Consolidation’s final frontier

I watched practically all of Glastonbury over the weekend (on the TV, obviously) and I think I’ve figured out what’s wrong with the music industry: there are too many bands. There are bloody thousands of them. It’s insane. No wonder the biz is unravelling: there’s such massive fragmentation. Look at the record labels: there used to be hundreds of them but they wised up years ago and now there are three.

The bands need to do the same thing. I expect a massive wave of artist consolidation. In ten years there will be five or six bands (one for each major music genre, basically. Really good bands could double up). Think about it. Do we really need The Kooks and Babyshambles? The Killers and Kaiser Chiefs? Editors and The Automatic?

See what I mean? Couldn’t Amy Winehouse (who can really sing) get together with that Hot Chip crowd (who can’t)? There appear to be dozens of people in Arcade Fire, most of whom do no more than jiggle about or hum. Surely there’s some excess capacity there?

It’ll be hard to begin with, especially for the bands who are phased out or downsized, but once the acts have got their… erm… act together and merged to form half a dozen mega-bands (we could call them ‘super groups’) the industry’s economics will all start to make sense again. Sanity will prevail… Come on guys!

People Ready? Not really.

Microsoft People Ready Banner
OK. I’ve scouted around and read all the blogs and I think I’m up to speed with the MS People Ready spokesblogging thing. Still haven’t seen any actual live ads though. Were they pulled? Anyway, to summarise: some ‘A list’ bloggers (the ones whose stuff is carried by the Federated Media network) agreed to write and publish some ‘advertorial’ copy for Microsoft.

Apparently they promised Microsoft – or, presumably, Microsoft’s go-ahead ‘conversation marketing agency’ – they’d use (or at least refer to) the words ‘people ready’. The ads ran as banners and were pretty obviously, well, ads. That’s it. That’s the whole storm.

The reason it’s gone wrong (and the reason we’re unlikely ever to see those ads again) is because the various bloggers implicated (not all of them) have responded to the commentstorm triggered by Valleywag‘s original revelation in a way that can only be characterised as both belligerent and disingenuous (“fuck you, media old-timers!” and “I had no idea those two silly words would cause such a fuss”).

The ‘sphere’s spleen so far, though, has been misdirected: at Arrington and Wilson mostly. This isn’t really their offense. They’re innocents in all this. They’re not journalists and only barely publishers – they’re over-excited participants in a business and media revolution and they really do have a defense: ignorance.

They just didn’t know there was anything wrong with carrying those two innocent words. Their publisher, though, is different. John Battelle’s Federated Media is a sophisticated business, an interesting, web-native publishing network – a business advancing a promising model in an uncertain medium. They should have known better.

FM will survive this debacle, but their reputation surely won’t. The publisher now looks rather less like a serious, top table new media player and a lot more like a cheesy catalogue printer or a second-rate contract publisher. This is not how you build a future media titan (here’s Battelle’s thoughtful response to the storm).

Gordon Brown – Presbyterian Hit Man

Gordon Brown
I’m impressed. I’m properly impressed. Gordon Brown’s night raid on the Liberal party was muscular shit-kicking, twenty-first century politics. It was never going to work but that wasn’t the point. I don’t think Brown ever actually expected to abduct Ashdown or Neuberger. His message was simpler. He was saying: “you’re nothing to me, you’re a political irrelevance. You’re a resource. You have some good people and If I want to I’ll talk to them.”

So it’s not exactly what it seems: it’s not an inclusive gesture, it’s not a mold-breaking ‘big tent’ initiative. It’s a successful effort to rough up and irritate the third party. Brown’s making a clear enough statement about what we can expect of his premiership: that’s the end of charm and emolience, people. Communication will not be this administration’s watchword. Don’t expect a lot of fluffy ecumenical bullshit. Do expect Sopranos-style political whack jobs and plenty of attitude. As a repositioning exercise it’s persuasive: Brown means business and, I reckon, in these febrile times, that’s probably a good thing…

I like this

There are two phone numbers on Steve Johnston’s web site. One is an ordinary landline and the other a prominently-labeled premium rate (£1.50/minute) number. When I called him this morning I used the premium rate number. I did this deliberately, partly because I was kind of pleased to be offered the choice and partly because I had a feeling it might change the nature of our call a little bit.

I was right. Our conversation, which was quite friendly because I’ve known Steve for about ten years (although I don’t think we’ve ever met – I did see him on Dragon’s Den, though), was subtly different from an ordinary sales enquiry. When Steve picked up the phone we entered into a sort of mini contractual relationship. I paid for our chat. There was an implied SLA. I learnt some interesting stuff. Steve trousered about a tenner. Everybody’s happy. Brilliant.

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More ID card hubris

I admire Liam Byrne’s effort to position ID cards as a great national institution. Really. Eight-out-of-ten for effort. My position on ID cards is similar in that I agree we should aim to position Britain as a pioneer and an innovator with regard to ID.

Where we disagree is on whether we should be doing it at all. I think Britain could successfully carve out a niche as ‘the country that doesn’t have ID cards’, the country that secures its institutions and keeps its people safe without unwieldy, top-heavy and intrusive ID schemes, the country that builds respect for individual liberty into its governance framework.

The problem here is that it’s very difficult for politicians to justify not doing anything. The government’s growing ID card bureaucracy has its own momentum now. No amount of cogent argument or passionate rebuttal is going to derail ID cards now. The IT Services industry is ramping up to meet the demand, the security lobby has invested millions in its justifications and the politicians are getting their speeches ready for the launch ceremony.

Game over, I guess…

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Moral flexibility

Salman Rushdie by
I’m not surprised to hear that the Pakistani legislature has voted unanimously to condemn the Rushdie knighthood (nor that students who probably weren’t born when the book was published are burning The Queen in effigy in Islamabad). That was to be expected. I suppose most of those protesting have never read the book (I seem to remember that Ayatollah Khomeini hadn’t read it when he issued his fatwa).

What upset me most yesterday was listening to impeccably British, perfectly establishment Lord Ahmed on the radio, essentially excusing the fatwa. His moral flexibility was breathtaking: he was able, in the name of ‘sensitivity’, to suspend centuries of tolerance for dissent, of respect for an author’s right to offend.

For Ahmed, Rushdie’s ten year ordeal was irrelevant and the readiness of nutters on every continent to murder the author secondary to the offense he caused to religious people. That a British Parliamentarian should find it politically contingent to strike through the human rights of a writer to advance an essentially mediaeval intolerance for apostasy is shocking and dispiriting.

Pic by Whistling in the Dark.

Direct Line vs the comparators

Direct Line telephone logo
You’re a consumer brand. You long for a better relationship with your customers. You’re not getting it, though. There’s always someone in the way, usually a retailer with a dopey EPOS system or, worse, a smelly broker (with a comb-over). Either way, these barriers are doubly frustrating. Not only do your various agents stop you talking directly to the people who buy your stuff – understanding them, developing things they might actually like and keeping the whole margin – they are also totally clueless about those customers. They couldn’t tell you anything about them if you asked. They’re a dead weight, a drain on your precious margin.

Now imagine you’re Direct Line, the first direct insurer, the first business in the category to go round the grubby High Street brokers and build a big policy book without spending a penny on commissions. You broke the mold. You dumped the middlemen over twenty years ago. You thought it was game over for the intermediaries. Imagine your frustration at the emergence of a whole new layer of bloody middlemen! And these ones are worse than the old lot: they promise transparent product comparison, customer empowerment and lots of downward pressure on prices. Bastards.

No wonder you’re spending loads of money (above the line and in glossy PR) to dis them. Your problem, of course, is that no one can get the price comparison genie back in the bottle and, whatever happens, you’re now doing business in a much more open place. Your products can’t hide behind arbitrary differences any more. Being direct is no longer enough.

The outcome of this punch-up will, though, probably be good for everyone: price comparison sites will be forced to be a bit more open about their revenue model, the direct insurers will learn to coexist with the comparators by developing increasingly cool product add-ons and the customer will get better information and cheaper product. It’s time for Direct Line to stop with the wingeing and get back to innovating. They did it once before and transformed the market for insurance in Britain. There’s no reason at all why they shouldn’t do it again.

And speaking of middlemen, what do you call this lot anyway?

Wrong wrong wrong

London 2012 Olympics logo you're wrong
I’ve been thinking about the 2012 logo. It’s pretty simple: you are all wrong (obviously I mean those of you who disagree with me). People have actually been phoning me up (well, Paul phoned me up and put his graphic designer wife on the phone) to tell me how wrong I was to defend it. Still, you are all wrong. To summarise: yes: it’s not an old-fashioned brand-as-unity. It’s not a condensed and perfected less-is-more logotype. It’s definitely not a jewel-like Paul Rand. It’s not a monolithic, multi-decade High Street fixture either.

What it is is a soft, rather provisional, half-finished identity. It’s an open and accepting form: designed to accept modification, addition, overlay, adjustment. It’s a kind of container (and, think about it, isn’t that what brands are turning into these days?). Your classical logo aims to refine and exclude – to perfect. The 2012 logo aims to accept and include. It’s a radical thing: a half-brand, an unfinished logo, an imperfect identity: something to play with. Get used to it you old-timers!

Channel 4 – more useful than ever

Emily Parr, kicked out of The Big Brother House for calling another housemate 'nigger'
I’m very impatient this morning with the clueless and elitist response from mainstream media to Channel 4’s latest race row. Big Brother has provided C4 with two opportunities to tackle racism in Britain in the last six months and both turned out to be more effective interventions than any number of indignant newspaper editorials or dopey Government campaigns.

If white kids in Britain really are going around calling each other ‘nigger’ (and that’s what silly Emily seems to be telling us) then that’s valuable information – information that ought to be in the public domain. If reaching those white kids and helping them to understand what it means to call another human being ‘nigger’ is a legitimate goal then I’ll trust Channel 4 to do it before The Daily Mail or the Today Programme (Embattled Andy Duncan handled silly old Humphrys beautifully on Today this morning – he must have been on a course).

Categorized as Media