Thursday, October 31, 2013

What if the record business survived but the album didn't?

Went to the Mercury Music Prize show last night in the company of the BPI.

From the table talk it seems the business is beginning to get the upper hand against the big torrent sites, which your ISP will be legally obliged to block.

The sales cake may be worth roughly half of what it was worth fifteen years ago in terms of value but since it's increasingly a digital cake the costs are lower. Streaming is on its way to being, if not necessarily the whole market, as it is in Sweden, then certainly a significant part of that market. Speculation is that at some point in the future you'll have a service like Spotify bundled into your broadband deal.

All this will mean that for most people it won't be worth their trouble to steal things. Access to all music will be more important than ownership of particular items of recorded music.

It seems funny to be discussing this after watching twelve acts competing for the Mercury Music Prize, which was introduced in conscious emulation of the Booker Prize and is dedicated to the proposition that the 45-minute album is an artistic form as coherent and enduring as the novel, that some forms of it are more precious than others and furthermore that the public at large can still be persuaded to buy into that.

I can see why you might believe it. I can see why the acts would want to believe it. There's very little sign that the people they used to call "the record-buying public" do.

Monday, October 28, 2013

If you charge us this much, we're not fans, AVB. We're patrons

Went to Tottenham v Hull City yesterday. A couple of tickets came up through a friend of a friend. £96 for me and my 26-year-old son to go. It was a tense affair. Tottenham didn't really deserve their 1-0 win but nor did they really look like losing.

After the match the manager complained the fans hadn't made enough noise.  I could see what he meant. But at the same time I could see that it would have taken a lot to ignite the people around me. They're middle-aged men who are faintly resentful about how much money they've paid. Once you've paid that much money, you're not so much a fan as a patron.

To make a big noise you first have to make lots of small noises. You can feel it's not going to happen with these guys. And I'm not going to start it. Nor is my son.

At half-time he told me the last game he'd been to was a Serie A game at Inter Milan. He'd been amongst the home fans. In their section the cheering and chanting had been orchestrated by a fan who had his back to the pitch and was perched on a railing high above the crowd. At half time he was replaced by another, on the grounds that nobody could keep that level of shouting going for ninety minutes.

How about that, AVB?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Why GLR can never be allowed to happen again

Went to a party last night to mark twenty-five years since Radio London became GLR. There was a good turn-out, as is usually the case with GLR functions. Nobody got paid more than petty cash for whatever they did there and yet they still feel more loyalty to its memory than they do to most of their other jobs.

Trevor Dann was interviewing people for his radio podcast. He asked me if I thought there was any chance of something like it existing in the future. I mumbled something about it being unlikely and how you're more likely to find the spirit of GLR living on in a million websites than on any radio station.

In classic fashion I was halfway to Oxford Circus before I realised what I should have said:
Trevor, if I've learned one thing through my dealings with radio in the last ten years it is that the people running it are determined to ensure that nothing like GLR can ever be allowed to happen again - and that determination is just as strong in the BBC as it is in the independent sector. No matter how they dress it up, radio is immeasurably more controlled today than it has been at any point in its history. That's the way the people running it like it. Let's hope they know what they're doing. Now, was it recording?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Digital sales go down. It's the music economy, stupid.

There's a piece in the New York Times about digital music sales, which have dipped over the last year. There's the usual debate about whether things would be healthier if they didn't have to compete with free streaming services. The paper frames it this way:

Whether streaming has had any demonstrable effect on sales remains intensely debated, though. Do Spotify and YouTube, which let users choose the songs they play, cannibalize sales, or lead listeners to songs they may buy later? And do Pandora and other radiolike providers — Apple introduced a similar feature, iTunes Radio, last month — compete with sales at all, or just with radio?
I'm tired of this kind of thing. If people on the financial pages were as binary in their reading of the market for cars or pork bellies they would be called on it.

Ever since the arrival of digital delivery the people who write in business and technology sections and financial analysts have proposed a neat migration of the habits of buying physical product to the inevitable digital future. You move it all from this column and you put it in that one. And it's not just the money men. David Byrne was saying something similar a week or so ago.

Surely we've seen enough by now to suggest that it doesn't work like that.

Technology doesn't just change habits. It disrupts them.

Does YouTube cannibalise sales or lead listeners to songs they may buy later? It does both. Does Pandora compete with sales or with radio? It does both. And do these two services just swell the multitude of different pipes down which music travels, leading people to form the opinion that recorded music is something that they no longer have to find because it's very busy finding them? Well, yes, take my unscientific word for it, they do.

As a result of all this and incessant multichannel pop radio and music leaking out from every fissure between TV, films, sport, advertising and retail, much of it placed there by highly paid professionals whose job it is to make people feel that they ought to own it, does the average Joe or Joanna feel that recorded music is worth less money than they thought it was worth twenty years ago? Well, yes, they do.

Is this all that much different from what's happening in newspapers? No, interestingly enough.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

How the internet was really invented

In the 60s and 70s student rag magazines were popular, often so popular that certain editions still changed hands years later. They were mostly made up of old jokes. Some of them were new ones, written by people who thought they were going to be the next Eric Idle, but mostly they were old ones you'd never heard before. Because the people doing the rag magazines had A levels and didn't like to think of themselves as completely superficial, the jokes would  be interrupted from time to time by an opinion column, usually by a prematurely world weary 20 year-old angry and indignant on behalf of somebody they'd never met. But then you'd turn the page and there would be a funny picture of an animal torn from a newspaper re-presented with a caption about the Head of Catering. Then you'd turn the page again and there would be a girl in the nude and maybe a competition to see who had the biggest rack on campus. You obviously wouldn't get the competition anymore but in every other respect that was the internet, wasn't it?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why readers always speak with forked tongue

The latest instalment of the debate about how The Guardian is going to pay for itself comes from the USA where some people, such as David Carr, the New York Times's veteran media correspondent, suggest the paper use its current success in exposing NSA secrets to get people to "show a little sugar" by paying for it.

Journalists are often poor at predicting what readers will or will not pay for. Furthermore they are uncharacteristically naive when it comes to believing what they want to hear.

People may pledge money in public for things they advertise their approval of in public but in private their default position is not to pay. You may get a proportion of the readers who would put their hands in their pocket as they might for some charity but that's really no basis for an ongoing commercial endeavour. And for everybody who does so there will be hundreds who will intend to but will never get round to it and tens of thousands more who will remember something else they have to do and simply melt away. I've experienced this at first hand.

And you only have to look at the comments below the fold to see that people are very inventive when it comes to coming up with principled reasons why they won't pay. They never speak the truth, which is they don't feel like it.

But where Carr is mistaken is in thinking the things that papers value - the respect of their peers, getting talked about on TV current affairs programmes, revelations about spying, Pulitzers - are the same things readers value. They aren't. When newspaper buying was the norm rather than the exception people picked them up to keep up with the humdrum stuff - what starlet wore on red carpet, who's starting for England tonight, the court report of a murder in the suburbs, the crossword - rather than a way of keeping up with the exceptional stuff. 

The problem that all the British papers have now is that all that humdrum stuff, apart from the crossword, is provided for free - either by a giveaway newspaper or by the BBC.

Monday, October 14, 2013

What this blog says today the BBC DG says a year later

Wrote this column for The Independent last year. It's mainly about the iPlayer but since Tony Hall's speech last week I'm congratulating myself on showing uncanny prescience in the last para:
It seems likely that, once we have got used to being able to watch previously broadcast programmes when it suits us, there could be a clamour for the right to be able to watch them as soon as they're ready. If the BBC has got all the episodes of its latest series in a cupboard somewhere, why not let us watch them at our convenience rather than theirs? Then we'll find out if they love us as much as we apparently love them.
Now what can he do to address the issues in a Guardian column today? Can he make radios cool again?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

An amazing day at Bletchley Park

Just back from a day at the The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park. Some of it's housed in the old huts used by the wartime code breakers, which is a bonus. They're in the process of improving the visitor experience, which makes sense. Nevertheless you should get there before they do because it's bound to be dumbed down eventually.

We went on an organised tour which meant we were conducted round by volunteer enthusiasts, many of whom I would guess are in their sixties. That means that when they started work - in one case as an actual rocket scientist - they were lucky to be issued with a calculator and have since seen at first hand the growth of an obscure branch of science into something without which we would have trouble getting through the day.

They lead you through rooms cluttered with improbably huge and clunky machines which would take days to perform a piece of long division we can now do on our phones. They have machines that take discs the size of Redwood trees and can only be turned on for five minutes a year for fear they drain the national grid. They have a card index system used by a chicken farmer in the early 50s that cost millions of pounds in today's money.

They explain it all with the ease of people who've spent some time under the bonnet of even the most improbable main frame. These blokes are as essential a part of the museum as the exhibits. In twenty years time their parts will be taken by actors. Get there before that happens.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Were we fitter before the invention of Fitness?

I understand the theory that we're all getting fatter but I've rarely seen it demonstrated quite as clearly as it was last night on the Yesterday channel. The documentary was actually about the Great Train Robbery so it used lots of archive clips of police inspecting the crime scene, railwaymen loading trains and women and children gathering outside court buildings as the accused were smuggled in under blankets.

It's 1963. Everybody's thin. Everybody. It's startling how thin they are. Even the senior police officers may incline towards burliness but they're never what you'd call paunchy. The small boys and girls mugging for the cameras are Lowry figures. The overalls are hanging off the fingerprint experts sweeping Leatherslade Farm. Only the odd member of the gang is built as if he's a stranger to physical exertion.

I suppose none of this is surprising in the light of something else I learned yesterday. In the fifties the average housewife walked eight and a half miles a day. That's presumably made up of housework, taking the kids back and forth to school and shopping without a car. Eight and a half miles a day. Nowadays we'd call it a regime. None of those people in 1963 would have given any thought to their fitness. Most of the adults would have smoked. Their diet wouldn't have been the best. But in terms of body mass they must have been fitter in the days before the discovery of fitness.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Where's the AutoRip for book readers?

I've bought a few albums from Amazon recently because they offer their AutoRip service. That means that as soon as I've paid for it I can download an MP3 version. This combination of immediacy and tangibility (is that a word?) suits me well. If I like something enough to buy it I want to hold it as well. Otherwise I'll just access it via Spotify or You Tube.

I wish the book trade would do something similar. If you pay £20 for a book you want to start reading it straightaway and you also don't want to haul it around on the Tube with you. You also need to increase the number of opportunities you have to read it. It would work for me and would work for the publishers. We'd read more quickly, probably find the reading experience more satisfactory as a consequence and buy more books.

How they do it I don't know. It can't be beyond the wit of the trade.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Why PRs don't tweet

A PR agency canvasses journalists' opinions on the most irritating things that PRs say, write or do and gets lots of good stuff.

The one that hit home for me was a complaint about PRs who want journalists to follow them on Twitter, which adds:
"Show me the PR who can say something meaningful in 140 characters and I'll eat my shorts."
If a PR could condense what they had to say into 140 characters they wouldn't need to contact the media about it. If they could say it that concisely they would have a message.

A message spreads itself. It finds the people for whom it's of interest. Sadly for the PR, that's never quite enough for the client, who really ought to consider advertising. Instead they take that money and spend it on a PR, thereby doubling the irritation the journalists feel. More pages to fill, less budget to fill them with, more people "reaching out" and wanting to "touch base" with them.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

What is it about the BBC and cabs?

Good Jennifer Saunders quote about the BBC in new issue of Glamour:

"It got so annoying that you were called into these special lunches with the Director General at The Ivy and you were like, 'Fuck off!' This is the license payers' money! I'm paying for the car to take me there - we all are. And I'd like an extra bit of budget on my programme, please, and less of your wheels."

I'm glad she's said this. Ever since I did my first job for the BBC they've been notable for two things: the first is their willingness to offer you derisory sums of money in compensation (money which I've always been happy to accept on the basis that most of the things they ask me to do, nobody else would); the second is their apparent belief that they can make up for this by "sending a car", even though everybody in London knows that "a car" is the slowest, least convenient and most ruinously expensive way to get around.

It's something in the organisation's DNA, this belief that black cars cure all ills. I've seen literally scores of drivers lined up in TV Centre reception waiting to take people home. I've heard stories that they used to send a car from London to Loch Lomond to pick up Billy Connolly. That sounds apocryphal but having seen the amount that senior executives charged the Corporation in order to ensure that their expensive shoes never actually touched the pavement I'm not so sure. 

I don't recognise the organisation that's being called out on bullying and sexual harassment in today's "dossier" from the NUJ but I do recognise exactly what Jennifer Saunders is talking about with the cars.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Young people aren't bored enough for EastEnders any more

Interesting item on Radio Four's always excellent Media Show last week (you can listen here) about the declining popularity of British soaps.

In the last twenty years Coronation Street has gone from averaging over 20 million viewers to around 11 million. EastEnders has lost two million viewers since 2006 and sometimes comes second to Emmerdale in the ratings.

People inside the world of soaps think this might have something to do with too many episodes and not enough focus on strong stories.

People outside the world of soaps - like me, for instance - wonder if this might mean that in the multi-channel universe new generations of viewers never have the leisure to develop the soap habit. That's not to say they're frantically busy. They're probably not. But any idle time they have is hoovered up by YouTube clips, endless X-Factor spin-offs or faction formats like the Kardashians. In this climate it's hard for a soap to get started on people. Nobody was ever magnetised by a soap. Soap works on people who are bored. Young people aren't bored any more. They're fidgety and distracted but never actually bored enough to devote the time it would take to work out what was going on in EastEnders.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Who really wants a record to change their life?

The Times is running a series about Books That Changed Your Life.

People routinely talk about the Record That Changed My Life.

Or the 200 Movies You Have To See Before You Die.

It's no longer enough to say that you simply like or admire something. You have to suggest that it brought about a change in everything you think and feel. I suppose it's an inevitable feature of a world in which bars of chocolate are routinely describe as "awesome". If you've used all your enthusiasm on things that don't warrant it, how do you begin to describe things that do?

On weekends like this I'm reminded of the words of my erstwhile colleague Paul Du Noyer. Paul doesn't talk a lot. Not when compared to Mark Ellen at least. This subject was once being discussed in The Word office when Paul piped up "who wants a record to change their life? I don't."


Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Pop as it looked to Nik Cohn in 1969 and as it looks to Bob Stanley in 2013

When Nik Cohn wrote Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom in 1969 it was sub titled "pop from the beginning". At that point the beginning was only twelve years earlier. It seemed a long time then. Now we realise that's about as long as it's been since Oasis last had a big record. I was looking at the copy on the left which I bought in 1973. It has an afterword grudgingly revising the odd judgement from three years before. When he'd first written it the Beatles hadn't broken up and Woodstock hadn't happened. At a time when rock seemed to be getting bigger and better he wasn't afraid to contradict the conventional wisdom, describing Crosby Stills Nash & Young as "gutless and mindless", saying that Led Zeppelin had "reduced blues playing to its most ham fisted level" and repeating his belief that "rock had seen its best moments". This was controversial stuff in the early seventies.

Cohn's book was short enough to put in your back pocket and catchy enough to commit to memory. Its style had a huge effect on all those people who wrote for the inkies in the 70s. And Cohn's greaser aesthetic, which valued PJ Proby ("the great doomed romantic showman of our time") above Bob Dylan ("he bores me stiff"), was equally influential.

I bet Bob Stanley's read it. If he hasn't he should because his book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop sets out to do a similar job over forty years later. Cohn was a child of the fifties and therefore his judgements were different from mine. Stanley's a child of the seventies and therefore his are different again. That doesn't matter. It can go on like this forever, with people looking at the history of pop through the lens of their own age.

There's a lot more music, a lot more is known about the stuff that was there when Cohn was writing his history and, most interestingly, there are things we only realise when many years have gone by. Such as, and here I'm quoting things I just happen to have marked in the margin, Hank Marvin may have been a Geordie and Cliff Richard may have come from Herts, but they both spoke with the same RP accent they thought entertainers should have; Jim McGuinn changed his name to Roger because he wanted to be a pilot; Simon and Garfunkel were called Tom And Jerry because it was one little guy and one long guy. The musical points are no less arresting: the Rolling Stones recording of The Last Time was "an incredible sound for a group from Kent" (I think I was familiar with the concept of the Stones before I was familiar with the concept of Kent); Bruce Springsteen described Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill's "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" as "every song I've ever written" (which it is); Motown in the 60s is a glimpse of what would have happened in America if the Beatles hadn't; the apex of the Beatles' genius is the second side of A Hard Day's Night. That last one's an easy sell to me.

I'm only 200 pages in. I'm talking to Bob at the Old Queens Head next Wednesday as well as Mark Lewisohn. By then I'll have finished it. I'm enjoying it. I can guarantee it won't finish like Nik Cohn's history of pop did in 1969.
Very soon you'll have pop composers writing formal works for pop choirs, pop orchestras; you'll have pop concerts in halls and the audience all sat in rows, no screaming or stamping but applauding politely with their hands; you'll have sounds and visuals combined, records that are played on something like a gramophone and TV set knocked into one, the music creating pictures and patterns, you'll have cleverness of every kind imaginable. Myself, though, I'm not interested...

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Most pop is nostalgic. Discuss.

In his new book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop, Bob Stanley writes about "Wonderful Land" by The Shadows.

It was probably written as a hymn to America....but what I hear in it is a British dream of the future, the primary coloured optimism of post-war Britain, people moving to the new towns ringing London, the space and light in the bright open spaces of Crawley and Stevenage...just months before the Beatles' annexation of British pop, Wonderful Land sounds vast, blue-skied and still so sad.

Which is lovely. But here's another thing.  I was barely into my teens when it came out and yet it already made me think of times gone by. I was talking to Richard Williams at Word In Your Ear about great Saturday night records and he said his favourite disco singers always have a little sadness in their voices. Maybe that's just one feature of a bigger thing. The great disco records actually have some nostalgia and melancholy about them, as if the best Saturday night were long in the past and the best you can hope is to summon up a little bit of what it felt like. "Wonderful Land" isn't a disco record but the land it refers to seems to be in the past.

"Wonderful Land" is also one of those records which can never sound quite as good as you remember them sounding the first time you heard them. I listened to it on You Tube just now and it didn't glow the way it does in the back of my mind, which is a double hit of nostalgia, I suppose. That's a feature of any record you've lived with for fifty years. The version imprinted on your memory, the version you can call upon any time you close your eyes, is always going to be the most powerful one.

You could go further and say that actually the truly great pop records are the sad ones. Funny that a form of entertainment meant to celebrate the now should be so nostalgic.

I'll be talking to Bob about his book at next week's Word In Your Ear at the Old Queens Head. We'll also have Mark Lewisohn, Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer and the amazing giant 45s of Morgan Howell. Tickets here.