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All your tunes are belong to us

Simon B at No Rock ‘N’ Roll Fun is bemused by BMG boss Charles Goldstuck’s comments that the structure of the US music industry will be dictated by CDs and not downloads for some time yet; he writes: “in other words, the record companies intend to try and prop up their lucrative dying format instead of investing in the way the consumer is heading. Good business choice, boys.”

I think Goldstuck is right on this one. As Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg points out, MP3 players have reached just 5% of US online households. That’s *online* households, not all households. When you compare the number of MP3 players in circulation with the number of CD players, digital music is a tiny, tiny pursuit: even in my suitably high-tech home there’s one MP3 player, compared to a CD drive in my mac, in my PC, in my stereo and in the car. And there are plenty of people who’d rather spend £30 on a cheap CD walkman than a grand and a half on a computer/iPod combination. It’s going to take a long time before downloads become as important as physical CD sales.

On a related note, The Register’s Andrew Orlowski finds the flaws in Apple’s latest wheeze, which will bundle iTunes with Motorola phones. He writes: “Having already sold you your old vinyl as cassettes, then CDs, producers old and new are going to sell you rights you already enjoy – only this time at a premium. “Wouldn’t it be great if you could take a dozen of your favorite songs with you,” [on your cell phone] Jobs told the crowd. Wouldn’t it, just? For millions of users however this is already a reality. Much like a burglar giving the burgled householder first opportunity to buy their own stuff back, Apple is promising a right we already enjoy as a bonus. An innovation, even.”

As much as I’d like to be optimistic, I suspect that Orlowski’s right.

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Another day, another redesign

Looks like Q isn’t the only EMAP title being “repositioned”: according to Media Guardian [free registration required], film magazine Empire is being redesigned to make it more of a “luxury lifestyle title”. Oh dear.

I’m a long-time Empire reader (since it launched – I’d hate to think how much I’ve spent on the magazine over the years) and of late I’ve found it more and more disappointing. Like its stablemate Q it’s started to run hideous advertising features over a few pages, and as a reader I find that insulting: it’s not that I dislike ads – as I’ve said earlier, without ads there would be no magazine – but the deliberate aping of the magazine layout and typography to make an ad look like an article is something that really, really irritates me. More worryingly, I don’t trust it any more. Almost without fail, it gives the latest hollywood bilge a fantastic review, only to slag the movie off when it comes out on DVD. I sincerely hope there isn’t some sort of trade-off going on here, such as “we’ll give you an exclusive interview with Mr Big Megastar if you’re nice about our movie”, but it often feels as if the reviewers’ critical faculties have been given a holiday when they’re sent to see some of the big-budget blockbusters. Matrix Reloaded, anyone?

There are, of course, other film magazines out there; the two I tend to buy are Hotdog and Total Film [vested interest alert: Total Film is a Future title, and I work for various Future mags – although I’ve only written for TF once and that was a few years ago]. I think TF does what Empire used to do: it’s fast, funny and irreverent, and I look forward to reading it every month. As for Hotdog, it tries hard and runs some interesting features, but it’s all a bit samey and not quite as funny as it thinks it is. In some cases music magazines do a better job: for example Uncut’s film reviews section (like its book section) strikes the balance between being informative, entertaining and infuriating. That’s a compliment.

Another problem that affects all the movie magazines is the growing reluctance of film studios to let them review movies before they hit your local multiplex. In some cases that’s because the computer graphics aren’t ready until the very last minute, but in lots of cases it looks suspiciously like the studios don’t want reviewers to slag off their latest turkey until the all-important opening weekend is over. Different magazines respond to this in different ways: Uncut goes for a simple “a print was not available when we went to press”, while Empire generally prints a favourable preview and promises an online review when the film actually comes out. As a result, I’m turning more and more to the Net for my movie reviews: Rotten Tomatoes has proved to be much more reliable than magazine reviews again and again, especially when you find a few reviewers (Roger Ebert springs to mind) whose opinions on movies are similar to your own.

Movie magazines have a tough time: studios (and stars) have become control freaks, micro-managing interviews and doling out press access in tiny amounts, often with strings attached (you can’t talk about this, you can’t ask about that, we’ll only give you the interview if you give us the cover) and restricting preview screenings for many movies; meanwhile Internet sites do a much better job of movie reviewing and movie gossip. However, where magazines still excel is in background, analysis and fun. Long features – whether it’s the making of a blockbuster or the 100 best movie villains – don’t work too well on the Web, and one thing movie journalists have over some of their Web-based equivalents (such as Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News) is that they can actually write.

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Digital music and magazines

According to Robert Sandall in the Sunday Times, Q magazine is repositioning itself as a guide to “track by track downloading”, in much the same way that US magazine Blender ends its music reviews with a “download this” track recommendation. Elsewhere Word magazine has its MyPod section on digital downloads, and online music is a mainstay of most music publications; apparently at least one major publisher has an iPod-themed magazine ready to launch in the very near future.

It’s not really a surprise, but it’s a shame for Future Publishing: a few years back it launched MP3 Magazine, and had to can it fairly quickly. The problem was that at the time, the record industry was in full-on “we must destroy MP3!” war mode; because advertisers didn’t want to be seen supporting a format that was inextricably linked with music piracy, they wouldn’t place the ads on which the magazine depended (publishing industry economics: no ads means no magazines. The price you pay in the shops doesn’t begin to cover the costs of magazine production). It’s a good example of having the right idea at the wrong time – something of an occupational hazard in the world of high technology.

[update, 29/7: It seems that the Sunday Times has been misinformed. The redesigned Q does have a guide to downloading, but elsewhere it’s business as usual albeit with an awful lot of trainspotter-y lists.]

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The incredible influence of Smash Hits

These days Smash Hits is a fairly forgettable part of a media empire (it’s a brand now, which means it has its own pop video channel and annual awards), but in the early 1980s – when the World Wide Web wasn’t even a twinkle in anyone’s eye, and MTV hadn’t been invented – it was essential reading for any music fan. You’d find bands such as The Smiths and Echo and The Bunnymen next to whatever pop moppets were in the charts at the time, and the writing was often hilarious. It had a very distinctive, irreverent style, and the letters page was utterly demented.

The same sensibility filtered into other magazines, partly because Smash Hits’ writers moved on to more adult publications (the roll of honour includes such luminaries as David Hepworth and Mark Ellen, who were responsible for launching Q and Empire and who can now be found at Word magazine and The Rocking Vicar; sadly both Q and Empire have become much less entertaining over the years), and partly because its readers moved on too. For example, Smash Hits’ irreverence infected the august NME, which was utterly indispensable (and frequently laugh-out-loud funny) from the mid-80s to the early nineties.

Smash Hits’ influence is still around today. Most consumer magazines are written and edited by people in their late twenties and early thirties, which means they grew up on a diet of Smash Hits; you could see the same irreverence in the early days of FHM (before it became a porn magazine for teenage boys too embarrassed to buy pornography, or too short to reach the top shelves) and you’ll find a distinct Smash Hits sensibility in the consumer technology press. You’ll even find it in newspaper supplements, although as yet there’s no sign of its influence in the leader pages. A Times leader written by black type? Now that, I’d love to see.

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The Sun, the BNP and swans

Given The Sun’s lambasting of the British National Party this week, you’d think the newspaper was a champion of race relations and a battler against bigotry; however, as this article (via Guy Clapperton’s journalism blog) shows, The Sun doesn’t mind running the odd fictional scare story about asylum seekers.

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A slow news day for the Evening Times?

According to the Evening Times, Glasgow is about to get a bar with a difference: unlike other bars, it’ll ban alcohol, smoking and junk food, and it won’t be open after 6pm.

Hmmm. Perhaps the Times would be interested in some of the other interesting, unusual and innovative “bars” in and around Glasgow? There’s the Hillhead Library, a bar that doesn’t sell alcohol but that lets you borrow books; the Underground, a bar that doesn’t sell alcohol but that transports you around the city; or you could try the Pitt Street Cop Shop, where you can’t get booze or cigarettes but you can meet like-minded souls in a trendy, minimalist “cell.”

Either I’m missing out on a whole new world of entertainment, or the Times has tied itself in knots trying to make “man opens Cafe” newsworthy.

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U2 vs the evil internet pirates, part 2

According to The Telegraph, U2 frontman Bono is considering rush-releasing the new U2 album (currently scheduled for a November release) via the iTunes music store if pirate copies turn up on the net. The singer told Neil McCormick:

“If it is on the internet this week, we will release it immediately as a legal download on iTunes, and get hard copies into the shops by the end of the month. It would be a real pity. It would screw up years of work and months of planning, not to mention fucking up our holidays. But once it’s out, it’s out.”

There are two ways to interpret this. If the theft was a publicity stunt, then the combination of the “theft” and a launch on iTunes means that U2’s album launch is the best bit of Internet marketing I’ve ever seen; if the theft was genuine, it’s the smartest response to dodgy downloads I’ve ever seen. Either way, the band deserves a round of applause.

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What the Dickens?

Junk mail is, of course, a menace – but you have to admire the ingenuity of some of the mass mailers. In an attempt to bypass email filters, they’ve started to use bizarre names in the “from” field; recently my inbox has started to resemble the cast of a particularly demented Dickens novel. Today’s highlights: “Mentality C. Javelins” and “Hypnosis C. Fielders”.

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Forthcoming features

In addition to various tutorials, news stories and other magazine pieces, I’ve got a few big features coming up that would benefit from expert comment. If any nice PR people are reading this, I’d be very interested in hearing from experts in the following two areas:

DRM: the pros and cons of copy protection.
Driving traffic to your Web site: search engine optimisation, making sites “sticky”, viral marketing.

Both features are deadlined for early August.

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On the radio again

Unless it gets cancelled – which may happen, the joys of live radio and all that – I’ll be on BBC Radio Scotland’s Gary Robertson show tomorrow morning to talk about protecting kids from scary things on the Internet. The show starts at 10am.