Music magazines aren’t working

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what’s wrong with the redesigned Q Magazine, and I think I’ve finally worked it out: it’s emphasising quantity over quality.

Q has fallen into the trap of thinking that the number of reviews (and lists, and songs) is all that matters, so an issue with 137 album reviews is much better than one with 122. It’s a trait shared by many other music mags too, many of which have reduced the per-review word count to enable them to squeeze more reviews into the same space and put the all-important “we review everything!” claim on the front cover.

So what do you get for your money? In most cases, those reviews will be capsule reviews: 100, 120 words to describe an entire album. If you’re not familiar with the artist, that’s not enough space to get you interested; if you are interested in the artist, it’s not enough to sate your desire for information. So it’s a waste of space for non-fans, and a waste of space for fans.

The second problem with such reviews is that the overwhelming majority of them will be for records that aren’t truly excellent and aren’t truly awful; it’s the territory of the dreaded two- or three-star verdict. Have you ever rushed out to the shops to buy a CD from an unknown artist on the basis of a review? If you have, I’d be willing to bet that it wasn’t a two- or three-star review.

The third problem with the reviews section is that the world has changed. For example, let’s look at 1988 – when I was hopelessly addicted to a weekly fix of NME – and 2004.

The way it was: 1988

If you were a fan of alternative music, the NME was a lifeline. Radio wouldn’t play “your” bands, and the mainstream press didn’t bother with them. If you wanted to find out about tours, record releases or news, the NME and Melody Maker were your only sources for that information. Each week, you could also see what records were due to be released the following week, and whether they were worth rushing down to the record shop for.

The way it is: 2004

If you are a fan of alternative music, the Internet is a lifeline – but it isn’t your only lifeline. “Your” bands are covered in the tabloids and played on mainstream radio, which is desperate to ditch its “smashy and nicey” image. If you want to find out about tours, record releases or news, you can get it direct from the artists’ web site, or from an obsessive fan site. By the time records are reviewed in the music press, they’ve been on heavy rotation on Radio 1, MTV2 and Kerrang TV for six weeks, and you downloaded the MP3s from Kazaa a fortnight ago. More and more people are getting their music criticism from weblogs and from e-zines, and in most cases that criticism isn’t crammed into a three-paragraph review that has to describe the record and introduce the artist to the uninitiated at the same time.

The way it should be

Given that the combination of radio, the Internet and satellite TV has effectively rendered capsule reviews redundant, the music monthlies should dump them altogether. Instead, it could do what those media can’t do: provide readers with access to big-name acts and tell interesting stories. It could also dump the dross, and instead draw people’s attention to the music that’s worth bothering with – the four- and five-star records, not the two- and three-star ones.

Word Magazine knows this, and despite its older target market the title is thriving. However, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that with its numbers-heavy redesign, Q has taken a big gamble – and bet on the wrong horse.


Science will save us from drudgery

Or at least, it will if the Briva ever gets a UK distributor. One of those “why on Earth didn’t anyone think of it sooner?” ideas, the Briva is a dishwasher that fits under your sink and which is designed for small flats.

Scientists! Stop mucking about with nanotechnology and bioinformatics! Useful kitchen appliances are the future!

More here (via Shiny Shiny)


How to make sure your messages don’t get zapped

An interesting article on LockerGnome suggests that 20 commonly used words and phrases will trigger junk email filters. They are:

cancel at any time
check or money order
click here
dear friend
e-mail marketing
for only ($)
for free
great offer
increase sales
order now
promise you
risk free
special promotion
this is not spam
to be removed


Roxio, RIP

Roxio – the manufacturer of Easy CD Creator and Toast, and the parent of Napster – is dumping its software business and becoming nothing but Napster. It’s an interesting move but it’s a huge gamble: Napster’s future is by no means certain, with some analysts suggesting that as little as 4% of digital music consumers are interested in a music rental service.

It’s strange timing for such a move: Forbes Magazine reckons that Napster needs to bring in around $300 million per year to break even, but the firm predicts just $40 million in income this year; the $80 million sale of its software business will certainly help to bridge the gap, but that still leaves a shortfall of $180 million without any future revenue from software sales and licensing.

To be fair, Roxio’s core business is under threat: CD burning is an integrated part of most media players, from iTunes to Windows Media Player, and few Apple users will shell out for Toast & Jam when the combination of iTunes and iDVD covers all their CD and DVD burning needs. However, cutting off such an important revenue stream while Napster revenues aren’t exactly fantastic is a very brave move. Here’s hoping it doesn’t turn out to be a suicidal one.



As much as I hate the iPod hype, it’s impossible to spend any time with an iPod and not come to the conclusion that it’s a fantastic bit of design, particularly if you don’t think about the unimpressive battery life. I wasn’t too keen on the iPod Mini, though; it looks a bit Toytown in photographs:

Now that I’ve had the chance to spend a lot of time playing with the Mini, I’ve changed my mind. It’s arguably even better designed than its older sibling, not least because its tiny size makes it genuinely portable whereas the “real” iPod is still on the bulky side. For all Apple’s flaws, when it gets things right it gets them very right.


The Matrix, with puppets

Ageowns has created a short clip that combines The Matrix with puppets. I love the Internet.


Games and violence, again

The Register reports that in the “murder by Manhunt” case, it turns out that the game was owned by the victim, not the murderer. Somehow I doubt you’ll see that on the front page of the Daily Mail this morning.


When technology attacks

Previous versions of my site included an article about repetitive strain injury (RSI), and I’ve just realised that the move to a Blogger-based format means the article has disappeared. So here it is in all its glory: it was written in a rush so the grammar and spelling may not be up to my usual standards :-)

I’ve just completed a large feature on RSI for PC Plus magazine, which you can download here (pdf file). This blog entry’s a much shorter and more opinionated version.

When Technology Attacks
Coping with RSI

I’ve had RSI for more than ten years now, and a few years ago it had got to the point where I could only work under the influence of horse tranquilisers (well, powerful – and slightly hallucinogenic – painkillers designed for chronic arthritis). Then I learned a number of strategies that help keep it at bay, and I’ve been pretty much OK for a few years now.

RSI isn’t a disease as such: it’s a catch-all term for a number of work related injuries such as tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, trigger finger and so on. Generally speaking it’s damage caused by making the same movements again and again at high speed, often in conjunction with bad posture. Untrained typists (ie, most computer users) are particularly at risk, and journalists most of all – the combination of deadlines and long working hours means that RSI is a particular hazard for hacks.

The list below summarises what I’ve learned over and above the basics (ensuring that you’re sitting properly, that you’re not craning your neck to peer at the monitor and so on). Needless to say, it’s no substitute for proper medical advice.

1. Get away from the computer. Wherever possible, avoid doing any computer work at nights or at weekends. The only real way to cure RSI is to stop doing the stuff that causes it, but you can manage it if you stick to some kind of work routine and keep non-computer time sacred. Easier said than done, I know – but it works.

2. Try a new keyboard and stick it on a lowered tray. Look for a fast one – one that you don’t have to hammer with all your strength. Logitech’s Internet Navigator works for me. Apple Pro keyboards are pretty good, too, and if you can track down a MacAlly IceKey (they’re very hard to find at the moment) they’re better still.

3. Move the mouse. The worst RSI symptoms are in my right hand, which is my mouse hand. Moving the mouse so it’s dead centre on the desk means I move it less and I’m not putting the entire weight of my arm on my right wrist. It’s also a pretty foolproof way of encouraging you to learn keyboard shortcuts for everything.

4. It’s tempting to neck painkillers so you can work, but it just means you’re doing even more damage; suitably medicated, you’re no longer aware of your body screaming at you. Avoid homeopathic stuff – it’s all nonsense and often makes the RSI worse – but make sure you’re eating properly. If you’re run down, your RSI is likely to flare up.

5. If you smoke, make your work area non-smoking. That way, whenever you want a cigarette you’ve got to go away from the computer: instant keyboard break. Same applies to coffee, beer, whatever – keep it away from the computer so you’ve got less incentive to sit in front of the screen all day.

6. Sleep properly. Of all the things I’ve tried, getting plenty of sleep is the single most powerful weapon against RSI. My RSI only comes back these days if I’ve been caning it a wee bit too much.

7. Laptops are evil: their keyboards are rotten [edit- by that I mean small laptops tend to have cramped keyboards; if you’ve got a 17″ monster, then you can ignore that comment], and their screens are too low. If you’ve got to use one, stick a decent keyboard on it and sit the computer on top of something so the screen’s higher than usual (I use a Griffin iCurve so that my laptop screen’s level with my second monitor). Touchpads are the work of the devil where RSI is concerned, as is too much text messaging on a mobile phone.

8. If you’re driving, try to use an automatic instead of a manual transmission. It makes a big difference if your RSI flares up.

9. Avoid games. It’s too easy to spend eight hours solid in front of Doom III, but it’s something you’ll regret later.

I can’t guarantee that this stuff will work for you; all I can say is that if I’d known this stuff ten years ago then I’d have saved a fortune on painkillers and I wouldn’t have wasted so much time being patronised by doctors. These days, RSI isn’t really a problem for me; hopefully you’ll sort yours out too.

Other people’s suggestions

This article started off as an email conversation with Danny O’Brien, who suggested that I upload the list to the Web. If anybody has any other tips, please get in touch and I’ll add them to this page (fully credited, of course).

Grant Barrett writes: “Accelerate the mouse/touchpad/nipple to the highest speed possible, even if it means installing software to make it hyper. If possible, change the algorithm so that the speed of your mouse movements are less linked to the distance the cursor travels. It should be as close to 1:1 as possible. (Kensington Mouseworks software for Mac OS 9 and OS X permits this, and can be used without a Kensington mouse). It takes a day or two to get used to, but the advantage is that the cursor will respond to micro-movements. It no longer require desk-clearing arm gestures to get from one corner of the screen to another. A tiny flick of a finger on a touch pad can move the cursor anywhere.”


What the Dickens (again)?

Today’s crop of wonderful spam-senders’ names:

Delving E. Snapshots
Hobgoblins P. Maturest
Nincompoops R. Intimacy
and Tubeless A. Saloons


The new Empire

I’m starting to wonder if every news story about a magazine redesign is nonsense: first Q’s rebranding as a download magazine didn’t happen, and now the new-look, repositioned-as-a-lifestyle-magazine version of Empire is basically Empire in a nicer layout.

To be fair, it’s gorgeous inside – the art bods have done a stunning job, there’s some great use of type throughout and some of the pages are good enough to frame – but the content hasn’t changed much. The section on screen legends has been beefed up a bit with quotes and statistics (it’s about Jack Nicholson this month), and there’s a new section that’s been lifted lock, stock and barrel from Word magazine where a writer sees a classic film they haven’t seen, and then writes about it. Other than that, it’s business as usual – although there’s a nice conflict between an in-depth look at The Chronicles of Riddick and the review, earlier in the same issue, that suggests it’s a turkey.