Thursday, August 21, 2003

START ME UP... A FEW YEARS TOO LATE: More on the decision of the Rolling Stones to put their stuff online (or, rather, try and make some cash by putting their own copies online) in the Guardian. First, in the news report Conor McNicholas, editor of the music weekly NME, said: "For the first time, consumers are dictating how they want music. They read one of our articles, or hear a song, then download immediately. People are innovating and using the technology that's out there faster than the record companies are." That would be 'for the first time', then - the success of cassettes and the introduction of cassingles (and the dumping of DCC, MiniDisc as a consumer format and [insert rubbish format here] weren't examples of the same consumer demand leading the labels, then; and since people have been sucking music downloads off the web since - what, '97? - and it's only now that the majors are actually doing something about it makes a bit of a nonesense of Conor's thesis here - what we think he means is "for the twenty-ninth time, record companies are belatedly realising what their customers want and are desperately trying to catch up." We're also a little puzzled by the words of Dr Leonardo Chiariglione, who for sake of argument is described as the father of the format: "Technology advances offer a convergence point between the goals of all multimedia actors: creators, intermediaries and users. It is high time that technology be used to keep the unfulfilled promises." Now, we might not have invented a major file format, but we can't quite work out if creators and users have a convergence point, what the function of an intermediary would be? It's like saying 'Now you can fly direct from Heathrow to Sydney, it's great news for the stopover airports in the Far East."

Then, in this week's Online Supplement Neil McIntosh considers exactly what the Stones move means (the actual conclusion - they've suddenly realised they stood to lose a fuckload of money if they didn't do it - is somehow missed.) There are some interesting words from Peter Jamieson, executive chairman of the BPI. He waves around the latest single sales figures and says "I don't think anybody would turn around and say that music was less popular than it was before" [no, not while album sales are booming] " so the industry has to try and get round to making music legitimately [sic] in ways that the public will put money toward..." 'Put money toward' is a really interesting choice of words, isn't it? Rather than the slightly more mucky sounding 'buy.' We wonder if the BPI is trying to soften us all up - away from consumers towards being patrons?

Meanwhile, Ed Averdieck from OD2 (he's the one who actually runs it, although the usual press coverage might lead you to assume that Peter Gabriel is the only man with a key to the offices) is looking forward to the birth of a download chart: "There definitely was a thing, in the old days, that you wanted your band to get to number one," he says. "We think that as soon as downloads start becoming eligible for the chart, people will think 'if I download this from KaZaA it's not going to push my band to number one. If I download it from MSN or HMV, it is'. That's going to be a big additional push to encourage the kids to start using these services" We're not sure he's right that a download chart is really going to make The Kids change their habits like that - we're guessing but in the early days of the charts, the people thinking 'I want my band to be at number one' will be more likely to be forty-somethings in the higher-floor offices of record labels. Frankly, we suspect the download chart will be about as significant as the 'Amazon Top Sellers' list - something that makes people go "oh, really?" but has no effect on their behaviour. When did you last think "I'm determined to push Pink/Phish/Bryan Ferry to number one at Amazon?"

The 'sometime soon' status of a download chart is less a glowing crown showing how the Majors are embracing the technology, but another example of just how crap they are at adapting to the new environment. It's taking so long to get into place that - compared with the massive speed of take-up of the opportunities afforded by MP3 - it's as if the NME hadn't actually got round to creating the first singles chart until 1978.

Finally, Steve Johnstone, from Musicindie, frets that legitmate downloading just doesn't have the glitter-factor yet to make it a sticky experience in whatever sense of the word you wish to take it: "If you look at things that have done particularly well on the internet as a whole, such as Amazon, very few people have tapped nearly as well the peer recommendation element," says Johnston. "If you could trawl for ages and hear about people's favourite albums of the year, and get a choice of eight different recommendations every time you type in anything [and] then wed those kind of peer recommendation features and chat forums with the ability to acquire music, you'd have the dream service." While we agree with him that you need something more than just a 'click here' to make the paid-for services have an edge over the free ones, we're not sure that the peer recommendation route is the one to go with. When we're shopping amazon for equipment, we do browse through what other people have made of the items. But with music? Never bother with them, simply because while a digital camera has attractions and pitfalls that can be explored dispassionately, a CD either 'works' or doesn't according to a personal sliding scale of prejudices, loves and quirks and so how are we to tell if Bigloob Tampott of Alberta's opinion on the new Britney Spears album is based on his love of Britney, his disappointment that she doesn't wear a school uniform anymore, a deep-seated hatred of women, or membership of the presbyterian church? We have a sneaking suspicion that the reason why there are so many reviews on the Amazon site isn't because people find them usefull, but because it provides an outlet for frustrated wannabe music journalists to vent their spleen to what they imagine is a worldwide audience [ouch, those bloody beams hurt when they get in your eye, don't they?] - that it's the recommending, rather than the recommendations - that pull people in. The thing is, if I want to know if an artist is any good, I'd check with the people online whose opinion I trust - friends, the communities I'm a member of, the reliable blogs - rather than a to-all-effects anonymous poster on the site trying to sell me the bloody thing in the first place.

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