Sunday, 7 October 2012

A Manifesto for the Content Industry 14. Do not sue your customers.

Well here we are at the end and you’ll be relieved to know that this final entry will be very short.

The bottom line is that, as part of the content industry, your business exists to serve your customers.
If you choose to provide a service that is worse than the competition (be that legitimate or otherwise) then you can expect to lose customers.
If you choose to provide a service that excludes certain sections of your potential customer base then you can expect to lose customers.
If you choose to provide a product that is more restricted that that offered by the competition (legitimate or otherwise) you can expect to lose customers.
And finally, if you choose to treat your customers like criminals, and make them feel like criminals when they do support you, you can expect to lose customers.

But, as I’ve hopefully explained, you don’t have to choose to do any of these things…

* With reference to Red Dwarf: “Kryten: A superlative suggestion, sir, with just two minor flaws. One: we don't have any defensive shields. And two: we don't have any defensive shields. Now I realise that, technically speaking, that's only one flaw; but I thought it was such a big one, it was worth mentioning twice.”

Friday, 28 September 2012

Further musings on Copyright reform (3)

So, parts one and two done already yada yada yada...

The Copyright hub.
Actually some good stuff in here. Firstly they're not trying to build from scratch, they've actually done some research and are starting off with a lot of work done by the Copyright Clearance Centre in the US. Now I don't know anything about whether this is a good model or not (shout out in the comments if you have any experience of them) but re-using what's there is good project technique. Even if it's slightly ironic in this context...

Hmmm, in section 84 they mention a lot of the challenges that the hub will need to overcome to, basically, jam this new web thing into the old copyright box. Maybe it's time to look at whether the box is really the best thing for it, or even necessary at all?

They still seem to imagine individual users going for licenses for you-tube videos (not going to happen!) but they at least recognise that the hassle-and-cost factor might lead to stuff just being dropped. They also talk about making sure that the overall result is a "bigger pie" but I wonder if they've seriously looked at the pricing behaviours of the major rights holders over the last few years.

There's a section on education and information and how they plan to add this to the hub to help navigate the complex world of copyright law, but this seems to be addressing the symptoms rather than the actual problem: that copyright law is too complex and is unfit for the internet-enabled world.
Also they don't mention how they'll tackle the thorny issue of different international laws.

Section 94 has another depressing example of anecdote-based-policy making. Apparently a rights database "could have specific advantages in copyright enforcement across the internet including
• peer to peer file-sharing by individual consumers
• illegal websites and search engines with illegal websites appearing in their search results
• advertisers monetising copyright infringing material
• payment providers serving copyright infringing subscription services."
Needless to say it doesn't actually talk about HOW this might happen. That's just an industry wish-list that's been tagged on to a bit of wishful thinking.
This is followed by a paragraph that says dispute resolution is going to be critical and difficult and... ...we have no idea how to fix this.

There's a chunk on copyright and education and how difficult it is to navigate. Given the purpose of copyright is to promote learning and understanding (via the mechanism of payments to creators - important distinction that) you'd think we'd be able to come up with something simpler and more direct for schools - i.e if it's used in education it's "fair use" (to use the American term) and therefore allowable.
Overall this key chunk on copyright and education just comes up with better ways to preserve the status quo, it also suggest further use of aggregators and middlemen to simplify the process for the schools but all this will do is add an additional cost into the end price.
All a bit disappointing.

Next up, music licensing - that might take a few posts and will definitely be one for another night...

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Further musing on copyright reform (2)

Following on from the first bit, I'm now into the detail of the report.
Already warning bells are ringing...
1) Still no recognition of the amateur / bedroom creator.
2) there appears to be a lot of anecdotal evidence here and very little factual research to back it up. For example: "We have heard from ITV, for example, that the adoption of the ISAN system has contributed
to increased revenue collection. Although it is impossible to be absolutely certain that the growth of collection revenues was the result of ISAN alone"
3) I have concerns about whether (in the absence of proper evidence) the differences between causation and correlation are being properly understood.
Carrying on...

The Images and metadata bit is interesting, a fair number of reasonable suggestions on unique identifiers and registries but then, when it gets to the critical bit about what to do about stripping out meta-data, it's back to a voluntary code of practice.
Sorry, but doing this deliberately is already illegal* so if, as suggested, the industry is in the habit of wide-scale meta-data stripping, what the fuck difference do they think signing up to a voluntary agreement is going to do?
It makes me wonder if the report writers have had the Treasury breathing down their necks the entire time saying "remember, there's no budget for this."
In my day job I'm what's euphemistically known as a "change professional" and I will tell you one thing for free; if you don't put budget and backbone behind something you won't change shit.
Carrying on

Finally in section 67 we begin to see the scale of creation at the moment. PPL reports that members are registrering new recordings at the rate of 10200 per week. That's half a million new recordings a year from the UK alone. But this is just the formal stuff that people register. I wonder what percentage of bedroom / amateur recordings are not registered?
To be fair, PPL appear to be doing some good stuff on databases, but I do worry a bit about the possible naivety expressed in the idea that where the UK leads other countries will follow and exactly how this will translate into good news "for the economy as a whole". As Dr Ben Goldacre would say, "the plural of anecdote is not data." 

Section 73 acknowledges the existence of content outside of the traditional industry channels. This appears to be covered in a single paragraph with a suggestion that the LCC project looks at it. Buck passed, no budget required.

Section 75, second mention of end-users. That might be you or me.

That's the data section done. The surprising thing about this is that they didn't expect this to be a problem when they started out. Who were they talking to? People have been discussing exactly this problem for years.
Oh well, it's also me done for the night. In the next thrilling installment we look at The Copyright Hub.
Join us then...

* Criminal as well as civil charges can be brought.

Further musings on copyright reform (1)

Slight change of plan. I was going to post a single blog on this but it might ramble on so instead I'll post a number of them as I work through and come back and correct any errors or misunderstandings.

For the last couple of evenings I have been reading the second half of the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) report on copyright reform.
I do these things for you...
I summarised my feelings on the first half here: Proposed UK Copyright reforms draft paper out

The second part of the report covers "Streamlining copyright licensing for the digital age" and yet, just 14 pages into the 76 of the report, I find myself wondering if a) they use the word "streamlining" in the same way that most of us would and b) if they're really aware of what's actually happening out there in the digital age.
I'm making these notes as I go along but things that concern me so far are:
In respect of streamlining the process, the first half of the report seems to make things more complex (as bemuso explains here).
In respect of understanding the digital age:
1) they appear to think that the representative groups from the analogue age still speak for the digital generations.
2) they appear to think that creators and consumers are two distinct groups and don't appear to understand the sheer volume of amateur / unpaid content creators out there.
3) they still don't appear to have grasped the scale of the issue they're attempting to solve, this is indicated by a suggestion that you-tube users would apply to license the music that's being played in the background of an amateur video.
Hello! Over 48 hours of video is uploaded every minute, how in the name of all that's holy do you intend to police this? Because if you can't, then people will just skip past your pain-in-the-arse (and probably stupidly expensive) licensing step and upload anyway.
Anyway, back to my reading.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

A Manifesto for the Content Industry 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”)

Amongst the terms you encounter on the web from the more vociferous supporters of copyright (and intellectual property in general) is “Freetard”, a term used as an insult against anyone who downloads content without paying for it. As well as being a fairly offensive term in its use of the word “retard” it’s also indicative of a mind-set that tries to frame the debate as a moral rather than business-model one. You can also frequently find it used by those who argue that “creators” and “consumers” are two distinct camps.
But the main argument you get from the freetard-motif-users is that people won’t pay if there’s a free alternative.

As I covered back in section 4, this is demonstrably false. If you provide an easy-to-use, 1-stop-shop with an end product that has no degradations compared to the illegal alternative, then customers are willing to pay. This is especially true if you can demonstrate that they’re effectively supporting the artist directly*.

What has changed significantly for the big content industries is the access to the content. In the good / bad** old days the major labels / studios / publishers effectively controlled not just what was made, but what was sold. One size would fit all because there was only one size available and customers could like it or lump it.
If you wanted to see a movie you went to the cinema and watched what was showing. Similarly the radio stations would (to a large extent) play what payola or paid taste-makers suggested.

But (repeat after me) these gates restricting access to content are gone. More people are creating, marketing and distributing content than ever before. One size no longer fits all because I can find more sizes just a mouse-click away. An interesting article interviewing the CEO of a label now distributed by Universal Music Group []  indicates that they’re beginning to realise this***, they’re target product is the “hit” and their target audience is (to be crude) the Justin Bieber fan. They’re a big player so they can aim mass-market. If they’re smart they will adopt a different strategy for their sub-labels that target different niches.

Hollywood does blockbusters very well, those looking for more cerebral fare will frequently turn to UK, French or Indy producers, again, different strategies are needed for the different products and audiences.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is the largest of the legacy industries are trying to avoid having to adapt by legislating the gates back into place. It won’t work, but it slows down the progress of our technology and capabilities of a lot of the smaller creators whilst they try.
Some people seem to be stuck with the idea that biggest is best and that best of all is being able to control & monetise every use of their content. Unfortunately this doesn’t necessarily result in what might actually produce the most profit.

Sometimes coincidence works in your favour. Just as I was about to start writing this section of the manifesto I came across the following quote from Bill Cosby, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody“.

* or that there’s a charitable aspect to their support.
** delete as appropriate
*** but interestingly it’s taken a small label to introduce this concept and it’s still not UMG’s standard operating model.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

A Manifesto for the Content Industry 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.

Let’s go back to the difference between middlemen and gatekeepers: What are you bringing to the table? If you’re adding something to the mix (distribution, promotion, technical expertise, access to fans / artists etc. etc.) then you’re a middleman. If all you’re doing is charging people to get to the table then you’re a gatekeeper and, let’s not beat around the bush, you’re doomed.

Before the advent of recorded media things were pretty simple. If you wanted to listen to some music you either played it yourself, went somewhere where someone would be playing it or (for the very rich) paid for someone to come to you and play it.
There were no movies of course, but the theatre was there and off you went.
The gatekeepers were just that, the men on the gate and, in some cases, the booking agents, but they were relatively few and far between. The middlemen were the tavern landlords, the ticket sellers and the folks who stuck up the bills.

With the advent of recorded media the game changed. Suddenly the option of bringing the entertainment to you existed for everyone, not just the very rich. But producing, distributing and advertising this content was expensive, very expensive. It also took a long time and required a lot of very specialist resource.
This meant there quickly became a clear divide between the amateurs and the industry-backed professionals, a divide that led to a massively successful set of industries for about 50-odd years and an ever expanding set of restrictions on what could be done with the output of these industries.

Towards the end of the last century, along with the rise of the personal electronics and the increasing availability of home computing, three things happened that started an inexorable change for these industries:
1) cheaper hardware and software brought media creation capability to the masses. Prices have continued to fall and quality has continued to rise to levels unimagined just twenty years previously. £1000 will buy you a brand new computer, the recording software, a solid-top acoustic guitar and a condenser microphone. With that you could record music that will surpass a lot of the stuff from some of the professional studios of the seventies and 80s.
2) The internet arrived and then, critically, morphed into web2.0, shifting from being yet-another-mass-media-distribution- channel to being a true many-to-many distribution mechanism for User Generated Content (UGC). In the music world sites like myspace (RIP), cdbaby, last FM, bandcamp, soundcloud, thesixtyone and many others sprang up to help artists distribute and advertise their work directly to fans. Amazon, Lulu and others are providing the same service for authors and crowd-funding tools like Kickstarter are offering aspiring film-makers and game designers (see 3) the chance to make this shift as well.
3) Computer games and consoles made the shift from the arcade and nerdiness to the front room and mainstream acceptance. In a world where digital content is effectively infinitely abundant, disposable income is still depressingly finite. The music, movie and publishing industries have been forced to adapt to a new competitor for these entertainment dollars and, in general, it’s a competitor that is born of the digital revolution and is reacting to the changing world more quickly and more profitably.

Content will always be produced, fans will always exist but the gates are going or, in some places, have gone entirely. There will always be a place for those who can add value to the connection between fan and creator, but if your business model exists solely to stand at the gate demanding admission then your ex-customer will just walk over the ruins of the walls around you.
Or, to go back to the original metaphor, the gravy train has stopped at the buffers, the passengers and artists have disembarked and are mingling on the platforms planning new journeys on new trains, cars, planes, bicycles and everything else under the sun. How long are you going to sit in the carriage waiting for them to come back?

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

A Manifesto for the content industry 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. 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.

This will be a short entry because it’s really just simple economics (even if it’s frequently missed by a great number of corporations who should know better).

Point 1: Once something is on the web it is effectively available everywhere. Sure you can try blocking things by regions and this will work for casual users and non-techy folks* but these things are easy to work around.
Point 2: Your unit cost is effectively zero**, everyone understands this, your unit price will have to be close to that for people to feel that they’re not being ripped off.
“Close to zero” is a variable though. In Western Europe or North America you can just about get away with 99c (or 99p) being “close to zero”. In the Far East, Eastern Europe, Russia, India and other areas of Asia, South America, anywhere in Africa, 99c gets ever further away from “close to zero” and ever closer to “a day’s wage”.
People will not pay a day’s wage for a digital entertainment file.

If you price your product that way then you can expect a high proportion of piracy in those countries. So you have two options: local pricing or acceptance that that market is not going to provide you with any income from digital downloads***.
However if you go for local pricing we get back to this “global market” thing. I have a friend who buys all his MP3s from a Russian site. It’s all completely legit (as far as he’s aware), but only a 10 th of the price. No laws broken, no copyright infringed, 1/10th the outlay.

But maybe 10 times the risk?
I’ve never used this site for two reasons:
1) I’m not comfortable giving my credit card details to a Russian website.
2) I’m not convinced that any of that money will ever make it back to the original artist.

And those two reasons mean a business opportunity still exists.
Let’s face it, a lot of the countries that have the lowest standards of living are also rife with corruption, if you run a trusted, 1st world web-company then that alone will be reason for some people to buy (see Amazon and iTunes for examples).
Secondly the success of things like Kickstarter, NoiseTrade and Bandcamp shows that there are a lot of customers out there who want to support the artist.
If you can facilitate that, show that you’re helping to get that content made, and provide a trustworthy service, then there’s a place for you.

* Warning, non-techy folks are a decreasing proportion of the population, building your business model on them is not a long-term strategy.
** I know that there are hosting and management costs for large businesses, but those large businesses are shifting lots of units.
*** It could still provide you with income from other channels though, don’t write it off.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Proposed UK Copyright reforms draft paper out (2)

Thanks to @copyrightgirl I have been reading the snappily titled "GOVERNMENT POLICY STATEMENT: Consultation on Modernising Copyright". Here is the second part of my initial analysis looking at Extended Collective Licensing and Collecting societies (part one is here).

Extended Collective Licensing
I was going to tackle the second third of the consultation today but it turns out this has largely been done for me already. To save me the effort of re-writing something already better written (and to save you the pain of reading it) I'll just direct you, well, directly to the bemuso blog site where you can read his* analysis.
There's 4 sections to it so it may take a while.
Go ahead, jump there now, I'll wait here.

Back? Excellent.
Now we don't agree entirely in our analysis, but only in context of who might be calling for this and benefitting from it. It's altogether likely that Rob (I hope he doesn't mind me calling him that) has sources of knowledge that I don't, but I wonder what makes him suggest that the people pushing for these changes (we agree that it's not the consumer) are "Google and the free content lobby". It feels to me that the people most likely to benefit from these measures are the currently incumbent collecting societies themselves.
So having concluded that the second section of this consultation serves only to bring confusion and complexity to both consumers and creators I shall move on to the final section of this document.

Codes of Conduct for Collecting Societies
This bit gets me down a touch because it shows such a lamentable failure to a) look at what's happened elsewhere and b) stand up for the public against vested interests.
Shorly after pointing out that this is a billion pound operation it says "However, the Hargreaves Review noted that collecting societies tend to be monopoly suppliers in the sectors in which they operate, and that there was evidence that practice could be improved in some areas. Hargreaves argued that greater protection was required both for members of collecting societies, and for their licensees."
It then describes feedback that raised issues "in relation to lack of transparency, administrative costs, and negotiation practices around licences and tariffs" - so pretty much everything they're supposed to be doing then?
Despite this we're going to extend these collecting societies? Even though there are plenty of other options that already exist out there in the market and aren't requiring government intervention (see the 3rd bemuso blog).
Clearly codes of conduct are required in order to make sure these collecting societies operate properly.
Well, no, actually that's not clear at all, but that's not how governments think.
But codes of conduct do a good impression of making it look like something is being done; that is definitely how governments think.
"Collecting societies and some rights holders favoured a purely voluntary model based on principles developed by a working group of the British Copyright Council. Considerable effort has gone into developing these proposals, and collecting societies argued that they would deliver the intended benefits of the policy. However, licensees overwhelmingly sought a statutory basis for codes of conduct, supported by the potential for penalties to ensure compliance and counteract the monopoly position of collecting societies. Their fear was that without a credible enforcement process, the codes would not have any real impact. This was seen as particularly important if collecting societies’ powers were extended (e.g. via authorisation to operate ECL schemes) to allow them to licence on behalf of non-members."
Well no shit. The vested interests want a voluntary code of conduct. Ask yourself how well that works for advertising and the press?
Fortunately there are some people involved who are at least nearly as cynical as me so we have "Government will therefore legislate to allow the introduction, through Regulations, of a backstop power to
enable the application of a statutory code of conduct. This power would be used in the event of failure by a
collecting society to implement or adhere to a voluntary code which encompasses the minimum standards."
I wonder if that will make it through to the final draft?

I still don't understand who, apart from the licensing agencies, is benefitting from either the ECL or the codes of conduct. This really feels like a classic case of "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
And I find that very depressing.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Little help here please

I'm going to try and do a bit of an experiment in making my music available for wider use. You can already download the songs on a pay what you want basis, but that's not what I'm thinking about.
My plan is to make all the original multitracks for those songs available.
I have three challenges to this though:

1) the sheer amount of time it's going to take me to upload 55Gb of 88.2 24bit files.
2) Choosing where it should be uploaded to. I'm thinking a torrent site but with the pirate bay now being blocked in the UK (and not being particularly techy and not knowing how to get around that)  the obvious target has gone.
3) Getting word out that it's there. Back to the old obscurity problem.

Now obviously no-one can help me on the first one, but any advice or suggestions on the second two would be greatly welcomed.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Proposed UK Copyright reforms draft paper out (1)

Thanks to @copyrightgirl I have been reading the snappily titled "GOVERNMENT POLICY STATEMENT: Consultation on Modernising Copyright". The press release has been titled "Modernising copyright to help strengthen contribution to growth" but I can't help but feel if that was their genuine intent then they have, if not failed, then at least fallen a long way short of a stunning success.

Skipping straight past some questionable statements in the exec summary (which does at least try and bring a measure of balance to the debate) we'll look at the separate chunks in this document.

The consultation covers three areas: Orphan Works, Extended Collective Licensing and Codes of Conduct for Collecting Societies. Having read through this a couple of times I'll address each section in turn. Corrections and criticisms are more than welcome in the comments.

Orphan Works:
For those unfamiliar with the terminology, these are works where the copyright owner is not known or cannot be located. This issue with orphan works is that these works are effectively locked up and no-one can make use of them. Remembering that the purpose of copyright is to promote culture and knowledge it makes sense to try and open up this considerably bank of material for wider use.
So far so good.
Basically the governments proposal is that orphan works can be licensed if a "diligent search" has unearthed no owners and been confirmed by an independent authorising body. At the moment the definition of diligent and the nature of the authorising body have not yet been revealed, so we'll skip over that.
The issue I foresee is around this paragraph: "This permission should come at an appropriate price – a market rate, to the extent that one can be established". The problem here is that the current major rights holders do not have a good record of setting reasonable market rates for licenses. There is a litter of failed innovative start-ups that have tried to engage the major rights-holders to license content but they've been squashed by completely unreasonable and, more importantly, unrealistic license demands.
Looking at two of the four key principles (i'm ignoring the others because I don't see a problem with them) there appears to be a bit of confusion as to what is being attempted here:
"• Minimising market distortion between orphan and non-orphan works, by ensuring the owners of rights in
orphan works are treated as similarly as possible to comparable ‘non-orphan’ rights holders.
• Maximising the benefits to economic growth of the scheme."
The problem here is that the second of these is most easily achieved by dumping the first. The way that these works can provide most economic benefit is by saying that all orphan works are public domain. That way they can be copied, deconstructed, built up, remixed, re-developed and generally transformed into any thing that provides value to a potential customer. Trying to minimise the distortion pretty much ignores the whole purpose of copyright - the growth of culture.
I fully understand the principle that they are trying to preserve the rights of someone who might subsequently claim ownership, but this is further undermined by another section of the proposal:
"Works of unknown copyright status, such as where the work is over 70 years old and the date of death
of the author is unknown, will be within scope of the scheme."
This is just nuts. Copyright is there to inspire creation of new content. If the work is over 70 years old how much new content is the original creator likely to make? The only beneficiary to this part of the scheme is where the rights are owned by a corporation. If the work is over 70 years old and is orphan then it should just revert directly to the public domain.*
They do make some concession with "• To reduce anomalously long copyright for certain unpublished, pseudonymous and anonymous very old works, with the consequence that a number of these works will cease to be in copyright rather than being orphan works." but then provide no detail of which works might fall into this category or what might constitute "very old".

Right, this is turning into a long blog so I'm going to cover the other parts in subsequent posts, once again, if i've misunderstood (or just missed) anything, please correct me in the comments.

* ignoring, of course, the sheer ridiculousness of the life +  70 year copyright rule.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

A Manifesto for the content Industry 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.

The entertainment industry is an aspirational business. I don’t know how many applicants you get for even the most minor role but I’ll bet the glamour of either the music of movie industries pull in a bunch more candidates than the equivalent roles in engineering or finance.
Journalism and writing are also aspirational jobs. Pretty much any industry where you’re paid to express yourself (or facilitate that expression) is going to be an attractive one to a lot of people.

Which is why seeing articles like this one is a bit depressing: Sky News clamps down on Twitter use
Basically, in implementing this ruling, each of their individual twitter feeds became less valuable. In fact, you might as well cancel the individual feeds and just link to the website.

If we go back to our old techdirt equation of Connect with Fans + Reason to Buy = $$$, this appears to be a clear case where the institutional instruction is reducing both of those factors; by restricting people to only tweeting about their field it makes it harder to make a connection with readers (fans) and by forcing everything through the central news desk it slows down the transmission of information and potentially reduces the value of their feed (reason to buy).

In a market where the legacy players are fighting to preserve both their reputations and their relevance the expertise of their staff remains one of their most powerful weapons. Restricting access to that expertise (or vice versa) undermines the business.

The entertainment industries in particular are suffering something of a crisis of perception as much as anything, contempt for the inherent imbalance in current copyright law, and the continued head-in-the-sand behaviour of the lobbying groups has meant that “the industry” is widely seen as “the bad guy”. Actually engaging with those disenfranchised fans (rather than suing them) is going to be necessary to rebuild the industries’ reputations* and the people on the ground are the ones to do this – not the CEOs or heads of the lobbying groups. Why? Because of Stephenson’s sixth law**:

I’ve recently discovered a blog run by a bunch of creators*** (mostly musicians) who appear to be trying to do something around that connecting with fans and, judging by some of the comments, they appear to be having some degree of success in terms of persuading people. Unfortunately they also appear to be trying to approach the whole debate from a moral standpoint (ignoring the underlying economics is rarely a good idea) and also by thinking of things in terms of a zero-sum game – they seem to be trying to attack pretty much every web-based service as not-paying-as-well-as-the-old-model rather than paying-better-than-nothing.

Additionally some of their writers have a tendency to embark on aggressive, expletive-fuelled rants about the people they’re trying to win over, which doesn’t seem a particularly good strategy.
But anyway, it’s a good example of trying to free up your people and helping them connect with their current & potential future fans – and they’re getting a lot of hits on their articles.
So whilst I may disagree with a lot of what they say, it’s a prime example of getting your message across without falling foul of the sixth law.

* Assuming that the industries update the rest of their business models as well. White-wash won’t work.
** This, of course, has absolutely no data to support it at all.
*** I’m told that there’s a rumour (could I be less specific?) that this site is in fact supported entirely by a major music label and is what is known as an “Astro-turfing” site, but I have seen no evidence on this and it’s largely irrelevant for the purposes of this instalment.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

A Manifesto for the Content Industry 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).

“The best thing since sliced-bread” gives over 3 million hits on a google-search, I wonder how many of those things really are?
There is a theory that for any headline that ends with a question-mark*, the answer is “no”.
“You can tell when a politician is lying, his lips move.” Gets you over 500 hits on Google.
“Don’t believe the hype.” By Public Enemy reached number 18 in the UK chart

“So what?” I hear you ask. Well, we, as a populace, and hence as customers, are becoming more cynical. Advertising is pervasive but untrusted, techniques such as having the volume of the commercial breaks louder than the host programme and releasing ad campaigns that are designed to be offensive safe in the knowledge that any ASA activity will be retroactive further heighten the sense of intrusion.
Programmes such as The X-Factor are routinely referred to as “glorified karaoke” and the shelf-life of the winners is generally planned only to last until the next series (anything else is a bonus).
Media conglomerates have control of so many different channels that it is easy to find an advertisement for a TV programme masquerading as an article in a paper owned by the same company (or vice versa).

We, the customers, have known this for a while but, with the advent of a truly interactive web, people are finding out how to route round the hype, the misinformation and the adverts and are finding their own trusted sources.

Many legacy companies are seeing this as a threat. This loss of control means that their influence is reduced accordingly:
If people are TIVO’ing shows then they’re not watching your expensive adverts
If people aren’t listening to commercial radio they’re not hearing your carefully selected play-list
If people aren’t reading the newspapers then they’re not reading your trend-setter’s latest must-watch / -read / -listen to recommendations

But overall spend on entertainment is going up, especially for independents. So where are they getting their recommendations?
Well, the same way that they always did really, from friends, peers, colleagues, trusted reviewers, fanzines etc. It’s just that now, most of these are online and can have a far wider influence than they did previously.

And the reason that people are listening to these sources is that they respect the opinions and advice given. These new sources have established a track record on honest and reliable output that allows people to make a judgement based on that history.
This is an opportunity, and an easy one to open up. Most aspects of the content industry have their talent scouts (in one form or another) who could easily open up a credible dialogue with potential fans and customers, but very few are doing so.
More often than not this gap has been filled by amateur  / semi-pro bloggers and websites.
Sometimes industries will embrace these new sources, frequently they will do so in a confused, contradictory and ultimately litigious fashion.
This link [] shows the list of articles about popular hip-hop blog Dajaz1, a blog that was taken offline for hosting infringing content, a significant chunk of which was found to have been provided by the record labels for promotion.
There are plenty of other examples of fan-supported sites being closed down for copyright reasons that, ultimately, just drive people away from legitimate content.

From accounting practices to promotion techniques the legacy content industries (particularly music and movies) don’t have a good history of honesty. That’s a gap in the market, that’s an opportunity.

P.S. As well as my recurring concern about companies adapting before I’ve finished writing this I sometimes wonder if I’m going the wrong way with some of my analysis. Fortunately there is no shortage of regular reminders that reform is needed, generally in the form of one of the industries taking some ridiculous legal action. After writing this up last night my vindication came with this article from techdirt** about how skipping commercials might be considered illegal.

* e.g. Did radio-active, nazi gerbils kill Elvis in JFK cover-up?
** My go to source for all that is wrong in the Intellectual Property world.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

A manifesto for the Content Industry 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.

There are no longer any gatekeepers. You no longer control either the creation of, or access to, content. This doesn’t have to be a threat, this can be your next opportunity, You have spent the second half of the last century amassing experts in your field, be they A&R men, cinematographers, editors, investigative journalists or any other media professionals. If, in the last decade’s rush to bottom, you haven’t got rid of them all, these are the people who can differentiate your offering from the millions of bytes of user-generated content that is uploaded every second.
Note: this does not mean take your existing content, stick it on the web and hope.

Differentiation is an opportunity for monetisation.

Take the journalism example in the opening paragraph: “explosion wipes Doncaster off the map*” is a headline that screams across the web faster than any formal news channel can keep pace. But at that pace, and by the mechanisms of blogs, twitter and youtube, that’s almost all you’ll actually know half an hour after you first hear about it.
If you follow someone local to the incident you may pick up the name of the factory and a couple of nice photos (assuming it’s a daytime incident**). But the impacts of it, and the reasons behind it? That’s the opportunity; I’ve yet to see a spokesman giving a press-conference to “citizen journalists”.
This is even more important if there is anything unusual about the incident. At a time when it is easier than ever to disseminate misinformation and lies, the need for good investigative journalism and a trustworthy 4th estate is greater than ever.***
This level of integrity is something that can be charged for, either by means of a paywall (see the Financial Times) or by actually selling pulped bits of felled trees (see Private Eye).

Expanding out from news reporting, we can see the same opportunities in other fields. There’s plenty of raw talent out there but very few people who, from scratch, can apply the necessary polish or have a wide enough network to achieve a critical mass for distribution.
Unsurprisingly this ties back into the Add Value and Be Brave sections, but it boils down to answering two questions:
why would a content creator want to work with you?
Why would a content consumer come to you (and pay you) for this content?
If your answers to those questions are about where and how you improve the quality, distribution and uptake of that content then you’re on the right lines.
If your answers to those questions are about how people have to come through you to distribute their content, how they are legally required to use your services to access the content or how only you can provide this content, then you’re a sitting duck.

* Some good news travels fast****
** Thinking of the 2011 London riots, it’s interesting how little user-generated video footage there is that is really watchable, mostly because camera-phones still don’t operate well in low-light. This is also an opportunity.
*** Don’t rest on your laurels though, taking the London riots example again, a number of twitter users started to independently validate and curate tweets about the riots and built up a stream of trustworthy sources for tracking the activity. These sources ranged from established journalists to a chap who just got on his bike and went to look at any alleged riot areas.
**** Sorry Doncaster, you know I don’t mean it.****
***** Actually I do.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Cycling, Music and Design (well, poking a bit of fun at fashion)

I think this video just about sums up all the key areas of this blog. And it has lots of swearing in it, which is always funny:
[EDIT - updated with embed]

Friday, 9 March 2012

A Manifesto for the content industry - 7. Be Brave

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.

First, as has become traditional, some numbers:

Rather than copy and paste a big picture please have a shufti at this Infographic from techdirt showing the numbers in an expanding industry
What this shows us is that the overall entertainment sector is growing, both from a creation side and a sales side. So why do we hear so much about a dying industry being decimated by piracy?

Well, it’s partly because of that column on the left. The gaming industry of 20 years ago was niche and pretty negligible compared to the established movie and music industries. That’s all changed now and the customer’s entertainment dollar has a whole new market to play in.

So that’s part of it, and it’s partly because most people don’t know what decimated means, but we’ll step past that…
Having had a look at the top 20 singles, albums, tours, movies, paperbacks and video games (mostly courtesy of that other growth industry – Wikipedia) I notice the following things
The singles market is dominated by a few major artists.
The biggest movies of the year were mostly sequels, as were the video games.
The biggest tours were all by long-established by acts.
Novels alone still seem to have a good presence of debut works.
This tells me one of two things, either all the best stuff has been produced and there’s nothing good coming out of the ever increasing amount of new content, or the respective industries are scared of this new fangled internet thing* and are banking on their known, well, bankers.
Hence we’re seeing the sequels, cross-overs, franchises and the building of “brands” from the majors whilst most of the truly original content is coming from the independents and smaller subsidiary production houses.
This isn’t new, but the extent to which it is happening is, and it’s particularly galling in the music industry. Here we have an industry that has always defended its 90% take** on the grounds that it needs it to invest in new and developing artists. But speak to those within that industry who are tasked with that job and you’ll find there’s less and less money and time going that way. The general approach is now to let the scene develop organically and then cream 2 or 3 artists off the top when a lot of the hard work has been done by the artists and local enthusiasts.
If the content industry really wants to get back on the front foot they need to stop playing it safe and start hunting out the cutting edge; they have the skills and the resources to be shaping a new zeitgeist rather than perpetuating last year’s trends. But it means being brave, it means taking some of those profits and gambling with them, it means trying to reverse that process whereby companies go from creative start-ups to legislating dinosaurs.
It will pay off in two ways, firstly it increases your chance of finding the next being thing and being in at the start of a new scene and secondly it gives your customers a reason for some brand loyalty and, to go back to the techdirt equation***, a reason to buy (and then come back to buy again).
To refer to the previous chapter, it takes you away from content as a commodity and starts to return it to being culture.
The other way that the industry needs to be brave is in terms of how it connects its fans to its creators. We’ve talked about this before and we’ll come back to it again, but pretending the internet doesn’t exist is not going to work.

P.S. I love the wording from the US constitution at the bottom of the infographic, “to promote the progress of science and useful arts.” Does that mean that non-useful arts shouldn’t get copyright? Damien Hirst, I’m looking at you.
P.P.S. I know it doesn't mean this.

* An MPAA spokesman recently admitted that “the internet isn’t a platform we’re comfortable with”.
** On average, some of the older, more established bands do better, the manufactured ones don’t tend to get close to that.
*** Connect With Fans + Reason to Buy = $$$

Thursday, 9 February 2012

A Manifesto for the content industry 6 – Focus on Quality

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.
So what do I mean by focusing quality? Well, simply put, it is finding and exploiting (in a positive sense) the great stuff.
First though, some numbers to explain why quality is the differentiator for any kind of business based on digital content:

•At least 35 hours of content is uploaded to Youtube every minute.
•The movie featured in this blog post was shot on an $800 SLR.
•Garage Band recording software is available from £13 and a fully specc’d copy of Cubase from £190
•e-books now outsell paper books on amazon and can be produced with free software and the cheapest pc you can find.
•Portable digital recorders with condenser mics now cost less than £100.
•You tube, Picasa, Bandcamp, and oodles of other sites allow creators to upload and share / sell their content for free.
•Over $100million was pledged to Kickstarter projects last year.
•There are over 200 million blogs and this number rises every year.

What all of this means is that it is easier than ever for creators to produce good content, easier than ever for them to share it directly with their fans, and easier than ever for people to find new content.

What’s not easy to do is find the best content. There’s so much good stuff out there that finding the great stuff, and getting in front of the right people, is a challenge for creators and consumers alike.

As with adding value, focusing on quality is where middlemen have a role.

We touched on this in the previous instalment (I used the example of the difference in production values on albums by The National) and these two aspects do sit together to a great extent, getting top quality content in front of the right audience is still a real challenge at all levels of the industry.

In the TV and music world there is currently a focus on the reality TV shows and their offspring, Big Brother, X-factor and their ilk. This is very much a lower-end-of-the-market play and, whilst it offers high returns for low overheads in the short term, the numbers indicate that this may have a short life span. Audiences for Big Brother and similar shows have fallen heavily since their early highs and whilst the X-factor continues to grow its TV viewing figures, the sales of singles are falling (even when downloads are taken into account). The limited longevity of the acts also means that there is very little “long tail” to be capitalised on.

By focusing on the lower end of the quality scale the output becomes a commodity rather than “art”, which, as well as removing any long-term re-sale value from the product, makes it open to competition from lower / zero cost producers, removes a lot of potential for any brand loyalty and makes the operation very vulnerable to a sudden shift in public opinion.

The competition for consumers attention is more open than ever, whilst the major content producers also own the major media and distribution channels a demand can be created, but as the net democratises the flow of information, and as peer-recommendation outgrows media hype, the money that people have to spend on entertainment will move towards quality output, even as they continue to watch and listen to the mass produced output.

* This may be my first ever blog post that has no asterisk'd footnotes. Oh wait.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

It's not over (or A new world order)

The debate over SOPA and PIPA (and the eventual shelving of those bills) has been framed in various terms from its inception. According to the supporters of the bill it's about Freetards vs Creators. According to a lot of the pundits (mainly in the mainstream media) it's about The Internet Geeks vs Hollywood.
But both of these positions are false.
Sure there are people out there who will happily take content for free without a thought for the creators, but there are a great many more who will happily pay a reasonable price for unrestricted content; especially if they know that most of what they've paid is going to the creator. That's why so many artists, musicians, actors, and programmers have come out against the bill.
And sure the MPAA have been driving this bill and it has been internet-based agitators who have orchestrated the challenge to it. But it's not just the geeks who've been overloading the congressional switchboards and filling up the senate's inboxes. After all, everyone who reads this is an internet user, but would you describe yourself as an online activist or a geek?
To ascribe to one of these positions is to miss a wider affect that has the potential for much greater change.

What really happened over the last few days was Lobbying vs The People.

That it came about over a bill to regulate the internet is perhaps fitting as it's this same medium that has enabled everyday people to see exactly how the legislative process in the US works. When these bills first started being discovered and discussed there were many in the online world who thought that their protesting was ultimately going to be fruitless. The internet wasn't a big issue to a national audience and the millions of dollars at the lobbyist's disposal (in an election year) meant that most of those early protesters thought that this would be a forlorn hope.
I am so incredibly proud of everyone who took a moment to contact their senator and congressman to stop this happening and provide a rare victory for the people over the vested interests of a few companies.
Make no mistake, it is a rare victory and it is not over.
Those bills (and doubtless others like them) have been shelved not scrapped, they will be back, in one form or another and we'll be relying on the same group of activists to keep us aware.
The lobbyists haven't changed their tactics, they still think that they can buy new legislation and, if necessary, new legislators.
But they have failed to recognise that, in their hubris, they have woken a slumbering beast.
Now it may be that the american people will roll over and go back to sleep and, if so, a great opportunity will have been lost. But it may be that the american people will wake up and start looking at how their rights have been eroded by lobbyist dollars and vested interests and how far from their purpose that their elected representatives have strayed.
We can hope.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

SOPA so bad

I feel I should be posting something about SOPA/PIPA here being as it's such a crock of shit and seriously fucks up this wonderful little thing I like to call the web.
But in truth, everything that needs to be said is being said and collated by those far more intelligent than me, so I'll just point you here:
The other reason that I'm trying to avoid writing anything about is that the outright lies and bullshit that is being spouted by the likes of the MPAA and RIAA makes me so angry I'm almost unable to write a coherent sentence.
So all I'll say is, get out there and make a noise.

Maybe it's while we still can.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

A Manifesto for the Content Industry – 5. Add Value.

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?
Now you’d think that this would be a pretty redundant article, after all, why would you be involved in a process if you weren’t adding value to it? Sadly large parts of the content industry have drifted a long way from this position.
At this stage it’s probably important to take a look at the content industry and the difference between middlemen and gatekeepers because, I think, you have fundamental difference in what they add to the artist-customer relationship. At least, this is the terminology I’m using so I’ll set out the distinction here:
A middleman is someone* who facilitates either the production of the work or the interaction between customers and creators.
A gatekeeper is someone* who restricts access to content until some kind of fee is paid.
Frequently a company can be both of these things. A record label may provide the upfront fees for a producer or session musicians, but then block the release of material via a non-traditional medium.
Frequently a company or organisation is supposed to be the former but ends up being the latter.
With the rapid improvement of consumer electronics and multitude of distribution options now available to anyone it might seem like the opportunities for a middleman to add value have disappeared. I’d argue that this is fundamentally untrue and there is still massive value that can be provided by the major players. A few obvious areas and examples are:
            Publishing: In a market that is still dominated by physical objects, distribution is key, and once your product is in the shop it needs to be visible on the shelf. You could try doing that as a self-published artist but good luck...
            Music: The difference that a good producer can make to a recording is probably analogous to the value that a good editor adds to an author, and it’s no real surprise that almost every novel you read will have the editor listed for thanks in the opening pages.
            Movies: unlike either writing or music, making movies is expensive. There’s no getting round the fact that even a budget production will probably cost you tens of thousands of dollars. And then you’ve got to find somewhere to show your film…
I could go on and talk about publicity and opinion makers and all kinds of other things, but however you look at it there is still a huge part that the established industries can play.
Unfortunately a lot of these companies seem to have decided that every interaction should also be a transaction and the only value that matters is shareholder value.

Hence they have become gatekeepers.
Where a middleman adds value to both the customer and the creator, a gatekeeper does the opposite by trying to drive a fee out of every interaction between the two. This might appear by way of a simple restriction of content (separating the customer from the creator) on you-tube “This video is not available to view in your country” – Sorry what? I’ve googled the official video for the new single and I can’t watch it for another 6 weeks because I don’t live in the US? Or by putting DRM on a video game (reducing the value) so that you can only play it if you’re connected to the web – Sorry what? I bought a single player game that I want to play on my laptop as I do my daily train commute, now I discover I can’t do that? Or a combination of the two, for example, by delaying the release of a series box-set on DVD so that advertising can be maximised via re-runs on a secondary channel – Sorry what? This was released in the US 6 months ago but I still can’t buy the box set and watch it at my convenience because you have a re-run on Sky-Atlantic.**

So to go back to our opening paragraph, one of the biggest challenges to any creator is getting their product seen/heard/read, and there’s so much good stuff out there it’s hard for the customer to find the great stuff. Connecting those two dots is value add.
Looking at the same situation from a different perspective, there’s a lot of good stuff out there that just needs a little bit of polish to really stand out. The aspiring film-maker in Spielberg’s Super 8 keeps going on about production values as a means to make his film standout in the upcoming competition and the principle holds in other fields as well***. Taking something from a “gifted-amateur” feel to a “professional-product” feel is value add.

Essentially it comes down to the title point; if you’re in the supply chain you should be adding value.

* Or a company
** Interestingly in almost all of these cases you'll be able to find an unauthorised copy for free with none of the restrictions. But try telling the respective industries that their behaviour is driving piracy...
*** Having recently listened to the first album by The National it sounds like a demo-tape for their later stuff; the talent and skill are there but the production values are in the “gifted-amateur” range compared to their more recent output.