Friday, 27 June 2014

Clementine will remember...

Back in 2012 when I finished playing the final chapter of Telltale Game's The Walking Dead I was an emotional wreck by the end. I know I wasn't alone judging by the critical acclaim the game received and the volume of articles dedicated to Lee and Clementine's final scene together. This was one of the best story lines I've ever seen in my 30 years of gaming and it's one that still resonates. I frequently find myself mentally revisiting the game and the decisions I made while playing it well over a year later.

This week I finally bought Season 2 of the game after some significant delay in my decisison-making process. Sony's PSN deal of the week meant that the game was under £6 so it was too good a deal to pass up.

There were a couple of reasons (other than price!) why I have been holding back from buying and playing Season 2, despite having bought the 400 Days DLC. The main reason is that Telltale were keen to continue on from the decisions each player made in Season 1, and that due to a twist of fate, my final game save from that season was erased accidentally.

This meant that in order for my decisions to have any legacy in Season 2, I'd have to play the final chapter of Season 1 over again. In order for my gaming experience of distress and sorrow to be optimal, I'd need to revisit the traumatic Season 1 finale again. However, there's no guarantee that the decisions I'd make this time around would perfectly match my second play through.

This inability to guarantee the original trauma could be repeated was off-putting in some ways. Other than not really wanting to revisit around 3 hours worth of gameplay just to be able to play Season 2 (time is precious since becoming a father!), the fact that I might not make the exact same decisions that left me so emotionally bereft the first time around also stood in the way.

I needn't have let this nagging doubt paralyse me as much as it did. As I loaded up Season 2 and the game scanned for my missing save file, I was confronted with a  message that suggested that the gaps would be filled by the game rather than my decisions. This forced me to revisit the final chapter of Season 1 again - and I'm glad I did. I took this opportunity to changes some of the decisions I initially took first time around - in order to see how little or great an impact they had on the game experience. For example, my initial play through saw me take Lee's arm off in homage to Rick in the graphic novels. This time, however, I kept the arm and it allowed for a very minor modification to the gameplay. I also saved Clementine from the trauma of finishing Lee off.

Ultimately, the decision tree forces the player along the pre-scripted narrative path with only minor adjustments. Even though I know what was coming, I still felt the heart-wrenching impact of my decisions and now I'm content enough to know that my actions as Lee will have some legacy for Clementine.

And yes, I did choke back a few wet ones. Again.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Facebook's birthday and our narcissism

This week Facebook turned 10 and to celebrate it created a short video montage of every user. These montages featured things like the most liked photos or comments that had been posted on the site, accompanied by some saccharine sweet music. After watching this video users where given the option to share it in their timeline along with a link that enabled other users to make one of their own. The video was also hash tagged meaning that it quickly became a trending item on Facebook's new Twitter-esque feed.

Suffice to say, the personalised video went viral as more and more people noticed that users where sharing something that supposedly encapsulated their time spent on Facebook during the last decade (or however long you'd been using the site with your current identity).

In some ways this is what Facebook does best: it speaks to the narcissist in us. When we see our friends or our contacts posting something personal that they've liked, and by default, recommending that you do the same (or else why share it?), then you have the perfect ingredients for user engagement. Or so we may be led to believe.

The reaction to those video montages has been interesting. Some users, having seen their montage and liked it have then gone on to share it, hoping that their friends will also like it and share their own. This led to a cavalcade of spam in people's newsfeeds as more and more people posted their personalised video.

Several of my friends were quick to complain about this process, and with some justification. These videos are individualised and perhaps not really relevant to anybody other than the individual (or perhaps their significant other). When faced with this 'feed spam' they admonished other users for being so vain or narcissistic.

This highlights two or three interesting and interlinked facets of social media:

  1. relevance
  2. personalisation
  3. authority

Iggy Crop
For many users, seeing a news feed full of montages about other people's 'best' Facebook moments was not relevant to them, primarily because they were personal and relevant only to a very small circle of people. If a third party doesn't appear in the 'best of' montage the they are looking at random images selected by an algorithm with deep data mining powers, but very little individual consideration.

One of my 'highlights' was a picture of Iggy Pop with his stomach cropped to be his face - a funny joke from B3ta but certainly not a highlight of the 7 years I've been using the site. Some of the other selections where downright bizarre and included one of those games early (2009?) Facebook users used to play where they tagged you in post, then you had to find a random image and a random Wikipedia post and make an album cover - clearly not a significant part of my life but something that Facebook's algorithm misunderstood as 'relevant' because of its virality.

Fake album cover (2009)
I'm sympathetic to those people who were sick of seeing the video appear - perhaps they'd watched a few of their friend's montages hoping to see themselves feature more prominently? Or perhaps they were irritated that their personal video was made up of irrelevant photos? Or perhaps they were sick of that twee tune that played over the top? Regardless, they sought to exert a sense of authority or mastery over their environment by berating other users for sharing their montages. Clearly, these people didn't have to click play on their friend's videos and many of them probably didn't, yet they still felt the need to complain about them.

This exertion of authority is another aspect of the narcissism that social media can encourage. Expressing dissatisfaction with what others are doing is a classic strategy for asserting that your way is the right way - that you are superior to others. So, by both sharing the personal montage and by berating others for doing so, we've demonstrated some of the most egotistical behaviours that humans are capable of.

The best response is to say nothing. Don't feed the data gathering beast. Perhaps we've had enough of social media and it's time to say goodbye?

Thursday, 16 January 2014

iTunes bug when buying tracks from different versions of the same album

Have you ever bought singles from an album and then decided to buy the album outright, only for iTunes to not give you access to all the tunes that you paid for because you already own a different version of some of the tracks? That's what has happened here...

What a pain in the backside this is.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Dramatising natural history documentaries

'Natural history can be pretty dramatic' (Steve Hewlett, 8/1/2014)

I was listening to the BBC Radio 4 programme, The Media Show, this morning in which an interesting discussion took place between the host Steve Hewlett and Wendy Darke, the head of the BBC's Natural History Unit. The discussion revolved around the extent to which the new BBC prime-time natural history series, Hidden Kingdoms, was built upon artifice.

The series starts on January 16th 2014 on BBC1 - check out the trailer below:

This is a show that has been two years in the making and focusses on the lives of very small creatures, who are very difficult to record in their natural environment. Consequently, in order for the production team to reveal the lives of these diminutive animals they have had to resort to using controlled situations and have filmed captive animals, sometimes in studios, shot against blue-screens so that the 'drama' of their lives can be revealed.

Hardly natural?

The BBC has come under fire from certain quarters of the news media in recent years, especially when it comes to deceiving the public in it's natural history output. Much was made in the press about the 'fake' polar bear birth sequence in the Frozen Planet (2011) series. In that series, a polar bear family was followed in the natural environment, but the scenes of the animal giving birth were actually of a different bear who was housed in a Dutch animal park, in a purpose built enclosure that allowed for unprecedented camera access. Even the snow was fake. However, the viewing public would not have been able to easily distinguish between the natural and artificial sequences, leading to questions of duplicity and declining viewer trust.

At the time the BBC revealed that such staging of footage was common-place amongst natural history output. In an interview on the UK TV show This Morning, Sir David Attenborough responded to the criticism and suggested these sequences were not designed to mislead the public - rather, they were used to enhance the audience's understanding of the animal's lives.

The question is, during the middle of this scene when you are trying to paint what it is like in the middle of winter at the pole, to say, 'Oh, by the way, this was filmed in a zoo.'
It ruins the atmosphere, and destroys the pleasure of the viewers and destroys the atmosphere you are trying to create. It's not a falsehood and we don't keep it secret either. But to say actually in the middle of that sequence, I mean how far do you take this?
Do you say this is a penguin, but actually it was a different penguin colony than this one and this one is a different one? Come on, we were making movies.

At the end of the first episode of Hidden Kingdoms there is a 10 minute sequence that explains the various types of filmmaking techniques that have been employed to create the documentary footage contained within the main show. This is something the BBC have been doing for quite some time in relation to their natural history output, going at least as far back as Planet Earth (2006). Indeed, it's arguable that these short featurettes have become a staple part of the BBC natural history output, and speak to the twin-pronged audience desire to know about the natural world as well as the challenges of capturing the exotic footage presented.

Upfront honesty?

In the Media Show interview, Darke responded to Hewlett's criticisms that the show does not reveal the levels of artifice for dramatic purporses to the audiences in advance by suggesting that production is very honest with the viewers via the 'making of' featurette, as well as via information contained within the show's website. Indeed, viewers are warned in advance that special filming techniques have been employed - providing they visit the BBC's media pack for the show.

However, the level of detail revealed in the media pack is underwhelming. Here's an extract from the website that details the extent to which the material presented in artificial:
What is it like to be a dung beetle caught in an earth-shaking wildebeest stampede? Or a mouse facing a tsunami-like flash flood, which to us would be nothing more than a gentle trickle? Combining their skills as wildlife filmmakers with blue-screen filming allowed the team to recreate real-life events as experienced by the animal stars, giving viewers a unique new perspective on these dramatic worlds within worlds.
When listening to the interview between Hewlett and Darke, it becomes clear that animal runs were built and captive creatures were forced into contexts that didn't occur naturally.  Nevertheless, the BBC are clearly anxious to not fall foul of the same criticisms levelled at it circa Frozen Planet. This level of transparency is clearly an attempt to address earlier failings. However,  this hasn't always worked, as Mark Lawson has pointed out:
I think that there is a problem with the methods used and that it has only been increased by the openness about what has been done. Watching the show is like living with a liar: you start to question everything.
Lawson goes on to discuss the privileged position that viewer of natural history programmes finds themselves in - namely, that they want and expect to be stunned with footage that seems almost unbelievable. Given the extent to which Hollywood-driven CGI has become a staple part of our filmic culture, it may not be surprising to see such techniques being employed in nature documentaries. Indeed, it may be exactly what is required in order to keep this type of flagship programming at the heart of the television schedules.

All documentary is constructed 

What seemed to be absent from the debates around these shows and their varying levels of authenticity or artifice is an acknowledgement that all factual forms are constructed and can never give direct access to the real. While I understand that natural history programming fits within traditions of public service broadcasting and realist aesthetics, it doesn't negate the fact that the editing together of images from multiple cameras, overlaid with some kind of explanatory narration, fosters an environment in which audience interpretations of events are being carefully cultivated - often in a highly narrativised and in an anthropomorphic manner.

Whenever debates around documentary and artifice take place I can't help but think back to Bill Nichols's work on the varying modes of address within the genre (especially chapter 6) and their implications for audience understanding. Nichols identified 6 different modes of address or 'inflections'.

Whenever I see the BBC evoke the making of featurettes at the end of their programmes, I am reminded of Nichols's 'Reflexive Mode' which calls attention to the assumptions and conventions that govern documentary filmmaking. Typically, this mode increases audience awareness that what they are watching is a constructed re-presentation of reality rather than unfiltered access to the real.

The easiest way to explain this idea is by means of a comparison. I frequently use a cropped version of Rene Magritte's painting 'The Treachery of Images' in classes where I remove the text 'Ceci nest pas use pipe' and ask my students what they are looking at.

If the students haven't seen this example before, they usually say that what they can see is a pipe, before I tell them that they are wrong. They are looking at a painting of a pipe.

If they have seen the example before and say it's a painting of a pipe then I usually tell them they are wrong again. They are looking at a version of the painting that has been captured as a digital file before being recompiled and projected onto a screen so that it resembles a painting of a pipe. Never did Walter Benjamin's essay, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' from 1936 seem more prescient.

It's not a huge leap from Magritte to Jean Baudrillard's examples of Disneyland as hyperreal America (in Simulation and Simulacra, 1981) and the claim that first Gulf War did not happen (in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, 1991) - despite the documentary evidence to the latter that an event called the Gulf War did take place in Kuwait in 1991. However, Baudrillard's point was about the way in which the images of that war were mediated to construct a version of events many times removed from the actuality of the incident (watching laser-guided Maverick missiles explode over featureless targets via cockpit videos).

The point that I am making is that the interview that opened this post seems to assume that there is a way to accurately represent the reality of the natural world that is somehow free from the problems of representation and narrative construction. Access to an objective reality becomes increasingly problematic and untenable once we acknowledge that all media forms are subject to certain types of artifice - whether deliberately acknowledged or not.

Still, the debate in The Media Show will be a helpful teaching aid for anyone wanting to quickly cut to the issues of documentary. We all love a little bit of 4K/HD 'nature porn' while we are sat in front of our big screen flat-panel televisions made of rare earth materials that may have been mined in conflict zones around the world, from unsustainable sources.

At least we get to watch the lovely, pretty pictures.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Ministry of Sound sues Spotify over user-curated playlists

Ministry of Sound 2041
Source: Atatiwa, CC
If you have an interest in the music industry and its business models in the networked era, there's a couple of articles worth reading over at today that concern music streaming service Spotify. Spotify has been on the receiving end of negative criticism in recent months for the amount of money that artists receive from their labels for playback, as well as flak regarding the longterm viability and profitability of music streaming services. Some of the criticism may be fair but there are a few voices who think Spotify might actually be beneficial to the industry. Nevertheless, let's take a look at the Ministry of Sound case.

The first of which is by Stuart Dredge who reports that the some time night club and record label, Ministry of Sound, is seeking damages against Spotify for allowing its users to create their own playlists which ape the ordering of tracks that appear on their releases, and which may also include the name 'Ministry of Sound' in the title. This last point is significant as Spotify users can now search the service for such a term and easily locate these user-compiled playlists. The label's argument appears to be that these playlists are an infringement on their intellectual property.

It's worth noting that Ministry of Sound does not licence its releases to Spotify as the streaming service's business model seeks to remunerate the copyright owners of musical recordings, whereas compilations compiled and curated by Ministry of Sound would not benefit the label in question as many of the featured tracks are owned by other labels (which Ministry of Sound has had to pay a sum in order to licence for their
Ministry of Sound launched proceedings in the UK High Court on Monday, and is seeking an injunction requiring Spotify to remove these playlists and to permanently block other playlists that copy its compilations. The company is also seeking damages and costs.
Chief executive Lohan Presencer claims that his company has been asking Spotify to remove the playlists – some of which include "Ministry of Sound" in their titles – since 2012
So let's be clear here: 
  1. Spotify has agreements in place with the relevant owners of tracks that have also been used by the Ministry of Sound in a series of compilation albums. 
  2. Ministry of Sound and Spotify have no licensing agreements
  3. Users of Spotify have sourced licensed tracks and complied them in playlists using 'Ministry of Sound' as an identifiable search term
  4. These user playlists may feature tracks in the same order as the Ministry of Sound releases
  5. There's no guarantee that the tracks in these playlists are the exact same tracks (ie same track length, same remix, etc) that feature on the compilations.
The second article worth looking at is a blog post written by Lohan Presencer, written to accompany the announcement to sue Spotify. The article itself is riddled with errors or disingenuous claims:
iTunes is now the largest music retailer in the world with 575 million customers and annual sales of $23bn. It is the main source of income for every record company on earth. Not only that, Apple built its hardware business on an iTunes foundation – iPods, iPads, iPhones. Not a penny of the sales of which were shared with record companies. 
Forgive me for being pedantic here but this claim needs qualifying. Apple did not build its hardware business on an iTunes foundation - at least not exclusively. iTunes did precede the iPod by about 8 months (released in the US in 2001), however in its original inception it was a tool for moving files from one device to another. The iTunes Store was not created for some time after that, coming to the US in April 2003 and to the UK in June 2004. Granted, sales in the iPod began to grow rapidly after 2004 with the 4th generation of devices capable of storing up to 40GB of music - enough to carry most people's music collections. 

It was hardware iteration that was key to the success here. It seems bizarre that Presencer should claim otherwise whilst also going on to note that this hardware success was not shared with record companies. Should Denon or Technics share their hardware revenue with record companies because they facilitate the consumer in being able to play their CDs or vinyls? Similarly, the success of the iPhone and the iPad have very little to do with music and more to do with devices' multiple functionality (internet access, telecoms, applications, photography, etc).

Presencer goes on to critique Spotify for failing to make a profit despite being heralded as the 'ultimate counter attack to piracy'. Perhaps the company can be forgiven for struggling to make a profit 5 years after launch given the costs of launching a new business in 24 countries, with all the various regional licencing and legal costs associated with such a venture. Spotify claims to pay out 70% of all its revenue to rights holders. Given how notoriously difficult it has been for newcomers to enter the hermeneutically sealed world of the music industry, it's no surprise that profitability is an issue. Only time will tell as to whether or not the 24 million active customers can be converted to paying customers.

Presencer then goes on to critique Spotify for its PR strategy:
Spotify is addicted to PR, its oxygen of growth. Favourable comparisons to Apple and positive reports of industry data showing exponential growth of streaming revenue are its lifeline. Yet what the believers fail to tell you is that published streaming figures include advertising revenue from YouTube, the great hidden free music streaming service.
What is the purpose of this comparison to YouTube? Are they also to be criticised for under paying artists for streams? There's very little stopping users of YouTube from creating Ministry of Sound playlists on YouTube and inserting the brand 'Minsitry of Sound' into the title, for example:

Perhaps Presencer is unaware that this can and does already happen? I'm sure he can't be that naive. The difference with the YouTube model here is that many of the songs that appear in these playlists are ripped from radio shows or uploaded via users rather than having been officially licensed (as Spotify does). Is YouTube the enemy of piracy here?

The final point worth examining relates to how much Spotify contributes to the musical economy of the UK:
According to BPI annual figures, UK record company revenues in 2011 were £795m. Total paying UK Spotify customers at that point could be reasonably estimated to be no more than 250,000. At £10 a month that's total net income of £25m. About 55% of this is paid through to record companies, £13.75m - less than 2% of total industry income
Ignoring the envelope math here (is it 55% or 70% paid to labels) and the outdated figures (Spotify had only been in the UK for 2 years at this point so was a niche player), Presencer seems to have an issue with a young company generating 2% of the total UK music industry's revenue! This beggars belief. Would he be happier if this was revenue lost to piracy? Given that attitude and behaviour change tends to develop quite slowly, Spotify and services like it should be held in slightly higher regard for their attempts to provide a better (for the industry if not the artists) alternative to piracy against a background wherein it is very easy to access music without paying for it.

A solution?

Presencer's gripe seems to be more to do with the fact that compilation curators like Ministry of Sound do not benefit from streaming services because they don't fit the business model that seeks to reward the owners of the music. The simple solution is sue and hope for success so that a service like user generated playlists in Spotify has to removed, thus making the product inferior. Or at least, nuke the ability to search for use playlists. If this does happen, then it might damage the usefulness of Spotify and subsequently, its ability to generate revenue for an ailing industry. I hope this doesn't happen as creating and sharing playlists is part of what makes Spotify a service I'm willing to pay for.

A more complex solution would be to ensure that the Ministry of Sound has to be remunerated and they could do this by ensuring that their compilations featuring tracks that they own the rights to thus making it impossible for Spotify playlists to ever be exactly like the official release (not that this is guaranteed anyway - see #5 above). Ministry of Sound used to produce tracks - I know because I bought them in the 1990s when the brand was building on its 'super club' status. It's often said of the tech industry that companies become more conservative as they age, become less willing to take risks and are more likely to sue than to innovate. Companies in this industry need to be agile and innovative if they want to stay ahead. Maybe Ministry of Sound can go back to innovating.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Why did Microsoft borrow Sony's PS3 playbook for the XBox One?

Having spent a few minutes pouring through my RSS feed reader and various social networks it seems like E3 is the place where Microsoft seem to have compounded the problems they started with their awful reveal event back in May.

Back then, not only did they drive the point home that the XBone was going to be a home entertainment system but they issued some rather bizzare messages about the system's (in) ability to play used games - something which forced them into addressing with a series of follow-up announcements. Meanwhile, Sony just sat back and did, well, very little. All it had to do was not repeat what Microsoft was doing.

The overall feeling many gamers were left with was one of confusion and bewilderment, but we all expected that E3 would be the place were the real battle for the next generation of games consoles would be fought. And it seems like Sony may have won the first round.

Microsoft's new console appears to be coming in as a home entertainment system that hooks up to your cable TV box, replete with some potentially limiting Digital Rights Management (DRM) software, a camera that wants to watch you and spy on you 24/7 (except in Germany where this is illegal). It must be connected to the internet once every 24 hours even if you want to play single-player games (to check with the DRM software - you're not a thief are you?), and will not let you trade in your physical copies of video games once you've decided you never want to play them again. It's not backwards compatible either.

All this for a price of $499/€499/£429 - it looks like Europe and the UK just got shafted on the price as $499 currently exchanges at £320. £109 for import and tax differences seems steep.

No doubt Microsoft has a variable pricing strategy planned, where they will be able to partner up with companies like Sky, Virgin or BT in order to sell the machine for less than that as long as a subscription is taken out. Or at least you'd hope they have something like this planned. Judging by the awful way in which they've handled their reveals to date, you can't be sure.

This just doesn't seem to be the Microsoft I expected. I figured that the strong performance of the Xbox in the US and the UK would mean that they were going to convert a lot more Sony gamers to their cause with their new machine. I for one was expecting to be converted. However, now I'm not so sure.

Given that the Windows phone, the Windows tablet market and the Windows 8 sales have all been very disappointing, you'd have thought they'd go out all guns blazing in order to secure the next generation of gamers to their cause. But instead, they look like they are going to fight an uphill battle.

Sony's new PS4 console is likely to launch around the same time, will pack as big a tech punch as its rival (if not bigger with that GDDR5 RAM), will retail for £349, isn't region locked, will allow games to be swapped or sold, and has lots of indie developers on board. It's also not backwards compatible either, but there are indications that PS3 games will be available via their Gaikai streaming service. Oh, and its 500 GB hard drive can be swapped out and upgraded anytime. The amazing PS+ service also carries over from PS3 to PS4.

It just seems like Microsoft have borrowed from the playbook that informed the original Sony PS3 launch: announce the machine late and at a price point way in excess of its competitor, whilst focussing on it as a media centre rather than a games machine.

This time around Microsoft are going to be competing with a rival that has a very similar hardware configuration. Last time around, the PS3 was notoriously more tricky to develop games on due to its custom Cell CPU and memory management. Microsoft also had a year head start on its rival. It has no such luxury this time around.

This time, Sony has attracted the smaller PC developers to their cause, emphasising the similarity of their (slightly) more powerful machine. It's also managed to convince bigger developers that anything a PC can do, the PS4 can do - and easily from a developers standpoint.

I was planning on switching to Microsoft's platform at the start of the year. Now, I'm not so sure.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A lament for physical media: Daft Punk's Random Access Memories (CD edition)

The last couple of weeks have been testing times. Really, they have. As a long time fan of Daft Punk (I saw them in '97 at the Mayfair in Newcastle) it's been tricky to avoid their carefully planned promotional strategy for the release of Random Access Memories. There's been the constant radio airplay of 'Get Lucky', there's been the teaser tracks, the ad spots, the full album stream via iTunes, etc. Let's just say the hype has been building for a while (check out Billboard's timeline here).

This has made it difficult to resist the allure of the various pirate offerings. There was the video that was compiled by fans using clips from the various Coachella adverts and Saturday Night Live spots. Then there were the various iTunes live stream audio captures of differing quality appearing all over the web. The official release of Get Lucky was prompted by an illegal leak captured from a Dutch radio station, forcing the hand of Columbia into releasing the single early.

Nevertheless, I purchased the single through iTunes and not long after I pre-ordered and paid for the iTunes LP (Mastered for iTunes) version for the sum of £8.99. I had succumbed to the hype, and on release day the album was pushed to my iPhone, my iMac and my Macbook so that I could enjoy the official release whereever I went.

However, I do have to admit to having downloaded the album in advance of this official release. I've tried all sort of versions: the supposed CD rip (Columbia / 88883716862 / CD), the WEB rip (Columbia / USQX913001 / WEB), the vinyl rip (Columbia / USQX913001 / Vinyl), and the special mastered version (Qobuz 24-bit / 88.2 kHz Édition Studio Masters / WEB). However, I much prefer the sound quality of the iTunes version. It's just a shame that if I wanted to buy the Japanese bonus track 'Horizon' I'd have to pay for an expensive imported CD (£22 registered airmail) or resort to piracy (Sony Music Japan / SICP 3817 / Japanese Edition + Bonus Track / CD).

It's an ethical nightmare

I'm a fan. I'm a fan who also loves the album - I will gladly hand over my money for Daft Punk product. However, I'm not keen on the excessive import/postage costs for 1 track alone. I want to legally purchase this music but it seems ridiculous that in the era of digital networks and near zero-distribution costs that such a disproportionate barrier exists.

And it gets worse...

It would seem that the availability of the UK CD release is less consumer-focussed than it could have been. Forgive me for sounding like a digital dinosaur (CDs are digital, right?) but I actually like to own physical media like CDs - even if I seldom play them - primarily because I've suffered several hard-drive failures over the years and lost large sections of my digital music collection. Secondly, I don't like the idea of being tied to Apple's proprietary compressed music format for the rest of time. Can I take this with me if I switch to a different device (Window Media Player? PS3?). At least with the CD, I can control the format and codecs I prefer in a few years time (without having to transcode the media and reduce the audio quality). Thirdly, it's a lot nicer to listen to CDs though my high fidelty audio setup than it is to listen to compressed music.

So if I want to buy Random Access Memories on CD I can use Google Shopping's search tool to find me a copy from Sainsbury's for £8.99. This is a price I'm happy to pay but where's the competition? Google Shopping doesn't even search most of the big providers. Tesco and Asda are both charging £10. Morrisons sell it for £10 but they don't have an online purchase option! What is this? The 1990s?

It seems like the supermarkets are the only physical music retailers left. This is okay if you are after something that's likely to chart but what about the leftfield music? HMV and Virgin are dead. has become a glorified market place where smaller providers offer products, often with a lack of detail or item description, and questionable feedback scores. Zavvi have stopped selling CDs altogether.

I guess I could always go to everyone's favourite tax avoider, Amazon (I will not link to them), but I find it morally repugnant to pay them £9.99 for a product when I know they'll go out their way to avoid paying corporation tax. CD-Wow were caught out by the Channel Islands tax loop-hole being closed down, so WowHD replaced them and they have the best price at £7.99.

So, I can buy the CD at a reasonable price but only because I know where to look (I'm not wanting to pay £19 Littlewoods!). But does everyone? And are people being offered a fair price for their supposedly obsolete media? As physical formats become less and less relevant to the consumer they'll inevitably become rarer as demand decreases, forcing the price up. This looks like its happening right now. I find this rather sad, but predictable. I guess we can always pay perpetual fees to access rather than own


It seems I may need to clarify a few things about my initial whine:

My whinge here is partly about the death of the high street music retailer - I admit I didn't make that clear enough. I can go buy this album from a supermarket as it's a certainty to chart (the bookies recently slashed the odds on it being the biggest album of the year) but I've struggled to buy a less renowned artist, like Deerhunter (Monomania), from Asda or Tesco. I used to rely on specialist music stores to provide me with my physical media. Failing that, I'd go to the usual suspects (Play, Zavvi etc) who are also on the wane (Amazon excluded).

My initial lazy searches only turned up 3 recognisable UK stores selling the CD (Sainsbury's, Amazon and Littlewoods) with prices from £8.99 to £19.00. There was another company called, but I've no idea if they are reputable. Apparently they've been around for  decade but this was the first time I've heard of them. showed up but they are Canadian based and postage is an issue.

Amazon are hardly offering music at a competitive price on all their products. After some digging around I found alternate prices: 25% cheaper in the end. This does matter to me at least. I actually spent more than I expected as I found some other bargains. I ended up buying 4 CDs for £30 rather than 3 meaning I could support more musicians, admittedly at a lower royalty rate. Then again, the royalty rate on CDs is better that than that on digital releases. The Gowers Report (2006: p51) showed that artists get 8%  from digital sales (less than the credit card company who handles the transaction!) while they get 9% from CD sales. This is marginal when dealing with one consumer (ie me) but the problem is scaleable. The shift to digital distribution is not always a best case scenario for creators.

Returning to Amazon, if you are the one-stop shopping destination for a substantial amount of internet consumers then monopolistic practises tend to occur. This is not my point by the way, it's one made in the BBC series The Virtual Revolution, in relation to sector market leaders becoming dominant (eg Facebook in social, eBay for auctions, Amazon for entertainment goods, etc) .

However, it's also about the death of the recognisable online retailer who used to provide me with many varied pricing options for my favoured consumer products. Put simply, I hate that it now takes more effort to find the things that I like when it used to so much easier.

It's easier to just buy the album via iTunes (even though Google Play and Amazon's MP3 store are offering it cheaper) - which I did. However, just because it's easier doesn't make it convenient or flexible. I still wanted the physical CD (which I have also purchased from HDWow) so that I can play the uncompressed sound through my Arcam/Mission/Marantz stereo.

A plea for help...

For the record, I can't get these 256 kbps .aac files to play in Windows Media Player without transcoding and making the lossy format even worse. If iTunes sold Apple Lossless (.alac) files then I'd be happy to batch encode them to .wav (well, actually, happy is not the best disruptive term for the process). If anyone has some helpful solutions for this issue then I'd be grateful for your advice. Likewise, I'd appreciate advice on how to get these .aac files to play on my Sony Playstation 3 without a reduction in quality. I suspect the answer is the CD ripped to .wav though...