Saturday, 24 December 2011

Merry Christmas Music Industry

It's been a while since I last posted (work has been intense!), but I thought I'd get a festive post in before the new year. As the year ends there have been many things related to music and the copyright industry for people to get their teeth into: the MegaUpload video controversy; the safe harbours provision debate for Grooveshark; the ongoing arguments around SOPA and the threat to Domain Name Servers accused of hosting content protected by copyright...

On top of this though, there are some positive steps being taken by the music industry to give internet users what they want when they want it (competing with piracy?). I found myself becoming a fully paid up subscriber to Spotify Premium this year (£9.99 per month) and am now enjoying it on my Macbook, iPhone and Tivo box. I'm also waiting for Apple's iTunes Match (£21.99 annually) to filter the first 25,000 tracks in my library before seeing if I can add the other 15,000. Then there's Google Music, but I guess I'll wait and see what the UK provision is like before committing myself to another digital service.

That I've paid for these services may not be a surprise to anyone who read my series of posts in which I tracked my expenditure on music products and services for a year. However, I have found myself being a little conflicted about the value of these services - £10 per month is the same price you can pay for a seedbox and VPN package by which you can download, store and access all manner of torrented materials.

Guilty relief?

Nevertheless, I've come to think of these subscriptions as a form of mild guilt-relief for any form of consumption that might be viewed by others as not strictly legal. I'm not sure I get the full £9.99 per month use out of my Spotify subscription as there are many artists that I love that are missing from the service. Similarly in the filmic consumption space, my £14.99 per month subscription to CineWorld's Unlimited Card hasn't been great value for money when I go less than twice per month as they don't usually get the more obscure weekly releases. I also pay for Virgin Media's most expensive TV package (£24.50 per month) despite never watching any live TV.

I've found myself spending more money this month on second-hand vinyl albums including the spinning wheel version of Led Zeppelin's III album (£25!) than I have on digital services. I guess I should feel guilty in this consumption too, as none of that cash will find it's way back to the struggling artists - at least this is the rhetoric of the games industry about resales. However, I don't. I shall never feel guilty about purchasing tangible objects, even if they are old Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground or Crosby, Stills and Nash records (I feel older than I am!).

In the brave digital future physical music might be dead but at least, for now, I can hang it on my wall.


Merry Christmas music industry!

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Blogging case study: a site map

Back in September Andrea Wren started a series in Guardian Money about how to build and monetise a successful blog. She drew on expert advice from 22 year old blogging genius, Glenn Allsopp, from Newcastle. He is the owner of ViperChill and a successful web-entrepreneur who earns £10,000 per month from his online activities.

Every fortnight, Wren has been updating readers with her progress as she tries to carve out a successful niche (check out her progress here). Allsopp has also been providing excellent advice on how to take the plunge into the murky waters of successful blogging over on his Blogging: Case Study site and plans to update readers over the next 6 months as to the progress.

Readers have also been encouraged to sign up for a news letter to the site to get more detailed help on 'how to' make their own sites - indeed Neil Perryman recommended that our students on MED102 and MAC195 to sign up and follow the progress given that we've been encouraging the students to setup their own sites.

One of the problems I've found will Allsopp's otherwise excellent site is it's lack of obvious navigation for those readers coming in a little late. There is some navigation on the site, but it only seems to be available from within one of the sections. This post is an attempt to rectify that issue as well as make it easy for me (and my students) to jump in and out

Niche
Point One: Deciding on your blog niche
Point One: We're not trying to attract everyone

Domain
Point Two: Deciding on a domain name
Point Two: Setting up hosting

Design
Point Three: Your blog design
Point Three: Theme and design resources

Plug-ins
Point Four: Getting your blog ready for visitors
Point Four: Final blog tweaks and recommended services

Strategy
Point Five: Your blogging strategy
Point Five: Standing out

Post Ideas
Point Six: Generating content ideas
Point Six: Examples of popular blog posts

More to follow...




Thursday, 10 November 2011

Cheap CD tax loophole to close

Reports that the Treasury is to close the loophole that some online retailers have exploited in order to import CDs into the UK without having to pay VAT have been greeted with cheers from some quarters of the music industry this week. But I can't help feel that it's not something to feel that positive about.

Mail order businesses (like Play.com, CD-Wow, The Hut, etc) who can afford to setup in the Channel Islands have been able to circumvent the requirement to pay Low Value Consignment Relief (LVCR) on items that used to cost under £18 will, as of April 1st 2012, no longer be able to undercut businesses based on the mainland.  Apparently, this costs the UK £140m a year in lost tax and receipts.

Over the years many current high-street stores have established bases in the Channel Islands, allowing them to ship their goods to there for repackaging purposes in order to escape paying the tax. Indeed, even HMV does this, allowing them to undercut the process in their own high street stores, many of which are under threat due to the supposed slowing demand for expensive physical products in an era of free music via piracy or legal streaming services like Spotify, We7 or Napster.


There have been active campaigns to cut out the VAT-free loophole by groups like the Retailers Against Tax Abuse Scheme. Their spokesperson, Richard Allen has claimed
"This round tripping mail order industry, whilst popular with consumers, has destroyed or damaged scores of viable job-creating businesses on the UK mainland ... The removal of this major market distortion should be welcomed by all UK businesses that wish to trade online"
And here is the rub - I fail to see how beneficial it is to render the cost of CDs to a sum 20% greater than that which can be currently paid? It certainly means that customers might buy less music in a given period if there are additional pressures on their purse strings. This would have a knock-on effect for some artists and labels in that more tax equals less purchases and therefore less money finding its way up the royalty chain.

I understand the argument about taxes going back into the Treasury coffers - I'm assuming their economic analysis has predicted the fall in total sales of physical units. I don't see how Allan's argument will hold up though. Businesses that want to sell CDs online will still have to charge the extra task to the consumer, who will in all likelihood spend less. Even if Tesco has to pay tax on their goods they will have the economic klout available to undercut independent music stores via cross-subsidising.

In the mean time, quite a few employees in the Channel Islands will be made unemployed.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The colourful history of video games [infographic]

Over at COLOURlovers there's a very attractive infographic which ties in nicely with some of the issues I was talking about in one of our undergraduate modules last week (MAC129 and MED102), when we looked at the historical representations within video games. I thought some readers might like the infographic too. The artists responsible for this is Darius A Monsef IV. For the best view, click here:


Friday, 21 October 2011

10 ideas for the future of digital music

A few days back Bobby Owsinksi, musician and author of the book Music 3.0 - A Survival Guide for Making Music in the Internet Age, posted a series of ideas regarding the future of digital music. These ideas came from some slides prepared by the J. Walter Thompson ad agency (see the slides below):

Some of the major claims in the original slides have been summarised by Owsinski:

1. Access Over Ownership: The tide has turned on subscription music and we will all soon prefer to stream our music from a subscription service rather than buy it and download it.
2. Capturing Over Collecting: Instead of collecting records, CDs and digital downloads of our favorite music as we did in the past, we'll now capture where we can find the music online instead.
3. The Celestial Jukebox Is Here: Services like Spotify and MOG have captured our musical imaginations thanks to instant access to millions of songs and a new way to discover new music.
4. The Battle Of Personalized Radio: We're at a tipping point of how we consume music, especially via the radio. Personalization of what we listen to is the key to the future of music consumption.
5. The MP3 Player- RIP: With the massive shift to streaming subscription music, the days of the MP3 player are numbered.
6. Coming Soon To A Device Near You: Internet music access will soon be commonplace in the car and home entertainment gear.
7. Sharing Your Playlists Will Reach A Tipping Point: While personalization from a service like Pandora is getting better, it still can't beat what a human can come up with. Soon all companies will make available our playlists so that we can see what our friends are listening to.
8. The Facebook Effect: Listeners connected via Facebook have initially been found to be a lot more engaged, therefore Facebook can actually amplify the effects and popularity of a song or artist, becoming a new avenue for breaking an artist or for promo.
9. They'll Be A New Set Of Influencers: Bloggers have held sway over the popularity of an artist or blog until now, but that influence will be decreased thanks to a new set of music experts, thanks in part to Google's new "Magnifier."
10. Aggregators Help Music Discovery: New aggregator services like WeAreHunted.com or TheHypeMachine.com will collect data from around the web to help consumers discover what's new.
Most of these points I can agree with but there are a couple of issues that could do with being further clarified or reconsidered. In a series of Generator events I've attended over the last couple of years, the issue of paying for access to music rather than paying to own music (CD, mp3, etc) has been well covered by prominent figures in the business of providing such services.  

My gripe with the first point is mainly with the sweeping claim that "we will all soon prefer to stream our music from a subscription service rather than buy it and download it" - there will always be a market for purchases or downloads (ie ownership). Streaming services like Spotify and We7 are great at what they do but they are inevitably incomplete and frequently disappointing when you can't access the content you want. 

There are several instances where ownership is preferable to access:
  •  If you want to make a home video of your holidays for personal consumption featuring some background music that reminds you of that trip, then naturally, a streaming service is wholly inadequate. It's not like you can drop a live stream into your video editing software.
  • If you remotely interested in making digital music or performing digital music (DJ, VJ, etc) then you will need to own the music you play. It's not so easy to pitch up or down a streaming track, or beat match a stream for cross-fading.
  • Streaming content is great in areas of universal wifi and fast-paced mobile data networks, but glitches in the network or coverage black spots can be frustrating. The next generation of 4G, Wimax, LTE, etc networks are a while off yet. Even when they do arrive, they need to be competitively priced or streaming whilst being mobile will struggle to replace tracks stored on the portable device.  This issues feeds directly into the seventh point too.
The final two points suggest that sites like the HypeM and aggregation services will replace the influence of bloggers. The problem with this assertion is that the HypeM is a service that aggregates what music bloggers are talking about - without the bloggers there will be no aggregation, unless the service morphs into something else entirely.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Angry Bird Addiction [infographic]

Anyone with a smart phone since 2009 has a good chance to have played the Rovio game Angry Birds. There's also a very good chance that if you have played it once, then you'll have played it again. This is the game that has been downloaded more than 300 million times and is one of the world's favorite time-killers. If you've found yourself staring and prodding at a small screen into the late hours then you might be addicted (in a good way, as opposed to the silly "media-effects" tradition whereby we play GTA and go car-jacking).

The infographic, based on consultation with psychologists, by AYTM below might help you with your addiction.  1000 people were asked about their spending habits with regards to the game and it was revealed that young men aged 18-24 were more likely to convert from a free version of the game to a costed version.

Angry Birds Addiction Infographic | AYTM
Infographic by: AYTM Market Research

Monday, 12 September 2011

The sound of inevitability

Documents (.pdf) from the Council of the European Union released today have announced what many copyright, copyleft and copyfight activists had long expected - namely that the protection given to the owners of musical productions has been extended from 50 years to 70 years.  This has the ring of inevitability as there is an established precedent for extending copyright terms whenever they come close to expiring. More often than not theses extension terms are dressed up in the rhetoric of protecting artists, but more often than not, the term 'artists' is little short of being synonymous with 'multinational corporations'.

Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group says of the matter:
Despite the rhetoric, small artists will gain very little from this, while our cultural heritage takes a massive blow by denying us full access to these recordings for another generation.
Two recent reviews by British governments (Gowers, December 2006 and Hargreaves, May 2011) have examined the support for such protection and have been highly skeptical regarding the supposed benefits further extensions offer smaller artists. The more recent of the two reviews was very clear on this point:

Copyright Term Extension
Economic evidence is clear that the likely deadweight loss to the economy exceeds any additional incentivising effect which might result from the extension of copyright term beyond its present levels.  This is doubly clear for retrospective extension to copyright term, given the impossibility of incentivising the creation of already existing works, or work from artists already dead. 
Despite this, there are frequent proposals to increase term, such as the current proposal to extend protection for sound recordings in Europe from 50 to 70 or even 95 years.  The UK Government assessment found it to be economically detrimental.  An international study found term extension to have no impact on output.
Hargreaves Review of Intellectual Property and Growth, Chapter 2, Section 2.16, page 19

PJ Harvey
PJ Harvey, 2008
© Phil King, Flickr
Whether a creative artist contemplates the economic benefit of copyright duration before they embark upon making music is hard to believe. It's unlikely that the likes of King CreosoteJames Blake or PJ Harvey (Mercury Music Prize nominees and winner respectively) contemplate creating music before deciding against it on the basis that 50 years worth of music protection is insufficient, and that they require 70 years of protection in order to ensure their creativity is realised.

Additionally, how does retroactively extending the duration of copyright terms help to incentivise musicians who have already made music? Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley, etc all made music that many people found inspirational under very different contexts, and now that they are deceased the duration of the protections afforded to the owners of their copyrighted work has been extended further - most likely to benefit the interests of bloated publishers and distributers.

The new extension does offer more protection to those musicians working in groups.  The new terms state that the "term of protection will expire 70 years after the death of the last person to survive: the author of the lyrics or the composer of the music". Given that 2012 was the year that many seminal pieces of music from the 1960s (ie The Beatles and The Rolling Stones) were due thought to be about to enter the public domain, it's perhaps inevitable that copyright protection has been extended ever further. Ringo and Paul might breathe a sigh of relief as their individual longevity benefits them both. It's a fairly safe prediction that around 2030 there will be highly vocal lobbying on behalf of the recording industry to extend the new terms to 95 years, or forever less one day.


What is worth noting from the EU Council minutes is that a number of countries did vote against the proposals (ie, Belgium, Sweden, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Slovakia and Slovenia) while a couple abstained from the vote (Estonia and Austria). This hardly reads like a unanimous vote - Directive 2006/116/EC seems to have scraped through. More than 17000 signatories also constituted a vocal part of the call to reject the extension term via the Sound Copyright campaign, but it seems like the industry has won yet another pyrrhic victory.


Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Downloading videos from YouTube tutorial [video]

Every now and then, when making presentations I like to use video material from YouTube. Usually I tend to stream the footage live online, but there are occasions when the Internet fails and you want a hard copy of the footage so you can embed it in your presentation. There's a great little browser extension called FastestTube that works with Safari, Firefox, Chrome, IE and Opera. Check out the tutorial video below which shows you how it works

The seldom told tale of software piracy [infographic]

While browsing the web I came across the following infographic put together by Starmedia which tells the a story of software piracy (it's difficult to gauge how accurate the stats are given they are taken from a select number of sources). The historical overview is pretty useful for newcomers (or people born after the late 1980s).

Who'd have thought Windows XP would be more popular to download than Vista or Windows 7? Having said that, it's not as popular as Mac OSX Snow Leopard (no serial code required) or Lion. Photoshop still rules the nest as the most sought-after software (see my earlier caveat) despite being a jewel in the Adobe crown. They themselves refer to the 'Photoshop trademark is [being] one of Adobe's most valuable trademarks'.  Despite rampant piracy (because of?!) its position as the desktop image manipulation software for professionals and aspiring designers is entrenched and must make Adobe a tidy sum.


Wednesday, 17 August 2011

How much is your silence worth?

Copyright is a funny old thing - it's meant to protect creative works and provide incentive to creativity by virtue of guaranteeing some form of property rights over works so that people will make new and original pieces of music, literature, art, etc. Every now and then the dogged pursuit of those people thought to be exploiting or violating copyright by virtue of taking something that isn't theirs and sharing it without the consent of the rights holder(s) results in some rather bizarre events.

Take for instance the strange case of John Cage's piece of experimental 'music' 4'33" - a 3-movement piece of music composed for any instrument during which the score instructs the musician to not play any music so that the audience can take in the ambient sounds of their environment. More often than not this results in silence, or at the very least, near silence. The track is well-known in the UK and was even the subject of an attempt to thwart the domination of the Christmas No. 1 slot by X-Factor contestants in 2010, catchily entitled Cage Against The Machine (after the success of the Rage Against The Machine campaign the year prior).

No doubt, some people may appreciate the artistic significance of the break in instrumentation (some of Cage's works prior to this piece feature silence prominently) while many will think of this silence as little more than an artistic prank. Nevertheless, the track has been written, recorded and performed by Cage, thus enshrining it's position within the realm of copyright. Strangely, the iTunes single version of the track is 4'39" and features some noise in the first 5 seconds, perhaps to alert purchasers to the fact the silence is 'playing'


So it was with some amusement that I stumbled across this post which points to a copyright infringement claim by Warner Music Group against a YouTube user AdamLore who posted the Cage track to the videosharing site on the 8th of November 2009.  In cases whereby rights holders dispute that users of YouTube are not entitled to share such works they can go through a series of procedures to notify the site that a violation has occurred - this tends to result in the audio being stripped from the video and oftentimes replaced with something different.  This is what happened in the case of the AdamLore video - see below:


This is not the first time that Cage's silence has been the centre of a copyright dispute.  In 2002, the British composer Mike Batt (best known in the UK as the creator of the children's TV series The Wombles) found himself at the centre of a legal dispute over the track "A One Minute Silence" on an album by his band, The Planets. Strangely enough, there was a remarkable similarity between Batt's silence and Cage's silence. This eventually led to an out-of-court settlement in which Batt handed over an undisclosed six-figure settlement to the John Cage Trust, as well as Cage being co-credited as writer of the track. At the time Batt gave a cheque to representatives of Cage's publishers Edition Peters on the steps of the High Court in London, who stated that:

We had been prepared to make our point more strongly on behalf of Mr Cage's estate, because we do feel that the concept of a silent piece -- particularly as it was credited by Mr Batt as being co-written by "Cage" -- is a valuable artistic concept in which there is a copyright ... We are nevertheless very pleased to have reached agreement with Mr Batt over this dispute, and we accept his donation in good spirit.
The point here is that Edition Peters own the publishing rights to Cage's work, not Warner Music Group, so how is it that the latter firm were able to get unofficially posted videos silenced under the guise of copyright violations?  It's not as if the AdamLore video is the only one to be silenced - there are others too (see ServeTheBeaver), suggesting that this instance might be more of a case of people poking fun at overbearing copyright. However, the notion of silence being owned is still an intriguing one.  Is this a case of copyright going too far or does it represent the justifiable rights of a copyright holder protecting their estate?

NB: it's worth reading through a few of the comments on AdamLore's video as they suggest that if someone was to upload a legally purchased version of 4'33" to YouTube the track is not automatically flagged as violating the ToS. I don't intend to do so myself but if you can confirm this I'd be happy to hear from you. AdamLore himself states that the WMG notice is a prank, serving to highlight the rather heavy-handed powers of copyright enforcement

Monday, 25 July 2011

How to back-up OSX Lion to USB tutorial [video]

In an earlier tutorial I showed how to make a bootable version of OSX Lion (10.7) on DVD for fresh installs. It's also possible to do this via a USB drive for those machines that don't have an optical drive (the Macbook Air and the most recent Mac Mini). It's a little more laboured than burning to disk.  You can find the video tutorial below:

How to back-up OSX Lion to DVD tutorial [video]

Much of the discussions surrounding the most recent Apple software upgrade (OS X 10.7)  refers to the fact that Apple are no longer shipping their product on physical media.  Well, that's not strictly true - they will be producing a $70 USB version sometime in August.  Most people will access the software after having purchased it from the App Store and downloading more than 3.5 GB of data.  This is great in that it makes for a smaller environmental footprint as there'll be less packaging and less fuel-related costs but it does have it's downsides in that you can't reformat or install without an Internet connection.

Never fear, as there is a way to make a backup copy of the software without having to upgrade from OSX 10.6 (Snow Leopard) first.  In the video below I show you how to make a bootable backup up copy of OSX Lion via DVD. It's quite easy.  Click through to YouTube for the HD video.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Rebekah Brooks at the select committee [visualisation]

The Guardian Data Blog has been playing around with ways to make sense of the text data that came out of the Select Committee this week, including uploading the transcripts of the three main protagonists to the Many Eyes web app.  You should be able to get their data and see what they've done with it here (spreadsheet data) and here (Many Eyes).

In this post I've played around with the Rebekah Brooks' transcript in order to see if there are any interesting patterns.  If anything, this was more of a personal tutorial on how to use Many Eyes than it was an attempt at any great analysis, but here's the results. It seems like the Java powering the web app might not be working via the embedded visualisations but readers should be able to click through to the source and see the ways in which the data can be interacted with.

Word Cloud



Tag Cloud (single word)



Tag Cloud (two words)



Phrase Net




Total Word Frequency (courtesy of the Guardian)

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Guess how Google makes megabucks [infographic]

I found this interesting infographic over on Wired today and thought I'd share it here. Google makes around $3 billion per month on the strength of its advertising business - here are the top 20 words that make Google rich:

Friday, 8 July 2011

Virgin Spotify users?

While the US tech/media/music press is getting excited about the imminent arrival of Spotify in the US (register your interest here), back in the UK there are plans afoot to integrate the music streaming service into Virgin Media customers subscription plans. Given that Virgin have obvious links with the music content industry, and already provides a number of on-demand music video services to customers on the more expensive television packages, then this deal (or something akin to it) is long overdue.  If this Spotfiy deal materialises it will be a welcome addition to the Virgin Media family, but there is a history of false starts and delayed promises with regards to Virgin being able to deliver.

Back in early June 2009 a number of premature announcements were made regarding a deal between Virgin and Universal Music.  Geoff Taylor of the BPI even so far as to claim the deal would help curb illegal file-sharing (although it doesn't take a genius to see how well-managed and reasonably-priced subscription deal might be beneficial to the industry more generally):
“It is very encouraging to see an ISP and a record label working together as creative partners.  At the same time, the fact that Virgin Media will apply a graduated response system to tackle persistent illegal downloaders demonstrates that graduated response is a proportionate and workable way forward."
However, after 2 years this deal had very little impact or clear outputs at the consumer level. So, it's at this juncture that some kind of deal might finally materialise.  Mark Sweeney has noted that the reason for this protracted business is because Virgin Media also had to separately agree terms with Universal Music, EMI, Sony Music and Warner Music as they have the power to veto any deal Spotify does.

It would seem that a final deal is still some way off and that it the music package won't be available to all customers.  The Register claim Virgin are planning on centring this service around their new TiVo PVR box (as opposed to their V+ HD and standard boxes). Virgin Media have announced that box will include a Spotfiy app. The TiVo service has gotten off to a shaky start if the number of price cuts are anything to go by.  The service was originally launched at a premium price of £199, but has been slashed down to £99 for the 1TB version and £49 for the 500GB box (with free installation).  Virgin Media have even took the unusual measure of refunding existing TiVo users the price difference.  

The deal does present a number of questions:
  • Will customers with existing Spotify accounts be able to connect this to their TiVo box?
  • Will the TiVo Spotify app be restricted to just one box per household/customer or will it include multiple accounts (nobody wants to lose all those carefully crafted playlists do they)?
  • What kind of pricing difference (if any) will there be between the TiVo app and the standalone versions?
So, the Spotify + Virgin deal is one with the usual caveats but there's no doubting that this is a great deal for Virgin Media customers. It also helps to challenge the market domination of players like Apple and Amazon.  This could be the start of a new phase of Spotify growth in the UK, and it'll be interesting to see how Apple responds to this (if at all) - if this partnership is successful in the UK, there's no doubt that other deals like it will be brokered in other territories.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

"Read all about it... News of the World"

The phone hacking scandal that the Guardian has been campaigning on for around 2 years (see Nick Davies investigative efforts from this point on) finally reached some kind of conclusion today with the announcement from News International that the paper is to close after its final edition this Sunday.  In addition to this former editor, Andy Coulson, is expected to be arrested tomorrow in relation to his knowledge of the paper's phone-hacking.

The paper has a long 168-year history, but it seems this is the end of the line, as Rupert Murdoch seems willing to sacrifice the best selling paper in the UK in a desperate bid to ensure that News Corp can make good on the purchase of the controlling stake in BSkyB (worth around $70 billion).  For many people, the position of the News of the World management had become untenable as more details continued to emerge regarding the hacking of phones belonging to child-murder victims (Milly Dowler), the families of the deceased 7/7 bombing victims, senior police officers as well as several high profile public figures. The stench of corruption might be too much for even this paper to come back from.

The cynic in me is still not convinced that the closure of the paper is being done for the right (moral) reasons.  It reads more like an attempt to draw a line under the affair in order to satisfy Hunt and the regulator that Murdoch and co are fit and proper people, capable of being responsible enough to own one of the crown jewels of broadcasting in Britain.  By closing down a profitable business, Murdoch is attempting to take control of the situation via a preemptive strike - drawing a line in the sand and praying that the accusations of corruption don't spread to his other UK-based publications (The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times).  Murdoch's US publications seem rather restrained with regards to the detail they are going into on this matter (see the New York Post here and the Washington Post here)

This last ditch attempt to ensure the BSkyB deal can go ahead is typical of Murdoch - he has never been afraid of taking major risks in order to get what he wants.  The investment in Sky back in its early days was almost a risk too far, potentially jeopardising his entire empire.  However, that was a gamble that paid off in the long run.  Will this one work in his favour?  Can the chief executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks', position remain tenable given that she has been found culpable of 'editorial blindness and managerial ineptitude'?


Jeremy Hunt needs to take a good long look at the ethics that underpin the News International business model before arriving at his decision. This goes further than a concern about media plurality - the issue is now more about whether or not News Corp are fit to dominate so much of the British media landscape when they've been found wanting when it comes to telling the truth.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Glastonbury 2011

This year it felt like I saw the least amount of acts at Glastonbury than ever before.  Below is a list of those that I recall catching some of:

Thursday

  • Ms Dynamite
  • A Guy Called Gerald

Friday

  • Metronomy
  • Two Door Cinema Club
  • Wu-Tang Clan 
  • Katy B
  • Bright Eyes
  • Radiohead
  • U2

Saturday

  • Tame Impala
  • DJ Yoda
  • Eva (Dub Mafia)
  • Battles
  • Chemical Brothers
  • Orbital (DJ Set)
  • Dirty Menez

Sunday

  • Foster The People
  • Paul Simon
  • Joker
  • Skream & Benga
  • Kool & The Gang

Posted via email from robjewitt's posterous

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Know How #2: Who Develops Our Artists?

In the second seminar hosted by Generator as part of ‘The Know How’ series the attention shifted away from the first event’s emphasis on platforms and getting noticed to a focus on answering the question ‘who develops our artists?’.  The underlying context for this session was to consider some of the difficulties facing the UK music industry in the current economic climate.  There is no doubt that the UK is rich in new musical talent, however, record labels no longer have the resources to develop talent as they did historically forcing the us to question who the primary representatives of artists these days.

The panel for this event represented a number of different intersecting interests.  The session was chaired by Jim Mawdsley, the CEO of Generator and the person responsible for organising the annual Evolution music festival in Gateshead and Newcastle.  The remaining guest panellists included the lead singer of the North-East band Maximo Park, Paul Smith as well as Cerne Canning of Supervision Management (the manager of Franz Ferdinand and The Vaccines) and Jim Chancellor who is the Managing Director of Fiction Records. Together they considered some of the changing roles played by artists, managers, labels, lawyers and publishers.

Artistic Development

The session opened with a discussion of what artist development means in the current climate.  Canning made the point that the industry is ‘changing very rapidly’ – the advent of digital downloading has transformed the industry and brought back an emphasis on the single.  Whereas the 1980s and 1990s were marked by an emphasis on albums as a means of artistic development and management, the current period is one wherein the demographic is driven by singles and this is making it hard to develop artists over the long term. There’s a sense of stasis amongst the labels. The threat of a format shift to streaming with an emphasis on revenue driven by subscription services has led to a situation in which nobody wants to invest in long term contracts for fear of a lack of sustainability.

This current climate is one permeated by uncertainty in the context of artistic development.  There is no end to the supply of talent and bands will always need varying degrees of development or guidance, but how that transpires depends partly on labels and partly on the artists themselves.  As labels are investing less in promotion there has to be a more going on around the band, often in the social space in order to generate interest.  Smith noted that Maximo Park were relatively fortunate with the support they received from their label, Warp, when they signed and started touring.  As a band they had no money but Warp were happy for the band to follow their artistic vision and paid for the initial ‘leg-ups’ llke the tour van and initial recording sessions, but this was mainly due to the success of their first self-released 7” single.  Other labels had wanted to get involved, and “some of the bigger record companies had wanted to manipulate” them into being something they didn’t want to be – Warp were happy for them to carry on being who they were.  According to Smith, artist development should come from the artists who should have the songs that form the basis of a great album otherwise it becomes a struggle when they find themselves in the spotlight.  The message here is that it’s crucial to have management and record companies who know what to do with the music and that it’s not wise to engage with the media process until artists are ready

Maximo Park clearly embraced a DiY approach to artistic development which can give artists a certain amount of freedom.  Chancellor concurred stating that the “wise labels” will let artists develop the way they need to.  In some regards A&R is a often thought of “as a bit of a dirty word” and that if an artist is savvy enough then there is often no need to tamper too much.  However, pop bands tend to require more A&R support than the indie bands.  Canning claims that the best artists are not subject to excessive A&R interference, citing the recent success of artists like Florence + the Machine, Adele and James Blake.  He also cited the example of Radiohead whose first album was subject to A&R guidance which enabled them to break through – the famous guitar riff in “Creep” came about due to Johnny Greenwood’s annoyance with the label’s guidance regarding their development.

Managers

Labels like artist to have an established manger these days as this minimises the risks they face when investing in artists.  Canning made the point that the experimentation of artists like Tom Whaite or John Cale in the 1980s, many of which who went on to sell very few records, would never happen today as labels are too afraid of letting artists loose in amazing studios with top producers.  Smith noted that a good manager is invaluable early on – you need to be able to trust them to tell you that the song you’ve written is good enough for everyone else:
“You end up investing a lot of trust in these people [managers] you’ve only just met… They’ve helped us do the right thing … I just write songs that I think are good and want somebody else to tell me whether they are the right ones to release as singles…
To me they all sound like singles except in an alternate reality where I’m the DJ selecting them on the radio.  A lot of my favourite records never made it to the top 10 so I’m not really the best judge of that”
When asked about the importance the role managers play in building visibility for artists Chancellor suggested that they can be “massive” or they can do  “nothing”.  Canning suggested that some managers drive the artist while sometimes it’s the artist that drives the situation, as in the case of Crystal Castles – they didn’t have a manger until well after they'd created a significant presence.  There appears to be a dearth of excellent managers currently as it’s so difficult to survive or make a living in the industry, to the point that many lawyers are starting to multitask and do the role traditionally associated with managers. Chancellor noted that one of the key skills a good manager needs is to be “in tune” with the band. He cited the example of the manager of the band, Brother, who is doing an excellent job at the tender age of 21.  He has “sniffed out” some good connections and worked his way around the business quickly.

Promotion

The discussion considered the various forms of effective promotion.  Playing live is a significant part of promoting emergent talent – trying to get onto the line-ups for some of the smaller festivals is possible but its much more difficult to break into the larger ones due to the established networks and relationships which determine these.  Mawdsley suggested that artists only need to invest in PR when they are ready to release a single.  However, many artists might find it more cost effective to do their own promotional work, as Smith did with Maximo Park’s first album (he wrote the press release).  Chancellor said that a lot of music bloggers are now filling the void left behind by the lack of label investment and they are doing the A&R work for artists.  The requirement for recording demo tapes has been replaced by uploading tracks to SoundCloud and distributing them that way.  Canning noted that labels are expecting bands to do their own marketing now and this has produced a culture of ubiquity in which a lot of the mystique of the artist has been ruined as a consequence of oversharing information.  Many bands don’t want to blog all day long, especially if it distracts them from being creative, but it can help establish a presence

Overall, the panel painted a rather pessimistic picture of the situation facing artists who want to break through into the wider public consciousness.  There were glimpses of hope in terms of what artists can do to take control of the situation but the overall take-home point is that emergent artists need to work hard and be prepared to work for nothing for a long time – it’s not feasible to expect to make it big overnight

You can find a rather poor quality audio recording of the seminar here:
The Know How: Who develops our artists by robjewitt

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Know How #1: Transmission

Radio, live transmission (Joy Division, 1979)

Yesterday saw the first in a series of public seminars ran by Generator, one of the leading music development agencies in the UK, entitled ‘The Know How’ in which a panel of industry experts discuss the latest developments within the industry.  The first panel, subtitled ‘Transmission’ was focussed on a consideration of the present and future role of music broadcasting, specifically as it applies to radio in its various forms (analogue, digital, online, etc) and how the platforms can be employed in such a way that emerging artists can get themselves noticed.

The panel comprised a high profile selection of guests from across the audio spectrum including Trevor Dann (former Head of BBC Music, writer and independent radio producer), Jeff Smith (Head of Programming at BBC Radio 2 and 6), Huw Stephens (DJ/Presenter BBC Radio 1) and Dave Haynes (Vice President of Business Development at SoundCloud).  While the first three panellists all have an obvious connection with radio, Haynes was quick to admit to feeling like somewhat of a charlatan amongst the others.  However, as many online music streaming services are opting for radio licences like We7 and Last.FM, it made sense to include the service that is increasingly being used by artists, producers and consumers alike to discover new music.  Indeed, this point was one of the first to be considered by the panel when Dann asked the audience how many of them used Radio 1 or 2 as their primary ways to discover new music (the answer: very few). When asked how many people used Radio 6 the audience response was slightly higher, but when asked how important the internet was for discovering new music the results were as expected – a unanimous sea of arms.

One of the key questions at the start of the debate involved a consideration of radio’s enduring importance as a means of connecting music lovers with new artists, something Radio 1 has been focussed on heavily in recent years ever since their ‘In New Music We Trust’ campaign began, and more recently with ‘Introducing’.  In some ways the BBC has played a large part in bringing new music to the attention of the public, especially across Radio 1, 1Xtra and 6 Music.  There is much needed promotion of emerging talent across the public service broadcaster as commercial radio, according to Smith, is ‘not bothered on a whole by new music’ – their focus is driven by hits and familiarity, which audience and advertisers alike appreciate.  For Smith the BBC ‘like to lead taste’ not follow it.

In many ways presenters like Stephens act like taste makers or gate-keepers akin to John Peel, listening to all the music, both good and band, so the audience don’t have to.  Stephens’ popular Wednesday night slot on Radio 1 gives him free reign to play what he likes and enables listeners to discover something new.  He admitted to playing music that he personally doesn’t like, but that he knows the listeners might. There was an acknowledgment that services like Spotify offer music consumers to create their own bespoke playlists to share amongst friends, enabling people to come in contact with things they’ve never heard before – radio has to compete with these trends.  He regularly gets sent music from emergent artists via email, MySpace, SoundCloud, Twitter, etc like many consumers do, many of which he will play if they are interesting enough.  Stephens sees his show as a ‘filter’ for the masses of music we come in contact with now – it has to be a varied mix otherwise people would never find new stuff they didn’t know they like.

Much of what Stephens had to say chimed with what Haynes said about SoundCloud.  The aim of the service is to push audio to people and enable people to share music.  If presenters like Stephens represent a certain type of quality filter (ie new music good enough to reach a large audience), it was suggested by Dann that services like SoundCloud are devoid of quality control yet they must have detailed information about what is popular on the site.  It was put to Haynes that this must lead to a temptation to exploit that knowledge to provide a commercially driven product to the SoundCloud user base.  However, this idea was rejected by Haynes as not being in keeping with SoundCloud’s desire to enable artists to ‘reach their audience no matter how big or small’.  Other digital services might do this already, but SoundCloud doesn’t have a ‘big discovery push’ on their service and only occasionally promoting content – mainly from small acts or undiscovered artists.

The panel spent some time discussing the merits and pitfalls for emerging artists in trying to get themselves heard.  The option to hire a plugger to promote content to presenters like Stephens or those in control of playlists, like Smith, can either be very beneficial or beset with unscrupulous people looking to make some quick money from the uninitiated.  This is where tools like SoundCloud come into their own – Haynes suggested that the amount of free or cheap digital platforms online has enabled artists to build a presence like never before, and with this presence comes an audience.  It makes very little sense to try and charge people for digital singles if you haven’t built up a loyal or interested audience.

Ultimately, the message coming out of this seminar for emerging artists is that it pays to think and act smart when it comes to trying to break through and gain attentions.  There are many ways of building and maintaining interest in new music but being creative and determined to succeed are crucial – from shooting video diaries on YouTube to doing novel cover versions of familiar tunes.  Artists have to think strategically and network with as many people as possible to build a buzz around their content

Sunday, 22 May 2011

A busy week in tech for Gateshead-Newcastle coming up

The North-East (well Gateshead and Newcastle to be precise) has a number of interesting events lined up for those with an interest in music, media and technology, hosted by Generator and Thinking Digital.

Generator

Each evening from Monday to Thursday Generator are hosting a number of free (registration required) music industry themed events as part of their "The Know How" series at Northern Stage, opposite Newcastle University Student Union.  I'll be attending as many of these events as possible and hoping to post my take on the events after each one - the wifi signal is a little poor in this venue so Tweeting might not be an option!  You can find a brief overview of the events below:

Monday 23rd - 'Transmission'

This seminar will examine the past, present and future role of music broadcasting (TV, radio and new technologies), and identify existing and new opportunities for emerging artists to get noticed.

Points for discussion:
  • The role of traditional broadcasting (radio & TV)
  • New broadcast platforms and modern music consumption (podcasts, online and DAB radio, video-sharing websites, blogs and music streaming)
  • Associated revenue models
  • How do emerging artists and businesses embrace new technologies and broadcasting platforms?
  • The changing face of regional broadcasting and consequences for emerging artists
The guest panel includes:
Trevor Dann – Independent Radio Producer
Huw Stephens – BBC Radio 1
Dave Haynes – Soundcloud
Jeff Smith – Head of Programming, Radio 2

This should be an interesting discussion. I was impressed with Dave Haynes after his appearance at a Generator event last year: he's an intelligent guy with a lot of interesting ideas around online music distribution and the challenges facing the industry.

Tuesday 24th - 'Who Develops Our Artists?'

In the current economic climate traditional models of developing talent for the UK music industry are significantly fewer but there is no let up in the amount of quality artists coming through. Record labels no longer have the resource to adequately develop talent which begs the question: Who are the primary representatives of artists these days?

Points for discussion:
  • The impact of the diversification of label services on the artist
  • Is the role of the manager outdated?
  • The consequences of inadequate artist support
  • Should central government have a responsibility for talent development?
Jim Mawdsley – CEO, Generator, Director – Evolution
Paul Smith – Maximo Park
Matt Thornhill – A&R Director at XL Recordings
Cerne Canning – Supervision Management (Franz Ferdinand manager)
Jim Chancellor – Managing Director, Fiction Records

Wednesday 25th - 'What Does "Scene" Mean?'

Reviled and relied upon in equal measure – is ‘scene’ a convenient ‘catch-all’ journalistic term or something more substantial? Guests will look at how dance and electronic music scenes develop and achieve longevity – it will examine how emergent scenes rise and what they owe (by influence or outlook) to the original operators.

Panel guests will offer their views on:

  • Myth or not? What makes a scene?
  • The impact of new influences or new entrants
  • Can it generate creative complacency?


Bill Brewster has a particular connection with Newcastle given his early connections with Forensic Records and Shindig moving on to a significant career in promoting, DJing, and journalism, where in his book ‘Last night a DJ Saved my Life’ he described Ralph Lawson as ‘Britain’s best kept secret’.

Bill Brewster – Lowlife, ‘Last Night a DJ Saved my Life’
Ralph Lawson – Back 2 Basics, 2020 Soundsystem
Luke Una – Unabombers, Electric Chair, Electric Elephant

I'm looking forward to hear from Bill Brewster as someone who has fond memories of his book 'Last Night A DJ Saved My Life' (available for a very low price on Amazon at the time I write this), amongst others. It's an enjoyable trip down memory lane, outlining some of the key events in the emergence of dance music in the UK.

Thursday 26th - 'The Beggars Group Story'

Generator is extremely pleased to have Martin Mills MBE, sole owner and Chairman of the Beggars Group take part in our ‘In conversation’ sessions with BPI Chairman, Tony Wadsworth.

Artists that Martin Mills has worked with over the years include White Stripes, Pixies, Interpol, Cat Power, Basement Jaxx, The Prodigy, Adele, Radiohead, Gary Numan, Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver, and TV On The Radio.

Mills has been actively involved in promoting the interests of the independent music sector, being instrumental in the setting up of the Association of Independent Music in 1999, IMPALA in 2000, and most recently the Worldwide Independent Network.

Tony Wadsworth, Chair of BPI, and former CEO at EMI will be asking the questions and offering his own views.

I'l be intrigued to hear from Wadsworth, perhaps more so than Mills, given the former's role at the BPI. Despite some of the conflicted messages that come out of the British body, Wadsworth has come across a bit of a pragmatist in the face of the challenges facing music distribution in the UK.

Thinking Digital 2011

This Wednesday and Thursday sees the return of the North East's premiere technology conference to the Sage Gateshead.  Last year's event was a wonderful showcase of ideas from the worlds of science, technology, digital media and much more and I was fortunate to attend.  Take a look at the video below to get a feel for that event:

Thinking Digital 2010 in 4 Minutes from Herb Kim on Vimeo.

This year my wife is going (courtesy of company sponsorship from Accenture) but my work load prevents me from attending.  The speakers look great (Gerd Leonhard and Conrad Wolfram are good value for money), as expected, and the event has sold out already so if you want get involved you can still sign up for the event webcast at the bargain price of £79+VAT.

No doubt the hastag #tdc11 will be trending on Wednesday and Thursday!

Click this link to get involved.

Now, if only I could get all this university marking out the way...

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Unexplained PSN credit card charges

When the PSN was hacked I was a little nonchalant about the whole thing, mainly because I was out the country for 2 weeks so didn't feel the impact of missing the service, and also because my bank accounts and credit card had been cancelled due to unrelated suspicious activity.  Ha!  On top of this, it was announced by Sony that the card details were supposedly protected/encrypted.

So, when there were online rumours of cards being sold on the darknets I chalked most of this up to fear, uncertainty and doubt.  I never spent much time going through my credit card charges either.  Until today.  I have one card setup for PSN purchases which gets used for nothing else, so it's pretty easy to see any unusual behaviour.  For the last couple of months, the balance has not decreased much despite over-payments so I looked at the digital receipts sent to my email account.  That was when I discovered the charges.

The charges
Thank you for your purchase with PlayStation(R)Network.
You will find a copy of your purchase details below and a link to the terms which apply to your purchase. Please print these off and keep in a safe place for future reference.
Online ID: robbo1337
Name: rob jewitt
Order Number: 218X2019X0
Date Purchased: 03/04/2011 @ 06:21 PM
Total Amount: £9.99
Item / Service Details Unit of Price
--------------------------------------------------------------------------
IP9100-NPIA09003_00-CC000000WITHFREE-EPGB Music Unlimited powered by Qriocity™ (Premium 30-day Subscription £9.99) £9.99
(Next Renewal Date: 03/05/2011 @ 06:10 PM)
--------------------------------------------------------------------------
Total Amount: £9.99
Current Wallet Amount: £0.00
This receipt clearly shows a charge of £9.99 for Sony's Qriocity music streaming service (think Spotify for Sony products).  I checked back another month and found an email dated 4/3/2011 much the same as the one above - another charge for the Qriocity service.  And it's there again on the 1/2/2011. 

Now, I've never knowingly signed up for a recurrent music streaming service.  I did install the Qriocity application when it first launched on the 2/1/2011 - I have an email saying as much.  However, I must not have noticed the terms and conditions which stipulated that they'd charge you and keep on charging you for the service.  A service I have never used past the first day.  A service that costs double that of its rivals' basic services (eg Spotfiy, Napster, We7, etc) or equal to their premium services without any of the benefit of being able to synch tracks to my iPhone or keep some audio files for good.  I'll be making use of these cancellation instructions at the earliest possible opportunity.

It turns out that it wasn't hackers who ripped me off.  No.  

It was Sony.

PSN is back up. Kinda...

In case you were sleeping (European readers!), Sony announced that they are bringing the Playstation Network back on line across a number of regions today.  This isn't expected to be the full network up and running but it is expected to be the multiplayer functionality.  If you want to check out the full blog posts then you can: click here and here.  You can also watch a video from Kazuo Hirai below explaining the situation.


You can prepare for the switch on by going over to the PS3 site and downloading the new 3.61 firmware to your computer and transferring it over to your PS3 via USB.  In my experience this process tends to be a lot faster than downloading it direct to your PS3.  Get it here.  Once you have it you need to  ensure you have a USB drive with around 200 mb of spare space that is formatted as FAT32.  Create a folder called PS3 then a subfolder called UPDATE and put the newly downloaded file in there, eg:

USB/PS3/UPDATE/PS3UPDAT.PUP

Head on over to the System Update option on the Settings field (va the XMB) and update the system via the USB storage device.  This should take about 45 seconds.  And that's it.  You can try signing in to PSN network to change your password but, currently, it appears to be still undergoing maintenance in the UK as I type.  There are instructions for how to change your PSN network password here.

The Playstation Network is undergoing maintenance

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Facebook is not conducive to effective studying, is it?

One of my students posted this infographic on, wait for it, my module's Facebook page.  The conclusion it comes to is, well, inconclusive but there are strong hints that, in its current guise, social media is more of a distraction than it is an effective learning tool.  It also suggets that some platforms are better than others for engagement in the classroom (Twitter vs Facebook). What do you think?

Is Social Media Ruining Students?
Via: OnlineEducation.net

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Spotify questions

One of my students has just asked me for some info about Spotify as part of their journalism final year project.  Whenever I do this kind of thing I like to post my answers here in case it helps any other student.  The questions are outlined below and have already been answered by Paul Carr (TechCrunch) and Kieron Donoghue (ShareMyPlaylists.com)

Q: How important is Spotify to the way we consume music both now and in the coming years, does it have a longterm future and is its business model sustainable?

A: I think Spotify is quite important to the way many Brits (and some Europeans!) currently consume music in that it's been a highly visible alternative to illegal filesharing.  Its simple to use interface and clear legality is an obvious boon to the industry in its attempt to get people to pay for music, whether that's by subscribing to one of the pricing plans, following a purchase link to their partner's service (7digital) or by paying for listener's attention via the ads.  The fact they've managed to convert around 15% of their user base (1 million people) to paying for content is remarkable in and of itself when there is some much competition for attention (both legal and illegal).

Does it have a longterm future?  I think its recent announcement that it will be limiting the amount of free streaming available to listeners (down from 20 hours per month to 10) was taken by many of the freeloaders to signal the end of their relationship with the service.  However, I think it was a necessary step in their evolution - one of the common features of new start-ups is that they need to attract a critical mass of users quickly and scale up fast.  Typically this involves making short term financial losses in order to cement a market position from which to grow - in this case giving users lots of content at little cost.  They had to make the proposition to pay more valuable if they were to grow and penetrate the US market.  There were rumours flying round that they made this change in order to appease the US labels before entering the marketplace, for fear their existing provision would cannibalise the other legitimate music services that are already fairly established there (eg Rhapsody, MOG, Pandora, etc).

Their most recent announcement regarding the purchase of music bundles and the ability to synch songs to iPods and Android phones also make it a more viable threat to Apple's iTunes, especially when buying 100 MP3s for £50 - undercutting their rival significantly.  However, it remains to be seen if this will be crucial to their long term growth as iTunes will still be needed for synching videos, photos or calendars.  It does point to the seriousness of their intent.  Many people loath iTunes because it has
become too bloated in size; Spotify is an attractive alternative to managing a music collection.  It has had to adapt in order to ensure its business model can survive - there's very little profit margin in online music services due to the licensing costs involved, so services have to be versatile.

Q: Will music streaming services like this replace downloads  legal or otherwise  and hard copies of music as the most popular medium?

A: There is some indication that the industry would like to see music streaming services take the place of (illegal) downloads, but its a nuanced issue.  The industry would like to be able to compete with free services in a manner by which they are able to make a profit.  Streaming services are potentially lucrative to the recording industry, if not so much for the recording artists.  Rights deals are still lopsided in the distribution of royalties in this regard.

Also, it makes a lot of sense to keep people paying for access to content rather than paying for something they can own forever, or at least as long as the format is viable (remember Mini-Disc?!). This is often referred to as the 'celestial jukebox' - an infinite music supply in the cloud where you pay for perpetual access without having to buy the infrastructure or manage the content (this has certainly been the tone coming out of some of the industry events I've attended in the past 12 months - see http://www.themusicvoid.com/author/rob-jewitt/).

However, there is still a lot of money to be made by having consumers pay for access (Spotify) AND paying for ownership (iTunes).  Having a mixed-market proposition has significant advantages, and this is what Spotify is currently moving towards.  As for whether or not streaming services will replace ownership of files - it's difficult to judge.  There are many music fans out there who have taken advantage of digital distribution during a period in which the industry lacked a clear direction, and have amassed huge music collections stored on inexpensive hard drives.  It's unlikely that these people will shift completely to streaming services like Spotify as there are still gaps in the collection on offer due to licensing restrictions.  Of course, one of the ways around this  is that Spotify allows you to replace import your collection into their player.  As for newcomers to digital music, it might be that they will be more likely to forgo amassing large collections of digital files in favour of streaming services, but people still like to be able to do things to their music (eg. edit tracks, make ringtones, mash-ups, use them on personal projects, etc) so streaming seems likely to be just one aspect of a more varied music diet.

Q: What do you see as its major strengths, and what are its shortcomings, if any?

A: The strength of Spotify is in its ease of use and cross platform functionality (ie the Spotify Mobile service for smartphones is well executed).  Many people aren't so bothered about trying to manage 250+ GB of music data on their computer hard-drives.

The weaknesses of Spotify are tied to the limits it places on user control of the content.  When it was primarily a streaming service there was very little you could do with it other than play tracks on demand or make/share playlists.  They've altered this proposition now somewhat with the purchasing of bundles etc.  However, there are still gaps in their library (eg no albums by house musician Gui Boratto) and this is a problem echoed across other similar services, so it's by no means a unique problem.  This comes down more to licensing deals with the majors and indies.  There's also been some vocal criticism by musicians and smaller labels about the fairness and parity of the royalties offered by such services.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Note to self #471

When jailbreaking your iPhone be sure to remember where to find the firmware:

~(home)/Library/iTunes/iPhone Software Updates

The amount of times I forget this...

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Digital Economy Act: the battle may be over...

... but the war rages on

Yesterday morning saw Justice Kenneth Parker present his ruling regarding the Judicial Review of the Digital Economy Act.  Two of the UK's largest ISPs, BT and TalkTalk, were swept aside as their attempt to persuade the court that the new law infringed web users' basic rights and freedoms as a result of the Act being passed into law without adequate parliamentary scrutiny.

All but one of the ISPs claims were overruled (the exception being the claim about the costs imposed on ISPs as a result of rights holders queries about subscribers IP addresses).  As a result, Justice Parker deemed the provisions of the Act to be consistent with EU law.  Moments like this, when severely flawed policy is rendered appropriate to the task, can leave those of us who have been vocal in their opposition to the Act feeling a little beaten.  However, now is not the time to give up hope, but a time to regroup and focus on the practicalities involved in the next stage of action.

There are still many issues that raised by the Digital Economy Act that need publicly questioning and there are several forums in which to express these concerns.  Whether the focus is on the future of open public wi-fi networks (under threat by the Act), the potential for individual privacy to be compromised by various surveillance regimes, or whether or not website blocking arrangements are a threat to future new startups or personal creativity, the war is far from over.

Peter Bradwell, writing for the Open Rights Group, has stated that the "ruling is an assessment of the Act's consistency with EU rules on how governments are allowed to legislate" - it is not an assessment as to whether or not the Act is the right tool to support digital innovation or whether it is the most appropriate policy judgement regarding the policing of 'guilty' IP addresses.  Indeed, Justice Parker's ruling seems to go against the grain of Judge Birss in the ACS Law case, in which the QC acknowledged that  evidence of an IP address infringing is different to pin-pointing a person.  It's certainly going to be interesting to see how courts will proceed with cases based on the 'graduated response' process especially given the problems of:

  • inaccuracies in the software and methods employed to detect file-sharers
  • inaccuracies in the connections made between IP address, bill payer and actual file-sharers
  • inaccuracies in the data logs kept by ISPs
The biggest problem comes from the way in which government seems beholden to the 'big numbers' game being played by effective industry lobbyists and their projections of massive losses that results in legislation being passed under false pretences.  Put simply, there is insufficient research or evidence of losses associated with file-sharing, yet that hasn't stopped the BPI's wishes making their way into the Act

The Digital Economy Act may well yet prove to have a 'chilling effect' on the content industry in the UK - such an outcome would be a travesty given the wide-spread criticism of the legislation.  In a response to a recent letter I sent to my MP, the Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt noted:
The Government does not have any in-principle objections to blocking sites set up primarily to distribute illegally-copied content. I am aware, though, that there are a number of technical issues which would need to be addressed if such a scheme were to be made to work effectively, and I appreciate that there are methods to evade blocking techniques which could be employed by websites determined to infringe copyright.
Many users of infringing sites may be unaware that the sites they are viewing carry content unlawfully, and they may find it useful for such unlawful sites to be less readily available. Therefore, I continue to believe that there is value in exploring the options.
This seems indicative of the problem - many users are unaware of infringing content (YouTube? Muxtape?) and it's questionable how the messages regarding infringement will be conveyed under this new regime.  YouTube fingerprinting software even preempts the uploading of content that might be digitally flagged as potentially suspicious.  How far will techniques like this go as content hosting intermediaries start to police their users, and subsequently, those users police themselves?


As I said at the beginning of this post, the war is still continuing even if this battle might be lost.  I'd like to cite Peter Bradshaw once again:
Bad decisions build movements against them. Whether it is ID cards or the poll tax, history is littered with examples of governments charging ahead with illegitimate ideas that are ultimately abandoned because they are wrong, and people do not accept them.
You can take part in the war.

Join the Open Rights Group.

Help fight for your digital rights.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Copyright Extension Time - Act Now

It's that time again - the push to get the copyright protection for sound recordings to 70 years is back on the cards via the European Council.  It is questionable as to whether or not such an extension will benefit many musicians. This was something I was keen to oppose back in November of 2009, so long time readers of this blog will be familiar with the arguments. If not check out the video below for details:


The most likely practical outcome of the extension is that material recorded by (now deceased) artists from more than 50 years ago will no longer make it's way into the public domain for it to be repurposed or remixed free from licensing obligations.  There's plenty of independent analysis to support a rejection of the extension terms (see the links below).


You can make a difference by writing to your MEP now.  The Open Rights Group have helpfully created an prewritten email template for you to send and they'll even find your MEPs for you.  Click through for info and support and do your bit.

This is the edited version of the email I sent my MEPs:


I am writing to you about the European Commission proposal to extend the term of copyright protection for sound recordings from 50 to 70 years.  
I am extremely concerned about the possible passing of this Directive. The economic evidence is stacked against the proposal. And it will benefit only a small number of artists and businesses - 96% of the returns will go to the big labels and a minority of the biggest artists. It will result in large parts of our cultural history being locked away. Leading IP professors, the UK government's 'Gowers  Review' of IP, and independent economic analysts have all said that extending the term of protection is unwise. 
The Financial Times called the proposal 'disgraceful' in an editorial in 2009. The University of Cambridge's Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Law concluded that 'it would be particularly inadvisable, given our present state of knowledge, for a rational policy-maker to extend the term of copyright in sound'.  
I wrote to my MEPs about a similar matter in November 2009 and since then a number of independent academic studies into copyright extension terms have been published in which they've questioned the value of increased powers, for example, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) project headed up by Joe Karaganis entitled 'Media Piracy in Emerging Economies or the work of Bart Cammaerts and Bingchun Meng of the LSE.  I will be co-conveening a series of ESF-funded exploratory workshops in Leuven, Belgium this week with several other academics from the social sciences, law and computer sciences in which we will be seeking to foster a more empirical approach to data in this area and the effects of policy changes. 
Since the Directive passed in 2009 a new Parliament has been elected. However, I am concerned that it may now pass through the Council without any fresh scrutiny or debate. I would therefore urge you to sign the request for 'renewed referral' being tabled by MEP Christian Engström (of the "Greens - European Free Alliance" group), and to oppose this damaging proposal. 
Copyfight!