Monthly Archives: July 2008

Record label angst

If the last three generations (five years = one generation) of music industry executives had been contestants on The Apprentice they’d all have been fired by now. So many self-destructive manoeuvres, so many technological and commercial dead-ends, so little readiness to try stuff. And I speak as a supporter of the industry: I don’t believe the whole superstructure of music production, packaging and distribution could or should be swept away or that labels and publishers and collection agencies and allied trades are evil or at some kind of Darwinian inflection point.

The 100 year history of recorded music is a glorious episode in the story of human culture and we should celebrate that. The risk, though, is that the current mess turns into some kind of terminal crisis. We might easily wind up remembering that hundred-year heyday as a story with a beginning (recording, mechanical reproduction, Caruso), a middle (CDs and the shift to bits) and a particularly grisly end. Nobody wants that.

There’s a good interview over at Paid Content with Terry McBride, one of the people who could, if the industry were ready to listen to him, help save recorded music. Real wisdom there.

I’ve been really trying to get to like We7, Peter Gabriel’s latest, ad-funded, online music business, but it’s not working. There’s a lot of good stuff there and it’s all free but the ads are utterly intrusive. There’s no way around it, they just ruin the music. Every track has a short ad inserted at the beginning and sometimes this is just bizarre (try listening to Lou Reed’s miserable classic Berlin with chirpy ads between the tracks, or to Shostakovich’s vast, mournful 13th Symphony) but it quite quickly becomes utterly unbearable.

The good news is that if you download a track you’ll find that in a month’s time you can go back to the site and download it again without the ad. It’s also pretty straightforward to remove the ads yourself (and that’s not forbidden in the site’s T&Cs). But it’s all pointless. Most current or popular stuff, such as that from Sony BMG, We7′s first major label signing, can’t be downloaded anyway—you can only stream it, which makes the ads unavoidable.

So I wonder if there’s an audience that won’t be driven crazy by the ads. Is it possible that teenagers live in such an altered musical world, for instance, that they can accept commercial messages as part of an increasingly heterogeneous audio stream? If you’re accustomed to soaking up your beats from the tiny speakers in a mobile phone, maybe ads are less of an intrusion—you just tune them out. Or maybe it’s got to do with the passing of the album—ads are not a big deal if you’re not hung up on the integrity of the carrier. If you consume music track-by-track from multiple free sources they’re not interrupting anything after all: they’re just the cost of the music you love…

London’s stabbing epidemic

The stabbing epidemic in London is puzzling. Not the grief and suffering of victims and families: that’s not puzzling (I get that part). It’s the behaviour of the perpetrators. It’s as if they’re all stupid. In fact it’s a stupidity epidemic. Correct me here if I’ve got this wrong, but as far as I know every single stabbing this year has been quickly followed by an arrest or arrests. There have already been convictions and there will surely be more—and there was no need to call in CSI here. In fact, typically, the arrest seems to involve no detective work at—just a cursory look round the corner for the wide-eyed teen with the blood-stained blade.

I really don’t want to be flippant about this. It’s hardly funny. But these kids seem to be displaying the most basic self-destructive behaviour. In the moment he draws his kitchen knife or his switchblade, the killer is throwing away the life of his victim and, along with it, his own. And don’t argue with me on this, I’ll allow no contradiction here: no murderer, no matter how lenient his sentence, is returning to normal life any time soon: that’s a life ruined, a life flushed away, whatever the actual penalty.

So we’re dealing with an outbreak of ghastly, aimless nihilism. Kids stabbing kids, kids trashing lives, kids robbing families of loved-ones. And, while they’re at it, consigning themselves to punishment, marginalisation, poverty and self-hate—to the animal existence of the outcast—for decades hence. It’s a small social disaster and we seem to have no tools to deal with it. We’re lost. The only guidance on offer is coming from talk radio and the tabloids and it has nothing to commend it: it’s just more of the same.

If kids are ready to slash and stab and destroy lives on a whim, in return for precisely nothing (no pecuniary gain, no honour, no respect—at least nothing that lasts longer than the terror of the moment) how is a stiffer sentence going to influence them? Does anyone seriously think that even a life-means-life sentence in a labour camp could alter behaviour in those fevered seconds? Does anyone have the faintest clue what motivates a child (or a near child) to the hormonal frenzy of a street corner stabbing? No. I thought not.

Freeing content at the BBC

I had a bit of a whinge over at Speechification earlier on about the BBC’s content archiving policy. I find it frustrating to say the least that Heather Couper’s epic history of astronomy, Cosmic Quest, which has been running on Radio 4 since May, will now be withdrawn from the public domain all together.

The BBC’s standard line here—and it’s not an unreasonable one—is that the Corporation can only afford to buy ‘first run’ or otherwise limited rights to shows like Cosmic Quest and that if it was obliged to pay for ‘in perpetuity’ rights the additional cost would block the purchase of other good stuff and thus ultimately limit the choice provided to licence-fee payers.

This is undoubtedly true but also defeatist and essentially an inadequate response to the changing imperatives of the network era. The BBC needs to be braver and more committed to change. Here are a few things that could and should be done to unlock more good content for public use:

The BBC should free access to content that has limited (or zero) secondary value. That’s not to say content that’s no good: just stuff that can’t easily be sold on or exploited after it’s been transmitted. Lionel Kellaway’s brilliant Radio 4 programme about Rooks (a favourite of mine) is an asset of great beauty and immeasurable value to its listeners but, let’s face it, hardly any value in an open marketplace for audio content.

The BBC should be a rights innovator: hybrid methods of preserving public access to assets and commercial value to creators and license-holders should be developed and tested on real content. Not easy and not possible without compromise on both sides but the Corporation is uniquely placed to drive innovation that’s beneficial to UK licence fee-payers.

The BBC should be a copyright activist. Legislators should be lobbied to help redesign copyright law to preserve access to orphaned assets: content that’s not being exploited but can’t be freed because it still has a nominal owner. The Corporation should fund work to design use-it-or-lose-it laws and other innovative devices that emphasise access and public benefit over predatory and unfair protection.

The BBC should set targets for freeing content. By defining and prioritising categories of assets that should be freed, the BBC could drive the accumulation of a big pool of useful material held in the public domain permanently. Announcing in advance that certain content categories—perhaps whole channels or strands—are in future going to be purchased for permanent public access would encourage creators to get on with it and adjust their pricing and commercial terms for the new climate.

The goal should be to define and then grow the pool of free-to-use, public domain content archived at bbc.co.uk and not to apologise for the inflexibility and intransigence of rights-holders and exploiters. The potential gain for UK Plc and UK citizens could be enormous. The “there’s nothing we can do about it , guv” response must be made a thing of the past.

Access to government information

Tom Watson, cabinet office minister and actual blogger, has paddled downstream from his Whitehall digs under cover of darkness (most likely wearing a balaclava) and come away with approximately half a Loosemore. The fraction of Ofcom’s Public Service Web supremo Tom Loosemore he came away with has been busy pushing the laudable idea of open access to government data. This week he launched a competition whose goal is to encourage you and me to make beneficial use of that data. The whole thing is so simple and so persuasive that you’re just going to have to enter. Government data is one vitally important plank of the common platform I’ve been going on about lately. Tomorrow I’m going down to ULU for the geek village fete they call Open Tech at which the cabinet office team will be making a presentation. See you there…

Viacom’s giant ‘fuck you’

I’ve run a number of pretty big web sites in my time, often maintaining large customer databases and, of course, log files. We kept those log files indefinitely but rarely consulted them. When we did it was always at the request of law enforcement and always in the presence of a warrant. At another.com, which was a free webmail service, it was usually a Russian cracker caching passwords or credit card numbers and on one occasion it was child porn. I dealt with maybe eight or ten such cases in four years or so.

We kept those logs because we wanted to be able to do the right thing in the event of an alleged crime. We didn’t keep them so that witless media giants could build cases against us or compromise the most basic rights of our users. I don’t usually come out on occasions like this but I think that Viacom’s shocking and ignorant raid on YouTube’s user data demands a response. This is legal and moral vandalism on a global scale (national boundaries don’t apply here).

It’s a kind of legalistic ‘fuck you’ from a doomed media monolith, showing the kind of disregard for natural justice, morality and public opinion that leaves people (millions of Viacom’s customers included) open-mouthed in amazement. And I say ‘doomed’ because this is the kind of comically stupid misstep that often marks the beginning of the end for even powerful and profitable businesses like Viacom. What were they thinking? Let’s hope a wiser judge in another court quickly sets this piratical tactic aside.

Could the competition referral save Kangaroo?

Competition regulators could force Project Kangaroo to open its player to all-comers and trigger a renaissance in British video creation: OpenKangaroo?

The Office of Fair Trading (“acting decisively to stop hardcore or flagrant offenders”) has referred Project Kangaroo to the Competition Commissioner. Sky and Virgin kicked off the enquiry so they’ll be pleased with the result. But there’s a reasonable chance this referral will be good news all round, even for Kangaroo.

First, and most obvious, the 24-week delay (that’s how long it takes) puts launch back to early 2009. By then the entire market will have shifted again: just remember how different everything looked when Kangaroo was first discussed. Back then (almost exactly a year ago) VoD looked fairly simple: it was going to be a paid-for, walled garden kind of business with TV shows delivered in standalone applications, wrapped in heavy-duty DRM.

Now, led by the BBC’s second-generation streaming iPlayer, VoD looks very different: it’s free, it’s delivered in a browser and DRM is fading fast. The OFT’s decision has handed Kangaroo the opportunity to sit out the next six months of cock-ups and dead ends and time travel to a different context all together. Sure it’s risky (and costly) to sit on your hands for half a year in a fast moving business but the opportunity to watch the other early entrants tripping over their laces and going bust surely can’t be missed.

The second reason why a referral might be a good thing will be more interesting to viewers and independent creators. Nobody’s betting on a drastic outcome for the enquiry. Hardly anyone’s expecting the Commissioner to close Kangaroo or break up the joint venture. The smart money’s on some fairly tough pre-launch modifications to the service and back to business. For instance, Sky and other competitors will want access to the Kangaroo player on equal terms. But granting Sky and any limited list of broadcasters slots on the Kangaroo player would require a competition enquiry of its own: every TV broadcaster, every video director, every creator of anything remotely like a TV programme will want a slot too (and that includes you lot with your Qik phones). And if the Commissioner obliges Kangaroo to open the player to all-comers that’ll be something like a revolution. An open Kangaroo will be a very different creature from the planned one.

It’ll be a platform to begin with. And it’ll probably be a tiered affair, with the investing partners’ shows featured at the top and the stuff from the great unwashed further down or out at the fringes. It’ll need a self-service section, something that works more like YouTube than a buttoned-down TV station. So it’ll need to have tools that let creators and uploaders make money, that give them access to Kangaroo’s presumably awesome ad sales resource. It might have shooting and editing tools, workshops and an advice forum. It might even commission content.

Suddenly, a post-OFT Kangaroo looks like a whole different kind of place: Kangaroo 2.0? OpenKangaroo? Sky’s self-interested intervention might have a most unexpected result. It might turn Kangaroo from—let’s face it—a slightly desperate tactical response to the seething grassroots video revolution into a national asset: a focus for the UK’s creative community. The new Kangaroo might be a genuine British hub for the emerging layer of video creators occupying the space below the telly production indies who got their leg up from Channel 4 25 years ago. In fact, it might be ‘a Channel 4 for the rest to us’. I don’t know about you but I’m suddenly finding the prospect of an OFT referral much more interesting than I’d ever expected it could be. Fingers crossed.