Igor Stravinsky, Tupac Shakur and the uncanny

The Player Piano was the Tupac Hologram of its day.

The most thrilling of our inventions are the ones that return to us a person we’ve lost or that recall a scene from the past that we couldn’t have experienced or a place we couldn’t have known. There’s a rush, a kind of zipwire effect. WOOSH. BANG. You’re there. And sometimes these experiences are so vivid they cross over into the uncanny and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. A list of these moments would be a long one, but try this ultra-vivid portrait of the Carusos in 1920. The rush here is a compound effect of a fabulous technology, as-yet unmatched in the digital era – a large, glass negative – plus the amazing light on that New York terrace and those eyes (those eyes are what Barthes would have called this photograph’s ‘punctum’). Or this: the first view of the earth from the moon. Tell me you didn’t shiver (and note, also, that in order to qualify as ‘uncanny’ it doesn’t need to be a hyper-real simulation of a human).

The player piano is another piece of nineteenth century tech that’s highly productive of the uncanny. The knowledge that the sound you’re hearing, when the paper roll begins to turn, reproduces with truth the actual playing of a long-dead musician – not the acoustic effect but an actual mechanical trace, punched into a paper tape by the actual force of the player’s fingers – changes the effect startlingly.

The fact that sometimes that musician was the composer – Gershwin or Rachmaninov or Stravinsky – makes it more uncanny still. I was lucky enough to be standing next to one of these player pianos – a kind of half human-mechanical hybrid steampunk cyborg – ten days ago in a Broadcasting House studio. Its owner Rex Lawson rolled it up to the studio Steinway and attached it like a grabbing symbiont to the keyboard and then brought to life one of Stravinsky’s amazing piano rolls. It was a remarkable experience: Stravinsky was very much in the room. Here’s a video I made of that strange encounter of machine, memory and music:

Rex Lawson ‘playing’ Stravinsky on a Pianola player piano in 2012

And, as if in confirmation that we live in strange times, a few days later, Tupac ‘appeared’ at Coachella, turning the uncanny dial up a few notches but instantly reminding me of that Stravinsky experience. I wish I’d been there, of course. Everyone who was says that it was amazing – and some were so freaked out by Tupac’s ‘appearance’ they declared that they disapproved, that it was somehow disrespectful. And the Tupac hologram, which was a synthesis of historic appearances and some mindblowing 3D simulation, is from the same family of technologies – a direct descendent, in fact, of Rex Lawson’s rattling, mechanical time machine. Spooky.

Tupac’s hologram ‘appears’ at Coachella 2012

David Hepworth – a Q&A about curating music

It has been my privilege, over the last few years, to write a few pieces for Britain’s best music (and arts and movies and stuff) magazine The Word – including, a couple of issues back, an article about the curation boom (my articles went the way of all flesh, of course, when David and Mark closed The Word, but here’s one about my early Internet life that I scanned).

The magazine’s publisher is David Hepworth (its editor – and the man to whom I tremblingly submit my copy – is David’s long-time publishing partner Mark Ellen). David oversees the selection of tracks for Now Hear This, The Word’s covermount CD: a monthly curatorial gem that regularly stays in our car CD player for the whole month (until the next one comes out).

I asked David a few questions about this rather successful example of 21st Century music curation (and also about his Saturday morning vinyl curation habit #platterday).


SB: tell me about the Word covermount. How does it come together each month?

DH: It’s put together by Andrew Harrison and Alex Gold with ideas thrown in by everybody else.

Are you extensively schmoozed by label PRs? Do bands send you stuff?

The record business is on the bones of its arse but you wouldn’t know that from all the stuff we get sent. Yes. PRs are instructed to try and get certain acts on the CD. it’s one of the few places where they can place unheard music and assure it gets heard.

Are there punch-ups in Word Towers about who’s on it or do you keep it all to yourself until its done?

No punch ups. You chase thirty tracks and you can’t get all of them. You might get twenty possibles which you edit down to fifteen. You need a mix.

What are the economics of the covermount? A few years ago everyone seemed to have one – and the newspapers went mad for them. How do they work?

Newspapers etc. have them for totally different reasons. They pay big money for music in order to outsell their competitors. Eventually they realised that the likes of Prince were taking them for a ride. They cost a lot of money because you have to pay mechanical royalties with them.

What’s the fate of the covermount? Will you replace it with a memory stick or a Spotify playlist?

No. It works because it’s a physical object.

Supplementary question: tell me about #platterday. Is it a model for publishing in the social media era or just what you do with a bacon sandwich on Saturday mornings?

I just got out my old deck and loved restoring the ceremony of playing black vinyl records on Saturday morning. Twitter just seemed an obvious way to share that experience. I posted a picture of a shelf full of my records and people started saying “oh play that one” which is clearly insane.

What is curation in this new sense? Is it different from being an editor?

I dunno. What I’m always trying to do is say something that doesn’t sound like the usual over-heated recommendations. It’s very hard. I find 99% of recommendations don’t actually convey anything about the nature of the thing recommended at all. They’re just endless variations on the expression “it’s brilliant!” Saying something meaningful about music is very hard, that’s why most people don’t bother.

Is there a business in it?

Shouldn’t think so.


David keeps a rather good blog of his own and curates a storytelling night called True Stories Told Live.

UPDATE: I asked David why he no longer picks the tracks himself. He says:

I did it for three years and was only too delighted to pass the job on. If you choose the tracks you have the unenviable job of writing the accompanying blurbs, which is like pulling teeth.

Hacks hack

Extraordinary movement in the phone hacking case today – and presumably only the beginning of a torrent of admissions and concessions. This is good. But there’s something about the indignation of the celebs (and near-celebs and non-celebs) caught up in the phone hacking mess – those whose names appeared on those long lists of ‘targets’ and whose personal information showed up in tawdry news stories – that limits sympathy. Politician blustering, starlet whining etc. I can’t quite throw my circle of empathy around this group of moaners. I want to say: “change your bloody PIN and move on, you crowd of money-grubbing dimwits.”

But hold on, cease your righteous typing in the comment box. I know that would be wrong. I know this is serious, but the offense here is not one of kind – it’s not the essentially adolescent crime of trying a few obvious PINs on a minor royal’s voicemail – but of recklessness, of hugely overdoing it. Had the editors and reporters felt able to confine their ‘hacking’ (it barely merits the label) to genuine miscreants – cocaine lords, oligarchs, privy councillors – this practice would and probably should have carried on essentially unnoticed into the future. In fact, used with discretion and in the public interest – like ‘camera bags‘ and dressing up as a sheik – it would have formed a useful part of the investigative package.

It was the simple greed and desperation for stories (and the whole culture of ‘going out and getting’ and ‘proactively producing’ stories) that blew this up and gave it the potential to undermine journalism as a profession and as a vital public service. Let’s be clear, the ultimate villains in all this will be the editors who permitted, if not actually sponsored, this conduct. And it’s obvious that this is much larger than a single newspaper and a single editor (or even a single proprietor).

A whole generation of Fleet St editors (with a handful of exceptions, I’m sure) will leave their posts having radically diminished their profession and their business – those who put up with or directed this miserable dilution of the values of investigative journalism. And the big question is whether this and other increasingly desperate competitive measures marks the beginning of some kind of final decline for the prints.

There’s a kind of morbid postscript to the whole thing, of course, for we humble readers and voters. It’s the bit where we suspect that legislators were compromised and embarrassed by what they suspected the tabloids had on them and consequently sat on their hands during crucial debates on regulation and ownership. That bit makes my blood boil. The idea that editors may have literally (and I’m using the word ‘literally’ literally here) blackmailed MPs not to back legislation they didn’t like is heartstopping. A giant affront to democracy (it was when Tom Watson alerted us to this nastiness that I really switched on to this scandal).

Magazine masterclass

Right, I’ve been very busy with my new thing: I’m blogger in residence at the BBC. Honestly. It’s really cool. Follow my comings- and-goings at the special blog I’ve set up for the purpose at commonplatform.co.uk (the feed’s here). More about the whole thing here later…

In the meantime, I just want to share with you a small masterclass in how to run a web site and talk to your customers if you’re a magazine publisher. Mark Ellen and his team over at Word Magazine are in a tough market up against some pretty big-and-ugly competitors and their web site is full of lessons on how to make that work to your advantage.

Check out this brilliant forum thread about subscription prices, in which senior staff, including publisher David Hepworth, make funny and honest contributions that must have influenced the opinions of the complainers who started the thread and probably even sold a few subs. It’s the kind of thing that would almost certainly have been supressed or ignored by an EMAP or a NatMags but which the tiny, independent Word turns to its advantage. Perfect. 10 out of 10. Go to the top of the class.

I also really like the very simple video promo for the current issue that’s on the home page at the moment. One take, no edits, shot in the office, hosted on YouTube—brilliant. (declaration: I write the odd bit for Word, including this piece about memory and the Internet and an earlier one about Wikipedia and I’ve got a piece about why futurology’s rubbish in the current issue—so I’m probably a bit partial).

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…

The BBC common platform debate

Last Wednesday’s common platform debate at Broadcasting House was a hit. We talked for nearly three hours plus time in the pub afterwards. Mike covered it (live) over at Techcrunch UK (and I know the event was recorded in some form) and other bloggers have written it up (although at least one was actually watching the football!).

The topic—the BBC’s role in a post-broadcast public service ecology—is clearly going to be a very rich and productive one. Here is my summary of the event’s interesting bits, organised under useful headings. I was chairing the event so I wasn’t able to take proper notes—this is mostly from memory. Please chip in with your own recollections if you were present.

There’s a lot the BBC could be doing.

We’re ten years+ into the network revolution and the BBC’s impact so far has been a raft of quality content on multiple platforms (like this weekend’s quite awesome Glastonbury coverage) and very little else: hardly any of the kind of gutsy innovation the nation and the economy need. We’ve seen cautious incremental change when the circumstances (demographic and economic change at home, rampant growth in our most important competitor economies, environmental change of unknown scope…) demand courageous leaps in the dark.

The BBC is the nation’s most important machine for the production of consensus: nervous, go-slow adoption of common platform goals just won’t do. Tom Loosemore, who used to work at the BBC and now divides his time between Ofcom and The Cabinet Office, provided a handy seven-item list of things the Corporation ought to be sharing which I will now crudely paraphrase and expand (Tom would want me to point out that I’ve added quite a lot to his list in case any of it is traced back to him, causing him to be thrown from a high window in Downing Street):

1. Research. The Corporation produces (and pays for the production of) huge amounts of proprietary audience research, much of it hardly used. This should be made available to business and community, preferably in a useful, nicely-tabulated form.

2. Code. All code written at the BBC should be published under a suitable Open Source licence (Azeem Azhar was conveniently on hand to rehearse his BBC Public Licence idea from 2002). There’s really no excuse for this. It’s not obvious which licence would apply but if there isn’t one out there, one should be invented.

3. Data. The BBC produces and buys lots of data: from TV listings to electoral data. Sadly, much of it is not owned outright and some has even been stupidly given away (like the TV listings gifted to Red Bee on privatisation). What data the Corporation does own outright, however, should be made available freely.

4. Tools. The BBC should be obliged to give away or at least develop nationally-useful tools. Tom’s examples were geolocation and some kind of UK blog search tool. Others came to us in the pub afterwards but I’ve forgotten them.

5. Incubation and investment. The BBC could ‘do a Channel 4’ and seed a whole layer of productive and profitable new media production and technology businesses. Production quotas should be enlarged and a framework put in place to support startups and small businesses in the sector (analogous, I suppose, to the cost-plus budgeting methods used in TV production).

6. Traffic. This could be huge. The phrase ‘trusted guide’ has been current at the BBC since John Birt discovered the Internet in 1995 but it’s never been given meaning. Institutional caution has stopped the Corporation from linking to more than a handful of external sites, and always via a forest of disclaimers. It was pointed out at the debate that the addition of MusicBrainz to the BBC’s music sites adds something like 3 million external links so that’s a start I guess!

7. The Internet. The BBC shouldn’t attempt to augment, enhance or wall off any part of the Internet. The BBC’s endorsement of net neutrality is vital. The Corporation should build on freely-available net tools and services and avoid duplication at all costs.

Rights are a big deal. And they’re not going away.

Outsiders are impatient with the BBC’s rights regime. They want uncomplicated one-stop access to BBC content (and not necessarily for free) but instead they get a spaghetti of overlapping rights owners and regimes. Only the simplest and most directly-owned content can be shared easily: one example cited was Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time: live speech recorded in a BBC studio with expert contributions paid-for outright and no music. But a tiny proportion of the Corporation’s daily output belongs in the In Our Time category. Even historic and archive material is often encumbered by multiple rights owners (or potential rights owners) and the BBC’s own commercial arm has its own agenda and often has first call on original content.

Two lessons. First: if you’re a tech or media entrepreneur and your business idea needs access to BBC content, think again. Building-in any kind of dependency on the BBC’s rights regime will scare away investors faster than bird flu. Second: the BBC could simplify the regime and persuade (read: force) rights owners to participate, especially for old and potentially neglected material that is unnecessarily encumbered. The key here may lie with legislators who could help by reasserting the BBC’s larger purpose and agreeing to compromise the inalienable rights of content owners and creators a little in return for a more open environment (pay attention Cliff Richard).

BBC new media managers are not the problem

On the evidence of Wednesday evening’s showing, slow progress in building a common platform in Britain is not the fault of the managers building it. Tony Ageh, James Cridland, Jem Stone and other BBC staff present are evidently all passionate drivers of change (and I know many others like them inside the Beeb). In many respects they were the most forward-thinking people in the room: Tony Ageh’s suggestion that he’d like us to be able to right-click on any asset at bbc.co.uk to get a pop-up detailing its ownership and rules for use was particularly inspiring. Presumably many years spent wrestling with a highly-regulated, historically-cautious tax payer-funded monolith has produced a pragmatic approach to achieving change but there’s evidently no absence of enthusiasm for it.

Channel 4 is ready to help

It’s not all about the BBC. Jon Gisby, Channel 4’s new Director of New Media, spoke with what I’d characterise as cautious enthusiasm about the station’s status as a ‘convening brand’ (that’s a technical term. Look it up) and about its potential to provide a £50M springboard for UK tech and media businesses via the fascinating and so far enigmatic 4IP fund. More than one person used the analogy of Channel 4’s seeding of the British independent TV production business 25 years ago. Gisby nodded.

I’d certainly like to see Channel 4 function as a cheeky and innovative counterweight to the BBC in building out the common platform. The potential is clearly there in 4IP.

The BBC has a history of engineering leadership

All sorts of technical innovations were invented at the BBC and then spread into the wider industry. James Cridland put it like this: “we agree in technology and compete in content”. An organisation accustomed to sharing its production and distribution tech but closely guarding the programmes made with it will inevitably find it hard to shift to a new model. One where technology leadership has been replaced by open source collaborative methods and where content is freely shared.

Tech entrepreneurs don’t care much

On the evidence of our debate there is no real clamour for access to BBC resources from the UK tech startup industry. In fact there’s significant mutual ignorance. Startups don’t know how to access the BBC’s fund of good stuff and the BBC doesn’t know who might want it or in which formats. Entrepreneurs heard at the event said things like: “who do I talk to about access to historic news content?” and “how do I get a commercial agreement for use of programme metadata?” I think for most people—adventurous tech startups included—the BBC is part of the woodwork, practically invisible. The idea that it might function as an enabler for enterprise or community is not widespread. There’s work to be done there.

There were many other fascinating strands to our debate—the BBC’s monopolistic behaviour in some categories, market failure in others, the absence of true APIs and other easy methods of calling on BBC assets, public value tests… to name a few. I’ll try to return to some of them here. Others have covered the debate elsewhere. I’d like to see a follow-up meeting soon. I’m also planning to put up a web site (probably a wiki) for the further discussion of these matters. Do let me know if you’d like to help.

Thanks to Mike Butcher for putting the considerable weight of TechCrunch UK behind this. It was his initial post that got things going in the first place. Thanks to all the panelists, all of whom have important jobs to do and better things to be doing with their Wednesday nights. Thanks in particular to James Cridland who organised the venue, catering and lots of other stuff for us, as well as being a trenchant panelist and defender of the BBC’s honour! Thanks finally to attendees and bloggers who made the thing lively and interesting!

Coming to tonight’s Common Platform debate?

First of all, it’s sold out, so if you’ve not got a confirmed seat I’m afraid you’ll just have to fight your way past three rows of braided Commissionaires (mostly veterans of the Desert Rats) at Broadcasting House to get to the Council Chamber (like that brilliant scene in Extras where Stephen Merchant tries to vault the security screens to get into a BBC building). If you do have a confirmed seat, on the other hand, please show up at Broadcasting House reception (Portland Place) for a prompt start at 19:00.

Second, the confirmed panel is as follows:

  • Tony Ageh, Controller, BBC Internet
  • Jem Stone, Portfolio Executive, Social Media for Future Media & Technology, BBC
  • James Cridland, Head of Future Media & Technology, BBC Audio & Music
  • Tom Loosemore, Ofcom and The Cabinet Office
  • Jon Gisby, Director of New Media, Channel 4
  • Azeem Azhar

Third, here’s the briefing I sent to panelists yesterday. For those of you who’ve been bugging Mike and myself for tickets, I really am sorry. Next time we’ll book Wembley Arena.

Fourth, if you’ve got a question you think really ought to be asked of this panel, drop me a line and I’ll try to squeeze it in.

Watch this space (and TechCrunch UK) for the outcome of what I expect will be a fascinating debate. I think Mike himself will be live blogging so TechCrunch might be a good place to start.

What’s the difference between the common platform and the web?

James Cherkoff wonders (in a comment) if my common platform isn’t really just… well… the web. It’s a good question because the web, of course, is the mother-and-father of all platforms, a place with such a richness of tools and outlets that it might seem as if it has no need of an additional layer like a common platform. But I think the answer to James’ question really is ‘no’.

The Common Platform (see, it’s already acquired a ‘The’ and Capital Letters like it’s a real thing!) is a designed overlay for the web, an elaboration. The sort of secondary functionality that all platforms sooner-or-later acquire. That’s not to say that it’s separate from or outside the web proper (not a walled garden or a locked-down proprietary thing). In fact it’s strength will lie in the fact that it is profoundly of the web.

Trying to be as ‘web-like’ as possible here I can imagine a common platform, at its simplest, as barely more than a commissioning model plus a tag-cloud. At its largest and most monolithic… It shouldn’t really be large or monolithic.

Expanding on this slightly, the Common Platform should be an organisational device plus some commissioning logic plus some kind of resource discovery gubbins and a wafer of UI to point all the different stakeholders at what they need. Bob’s Your Uncle. Job done. Public service media transformed. Next!

What is Speechification?

Here are some words I wrote to prompt me in a meeting that Russell and Roo and myself went to at the BBC yesterday. It was like the nicest pitch meeting you’ve ever been to. Lots of important and interesting people from the Internet side of the BBC asked many questions and made many suggestions: a really open and positive reaction to what we’re doing with BBC stuff at Speechification and Watchification. Thanks especially to Jem Stone and to Sophie Walpole for putting it all together.

What is Speechification?

It’s curation. For years now visionary-types have been saying that pretty soon people will be curating media. Well, we’re actually doing it. The world’s just been waiting for a large enough and accessible enough bank of content to play with. So we roam the corridors of the BBC’s archive selecting the stuff we think is really excellent, unusual or important and putting it on display at Speechification.com.

It’s cheeky. We definitely push at the edges of what it’s OK to do with BBC content and we do this not because we’re pirates or vandals but because we want to exert some gentle pressure on the corporation’s leaders to do the right thing about rights, access, archiving etc.

It’s shareholder activism. Greens who want to influence the behaviour of smokestack corporations buy a handful of shares and show up at the annual general meeting to heckle the board. We don’t own shares in the BBC but we’re licence fee-payers so we’re at least stakeholders: opinionated, supportive stakeholders.

It’s a celebration. The BBC’s speech output is one of the glories of British culture. I don’t want to sound smarmy but listening to an evening of great programmes on Radio 4 is a privilege: the kind of condensed emotional and intellectual experience that leaves you smiling without knowing exactly why. We want the world to know about this stuff.

It’s unofficial PR for the neglected stuff. Mark Damazer is on record as saying that Radio 4 doesn’t do a good enough job of marketing its own output. He’s dead right. More than once we’ve featured programmes at Speechification that go out at ungodly hours, don’t have any useful information at bbc.co.uk and weren’t important enough to warrant a press release. We’re often the only people to write about a show anywhere. For these shows we’re an unpaid marketing department. We should bill them.