Thursday, 1 December 2011

Pay What You Think It’s Worth (or Free Market Economics).

Over on my Other Blog I’m and musician so, since I’ve been harping on for a while about alternative business models for musicians and how the biggest challenge for an amateur musician is not piracy but publicity, I’ve now decided to put my money where my mouth is and try one of these alternative models for myself.
For a long time the gatekeepers of content have tried to force the prices of digital content to match that of physical copies but it just doesn’t make sense. So what is the correct price for a download? Well, I guess it’s what the market decides is the right price. You’re the market, this is a chance to help decide.
So as of today all our music downloads are available on a Pay What You Think It’s Worth* basis (including “Free”) from our Bandcamp site**.
Personally I’d rather that more people heard and enjoyed our music than that we extract every penny from anyone who might like it. So please feel free to pass this on to anyone who you think might enjoy it (in fact, please please do that!) or anyone who writes / talks about music and the music business and might be interested in the experiment.
I put “Free” in inverted commas because if you go for Free then I’m going to ask you for an e-mail address and add you to my distribution list. You can opt out at any time and I don’t e-mail much stuff out anyway, I reckon that’s a fair trade.

N.B. the physical cds remain at fixed prices I’m afraid, because they cost a fixed amount to produce and I have costs to recover. If you download the stuff and then decide that you’d like one of the CDs (plenty of EPs left, a couple of handfuls of the Album) then I will happily knock off anything you decided to pay for the download.
Similarly if you’ve previously paid the full rate for the download and are now feeling ripped off (I really, really hope there aren’t many people in this category!) then drop me a line and we’ll see what we can sort out. I mean this, I’d hate for someone to be sitting there thinking that I’ve pulled a fast one on them.

* there is no good acronym for this.
** I’m working on setting up the same mechanism on other platforms.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

A manifesto for the content industry 4 – You can compete with Free

You can compete with free. Seriously, there are plenty of working business models out there, study them. You are better placed than anyone to make this work, failure to do so is not about not being able to compete with free, it’s a failure of your business acumen.

“You can’t compete with Free” is one of the most frequently quoted arguments that you’ll find on blog comments and discussion boards when discussing how to make money in an environment where digital copies are abundant and easily available for those who are willing to do a quick bit of looking.
It also frequently occurs in conjunction with someone complaining that they tried making their content available for free and didn’t make any money / didn’t see any increased traffic / didn’t immediately become rich and famous.

So let’s make one thing completely clear: ‘Give it away and hope’ is not a business model.
We’re going to come to adding value in section 5 and that will, hopefully, begin to set out how you might devise a working business model. This section links very closely to that and is about working out how you identify potential opportunities to compete.

Content basically comes in two flavours: legal and illegal. Essentially there is stuff that the owner of the material has put out into the world to be shared and that which has been shared without the permission or the rights holder. This then, is your first mechanism for competition. There are a lot of people who don’t like feeling like they’re breaking the law, even when they’re doing as eminently reasonable as copying the contents of a cd to an MP3 player. Give people a legal option, some folks will happily pay a fee to know that they are doing “the right thing”.

Content could be described in two other flavours: permanent and temporary. There’s the temporary stuff that sits on youtube / spotify etc that you can only access when you’re connected to the web, and there’s the permanent stuff that you download to your repository of choice (hard-drive, phone, MP3 player, kindle). Again, some people will happily pay a fee to own* a copy that they can play at any time or in any location.

Or you could split content into two camps another way: easy to access and difficult to access. For quite a while this has been the bane of the legacy industry’s life. Getting access to legal content was a complete pain whereas illegal content could be obtained with a search and a click of the download button. Then came I-tunes, suddenly here was a lot of content, easily available, reasonably(ish) priced and not bundled into unappealing packages. Unsurprisingly i-tunes has sold quite a bit of content. Amazon now offer a one-click alternative (assuming you’re signed in) that is as easy to use (if not easier) than the illegal alternatives, this also is doing quite nicely.

Funnily enough there are lots of other ways you can split the content on the web; trusted and risky is another way. If I buy something from Amazon, I-tunes or direct from an artist’s website there’s very little chance that I’m being sold malware or a virus masquerading as content. If I torrent something illegally I have no such feeling of comfort.

Here’s another way you can split it: that which rewards the creator and that which doesn’t. A lot of people will happily pay to support an artist they like, many will seek out the best way to support those artists from the available mechanisms. This might mean buying a CD at a live show rather than via a retailer, or just going to the show instead of buying the CD. One group have even discovered that since publishing a breakdown of how much they earn via different means they have not only increased their entire take but the sales have shifted to the items that they make the most return on. The swing side of this is that you are a rights holder who doesn’t pass on much money to the content creator you might find that this actively works against you.

Restricted and Un-restricted might be another way of looking at it. Once I’ve bought some content I want to be able to do what I choose with it, when I like and on the device that I prefer. Putting DRM on something is a sure-fire way to make your product less attractive than an illegal alternative. Perversely there are those in the industry who still view this as a “feature”.

There are almost certainly other ways you can cut it and other incentives that can be provided to persuade people to consider paying for content that is also available for free. I’m not for a minute suggesting that all of these will work for everyone or even that any of these will work for most people, but one thing I can guarantee is that you if you’re not making your paid-for content as easy to get hold of as free content then you will be losing sales.

* This becomes very important later on (see section 12 when it comes), have a look at the increasing number of cases of artists suing their labels over I-tunes royalties in the meantime.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

A Manifesto for the content industry – 2. One shared file does not equal one sale lost

It appears that I have published chapters one and three but omitted chapter 2. My apologies, please accept this correction...

One shared file does not equal one sale lost. It really doesn’t. People will accept something for free that they won’t be prepared to pay for, don’t kid yourself otherwise. A shared file is equally likely to lead to more sales rather than fewer.

Whenever you hear or see stats being bandied around by the content industry, this is the principle on which they base their calculations; that each unlawfully shared file* represents one lost sale.

This is the biggie for the music industry but it’s increasingly being misunderstood by the movie business as well so let’s look at various reasons why this might be the case.
Firstly you have your hard-core never-pay-a-penny file-sharers. These are the ones who think that the labels have been sticking it to them so long that they somehow owe someone something so try to stick it back by never buying anything that they can get for free. These are your lost sales. But arguably, since they wouldn’t buy your product anyway (so they claim), which sale has been lost?
Anyway, assuming that the die-hards above are all bluff and would really be out there buying records if that pesky internet would just go away, why else would one shared file not equal one lost sale?
Here’s a few reasons:
  1.  I’ve heard the single but I like this band and I’m going to buy the album when it comes out anyway, why would I pay twice for the single?
  2.  I already own the song on an earlier format, I could go through the hassle of rigging up my record deck and copying it across but that’s illegal too and more hassle than just downloading a copy.
  3. would happily buy a copy of this but because it's an old song / movie you no longer sell it. How can I buy something you're not selling?
  4. I’m not sure if I like it. I’ve heard it on the radio but I need a couple more listens to determine if I want to buy it. Try before buy marketing
  5. It’s not worth the cash. Now that cash might only 79p**, but when you’re talking about something with a unit cost of zero, that’s still a value judgement. I have a copy of William Shatner’s Rocket Man on cassette, I think it’s a pretty funny listen, but I’d never pay money for it, it’s just not worth it. Similarly I have old mix-tapes from the radio with various chart tunes on, if they turn up as a free download or magazine-cover cd then I’ll take a copy, but it’s not worth paying to replace them.
  6. Because it’s not being offered in the format that the consumer wants. Some bands / labels are rejecting the MP3 format altogether and only releasing things on hard copy. An increasing number of people are ditching hard copies altogether and moving everything to a digital file. If you’re not selling what I want to buy it’s not a lost sale.

And that’s not even considering the fact that some of the Industry numbers are counting shared playlists on social media sites (like Spotify) as shared files.
But in summary yes, some of those shared files are lost sales, but it’s not even close to all of them. Using statistics based on this premise undermines the argument and the public’s trust in the content industry.

* Including Format Shifting.
** On a separate note, can anyone justify the increase in cost of downloads when the technology and storage costs are only coming down?

Thursday, 3 November 2011

A Manifesto for the content industry – 3. Content will always be produced and consumed with or without you.

Continuing from my previous blogs on this subject.

Content will always be produced and consumed with or without you. You are just a facilitator. If your entire industry disappeared overnight, people will still create and they will find other ways to share and appreciate it. Never lose sight of this.

At this point it’s probably worth my iterating exactly who this manifesto is aimed at; content creators and major Intellectual Property (IP) rights holders are rarely one and the same. It varies greatly by media type but at one end you have the publishing industry (where a lot of authors maintain the copyright on their text) and at the other you have the music industry (where hardly any artists signed to major labels (or their subsidiaries) have any rights on their creation).
This manifesto is aimed at the rights holders; this entry in particular is aimed at those towards the music industry end of the continuum.
A common argument proposed by copyright supporters is that without our ever-increasing copyright terms (and ever-increasing lawsuits) there would be no incentive to create. Who, they argue, would go to all the trouble of taking an idea all the way through to a product if there was no return at the end of it? Surely no-one will go through all that effort and expense if there was no guarantee or a return?
It has been famously said that the business of the music business is business not music (by Billy Joel I believe) and the idea that people create something for a return on that is plainly a business-led idea not a creativity-led idea.
As has been pointed out previously, for hundreds of years artists have starved in obscurity, then, for a brief period in the last 50-years or so, some artists became very, very rich. The bit that tends to be forgotten is just how small a percentage of artists (particularly in the music business) actually become successful. On average, thanks to some interesting record label accounting*, fewer than 1 in 10 albums ever recoups (i.e. makes a profit for the recording artist). And bear in mind, that’s the figure for signed acts, it takes no account of all the people playing on the amateur scene.
So, extending the argument that people create for the return on copyright, in the period before the last fifty years and in the internet years there should have been very little content creation at all.
I have no idea of there was less content creation in the first half of the twentieth century or the second but it only takes a few minutes on Bandcamp, Facebook, Blogger, Youtube, Soundcloud, The Huffington Post (or any one of a myriad of other platforms out there) to see that there is a huge, huge amount of content being produced, the vast majority of which is never expected to make a financial return.
People will always create, frequently they will do so for nothing more than their own personal pleasure with no intent to share, sometimes they will want to share it with as many people as possible. What’s changed in the last decade is that this ability to share it widely has become available to everyone with a decent internet connection.
Couple that ability to share with ever decreasing costs for consumer electronics and what it means is that if you’re a content creator then your tools of the trade are getting cheaper and you’re closer than ever to the people who might want to consume your work.
If you’re a middleman, be it an aggregator, publisher, record label, movie studio, collection agency or any other part of the chain, then you are going to have to work ever harder to add value into the product lifecycle because creating has got easier and sharing has got easier.
Alternatively you could try lobbying, sadly that’s got easier too.

* See also Hollywood Accounting

Monday, 25 July 2011

A Manifesto for the content industry – 1. Do Not Sue Your Customers

Expanding from my previous blog this is the first in a series whereby I use you, my faithful readers (both of you), to sense-check my work and point out my idiocy. Thank you.

Do not sue your customers. Seriously, just don’t. It’s the economic equivalent of going to war. If, in the words of one CEO, you say “We’re going to sue the [expletive deleted] out of generation Y”, exactly how many of generation Z do you expect to buy your products? If someone is taking content you have the rights to and selling it on commercially, sure, take ‘em to the cleaners. But blocking up the legal system with 25,000 individual cases of people downloading The Hurt Locker is not only targeting a bunch of people who have no impact on your business model, it’s also an abuse of the legal process.

Taking legal action against someone is an act of aggression. In most walks of life it’s a last resort once all other options have been exhausted. If you have an argument with your partner, you talk it through, you might get counselling, you might end up at Relate, but you don’t phone the divorce lawyer straight away.
Similarly if your neighbour won’t return the lawnmower, you go round and ask for it back, maybe a couple of times, you don’t dial 999 as soon as the clippings have been emptied into the bin.

Most people would agree that the first thing to do in any disagreement is to talk to the other party and see if it can be resolved amicably but, for some reason, that doesn’t apply to the content industry. In the world of Intellectual Property, intellect is left behind and the first course of action is, all too frequently, a call to the legal department.
So ask yourself, are you getting hot under the collar about nothing? If a pre-mastered copy of your movie get’s leaked onto the web before all the special-effects are done, is this really going to stop people going to the cinema to see it when it’s done? Before you reach for the lawyers consider if you could be better served by going out there and talking to people. Explain that what they can download isn’t the finished article, empathise with them, if they’re going to that effort they’re probably some of your biggest fans. Handle it right and they can be some of your biggest advocates as well.
But let’s move on from this opening argument though and consider what to do if you think that you are genuinely being financially deprived due to someone else’s actions. There are three things to consider here:
  1.  Are you targeting the right person?
  2.  Are you using an appropriate means and claiming an appropriate recompense?
  3.  Are you fully prepared for any backlash?
We’ll tackle these one at a time.
  1.  Consider the defendant: are they an end-consumer who you haven’t effectively served in the market, or are they a middle-man profiting off your work without authorisation? If they’re the former then you’re barking up the wrong tree. Ventures like Spotify are increasingly showing that if you provide a decent legal experience that serves your customers, they don’t feel the need to get around copyright or distribution restrictions.
  2.  Having identified that someone is wilfully, criminally distributing your product, you need to make a targeted and proportional response. If a torrent site in Norway has been distributing your software, use the existing legislation to find out who the uploader is and target them for proportional damages. Don’t sue the torrent site for the statutory maximum. There are two reasons for this, one is that if you take the maximalist approach the chances are that the site will close, declare bankruptcy and you won’t see a penny, the second reason is backlash (see point 3). Don’t be tempted by the dollar signs and go for the end-users either, it will sting you. The makers of the Hurt Locker are currently in the process of contacting 25,000 people and demanding $1500 dollars or threatening them with legal action (on the most flimsy of evidence). That’s what we call a shake down and it’s winning them no friends, even in the courts.
  3.  Backlash. You’re probably familiar with the Streisand Effect. If not, take a moment to google this. Memory refreshed? Right, consider this and the quote at the top of the page. The internet is not going away. No matter how much lobbying is done. The current crop of rights holders are not going to remain the gatekeepers forever; there are too many alternative distribution methods now. If you aggravate and disenfranchise your artists’ fans both they, and the artists, will route around you. In some cases (see ACS Law) they may take active steps against you. This doesn’t mean you can’t take action when it’s needed; but you’ll need to be on the front foot with your web presence and you’d better have a good and honest explanation.
The bottom line is, if you’re relying on taking legal action to try to prop up a business model that’s no longer serving your customers, then you’re failing both your customers and the artists you’re claiming to represent. Adapt or be forgotten.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

A manifesto for the content industry

Following on from my previous blog about the gender discrepancy between the charts and the amateur scene I’ve been doing some further thinking about how the music industry, and the wider content industry / rights holders* might want to behave if they are to survive (and even prosper) in the post-digital economy.

So, the manner of the Cluetrain Manifesto, I have produced a Manifesto for the Content Industry.

Now, before we get onto the manifesto, I want to head something off at the pass. This is not about whether it is right or wrong to copy and distribute files via the internet. This is not a moral debate. File sharing happens and, in one form or another, will always happen. This is a suggestion for how companies can accept this economic reality and still remain a viable business.

Right, now we’ve got that out of the way, here are my founding principles for a modern content provider. They’re in no order apart from number 1 and I'll expand on them in turn in future blogs:

1              Do not sue your customers. Seriously, just don’t. It’s the economic equivalent of going to war. If, in the words of one CEO, you say “We’re going to sue the fuck out of generation Y”, exactly how many of generation Z do you expect to buy your products? If someone is taking content you have the rights to and selling it on commercially, sure, take ‘em to the cleaners**. But blocking up the legal system with 25,000 individual cases of people downloading The Hurt Locker is not only targeting a bunch of people who have no impact on your business model, it’s also an abuse of the legal process.
2              One shared file does not equal one sale lost. It really doesn’t. People will accept something for free that they won’t be prepared to pay for, don’t kid yourself otherwise. A shared file is equally likely to lead to more sales rather than fewer.
3              Content will always be produced and consumed with or without you. You are just a facilitator. If your entire industry disappeared overnight, people will still create and they will find other ways to share and appreciate it. Never lose sight of this.
4              You can compete with free. Seriously, there are plenty of working business models out there, study them. You are better placed than anyone to make this work, failure to do so is not about not being able to compete with free, it’s a failure of your business acumen.
5              Add value. What are you doing that your customers can’t do with 20 minutes and the internet? What are you doing that a creator can’t do for themselves? If you’re not adding value, why would someone pay you?
6              Focus on quality. A corollary to adding value; you cannot compete on quantity, it’s you vs the world, you have to be better than good.
7              Be brave. If you’re focussing on sequels, glorified karaoke acts, this year’s answer to “X” or trying to build a brand then you are guaranteed to miss the next trend when it comes along.
8              Use your experience. There’s a lot of noise out there, but there’s also a huge amount of good stuff, your job is to find the great stuff. For example, if you’re a newspaper then do the investigative journalism, get into the detail and find the facts behind the story. I can get opinion and newsfeeds faster than you can go to print, get me the truth and I will buy your paper.
9              Be genuine. We’re sick of spin, we’re sick of hype. If you churn out repetitive and unoriginal content whilst claiming it’s the best thing since last year’s clone, we’ll stop listening and go elsewhere (a lot of people already have).
10            Free your people. If you’re doing the other stuff right your people should have some pretty interesting jobs. I bet they’ve got interesting stuff to say. Do they blog? We do. Do they comment in chatrooms? We do. Let them join the conversation, it should be part of their job.
11            This is a global market. If you charge western prices to the third world then people will find a way to get the content for free. 99c might not be a lot to readers of this blog but it’s a day’s wage to large amounts of the globe. But the bad news is that you can’t stop a European going to an African website and buying from there, your unit cost is zero, expect your prices to trend that way.
12            The gravy train has stopped, it’s time to get off. You are no longer the gatekeepers to content and you no longer have a monopoly. Lobby if you like (and we know you do) but you’d be better off coming to terms with it and adapting.
13            The customers are out there. A corollary to 8; the argument that people are unwilling to pay for content has been proven false by the success of I-tunes, Spotify, The Financial Times and numerous others. You have to figure out who you’re trying to serve and what their needs are (Hint, the answers aren’t “everybody” and “everything”)
14            Do not sue your customers. I know this is the same as 1 but it’s so important I thought I’d say it twice.***

So there you go, that’s my stab at a set of principles for a 21st century content provider. What do you think?

* Please note, I am using the term “Content Industry” as a catch all to cover the major players in the Intellectual Property market (Studios, Record Labels, Publishers, Newspapers, Software houses) rather than the actual creators of that content (Artists, film-makers, authors etc) as the behaviours and ambitions are generally very different.
** Take legal action against your competitors if you must, but be aware of the Streisand affect. You can lose as much business being in the right as you can being in the wrong.
*** With reference to Red Dwarf

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Interesting* Stuff** #1

A few people have given me some grief about my posting links on facebook and how it's overwhelming their newsfeeds. Apologies for that.
But quite a lot of people appear to like the links so I figured what I'd do is stick them in a blog post and then it's just the one update (or two if I subsequently find some other stuff).

I do like these fun theory things

Why you should be able to see your source code Mr Jobs

If it looks like a Greek default, pays like a greek default...

Seems the TSA just can't see when to quit

This is just obscenely fun (Millard Viper)

Sink hole photos, number three is the best

Quis custodiat ipsos custodians, police monitoring app

The law doesn't matter if you can't afford to pay for it (fair use)

Free schools might not be the salvation or our education system but they might drive improvements, why is that something to be afraid of?

Funny thing credibility, Greenpeace caught out on a porky pie

Interesting analysis of the thought processes behind UK Uncut

Cool, slightly sinister and a very interesting piece of science: audible cloaking device

What do you reckon? Is this better than the facebook spam?

* Might not be interesting

** Might not even be stuff in some cases

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Let's draw a graph

Or two graphs actually, everyone likes a good graph.
These ones were inspired by a Neil McCormick article in the Daily Telegraph discussing the domination of the pop charts by female acts. It's a fairly compelling piece.
"But," I thought, "if pop music is dominated by female acts at the moment, what about what Josh Ritter would call “the glorious bottom”?"
All the open mic nights and gigs I go to are, without fail, very heavily male dominated. Why the discrepancy?
I'll pause here and let you read the article.

Back? Good.
Well, applying my cynical hat I’d say that you have one over-riding reason for each phenomenon:
Looking at the amateur scene first (because it’s easier) I think there’s a very simple reason why there are more blokes in music – guys join bands to impress girls.
I did tell you it was simple, but think back to your days as a teenager / young adult, if you’re a bloke, be honest and tell me how much of your life was not driven by an urge from your loins?
Thought so.

Moving on to the charts, and still with my cynical hat on, it’s about marketing. Women’s magazines have women on the cover, men’s magazines have women on the cover; images of women sell. You know what the most common way for “youth” to listen to music is? YouTube. Guess what? Images also work well there.
But there are exceptions! I hear you cry. Not everyone is a goddess-like Beyonce or Nicole Scherzinger, what about Adele, for example?
Well, and this might not be particularly popular, this is where you have to ratchet up your cynicism another notch. Sure she can sing, sure she writes her own songs and sure, she’s caught the retro wave at just the right time. But loads of other people have as well, why didn’t they make it big, especially when a great many of them are equally tuneful and (there’s no nice way of saying this) easier on the eye?
Cynical hat firmly on? Brim tugged right down? Ok here goes:
Again it’s all about marketing. In the same way that you have the likes of Cosmopolitan and Marie-Claire at one end of the spectrum, with the beautiful models and the aspirational marketing, at the other end of the magazine marketing you have the TV guides and supermarket tabloids with the “real stories about real people”. The Jeremy Kyle / Jerry Springer market. It’s about marketing a figure that most people can relate to. Most of us can never really aspire to be a Rihanna, but Adele? She’s normal, honest, down to earth. That’s, we tell ourselves, who we could be if fate had blown its fickle winds a different way.

Ok, let’s take our cynical hats off for a moment before we sound like bitter and twisted old people.*
Neil McCormick presents a number of reasons why women are very much on the ascendancy in the charts, I’d like to add one more before we take another look at the bottom rung and what happens in the middle order.
The recorded music industry, by which I mean the 4 major labels and their subsidiaries, is struggling. Sure every now and then they’ll hit on something and sales will rally for a bit but any business that is actively suing its customers has got serious strategic issues.
And what happens when legacy companies get put under pressure by disruptive players? They retreat to type and known formula, so big promotional bucks go into the current best selling genre as they try and maximise their position. So what we’re seeing is an industry putting all its eggs in one basket and, stretching my metaphor, trying to get as many eggs out of the golden goose before it dies from exhaustion.

That’s my summary of the top of the market, what about the bottom?
Next time you go to a gig (and watch the supports) or an open mic night, count the number of women on stage over the evening to the number of men. I’m guessing you’ll be looking at a ratio of 1-4.
So, assuming that there is only a little truth in my testosterone fuelled theory at the top, and taking into account Mr McCormick’s comments regarding the inherent anger / violence in certain musical styles (hip hop and metal being the obvious examples) being a turn-off to women, why are there so few female acts at the bottom of the tree? And why are there so few female “bands” at any level (successful female acts mostly being “solo artists”).
Frankly I just don’t know.
It’s plainly not that women and girls aren’t interested in popular music, the sales demographics show that there’s plenty of desire to consume.
Is it that it’s easier for a bunch of young lads to get the kit and do the practice to emulate the rock / indie music that their idols play than for girls to produce the kind of output that the top female acts are putting out?
That doesn’t make sense to me. Sure you can get a guitar and amp nice and cheap but drumkits and bass amps are still expensive and practice rooms and time are difficult to arrange. Plus you have to actually find your band members. I’d say you had a bigger expense (time and money) there than you do producing an electronically-based RnB-type song.
Is it a side-effect of the whole women-aren't-into-technology thing? Although the kit and the software are more affordable than ever, you still have to be comfortable learning to set up and use your home studio (in whatever form it takes). Is this a barrier to adoption? My personal experience is that the women who I've worked with (musically) are just not interested in the technical side of things at all. They want to play/sing/drum and really couldn't give a monkeys about the kit beyond what's actually in their hands; but that's just my experience and, to quote Dr Goldacre, the plural of anecdote is not data.

So let's get some data.
Below are two graphs from the billboard top 100 singles and albums tracked (somewhat unscientifically) by the 5 categories shown in the legend. Apologies for the lack of a labelled x-axis, I am bolloxed if I can get this to work on the new version of excel.
Going from left to right takes you from the top 10 / 20 on the left to the bottom of the chart on the right. Sorry about that.


What this shows, I reckon, is that whilst female acts do have domination of the very top of the singles chart, as soon as you head further down the chart the male-domination that you see in the amateur scene comes back into play.
It's worth pointing out as well that a higher percentage of the female hits are by the same artist, Rihanna and Beyonce, for example, both having 4 singles in the top 100. There are very few male artists of groups with that kind of presence.

All of which reinforces my point that what we're seeing here is the effect of the industry backing a number of "bankers" in order to prop up their model without actually getting out and finding the new music that they purport to be supporting.

* For the record, yes, I am a bitter and twisted old person

Saturday, 26 March 2011

What you don't have

Coincidence is a funny thing. I tend to read books and listen to music at the same time, and this frequently leads to some strange collaborations. Listening to REM's Life's Rich Pageant (particularly Begin the Begin) whilst reading Michael Scott Rohan's Winter of the World series leads to all kinds of re-inforced messages.
The most extreme example was several years ago, whilst listening to The Yearning by Things of Stone & Wood and reading a book by David Gemmell (I forget which), I read the words "the shadow of death" at exactly the same time as they came over the speakers. It took me a moment to work out exactly what had happened as my initial perception had been that these words had suddenly acquired more weight.
It'd be enough to make you nervous, if you were superstitious, easy led and very nearly dead.

Just this morning I was listening to the excellent Meursault album All Creatures Will Make Merry  whilst finishing off Ben Goldacre's book Bad Science.
I heartily recommend both of them.
But as I was reading the good doctor's final pages he produced a quote from The Economist along the lines of "the true cost of something is what you have to give up to get it".
At about the same time from the stereo came "It's not about what you don't have, it's how little you're given and how far you can run with it".

Coming, as they did, so close together they struck me as quite profound.

I'm not going anywhere with this blog by the way, it just occurred to me, that's all.

But I guess it does give you a bit of an idea why people are so precious about children, after all, what you've given up to get there is incredible.

On a completely unrelated note, I've fished the REM album out for a listen this afternoon and, in looking up the link above, have just lost about half an hour reading interesting stuff about the band.
The internet is still eating my life.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Dopamine rush (or How the web turned me from a creator into a consumer)

I've not been playing as much music over that last few months, nor have I been taking as much exercise.
Most of my sporting pleasures are outdoors and it's been cold and wet, I've been doing some long hours at work and some disappointing news on the music front has taken some of my initiative from there.
So I've told myself.
And it's horseshit.

Some people come home from work and put the TV on, it then stays on until they go to bed.
Not being a TV watcher for the most part* I've always been a little bit smug and superior about the stuff I did instead: read books, news websites, exercised, played music yadda yadda yadda.
Pride cometh before a fall.

The reason that my excuses for not creating more music or getting properly fit are horseshit is because I've been doing much the same as the TV couch potatoes but with my own personal drug of choice.
The web.

I was joking with a friend yesterday about not being able to go to bed because I hadn't finished reading the internet yet and it reminded me of a study a saw recently (can't remember where I'm afraid, you'll come to understand why) that said some people get a dopamine hit from learning new things or acquiring knowledge.
And this has been my drug of choice. I've not been sat in front of the TV because I've been sat in front of my PC.
For hours at at time.
You could argue (and I certainly did to myself) that it's not like I've been sat here watching prat-falls on youtube or vegging out playing farmville on facebook, I've been reading a fair number of web comics true, but mostly I've been reading news or current affairs comment sites. Getting my little hits of knowledge.
But am I really learning anything? Or am I just filtering articles and stories to provide data that supports my already-held views?

So today I did an experiment and chalked up a tally of websites I've visited this evening:
38 webcomics
68 news articles or fact-based blog entries
4 comment runs off those blogs
15 other sites (webmail, facebook, house-hunting stuff)
And am I any smarter than I was yesterday?

So, it's time to cut down. It's tempting to cut off entirely (because I find it easier to stop doing something than to limit doing something) but I don't read a newspaper and I don't watch the TV and there's only so ignorant I'm willing to be.
So cutting down it is.
Maybe I'll get back to creating some content rather than just consuming it.**

* Ironically there's a tv series on at the moment called How TV Ruined Your Life which sounds really interesting.
** You'll note that the alternative title still puts me as a passive actor in this, I'm aware that the web has done nothing to me, it's how I've chosen to use the web, but I thought it read better as a title.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Russia Today, really? Apparently so.

I was surprised to find myself watching Russia Today this morning. The BBC was just looking at Conservative conference and we were scanning through the other news channels. Turns out Russia Today (presented in English by Americans) is available on freeview.
How odd.
I was even further surprised to find one of their interviewees talking about how stations like Al Jazeera and the like were climbing up the ratings channels compared to CBS / Fox etc.
His theory was that the previously established players had become so ingrained in the rest of the establishment that they were no longer producing news, they were dressing up opinion and marketing it. Increasingly people are trying to get away from this and find outlets that were focussed on the facts not the spin.
This is not a particularly new idea, I've been reading multiple news sources for a while now to try and get a balanced view, but today the media has helped me out by providing the perfect example, two headlines covering the same story:
From the Telegraph:

HSBC reveals plans to quit London for Hong Kong

From the BBC:

HSBC says talk of moving HQ to Hong Kong 'presumptuous'

The opening paragraphs of each article go even further in their disagreement.

It's getting increasingly difficult to find that balance.

Whether Russia Today and Al Jazeera are suitable examples of News-not-opinion media houses I will leave to your imagination but you can't help but wonder how many people would tune back into a news organisation that actually focussed on researched news and journalistic integrity rather than celebrities and ratings?

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Stephenson's Responsibility Threshold

I have a theory, well, actually that’s an exaggeration; I have a hunch.
My hunch is that the standard salary model employed by most companies in the capitalist west is fundamentally broken.
The model is, theoretically, based on the idea that the greater responsibility and accountability you shoulder, the greater your salary in reward.
In the realm of a small business, where the owner is the principle benefactor of success as well as being the main loser in the event of failure this is a clear and effective mechanism.
In a pure capitalist model this probably works as well, if your company underperforms your shareholders oust you from the CEO seat.

But we in the UK (and the US as far as I can tell) are a long way from a pure capitalist model. Government-granted monopolies permeate our economy in the form of copyrights, patents and trademarks, monopoly and merger commissions rule against market-created monopolies, deals are done behind closed doors in clubs and meeting rooms that do not act in the best interests of the shareholders or customers, etc etc etc.
We all know this, but we put up with it because changing it is outside our sphere of influence.
Lobbyists and voting blocs have more say that we do, we resign ourselves to the inevitable.

One of the reasons that it ends up being outside our influence is that there are actually a very small number of people at the top of the pyramid who not only wield a disproportionate influence in their domains, they also, through their connections to other members of this elite, have a disproportionate influence in other domains.
This effect is amplified by the “revolving door” by which people enter and leave government having made or influenced changes in the area that they subsequently work*.

This is where Stephenson’s Responsibility Threshold comes in.
Basically my hypothesis states that at the bottom of the salary scale the risks incurred by the individual are far greater than the potential impact of their failures, whereas at the other end of the scale, the impacts of the failures are far greater than the risk incurred.
I’ve represented this on the graph below:

I hope this makes sense?

The bit where the business and personal impacts meet is Stephenson’s Responsibility Threshold and it represents two things:
Firstly, it is the point at which you can say someone is over-paid (to the right) or that you have a job that is unlikely to reward risk takers and innovation (to the left).
Secondly, and this is where I’m really straying into the realms of the completely unsupported hunch, it highlights the point at which true accountability stops.
To the left you have a state whereby the individual does not fully have the authority for the job they have been charged to do (they cannot be accountable because they have never truly been empowered).
To the right you have the situation of the exec who signs-off the work without understanding what they have improved. Effectively they cannot be accountable because they cannot be expected to understand everything that happens beneath them (see Andy Coulson and James Murdoch [claiming] not to know about the phone tapping at News International papers for example).

Fortunately the more cerebral media (and Private Eye especially) provides plenty of examples that I can use to back up my theory:
A recent study highlighted by the BBC found that Directors were more optimistic than their front line staff about the future in terms of the wider economy, their company in particular and their personal future if something were to go wrong. Sherlock Holmes was not required to figure out why this might be the case; not only are the rewards higher, the penalties are lower too.
A junior member of staff at NBC recently posted (on you tube) a video clip from the early 90s of a couple of journalists discussing (and failing to understand) what the internet is. 20 years later it’s very amusing and lots of people looked it up. The people in the clip subsequently showed it on their current morning chat show and had a good laugh about it. The employee who posted it was fired.
The Rotten Boroughs column of Private Eye*** is riddled with examples of people failing hugely in one exec job only to turn up in a similar one 6 months later having received both a pay-off and a pay in. The In the City column shows much the same in the corporate world and the tragicomic career of Geoff Hoon is a classic example for how it works in government.

So assuming that you’re in complete concordance with what I’ve written, the only question remains is, at what level does the threshold manifest itself? Obviously this will vary from company to company but I’m reckoning it’s in the region of £142,000 - $400,000.

*Google Richard Bowker for a prime example.
** Some nice examples of reward for failure here:
David Liddiment, oversaw the collapse of ITVs ratings to its lowest level in 47 years, now a BBC trustee advising on Radio 4.
Sally Morgan, former Blair aide exposed in the cash-for-influence sting by Channel 4, now chair of Ofsted.
Lord Lang, former tory MP, got lucky under Major, rejected by his constituents in '97, now chairman of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.
You could make a list like this every fortnight that it comes out.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Result, now why doesn't the rest of it work like this?

I read a blog from Scott Adams (he of Dilbert fame) recently about how, if you were to start a democracy from scratch today, you probably wouldn't do it by party lines. In an internet connected world (and I fully accept that this doesn't apply in quite large areas of the planet) there are much more effective and accountable ways of doing things.
The government has backed off on the forestry sales plans, which is a good thing, but, and I shall quote directly from Geoffrey Lean in the Telegraph:
"It’s not just that over half a million people signed a petition against it; over 100,000 actually went to the trouble of contacting their MPs, and more than 30 local groups mushroomed around the country to protect their forests. It’s been a sharp reminder of something governments too often forget, that there is world beyond Whitehall."
There is indeed a world beyond Whitehall, and it's accelerating away from the petty tribalism that hinders our making real progress as a country.
We are communicating directly now, to each other, to corporations, to NGOs and increasingly to our government, but how often do they listen? This is a rare occasion, have no doubt.

There are two things to take from it though, which should give us some hope.
Firstly, the parties are becoming increasingly irrelevant. The tools for a direct democracy are all around us and we are using them in ever increasing amounts.
Secondly, the lobbyists are becoming irrelevant. Organisations are waking up to the fact that their customers are now connected and can, when the need arises, cut out the middleman and speak with one voice.
Lots of companies are picking up on this, they have to because they're bottom line can't handle the impact if they don't.
The governments will have to, or they will fail and fall.

In the meantime of course you can expect all kinds of panicky legislation and massive lobbying, but it's a step forward.

To bring this blog full circle I'll hand you over to Sue Holden of the woodland trust:
As I write, there is a proposal to water down protection for ancient woodland in the planning system. We need your help to defeat this proposal by 28th February.
We must not let public passion and support for our woods and forests die down and now that ownership is no longer an issue, we must not lose sight of the need to increase protection for ancient forests and restore those planted with conifers, a once in a lifetime opportunity for woodland conservation.
Our campaign will continue and we urge everyone to continue to sign our petition and transfer their passion about who owns England's public woods to ensuring that all of England?s woods survive in the future. 
The Government has announced a review of planning policy in England - Read all about it
The consultation closes on February 28th - take action now!

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Data Shift

I'm a big fan of the video Shift Happens. If you haven't seen it already, take a moment to absorb some staggering statistics.

Enjoy that? I love it.
Today I found another couple of interesting statistics courtesy of this article on the BBC website.
The whole "295 exabytes of information" is, to be frank, almost meaningless. The number is too large to comprehend for mere mortals.
But further down the article there's a much more interesting (well, interesting to me) statistic: "It shows that in 2000 75% of stored information was in an analogue format such as video cassettes, but that by 2007, 94% of it was digital."
In seven years we went from massive majority analogue information to even-more-massive majority digital information. It's no wonder that so many industries are struggling to understand the real impact that has on their businesses.
The internet is a digitial copy machine (hat tip: Confused of Calcutta), and a very price-efficient one at that. Trying to shift your business model from one where you were the gate-keeper of a finite resource to one where you become the introducer to an infinite one is a mighty task, and it's no wonder so many industries are resorting to ever-increasing attempts at protectionism (read the blogs from any day's output on techdirt) rather than waking up to the fact that the world has changed and their business model is no longer fit for purpose.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

How not to do it.

Now, full disclosure upfront, I'm not a fan of Virgin media at the best of times. I'm not a customer of theirs but, despite being on the Mail and Telephone Preference Services they continue to bombard me with advertising. One of these days I will completely lose my rag with them, but in the meantime i'm working on the principle that moving house is the easier option.

But I digress...

Through the door the other day i got this abomination of a mail shot (click it for full size).

Would you just look at the small print at the bottom of that? Seriously, an eighth of the page is small print. WTF?
There is more text in the small print than in the advert ffs.
If i didn't like the company before receiving this i certainly wouldn't trust them afterwards.