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 theguardian.com 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. Play.com 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

EDIT #1

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 Base.com, 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. ScreamingCD.com 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...

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Star Wars iPhone Edits

One of the things I've increasingly found myself doing in the past year or so has been the incessant editing of images on a very small screen, typically an iPhone 4 (or more recently, an iPhone 5). Photography-based apps are some of the most regularly downloaded bits of software from the iTunes store if the iTunes charts are anything to go by.

Indeed, there is a burgeoning mass of professional and amateur enthusiasts taking to the small screen with much gusto - just witness the success of people like Richard Gray (aka @rugfoot on Twitter) who teaches courses in iPhoneography at Kensington and Chelsea College. The iPhoneography website has (unrelated to Gray) has also been around since 2008, offering application reviews as well as a supportive network of creative individuals via their Flickr group.

Needless to say the rise of Instagram and other apps (eg Aviary, Instaeffects, Wood Camera, Vintique, etc) that offer quick and easy-to-apply filters, either for free or for very little cost, has produced an upswell in experimentation and creativity wherein even the most average of images can be transformed into something approaching professional quality. 

That's not to say that every user of such apps are suddenly professional photographers - far from it - but the techniques that used to be the preserve of a few are now being aped by algorithms and employed by the many, often with mixed results. Suffice to say there has been an explosion in the amount of images being circulated across various networks, as people increasingly photoblog their food or create digital pinboards of things they've stumbled across on a daily basis.

The thing that really interests me is the ways in which individuals can experiment with various applications in order to achieve some interesting results, often with some helpful feedback from others who witness said experiments. The limitations of mobile phone cameras (limited focal control, digital zoom, etc) makes for some interesting workflows as users find ways to breather new life into old images, even if that is simple bit of colour correction with Snapseed or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, total image destruction with Decim8.

With that in mind, I've been playing around with a few different applications as part of an experimental  Star Wars album so I thought I'd share some of those images here as they've been getting some fairly positive feedback from the people that have seen them. My intention with these images was twofold: 
1) experiment with a number of different applications in order to see what they could do
2) in doing so could I make the overly familiar somewhat unfamiliar yet still recognisable on a very small screen (<4 inches)

All the images below were edited on an iPhone. The applications used in the creation of these remixed images include iPhoto, Photoshop Express (with paid upgrade), PXL, Etchings, Decim8, Snapseed, Wood Camera, Vintique, and Instagram












You can find me on Instagram at http://instagram.com/robjewitt 

Any comments, questions or feedback is welcome

Friday, 1 February 2013

The morality of the press

This post is aimed at the Level 3 journalism students taking the Media Ethics modules (MAC373, MED312). It would seem that I haven't been given access to the module space in Sunspace yet, meaning that I can't add material, post content, respond to messages, etc...  In the mean time I'll post material here until I'm given the keys to the kingdom.

The week we are looking at the differences between morals and ethics in relation to professional journalistic practice. Radio 4 has a regular programme which quite often covers these issues so it's worth checking out the The Moral Maze, presented by Michael Buerk/David Aaronovitch.

In particular I thought I do is draw your attention to an episode that was first broadcast on 19th of November 2011 entitled 'The Morality of the Press'. It can be streamed in full from here. Here is the description that accompanies the specific show:

The Leveson inquiry into the culture and ethics of our press opened this week. In the wake of so many scandals has time finally been called on the industry that for so long has been drinking in the last chance saloon? Defenders of the press say any moves to impose external policing and regulation will threaten freedom of speech and undermine the vital role a free press plays in a democratic society. But why should we treat our press differently from any other industry that's key part of society? Broadcasting, energy, water - they all have external regulators. Is it still tenable to argue that the press is somehow different, special and should be exempt, when at the same time it operates within a climate that thinks it's acceptable to hack in to the mobile phone of a murdered teenage girl? And what about the noble calling of journalism itself? Has the financial pressure on the industry created a culture where ethics and morality come a poor second to doing whatever it takes to get a story that will sell? If we want to reset the moral compass of journalists is time for hacks to consider swearing the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath? Or are we actually looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Do we get the press we deserve and are the people we should be questioning are those you buy, read and enjoy the stories that have prompted the Leveson inquiry? The Moral Maze - the morality of the press.

Combative, provocative and engaging debate chaired by Michael Buerk with Clifford Longley, Kenan Malik, Anne McElvoy and Matthew Taylor.

Witnesses:
  • Steven Barnett - Professor of Communications, University of Westminster
  • Ian Collins - Radio broadcaster - Formerly with TalkSPORT
  • Simon Jenkins - Journalist and Author, Former Editor of The Times and London Evening Standard
  • Rasmus Kleis Nielsen - Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford and Assistant Professor of Communications, University of Roskilde in Denmark.

Er, hello

Wow - I haven't written a blog post here since May 2012. That's a long time. That might be something to do with the arrival of my first child at the end of April. Being a parent can be quite time-consuming. Hopefully, I'll start pushing some material out here over the newt few weeks...