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.]

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.

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.

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.

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”.

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.

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.

The Bootleg Beatles (and Beasties, and…)

The latest press release from the BPI has landed on my desk, and there are some worrying figures in there: piracy – proper piracy, not file sharing – in the UK grew by 13% last year, netting around 56 million pounds for the perpetrators.

It ties in with a feature I’ve been doing for PC Plus about the global counterfeiting trade, and while a lot of the anti-counterfeit groups’ claims are questionable (the link between counterfeiting and terrorism, which is the subject of a current UK poster campaign, is tenuous to say the least) there’s no doubt that making fake goods is big business for organised crime.

There’s an irony here: in a world where we’re all urged to boycott sweat shops, drink fair trade coffee and the like, we still see counterfeiting as a way of getting back at big corporations. However, while it’s seen as a victimless crime it’s anything but: the stats I’ve been looking at suggest it displaces 200,000 jobs worldwide, and the people behind it don’t give a toss about providing safe or even civilised working conditions for the people they employ. Reading through endless descriptions of people blinded by fake vodka and whisky, kids harmed by dangerous toys and severe skin reactions resulting from the crap that goes into some fake printer ink cartridges, it’s difficult to see the counterfeiters as the modern day Robin Hoods they often claim to be.

Even journos get the blues

I’ve written extensively about credit card fraud and as a result, I’m bordering on the paranoid: I won’t shop on sites that aren’t secure, I never let my credit card out of my sight, and so on. However, that hasn’t stopped me from becoming a victim of card fraud: I discovered this morning that my joint credit card has been defrauded to the tune of £1,000-plus. What’s really galling is that one of the purchases seems to have been a computer from Time. Time? I ask you!

I’m not greatly worried – the bank’s fraud squad is on the case – but I am intrigued, especially as a quick look at Time’s web site suggests that you can’t order without knowing the security code on the back of the card. Given that there’s only one transaction where I told someone the CVS code, which was when I purchased car insurance over the phone, it looks awfully like a case of fraud by an employee of the firm. Naturally I can’t prove it, and the bank isn’t exactly forthcoming with information, but it seems the most likely explanation.

The moral? Check your statements carefully. Until yesterday, I was the only person my wife knew who hadn’t been a victim of card fraud. Now I’ve joined the club.