Monthly Archives: December 2003

Bam, World Heritage Site

Heartbreaking photographs of beautiful, pre-quake Bam (link from Bruce Sterling). Two-thirds of these buildings have been flattened by the earthquake. As I write the apparently well-organised Iranian authorities are announcing that they’ve already buried 30,000.

You can donate online to Oxfam’s Iran appeal here (they’ll help with water and sanitation) or to Unicef’s here (they’ll help with sanitation and health, principally for kids).

New York City and all-you-can-eat

I wanted to write about eMusic six weeks ago, when they switched off their all-you-can-eat subscription package ($9.99 per month for unlimited downloads) but I waited for some press coverage – which didn’t show up. Now I’ve been listening to my last downloads – three amazing walking tours of The Bronx in New York City (yes, walking tours). I expected there to be a lot of fuss about eMusic‘s momentous change but it seems to have gone almost unremarked. It’s a pretty big deal for the music download business. eMusic, admittedly a tiddler next to the big players – but with hundreds of indie and specialist labels on its books and some amazing stuff in the catalogue – from Sam Cooke to The Fall and John Cage to Woody Guthrie – was sold to shadowy Dimensional Associates by Vivendi Universal in October (presumably for a fraction of the $24.6M they paid for it.

I suppose I should admit I was convinced that eMusic’s all-you-can-eat subscription model was the coming thing and that the music industry was about to slowly reconfigure around the kind of annuity income you get from subscribers instead of the disastrously unpredictable business you get from fickle High Street blow-ins like you an me. Wander down to your local HMV or Sam Goody’s right now if you want to see the brutality of old-fashioned seasonal retail in action.

But the classical, one-at-a-time model ($1 per track, $10 per album at iTunes, for instance) seems to have legs. I guess that the industry’s formidable ‘forces of conservatism’ are working overtime to preserve the model, the jobs and the infrastructure that go with it. After all, replacing an entire retail supply chain, from manufacture to distribution to marketing and accounting is hardly a trivial matter – and selling CDs online is not the solution – in the long-term that’s just the same old supply chain with knobs on (maybe 5% more efficient?). I’m still pretty sure that the music industry has to move to new charging and distribution models within the next few years or face the slow collapse of the retail model.

It’s unavoidable – music retail looks increasingly messed up. There has to be a big win available to the first player to make a different model work and that model is going to contain some kind of all-you-can-eat element. Trying not to be too apocalyptic about it, physical retail and one-at-a-time sales are unlikely to go away all together but the recorded music ecology will get richer (wider, not deeper) as it stretches to accommodate subscription services of different types.

The Bronx CDs are funky audio tours by local experts, produced by a company called Soundwalk (who also produce tours of other parts of the City), designed to be listened to as you walk the streets of the borough. I’ve been to New York many times but never set foot in The Bronx. Me and my iPod will take the plunge next time I’m there. While you’re at it, tune in to two programmes by Richard Niles about Manhattan’s pop legacy at BBCi – very good stuff (and if you can find the RealMedia streams on the Radio 2 web site I’ll owe you a Xmas drink).

Being creative

Is it reasonable to assume that the net and cheaper, more accessible digital media tools are making us more creative? More to the point, would it be a good thing if we were? Would a more creative society be a better one – more generous (nothing more generous than sticking your neck out in the cause of art), better at problem solving, more enterprising? Pass. No idea. I do know that lots of organisations are investing money in boosting the creativity of their people, though.

They think a more creative workforce will produce better profits. If this is true, isn’t it likely that an effort to make the wider population more creative might have a similar effect on the national economy? Could we effectively reduce expenditure on unemployment benefits, anti-depressants and incarceration if we gave more people the warm glow of making something, entertaining someone, expressing themselves? I wrote about the next generation of ‘personal creativity tools’ in The Guardian yesterday (I was filling in for the legendary Jack Schofield).

Pseudowhacking

Listen. Googlewhacking is stupid. Dumb non-phrases that occur only once precisely because they’re useless in speech. Come on guys! Now this is more like it – a proper three-word phrase – used in a real sentence that actually means something – that occurs only once on the whole web. I’m going to call it pseudowhacking (if nobody minds, of course).

High Street Showbiz

The Economist on the future of retail – playing out in a mall near you if you live in the United States, ever the over-heated laboratory for this kind of thing. Summary: it’s roll reversal time for the retailers. Traditionally mall-bound department stores (Sears, for instance) are moving out of town and building multi-acre warehouses. The warehouse types (Walmart, Target) are taking over the abandoned multi-floor mall sites always thought to be too expensive to operate for a discounter.

Downtown department stores are turning into ‘showcases’ (like Selfridges in the UK) where more than half the floor space is stocked and managed by third parties. Supermarkets are leveraging huge purchasing clout and customer base to take business from everybody. Scrappy specialist retailers are filling gaps and stealing margins from the old-fashioned stores who are stuck with thousands of unprofitable lines they have to keep for their old-fashioned customers – and they’re worried.

George Jones, CEO of venerable Saks, says: “the model is so illogical. The model is messed up. There’s a real win out there for a company that can break out of that mould.” This is gripping stuff, at least partly because we all do retail all the time – it’s like breathing (name a day in the last month when you didn’t enter a shop – real or virtual). Show business was never so exciting (and I bet he didn’t say ‘messed up’).

Go on. Buy my old stuff

Nikon Pronea S APS SLR
You’ll be wanting one of these – a bargain-priced super-compact, Nikon APS SLR. Ideal Xmas gift. I still think APS (Advanced Photo System) is pretty neat and this camera is excellent (especially if you have Nikon kit already cos it’ll accept all your lenses) but I’m mostly digital these days so I’m unloading this very pretty Nikon on eBay. What are you waiting for? I bet you haven’t bought a single Xmas present yet…

Archiving Al-Qaeda

Speaking of hijacking license payer-funded audio, I learnt a huge amount from this 13 minute, middle-of-the-night gem at the weekend. It’s one of the World Service’s ‘Instant Guides‘. This one’s about Al-Qaeda (quiz: did you know that Al-Qaeda was originally a bureaucracy – a kind of Mujihideen recruitment agency? Did you also know that Al-Qaeda offered to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait but the Saudis said ‘no thanks’ because they’d already lined up the Americans for the job?). It’s one of thousands of really good factual programmes made every year using the BBC’s awesome specialist resources that’s crying out for a good, accessible archive (this stream will be overwritten by next week’s in a few days. How stupid is that?). Building a fantastically useful media archive from the BBC’s day-to-day output should be easy. It’s driving me mad to see it coming together so slowly!

Hijacking license payer-funded audio

Audio Hijack Pro is a nicely put-together OS X app for capturing sound from any application, including stuff you might not strictly be allowed to record, like the BBC’s RealMedia streams,?but since these are public service radio shows, funded from a compulsory license fee, and since many BBC programmes are not archived properly at all, I’d be surprised if anyone (even the people whose job it is to commercialise this stuff at BBC Worldwide) would pursue you too zealously for saving a few shows to your hard drive.

The $30 Pro version allows you to save audio in the MP3 format, which will be handy for playback on your iPod, but the Basic version also looks pretty useful and is only $16.