Selling out, or a way to sell records?

Poptastic pop blog The Pop Cop wants to talk about Rachel Sermanni.

This week it emerged that Carrbridge singer-songwriter Rachel Sermanni was fronting a Royal Bank of Scotland advertising campaign on YouTube, which sees her talk about the services she uses as well as play a new tune called Everything Is Ok. As a business, RBS have committed some disreputable deeds in the recent past, but 25 million UK customers still bank with them and Rachel is one of them.

Thanks to the ad, Sermanni might finally make some money from her music. Cue outrage. I think this sums it up:

It’s unlikely anybody will chastise us for the products and business chains we endorse, yet musicians seem to be judged by a completely different code of conduct especially when it comes to potential income streams.

Fair enough if you’re explicitly political – if Crass were to voluntarily appear in an ad for Santander I think we’d be justified in getting out the flaming torches – but for most musicians, music doesn’t pay the bills. As The Pop Cop says:

For the sake of a 150-second advert, Rachel is looking at breaking even for the first time in her career and a debt-free existence in which she will attempt to make a genuine living from her merchandise and her concerts. When that RBS offer was put in front of her to consider, it didn’t come with alternate choices of, say, The Co-Operative or L’Oréal (they’re a very ethical company, look it up) campaigns.

I’d have jumped at it.

Update, 23 January

BBC Radio Scotland presenter Tom Morton has posted a long piece about this, essentially arguing that you shouldn’t sully your art with the dread hand of commerce. As my friend Pet Piranha pointed out on twitter earlier, that’s rather undermined by the Google AdSense adverts for Natwest. He’s misquoted Hunter S Thompson too: the quote he’s used was about the television business, not music. As regular readers will know, it’s a double misquote: the “there’s also a negative side” was invented by someone on the internet.

I don’t disagree with everything Morton says, but I do wonder how far you have to take the ethical argument here: if you do as he says and do music in your spare time, financed by a day job, presumably you have to ensure that that meets the same ethical standards? By that measure, the copywriting I did for Natwest in 2004 means any music I make is tainted.

Spam

Endless apologies if you’ve posted a comment and it hasn’t appeared: I’ve just deleted 1,600-plus spam comments, and I may have missed a genuine comment or two. Sorry.

35,000 ebooks

I thought the new year would be a good time to post a wee update on book sales: to date, I’ve shifted 35,284 ebooks. That’s mainly Coffin Dodgers, which has sold 14,679 copies against 18,461 promotional giveaways.

Looking at the figures there’s a definite downwards trend when it comes to the effectiveness of freebies: in 2011 giving away one free book generally led to two sales (because of the improved visibility via “people who bought X also bought…” links and so on), but by early 2013 that was down to one sale per three to five freebies. For the US, the figure had dropped to one sale per sixteen freebies in early 2013, and I’m sure it’s even worse now. Clearly unless you’re giving books away to promote other paid-for titles, giving ebooks away only works for a very short space of time.

One of the weird things about ebook publishing is the effect pricing has on royalties: by upping the price from 99p to £1.99 I’ve halved my sales figures, but I’ve doubled the royalty I get per book. It’s hardly shove-your-job money – CD is bringing in around £80 per month lately – but it’s still nice to have. As ever, thanks to everyone who’s bought or blabbed about my stuff.

Yeah, well, Microsoft probably paid him to write it

Walt Mossberg, one of the world’s best known tech writers, has written about platforms and their defenders. While comparing tech firms’ fans to religious devotees is one of the oldest cliches in the book, he’s right about the behaviour of people who believe their choice of computer, smartphone or games console is superior to others’ choice of computer, smartphone or games console:

It’s really not okay to pour down personal hate and derision on people who happen to use and like a tech product that competes with the one you prefer. I’m pretty sure that kind of behavior violates the tenets of, you know, all the real religions. And it’s really over the top to become so devoted to a tech company that you can’t see the point of view of others who don’t buy, or even like, that company’s products.

Every tech writer is all too familiar with the oft-expressed idea that “the only explanation for a positive review of an Apple product is a payoff”, although I wish it were only limited to Apple things: in my experience, the payoff thing is levelled when you’re positive or critical about pretty much anything.

Pointing it out won’t make any difference, of course. As Douglas Adams famously wrote, when people suggest we try being nicer to one another they tend to end up nailed to trees.

Year we go

Sorry if this blog’s felt a bit neglected lately: between family things and sorting out a new office (the arrival of baby Adam means I needed to find a new place to work; the room I’ve been using as an office needs to become a nursery now) I haven’t really had much non-work stuff to write about recently. Most of what I’ve wanted to say has been sayable, and said, in 140 characters on Twitter.

I’ve had a bit of a mixed year: Adam’s arrival was a high point, of course, as was finally putting some music out, but professionally it’s been pretty tough as many fine titles disappeared from newsagents and many utter bastards tried to build journalism businesses where everybody’s paid except for the journalists. I’m lucky to do what I do, but I’m unlucky to be working in an industry that’s going through very tough times – not just structurally as our eyeballs move from paper to screens, but economically too. I’ve lived through worse, but it’s still been a pretty rough ride.

I haven’t achieved as much outside work as I’d hoped either. This time last year I had two unfinished novels, a few short stories and a bunch of unfinished music in the pipeline; today, I have two unfinished novels, a few short stories and a bunch of unfinished music in the pipeline. The music’s only a few weeks old, but the unfinished writing is the same stuff I was talking about last year. I’ve lost my way with it a bit.

That’ll change in 2014: I’ve vowed to get my backside in gear and get more creative this year. There’s a whole bunch of new and generally fantastic DMGM music to finish, I’ve half a thriller (and potentially the beginning of a series) to finish writing, and I’ve also got the sequel to Coffin Dodgers bubbling away – although that latter one might not see the light of day in 2014, as I think the central crime is too dark for what’s supposed to be a fairly funny book. Might need to go back to the drawing board on that one.

Whatever 2014 brings, it’s going to be interesting – especially up here in Scotland where we get to decide whether we’re governed by a bunch of clowns in Westminster or if we’d rather be governed by our own home-grown clowns in Holyrood. So far I’m gravitating towards the latter, partly because of the relentlessly negative and misleading campaigning by Better Together (known internally as Project Fear), partly because of the ongoing cruelty of the current national government (a government the Scots voted overwhelmingly against), and largely because the referendum gives Scots the chance to do to their country what I’m always doing to computer kit: turn it off and back on again in the hope that it’ll work better afterwards. We’re living in interesting and potentially exciting times. 

Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, I hope you have a very happy Hogmanay and that 2014 brings you joy at ever turn. Happy new year.

Crime fiction and series fatigue

This post is sponsored by Grammarly, the free online plagiarism checker.

I’m a big fan of crime series. There’s something particularly enjoyable about opening the pages of a brand new book and encountering a familiar face, a familiar world, a familiar cast of characters. Take John Rebus, for example: while Ian Rankin’s non-Rebus thrillers are perfectly well written and exciting bits of crime fiction, there’s a Rebus-shaped hole all the way through them (he’s back in Rankin’s latest, Saints of the Shadow Bible, and there’s a delicious bit in it where Rankin’s clearly spotted a way to keep him around the police: Rebus was written in real time, and was forced to retire just like real policemen).

It’s not just Rankin. There’s a tingle of anticipation when I’m about to start a new Tim Dorsey and discover what Serge A Storms has got up to now. I’m really excited about the third in Malcolm McKay’s superb Glasgow Trilogy featuring hitman Calum MacLean. I was sad to see the end of Ray Banks’ Cal Innes novels, and I’m always a bit disappointed when Michael Connelly brings out a legal thriller instead of a Harry Bosch one. But sometimes familiarity brings not delight, but disappointment.

I’ve just given up on the latest Peter Robinson book, Children of the Revolution. It’s one of his DCI Banks books, and it suffers badly from two related problems: the crime and its investigation isn’t very interesting, and the hero’s a bit of an arse. I’d noticed the arse thing in previous books – like many fictional detectives, Banks appears to be at least partly an exercise in authorial wish fulfilment: he’s the super-smart man who all the laydees want to have sexy time with because he has an awesome record collection and an interesting car – but I’m usually enjoying the ride too much to get too irritated by it. This time out the ride wasn’t much of a ride.

I suspect publishing may be rather like the music business used to be: there’s a certain timetable to follow, a treadmill of write/release/tour/write/release/tour that can mean product must be produced even if the product isn’t quite there yet. That often resulted in dreadful albums – the famous “difficult second album” written on tour about how horrible it was to be on tour – and I’m sure it’s the cause of dreadful books too. That, and the other danger of success, which is of course ego. If you’re going around the world, playing to packed rooms – rooms where people are actually paying to see you – that’s bound to mess with your head a little. “The little people lap this shit up!” the author might cry as he bashes out another bestseller.

I wonder how authors avoid it. Ian Rankin seems to have managed it – the books are still superb and he appears to remain one of the nicest, most well-liked people in publishing – and there are countless other examples, I’m sure. Any names spring to mind – and if they do, any explanation for why they didn’t go off the boil?

“The papers tell of rape and murder, everything that you want to hear”

My friend Paul Douglas posted this to Facebook earlier. It’s been doing the rounds of social media, and sadly it isn’t a spoof. Those cover lines are real.

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This is something I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while. The supermarket tabloids appear to be going aggressively downmarket and becoming incredibly lurid. This one’s bad, but it’s not unusual: the current issue of Chat has child murder, child sex slavery and wife murder on its cover, Pick Me Up a predatory hypnotist, another title the former girlfriend of LostProphets’ lead singer and an accompanying headline about paedophilia, and they’ve reached the point where I’m terrified my daughter will see them: she’s 6, reading absolutely everything and full of curiosity. I know she’ll discover all the horror of the world eventually, but not now. Not like this.

[The title's a New Model Army lyric. It's from Frightened.]

If it looks like a slippery slope, and sounds like a slippery slope…

In 2011, BT was ordered to block access to Newzbin2, a Usenet archive. “It’s the first time BT has been ordered to use its Cleanfeed porn-blocking system to block non-pornographic content,” I wrote at the time. “It won’t be the last… [this] turns ISPs into censors, and of course copyright infringement isn’t the only kind of content people would like to block. We’ve had calls to ban sites that espouse extreme political views, sites that promote anorexia, sites that discuss ways to commit suicide. If BT can block Usenet archives, why can’t it block everything that anybody thinks is unpleasant or undesirable – like WikiLeaks, or anti-Scientology sites, or anything that isn’t appropriate for under-fives?”

Inevitably, more blocks followed. The Pirate Bay is (in)effectively banned by UK ISPs. There are blocks on 1337x, Abmp3, BeeMP3, BitSnoop, Bomb-Mp3, eMp3World, ExtraTorrent, FileCrop, FilesTube, Monova, Mp3Juices, Mp3lemon, Mp3Raid, Mp3skull, NewAlbumReleases, Rapidlibrary, TorrentCrazy, TorrentDownloads, TorrentHound, Torrentreactor, and Torrentz, and many more.

And now, we’re going to start blocking things that the government thinks are unpleasant or undesirable. Today, The Guardian reports that “the government is to order broadband companies to block extremist websites” and identify content “deemed too dangerous for online publication.”

The proposed blocking will follow the same model as the blocking of illegal pornography – a model whose aims are obviously laudable but whose processes have attracted criticism over false positives (where legal content is wrongly identified and blocked) and secrecy. In effect, we’ll have a secret, unaccountable organisation looking at the internet and silently blocking “extremist” content.

What does “extremist” mean? Well, it means pretty much anything you want it to mean. Over the years, our governments’ definitions of extremist have included climate change protesters, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the anti-apartheid movement, animal rights activists, environmental activists and the Occupy movement. The word terrorism appears equally flexible, so for example it can be a synonym for journalism and used to detain the partners of journalists who embarrass the government, and it can be used to arrest students too.

I know it’s cliched to talk about slippery slopes, but when you can feel the ice underneath you and you’re shooting downwards, the phrase seems pretty accurate.

Freelance writer Gary Marshall on Apple, technology, music and too much coffee

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