Impenetrable plastic pouches of death

Looks like my experience with the packaging of an M3 Power razor wasn’t unique: as Something Awful points out, such packaging is part of a trend.

Every single vaguely electronic device these days, from removable memory cards to battery-powered cereal spoons, ships in those handy-dandy impenetrable plastic pouches of death created by Lucifer himself in an attempt to raise the national suicide rate by about 10 percentage points. The corporate business world, serving up more evidence that the hottest consumer trend is “manufacturing products that nobody anywhere wants to actually purchase,” has decided the most effective way to prevent people from stealing their 38-cent Korean memory cards is by encasing them in 80 pounds of a titanium-plastic hybrid which can withstand point blank shotgun blasts and most meteorite impacts.

[Note: Something Awful is rarely safe for work]

The problem with digital music, in four screengrabs

1: Official REM web site announces worldwide digital release of new single:

2: iTunes US has it, but as a UK user I can’t buy it.

3: iTunes UK doesn’t have it. Here’s the full search results.

4: Is it on Kazaa? Of course it is.

Update, 11 Sept
The REM track has finally reached iTunes UK. Better late than never.

Flyposting is evil

When I was about sixteen, I went flyposting with a bucket of wallpaper paste, a stack of photocopied A4 posters and a bass player. We put posters on bus stops in our home town, in the surrounding towns and in the town where our band was due to play, and it was nerve-wracking stuff: we were under no illusions that if the police had caught us, we’d be in big trouble. We’d have been forced to remove our posters, and we’d have been cautioned. Fifteen years on and I’m deeply ashamed that I ever did it, and I reckon that had the police caught us and forced us to lick every last drop of paste from the bus stops we’d defaced, the punishment still wouldn’t have fit the crime.


[Photo: BBC News]

Flyposting is vandalism, pure and simple. It turns entire streets into something that’s a cross between a pound shop and a teenager’s bedroom, it makes some of the most beautiful parts of the city into an eyesore, and it’s completely and utterly unnecessary. And in typical old curmudgeon style, I think Something Should Be Done.

Before I suggest a solution, I’d like to demolish a few myths.

Flyposting is essential for underground promoters.

None of the flyposters I’ve seen recently have been for underground events. They’ve been for some of the biggest club promoters and biggest record labels on the planet, organisations who engage in flyposting because the fines are a drop in the ocean compared to their marketing budgets.

Let’s take a real-world example. There’s a BT exchange box a few yards from my flat, and it’s constantly being flypostered. Without fail, the posters are expensive, full-colour jobs for struggling artists such as Muse (Warner Brothers) and Dogs Die In Hot Cars (V2, a subsidiary of Virgin). These are not local bands trying to pull in a few extra punters for a gig at Nice N Sleazy; these are bands whose record companies are multi-million pound enterprises. It’s worth noting that the British Phonographic Industry – the industry organisation that represents the UK’s biggest labels – has urged all its members to stop using flyposting.

Another example? Have a look at www.flypost.it, whose posters are all over the city. The logos on its site – which I assume suggest the firms it wants to work with, rather than the firms it currently works with, because I don’t want to get sued – include Miller, Budweiser, HMV, Kickers, MTV, Schwarzkopf and Smirnoff. The last time I checked, these firms’ bosses weren’t busking for coins on Ashton Lane.

Flyposting is essential because advertising is too expensive.

See above. Sony can afford it. Warners can afford it. BMG can afford it. And it’s the music business – the big labels, not poor, broke indie types – who do the most flyposting. As the Tidy Britain Campaign notes:

Following a survey of some of England’s cities, Keep Britain Tidy revealed that while night-clubs, political parties, theatres, cinemas and religious groups (such as Gouranga) were advertising their messages illegally – the music business is still doing the most posting.

Even for small enterprises, you can advertise for buttons. Fanzines would appreciate the support; low circulation music magazines don’t cost the earth, and so on. You could argue that flyposting is attracting money that would otherwise go to these publications.

Flyposting isn’t vandalism. People who flypost are responsible.

That’s why every lampost is covered in stickers promoting bands who broke up five years ago, posters for events that happened six months back, and wrapped in plastic cable ties left behind from posters that blew away last winter. That’s why flyposters – again, for big clubs and record labels – have been placed not just on shopfronts, but over the plaques on monuments, bridges and other things that are a damn sight more valuable than a club night’s lineup.

Flyposting doesn’t harm anyone.

The Tidy Britain Campaign says:

a good proportion of the £342 million of public money that is spent every year clearing litter is used to combat flyposting.

It’s estimated that illegal music flyposting saves firms around £8 million per year in advertising, and the cost of removing the posters comes from people’s council tax. Doesn’t it give you a warm glow to think that your Gran’s council tax is helping big corporations save so much cash?

But of course, most flyposters don’t get taken down by councils. They’re replaced with others, or left to fade, tear and rot, a semi-permanent blight on the landscape.

So, Something Must Be Done. But what?

Learn from the continent.

In places such as Paris, you’ll see giant postbox-style drums where people can advertise for free. Edinburgh council is apparently considering introducing similar things, via a firm called City Centre Posters; other councils have introduced public noticeboards. Let’s have more of them (so that small venues, bands, political rallies etc can still promote themselves) – and let’s have limits on what can go on them. You want something the size of a billboard? Pay for a billboard. Can’t afford a billboard? Tough. I can’t afford an Aston Martin, so I drive a Renault.

Here’s an example of a public noticeboard in Dundee:

It’s still relatively small scale (and there’s some controversy over who can and can’t use the boards) but it’s a step in the right direction.

Fight fire with fire.

Some English councils have a novel approach: instead of taking down the posters, they post “Cancelled” notices on them. In some towns that approach has made flyposting virtually disappear. Here’s an example, from somewhere in England:

The image (from a council web site) is a pretty good illustration of what I’m talking about: the poster is an advert for a commercial operation, and you know damn well they can afford to buy advertising.

Get the organ grinder, not the monkey

Going after the individuals who put up the posters isn’t really a deterrent – remember, we’re talking about giant firms saving eight million quid a year here. So go after the organ grinder and ramp up the fines dramatically so they’re as expensive as advertising, and use the money to pay for better clean-up squads to get rid of the posters that will continue to appear. And if it’s unclear who’s responsible – a common ploy is to talk about independent third parties who just happen to put posters up, it’s nothing to do with us, we’ve no idea why they’d want to promote our products or artists – then fine whoever benefits from the poster campaign. So if the posters are for Dogs Die In Hot Cars’ new album, fine the record label. And make the fines count, so that proper, paid advertising looks much more attractive than flyposting.

I’m not naive enough to believe that these things will abolish flyposting altogether: as long as sixteen-year-olds can get easy access to wallpaper paste and a photocopier, posters will still appear. But it’s become a multi-million pound industry, an industry that holds councils and the public in utter contempt, costs you and me a fortune and looks bloody awful. Of course companies should be able to promote their products, but not by flouting the law, turning streets into giant billboards and defacing the environment.

Buy music, help charities. But not if you’re on a Mac

REM, David Gray and others have teamed up to offer a compilation album on the Net, with money going to charity – in this case, to help Oxfam’s efforts in Darfur. However, if you try to buy it from a Mac or Linux machine you’ll get this:

Sorry, but your computer is not correctly configured to access the www.bignoisemusic.com music download site.

Yep, it’s DRM again: the Darfur album is via OD2, which means it’s in copy-protected Windows Media format. As Simon B from No Rock ‘N’ Roll Fun points out:

helping out a charity at a time of desperate need pales into insignificiance compared with ensuring the record companies can control their copyright, right?

Simon raises another good question: if the album is £7.99, the artists have waived their royalties and Oxfam gets £5, “where does the other three pounds go?” To other charities? To the record companies? To licensing bodies? If anyone knows the answer, please get in touch.

Pump up the volume, and a lung

Bad news for the idiots who pack giant PA systems into their cars and drive around residential areas in the wee small hours with their music at insane levels. According to Wired News, there have been a number of cases where people who are too close to excessively loud music end up with collapsed lungs.

Update, 4th Sept

It’s funny how things don’t always sink in immediately. Re-reading this post this morning, I was thinking about a friend of mine who developed a collapsed lung a few years back; the doctors were baffled, because he was in ridiculously good physical condition. To this day, they’ve no idea what caused it – it’s just one of those things. But he used to tool around in a car with a Max Power-style stereo system, and I only experienced it once because the vibrations from the subwoofer made me feel sick. As the Wired News story points out, “If more doctors routinely ask pneumothorax patients about their exposure to loud music, the number of injuries attributed to blasting tunes will likely go up”.

Parents in the dark over Net dangers? Really?

According to the Evening Times, parents are blissfully unaware of the fact that within ten seconds of going online, their kids will be swamped by hundreds of kiddie-fiddlers. Apparently while 94% of parents know about the risk of online grooming and 90% know their kids might encounter pornography, a shocking 83% still let kids surf the net unattended while 60% don’t believe the Net is dangerous to children.

The key here is the statement with which parents disagreed: “The Internet is dangerous for my children”. That doesn’t mean they necessarily believe it’s not dangerous for any children; it’s that they don’t believe it’s dangerous for *their* children. That may mean a shocking lack of interest, but equally it could mean that they use filtering software, have frank conversations with their kids and are realistic rather than hysterical about the risks.

Update, 4th Sept

Sorry, I didn’t make it clear where the statistics come from: the Times is reporting the results of a YouGov survey commissioned on behalf of electrical retailer Comet and the NCH children’s charity. The survey data doesn’t seem to be online just yet.

Make money from iTunes

An interesting idea from Apple: link to specific iTunes downloads from your site, and make 5% commission on every download. If you sign up now you might even win an iPod mini.

It’s not clear whether the scheme is US-only – if it is, the relevant clause is buried invisibly in the small print – but the links have to be to the US store, not the UK or European ones. However, the scheme could prove useful to anyone who blogs about music and could do with some extra cash.

Meet the new chart, same as the old chart

With much fanfare, the official UK download chart has arrived – and it reflects the hip, cutting edge nature of digital music fans. Which is why, er, Westlife is at number one.

1 (new) ‘Flying Without Wings’ – Westlife BMG
2 (new) ‘Blazin Day’ Blazin Squad Warner
3 (new) ‘She Will Be Loved’ Maroon 5 BMG
4 (new) ‘Lola’s Theme’ Shapeshifters EMI
5 (new) ‘American Idiot’ Green Day Warner
6 (new) ‘This Love’ Maroon 5 BMG
7 (new) ‘Dry Your Eyes’ Streets Warner
8 (new) ‘Bedshaped’ Keane Universal
9 (new) ‘Laura’ Scissor Sisters Universal
10 (new) ‘Apocalypse Please’ Muse Warner
11 (new) ‘Sick and Tired’ Anastacia Sony
12 (new) ‘Dumb’ 411 Sony
13 (new) ‘Everybody’s Changing’ Keane Universal
14 (new) ‘Left Outside Alone’ Anastacia Sony
15 (new) ‘My Happy Ending’ Avril Lavigne BMG
16 (new) ‘Guns Don’t Kill People Rappers Do’ Goldie Lookin’ Chain Warner
17 (new) ‘Single’ Natasha Bedingfield BMG
18 (new) ‘Harder To Breathe’ Maroon 5 BMG
19 (new) ‘Hey Ya’ Outkast BMG
20 (new) ‘Sunshine’ Twista Warner
[copied and pasted from No Rock]

An interesting note in the small print:

The Official UK Download Chart is based on the most popular, legally downloaded tracks in the UK. It’s compiled from the sale of permanently owned single track downloads and doesn’t include streamed downloads, subscriptions or free downloads.

Of course, the chart has to have strict eligibility criteria or it’s too easily corrupted, but even then its criteria are particularly tight – for example, by ruling out subscription downloads it knocks most of Napster’s sales out of the window. So what we’re left with is a chart that doesn’t reflect what people are legally downloading (let alone actually downloading); but one that reflects what people are buying from iTunes and the various OD2 services.

By comparison, here’s what Big Champagne reckons is the global, file sharing top 10:

1: Nelly, My Place
2: Maroon 5, She will be loved
3: Lil’ Flip, Sunshine
4: Houston, I like that
5: Kevin Lyttle, Turn Me On
6: Clara, Goodies
7: Linkin Park, Breaking The Habit
8: Mase, Welcome Back
9: Kanye West, Jesus Walks
10: Juvenile, Slow Motion

Westlife are conspicuous by their absence.

Update, 8.30am

Westlife’s dominance of the download chart is interesting; as Matt Wells writes in Media Guardian [free registration required]:

A number of high profile artists, including Westlife, released their singles exclusively on the internet last week in an attempt to top the new chart.

Which explains why a five year old song is number one. If a similar strategy is adopted by other artists in coming weeks, the chart’s likely to become distinctly old-fashioned: for now, The Beatles back catalogue isn’t available legally online. If it were to be released in dribs and drabs with a suitably hefty marketing budget, The Beatles could top the download charts for eternity…