Saturday, 23 July 2011

Monday, 28 March 2011

Net losses

Google started life as a research project just fifteen years ago, Facebook celebrates its mere seventh birthday this year and Twitter is barely out of short trousers and for the music fan, the Internet really has changed everything. An invaluable resource of listening, discovery and information, the days of waiting for a magazine to update you on your favourite bands are gone. Now we simply use a website, a social network or a blog.

But is this really a good thing?

It’s easy to adopt a contrary viewpoint and fetishise physical magazines but former big names, Melody Maker, The Face and Smash Hits have all fallen by the wayside. This may not seem like big news, but Melody Maker alone led to the formation of Depeche Mode, Suede and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. It’s true that magazines used to fail in the pre-Internet era too, but magazine readership has been decreasing for a good while. Last year, circulation of the NME fell by 17.3%.

So, now the value of magazines as a source of news has all but disappeared, they’re more of a niche interest. David Hepworth launched Q, Mojo and The Word Magazine (as well as The Rocking Vicar), and has observed a staggering change in the role of the music magazine:

“The economic basis of the music magazine used to be: readers who needed to buy them to keep up and advertisers who needed them to reach record buyers. Both groups have gone away. In their place you have: readers who like to read and advertisers who need to reach this valuable minority. It's not the same.”

So, how do music magazines buck the trend? Why should people pay for writing when the Internet is full of music websites offering their content for free? One idea is brand extension; you’re not just buying a magazine, but entering into something much bigger. For example, as well as a monthly magazine, The Word gives away cover mounted CDs with each issue, releases a weekly podcast and has a thriving online readers’ forum. These extras don’t directly generate money, but they do make readers more likely to continue to buy the magazine. This is the Holy Grail for magazine publishers: subscriptions from content. David Hepworth explains:

“We really value the site, the podcast, the Twitter feed and all the other means of interacting with the readership but the only one we can get any kind of revenue for at the moment is the magazine. I think they make people feel closer to the magazine, which is good.”

Equally vital to a loyal readership is a consistently high standard of professional writing. So it’s no accident that the biggest music magazines don’t make all their content freely available online. Most UK newspapers make their content available for free via their websites but expect people to pay for the physical edition too. Unsurprisingly, this seems not to be a sustainable business strategy, and advertising revenue isn’t filling in the gap. We’re in very real danger of welcoming a generation that believes all recorded music and quality journalism is and should be free. Eamonn Forde is a freelance music journalist and is worried:

“I think people need to know that it [art] has to be paid for, whether that’s by handing over money in a newsagent’s or a paywall payment every month. But the culture of free, where everything’s free and everything’s going to be paid for by advertising, what you’re going to get is that all culture’s going to be like Metro.”

Metro is a free newspaper distributed throughout the UK, where it’s typically found in train and underground stations. Thanks to the fact it’s free, it’s advertising heavy and features lighter news items, rather than hard-hitting, factual reporting. We can assume Forde isn’t a fan: “It’s going to be this say-nothing, kind-of-press-release, unquestioning, uncritical smug culture and that’s bad for culture overall. I think quality products should come with a quality price tag. I think Metro is like an early warning from history and there is the thought that we get the culture that we deserve. But if that’s culture, then creatives will go somewhere else because they have to make money.”

So, if newspapers and magazines need to make money to stay in business, but their readership expects at least some content for free, how does the professional writer feel about their work being given away?

Jude Rogers is a freelance journalist who writes about music for The Word, The Guardian, The Times and website The Quietus. She recognises not everything can be free, but having your work widely available has its advantages:

“Everything can be linked on Twitter, which is really helpful to spread your work around. I love the fact my stuff’s on The Guardian and people can read it and if you want to pitch your work, you can say, ‘Look, here’s my stuff on The Guardian‘.”

She also has first-hand experience of the News International paywall, which charges for access to their titles:

“I did an interview, last summer with a Tory MP called Louise Bagshawe who also writes trashy, holiday, chick-lit novels, and she came out with some really juicy stuff and I thought everyone would be talking about it, but it was behind the paywall. It’s frustrating when people can’t read my stuff; in a professional capacity I’m more than happy for people to read it for free online.”

It would be a little premature to read physical newspapers and magazines their last rites just yet, but it is a fact that the current trends don’t look good and need to be addressed. A combination of professionalism, goodwill, advertising and innovation is just about enabling the industry muddle along, but surely that can’t last.

For the print media, the Internet has been a cures and a blessing – opening up limitless possibilities while making awakening the industry’s darkest fears.

Of course, there is a future for newspapers and magazines. This is the information age after all. But whether that future lies with a website, behind a paywall, downloaded to a slate or transmitted directly into your readers’ cerebral cortex is a long way from certain. There’s a bewildering wind blowing through the business but when the storm subsides, someone will have put their finger on the new model and how to make it work and pay. That person is almost certainly working in the media right now. We can only hope they realise their greater purpose very soon.

Joe Rivers, March 2011

Are you sitting comfortably ...?

Can I ask you this? When you’re attending a rock concert (not an 02 Academy club style affair, but a more sedate allocated seating event) at what point do you fetch drinks, buy food or have a pee?

If you go right at the start when everyone’s arriving, good for you. That’s when I use the facilities too. Or perhaps you attend the bar and lavatory between the support and the main act. Again, perfect choice, that’s what the interval is for - no argument whatsoever.

However, if you wait until a band is on stage and your fellow ticket holders are concentrating on the music, then push your way past the entire row, ensuring you shove your rear end into the faces of its occupants, before returning five minutes later with large beakers of beer, bags of Doritos and even pizza, repeating the process in reverse, can I ask you this?

What in holy hell do you think you’re doing?

A gig by a 'name' act now costs upwards of £35. Like me, you paid to attend. Unlike me, you have little or no interest in the performance, the band or their work. You can’t have. Because if you did, you’d sit and watch and listen and enjoy. The band is likely to be on stage for little more than 90 minutes. Are you really unable to pass that time without alcohol, snacks or several wee-wees? As if you were six?

This week I was very happy to attend the show staged by The Feeling and Squeeze at the Royal Albert Hall in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust. The RHA is a great venue. It’s not literally ‘in the round’ but because of the circular building, it has that intimate feel. It’s high and plush and thanks to roof-mounted baffles has a very crisp sound. Which is just as well, as Danny from The Feeling had a noticeably heavy cold (he called it flu, the big softy) and his projection needed that lift.

When I first heard this band on the wireless, I was rather underwhelmed. Had I never caught them live, that’s pretty much where I’d have rested. But after four evenings in their presence, I really like them. They remind me of those early 80s new-wave acts like The Jags and The Knack – all
skinny ties, wedge hairdos and uplifting power pop love songs. What’s more, they seem to have the enviable ability to build instantly memorable and lovable tunes with lyrics in similar territory to those of Neil Hannon or Paul Heaton.

The Feeling look good, love to show off and genuinely enjoy themselves. That’s a spirit you quickly find very infectious.

Between bands, those of us not at the bar or the smallest room in the Hall received a  spirited presentation on the work of the TCC, including testimonials from two young men whose illnesses had been tempered by the charity’s work. So I’d just like to give a special mention to the two women sitting in front of us, who spent this entire section (and indeed most of the rest of the evening) nattering incessantly about their dull careers and aimless office lives. Thanks for that, it added to the atmosphere and experience no end.

Being tagged ‘the new Lennon & McCartney’ is no blessing. It does nothing to manage people’s expectations and insults the originality and personality of a band’s work. Squeeze have been party to this lazy labeling, but they shouldn’t – and probably don’t - care. After all, it should be obvious to any fan of popular music that Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook have spent over 30 years crafting a collection of songs so unbelievably attractive, they defy idle comparisons. As they canter through ‘Is That Love?’, ‘Annie Get Your Gun’, ‘Black Coffee In Bed’ and over a dozen more stone cold gems, it’s the undiminished clarity and idiosyncratic tone of Tilbrook’s vocal one notices most. ‘Slap & Tickle’s bridge (“If you ever change your mind …”) is as nasally and brilliantly sharp as the venerable single version. The man’s larynx is either touched by a divine hand or the result of regular hot water, honey, lemon and Scotch.

By the way, alongside their regular cohorts, a 26-piece string section – very appropriate considering the venue, accompanied Glen and Chris. Now I’m a big fan of the old violins and cellos in pop music. From Spector to The Manic Street Preachers, they rarely fail to get me all roused up. And their addition to the comedy and tragedy of the Squeeze repertoire worked perfectly well. But to say this mini-orchestra was on stage throughout the set, they seemed strangely underused, only kicking in about a quarter of the way through. It would be churlish to suggest an opportunity was missed, but that was the niggling doubt by the time ‘Cool For Cats’ tore the house down. Perhaps it’s an idea needing more development, because there’s definitely an exciting kinship between Squeeze’s ear-worm melodies and a wash of orchestral arrangement, but they're not quite connecting just yet.

There's no doubt, if they choose it, Squeeze's story will run and run, such is the affection they generated here. And there is no reason The Feeling’s third album shouldn’t see their stock rising nicely.

But whether there’s a future for this punter and the modern concert going audience is something that is very much more uncertain.

Magnus Shaw, March 2011