one of its less visitor-thronged cities - Utrecht, maybe, or Sheffield - and declare it the European Capital of School Trips.

This honour will be as keenly sought as the accolade of being European Capital of Culture. ECOST, as it will swiftly come to be known, will work as follows. All the massive touring parties of students who are currently clogging the arteries of Florence, Edinburgh, Paris and, now I think of it, London, would be diverted instead to wherever happens to be ECOST that year. Doncaster, Dortmund, Nancy, Poznan, wherever. Here the absence of world-famous cultural or historical sights would leave our adolescent visitors ample time to do the things they really go on school trips to do - shop at Primark, spray their hair a comedy colour, get off with each other and walk arm-in-anoraked-arm in a fog of self-involvement four abreast down the main shopping street while remaining oblivious to the efforts of the local population to get by.

Their presence would provide a huge boost to the local economies while leaving Europe's most thrilling sites free of the pall of puzzlement and disinterest with which adolescent school parties meet anything other than a new branch of the Apple Store or a rubber replica of a policeman's helmet. Once they become independent travellers they can visit the capitals of Europe for the first time, enjoying them all the more because they are making the visit on their own dime. And no longer milling around in their thousands above Oxford Circus station.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Do we no longer need to remember stuff?

I read a book recently arguing that for the first time in human history we have recovery systems that are so cheap and easy it's harder for us to forget something than it is to remember it. When we're being informed of something or entertained by something these days we know that with a few clicks we can - and probably will - repeat the experience. I watched Arsenal-Barcelona last night knowing that I would be seeing it again and again. When Liverpool had a similar wake-up call from Red Star Belgrade in 1973 I was watching with the fierce concentration of someone who had to cram it all into the VCR at the back of my mind.

Do today's ubiquitous retrieval systems mean that our memory, like the hand that holds the pen, will eventually wither away into disuse? When you know you can find out anything you need to know with a couple of clicks, what's the need for retaining it in your head in the first place? Who knows phone numbers these days? When my kids ask how many days there are in the month and I launch into "thirty days hath September" they look at me as if I'm putting the question to a higher power. Will anyone in the future say "i before e except after c when the sound is ee" or "Richard of York gave battle in vain" or "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived"? Or will they just look it up?

Ten years ago I had to do a speech to a PRs conference. In order to get their attention I said they were going to be redundant in the future because all information would be obtained either from Google or The House Hippy, which is how I described the one person in the office old enough to remember the facts and, moreover, what those facts signified. I think I was righter than I knew.