Current TV

No, not Al Gore’s ill-fated network, but what I’m enjoying on TV currently:

Show Me A Hero – A drama series about housing policy in an upstate New York city doesn’t sound like it’s going to be compelling television, but it really is. It’s based on a non-fiction book and tells how some of Yonkers’ city council chose to ignore a judge’s ruling that social housing needed to built across the city and not ghettoised in a single place. This was fought hard, with many middle class local residents believing that should the housing be built their property prices would plummet and they’d be surrounded by crack houses and the like. Oscar Isaac is excellent as Mayor Wascisko, who initially campaigns on a bill against the housing but slowly seems to come around to it. The broader cast is excellent and the story is compelling. In the US HBO showed it in 3x 2 hour blocks, but Sky Atlantic is showing it in 6 weekly episodes. I’m hooked.

Last Week Tonight – Essential viewing every week, especially since Jon Stewart went off the air. He’s on a break at the moment, but will be back in a couple of weeks. I’ll be curious to see how Trevor Noah gets on with his take on The Daily Show, but perhaps Stephen Colbert even more so. Sadly, we probably won’t get to see either of these in the UK. Even James Corden’s show isn’t getting an airing here – surely ITV2 or E4 might want that?

Taskmaster – I very nearly didn’t bother with this, but Dave is on good form at the moment with its original comedy series. This series is a curiosity, and it continues to confound me with how good it is every week. Simply put, Greg Davies is the “Taskmaster” ably assisted by Alex Horne (who actually created the format). Each week, the same group of comedians – Frank Skinner, Roisin Conaty, Romesh Ranganathan, Josh Widdicombe and Tim Key – are given various things to do. Except it’s all been pre-recorded, and most instances each comedian completed the task on their own. The producers found a sort-of house somewhere to record the attempts. Example task include getting a teabag in a teacup from the furthest distance, empty a bath as quickly as possible or draw a picture of a horse while riding a horse. They sound stupid, but it’s rather brilliantly done and laugh out loud funny. The casting is really good, with a spread of comedians taking very different approaches to the task. So much better than sometimes slightly lazy panel shows. A real gem. The current series has just finished, but Dave has a new series of Dave Gorman starting next week, so they’re on a roll!

Partners in Crime – OK, this might not be as good as the LWT versions of these stories from the early eighties with Francesca Annis and James Warwick, but they’re still perfectly good Sunday night fare. I’ve not read the original novels, so I’m not sure how many liberties have been taken with the plot, although moving everything into the fifties is away from the first novel’s original twenties settings (the final book was actually written in 1968!). Yes David Walliams may have more than a bit of the Frankie Howerds about him, but I like Jessica Raine’s Tuppence, and the series seems to deliver on a post-war feel fairly successfully.

The Americans – I must admit that despite loving the first series of this, I essentially forgot to watch it again. So I’ve been frantically catching up on Amazon for the second series. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are a husband and wife KGB team undercover in America in a Reagan era 1980s. The series has to carefully walk a line between making us care about KGB officers, and the want to see them unmasked. They have two children who don’t know their background, and there’s an FBI team after them. The series references real events – the attempted assassination of Reagan, the illegal training of Nicaraguan Contras and the development of Stealth technology – and we get to see things from inside the FBI and inside the Soviet residentura. The series doesn’t pull too many punches, and although the various wigs and facial hair that our heroes wear sometimes seem a little over the top, every so often they act brutally just to remind you that they’re not on your side. After two seasons on ITV, the third has just shifted onto ITV Encore frustrating at least one friend of mine since that’s a Sky exclusive channel.

Only Connect – While I might catch the concessional episode of Pointless, this is the only gameshow – or more accurately quizshow – that I watch. A Monday staple.

Parks and Recreation – Also a Monday staple is the fourth season of Parks and Recreation which Dave has picked up after BBC Four dropped the ball. This is actually a razor sharp look at American politics with a cast to kill for.

Veep – Also a razor sharp look at American politics. Armando Ianucci is stepping down from this now, but it will continue on HBO, still with plenty of Brits who worked on The Thick of It continuing. This series introduced Hugh Laurie’s character and it’s my own fault that I binge watched the entire series over a weekend when Sky made it all available ahead of a week by week broadcast schedule. Unmissable stuff.

Dag – How many Norweigian sitcoms have you seen recently? Well this is the one you’re missing. Dag is a couples therapist who broadly speaking thinks most of his clients should end their relationships. But he himself lives a fairly lonely existence, locked away inside his apartment with his enormous DVD collection, his black satin sheets and his gadget collection. He has a sister who’s marriage has broken down, his sister’s friend who takes a shine to Dag, his curiously chipper receptionist, and his best friend Benedikt who’s basically a womanising fool. I’ve probably not sold this to you, but it’s simply terrific. Although there are slapstic elements, the series also takes a serious look at birth, death and relationships. Sky Arts has just finished series 1 and is heading straight into series 2. It looks like there’s been four series so far in total.

Ripper Street – Ripper Street always took me a while to get into. I half-watched the first series, and then let the second series mount up on my PVR. Sometime around this point the BBC cancelled the series and I started catching up since I’d read a few positive comments about the direction the series had taken. It’s true, it was getting really smart towards the end of the second series. At which point Amazon came along and commissioned a third series, with the BBC a minor partner and getting delayed broadcast rights. Somehow I didn’t properly watch the series when Amazon released it at Christmas, but caught up again with the BBC’s broadcast. I quickly overtook the Friday night broadcasts by watching the slightly longer Amazon versions, and I think it’s fair to say that this has been the best series yet. The cast is excellent and the writing and story arcs are really well put together. Nothing is a given, and even the slightly antiquated language fits the bill beautifully. I’m delighted that the series has been renewed by Amazon for at least another two series.

And a couple of series that even if I’m not recommending, I’m sticking with:

Odyssey – Yes, it’s a sub-Homeland story, and quite how they’ve contrived to keep Anna Friel’s character away from a phone for so many episodes is beyond belief. But I’m sort of enjoying it. Lots of French actors you know from other things seem to pop up. My question is whether I should catch up with Homeland ahead of season 5. I think I’m at least two series behind…

Aquarius – A bit of an oddity that aired over the summer on NBC and that Sky Atlantic is showing over here. David Duchovny is decent and it’s set against Charles Manson building his group up. It set in an interesting timeframe, and they’ve paid a bit for music from the period. I notice that we’re getting the “unrated” version for international markets (ie. more toplessness than NBC can show).

Broadcasting Cricket

3 May 2009

There are two stories worth talking about in the world of broadcast cricket – a subject I’m only marginally less interested in than in broadcasting football. (See this recent piece for example.)

First of all, Jonathan Agnew interviewed the ECB’s Chief Executive Tom Harrison last Thursday during lunch in the final Ashes Test. There is always plenty to discuss in the cricketing world, but Agnew certainly got onto television coverage of the game. There was some talk about “terrestrial” coverage – I think we can say “free-to-air” is more appropriate – and Harrison said that it was part of their thinking. However there were two key things that he mentioned. The first was there wouldn’t be any change in coverage of the game until 2020 – with the current Sky deal running until the end of the 2019 season. That would seem to discount the idea that separate rights would be sold to an amended T20 competition (I suspect Sky thinks they already have those rights!).

The other thing he said was that in retrospect, the 2004 deal that saw Channel 4 lose all its cricket rights was still a good thing for the game.

Hmm. Remind me again when the open top bus tour of the 2015 Ashes winners is happening again? You simply couldn’t hold such a celebration today, because as much as any cricket fan might wish it, this Ashes series has passed most of the population by.

Which brings me the second major story that broke over the weekend. BT Sport has pitched in and won the rights to Australian cricket from 2016-2021 from Cricket Australia. Notably, this includes the 2017/18 Ashes series in Australia. But it also includes all the other Australian home international series as well as their T20 Big Bash series.

A few thoughts come from this:

  • This is the first time in a long time that Sky’s cricket monopoly has been breached. Sure, the Caribbean T20 series has been on a few different channels (Eurosport and currently BT Sport), and the IPL was on ITV4 for a number of years before Sky bought it up. But essentially every series involving a Test nation has been Sky exclusive for a long time now.
  • In turn that means that a die-hard cricket fan will need a BT Sport subscription as well as Sky. That’s a costly add-on if you’re not on BT Broadband.
  • Cricket fans are wealthier (look at all those banking and luxury car ads) so BT is perhaps on safer ground with this.
  • But cricket in Australia takes place at a terrible time of day from a UK perspective. So live TV isn’t always the most valuable.
  • However it seems that BT is taking the highlights rights too. They’re planning on putting them on BT Showcase (where they’ll also air a free-to-air weekly Big Bash fixture during that competition. That would seem to mean no Channel 5 highlights. (Although Sky shows Test highlights alongside Channel 5, so the two may not be mutually exclusive).
  • And of course all this brings BT into play for the next big ECB cricket contract. I suspect that this will turn a few heads at the ECB, and while they may say pleasant things about wanting to reach a wider audience, they’ll be faced with Sky and BT Sport waving big chequebooks at them when those rights negotiations begin.
  • Finally, does this suggest that Sky’s massively increased Premier League costs are really beginning to bite? Which sports are next on BT’s shopping list? Golf? Men’s tennis? Rugby League? NFL? F1? Er, WWE?

In the meantime, BT had better start raising the profile of BT Showcase. That means getting carriage on other platforms – notably Sky* – and making it a bit more visible. I’m not convinced that a channel that only very rarely pops into life for a random Champions’ League game or Aviva Premiership rugby fixture will gain much in the way of traction. At least Sky’s Pick TV has a full schedule.

(They’ve today announced – two days before the game – that the second leg of the FC Brugges v Man Utd Champions’ League qualifier will be free-to-air on BT Showcase. That’s before the channel has carriage on either Virgin Media (where it’s at least promised) and Sky. Assuming Man Utd qualify, will that be the one fixture for the season featuring them? And is two days enough notice? I assume there’ll be some press advertising to back this up in the coming couple of days.)

And it’ll be interesting to see any audience figures from BT Sport once the Champions’ League gets underway properly.

*I note that “AMC from BT” has arrived on Sky, so there’s no real reason for them not putting Showcase up there too.

How Should Spotify Pay For Its Music?

Ooh Chris Martin on your Radio

Yesterday I got into a bit of a discussion with James Cridland on Facebook about the rights and wrongs of how services like Spotify distribute their revenues. And I thought it was worth sharing and expanding on some of my thoughts on the matter.

This comes off the back of a Medium piece from Sharky Laguana.

But I’ll preface things by reiterating that I don’t think the flat subscription model works at all well for the music industry. Go back and read this piece to understand why I say that.

Sharky explains how Spotify uses what he calls the Big Pool method of distributing royalties. He believes that the Subscriber Share method would be fairer.

Big Pool

The Big Pool method takes all the revenues that Spotify earn and attributes to rights holders – about 70% of the money subscribers give them – and then it divides that pot of cash by the total number of streams delivered. In his example, which uses December 2014 data, that means $0.007 per stream. Spotify then pays out that money accordingly, based on the number of streams each song has had.

I’ll leave you to read why he thinks this method is bad. But in essence it means that a large proportion of the money you personally give to Spotify each month goes to artists and rights holders that you don’t yourself listen to.

Subscriber Share

The Subscriber Share model works in a different way. It looks at each user’s listening habits and apportions the relevant money that subscriber pays (~70% of your monthly fee) to those artists/rights holders. Ed Sheeran might be one of the most popular artists on Spotify, but because I don’t listen to him, none of my subscription goes to him – it just goes to artists that I listen to.

So which of these methods is fairer?

I would actually argue that they’re both legitimate ways of dividing the spoils. The difference between them depends on how you look at an offering like Spotify.


  • Do you consider your usage in isolation: you have £9.99 to spend on music each month, how do you spread that out? Which artists do you apportion that money?
  • Or are you paying £9.99 for a service. Your cash pays for access to 30m+ tracks which you can listen to as much or as little as you like?

Spotify as a Service

Spotify treats the money in the latter manner. And this is not an uncommon way of doing things.

Think of your pay monthly phone tariff. For a flat fee the operator gives you unlimited calls and unlimited texts. I might be a relatively light user of the service, only speaking for a couple of hours a month or sending a handful of texts. You might live your life on the phone and send hundreds a texts a day (OK – I know all the kids are on WhatsApp or whatever, but you get the point). The operator prices its products on the overall usage. It has inter-network fees it has to pay, and it needs to make sure that the overall spread of usage is balanced out by the subscription fees it collects.

Or think of a gym membership. You and I both pay £50 a month. We can go as often as we like. But I’m lazy and I only go once a month. I should really cancel my membership. Each visit is costing me £50 a time! You go daily, and you get great value from your membership – use of all those facilities and only £1.50 a time! The gym needs to ensure that it collects enough subscription revenues to pay for itself and not be full the entire time.

At its very simplest, this is how our taxes work too. I don’t have children, but some of tax money is spent on schools. You might have a serious medical issue, and the NHS may offer treatment vastly in excess of the income tax or National Insurance you pay.

In terms of Spotify, some people get amazing value from the service – they listen morning to night and stream thousands of tracks. But most subscribers stream far fewer. There’s nothing to stop them streaming more, just as there’s nothing to stop you going back for seconds at an all-you-can-eat buffet. But some people are full after one trip, while others are students who want to get full value!

In terms of how artists and rights holders get paid, should this depend on how much I personally use the service? Or should it depend on the overall usage by all the service’s subscribers? After all, even without considering rights payments, someone who streams Spotify 10 hours a day is costing more in bandwidth than someone who streams for 10 minutes a day.

Think of it in “Entertainment Hours.”

Ed listens for 10 hours a day or 300 hours a month, while Taylor listens for just 30 hours a month.

Should each Entertainment Hour delivered to Ed be worth less than each Entertainment Hour delivered to Taylor simply because Ed uses the service more?

Indeed the Big Pool share is pretty consistent with how music is paid for in general. In UK radio for example, stations have to return a list of all the tracks they play, and royalties are calculated by simply dividing the stations’ royalties fees accordingly.

If I want to start an online streaming radio service, I will quickly discover that royalties are charged on a per-song/per-stream basis. In other words if there are 10 people listening to my service when a particular song is played, then it costs me 10x that per-song/per-stream price.

We Don’t Have The Data… But Denmark Does

None of what I’ve argued here should discount the Subscriber Share model as being a legitimate alternative method to paying out royalties, although I think you’d have to consider what Spotify is as a very different beast.

But to truly calculate the impact of one method of payment to another we need data. It requires a big bulk of real usage data sampled properly from the full Spotify subscriber base. Because it’s simply not possible to calculate which artists do better out of which system without access to that data.

In Sparky’s example, he points out that Alt-J might earn $1.75 from a single subscriber under the Subscriber Share method assuming that user plays them 25% of the time. Based on the same average usage, the band only receives $0.35 based on the Big Pool method.

But what that ignores is the overall playing of Alt-J across all users. If the Ed Sheeran/Taylor Swift playing mainstream, who account for the bulk of subscribers, also stream just a single Alt-J track, does that add up to more money? Under the Subscriber Share model, the amount might be incidental. But added up across many more listeners, could the Big Pool revenues actually add up to a similar amount? Without the data we simply don’t know.

Via a comment to Sharky’s Medium piece, I was directed to this fascinating Danish report based on a month’s worth of Danish streams via WiMP (available in Denmark, Germany, Norway, Poland and Sweden).

The report looked at the top 5,000 artists played across that month. Unsurprisingly the top 1% of artists accounted for 28.2% of streams, with the top 20% of artists accounting for 80.1% of streams. The tail gets long very quickly.

What the report also clearly showed is that people who listen to less popular artists also listen to more artists. And that doesn’t help the economics for those smaller artists.

“Because the most popular artists have the least intensive listeners, per user distribution [Subscriber Share] would generally move money from the tail towards the head.

“Among the top 5,000 artists, per user distribution would primarily benefit the most popular artists at the expense of the less popular. The top 1% among the top 5,000 artists would go from 28.2% of payout with the current model [Big Pool] to 31.0% of payout with the per user model [Subscriber Share]. Artists between 1,000 and 5,000 would go from 18.1% of payout with the current model, to 15.9% of payout with the per user model – a relative decrease of 12.1%.” [My emphasis]

This also goes back to my contention that the music industry loses out massively from its biggest fans by letting them have everything for a flat rate when they were previously spending much more.

Other Considerations

What happens to your subscription money if you don’t listen in a given month? Under the Big Pool method, it makes no difference. Your 70% rights share gets thrown into the pot. But under the Subscriber Share where does it go? Does Spotify just bank it? This isn’t quite as niche a case as you might think. Globally some mobile phone operators include Spotify Premium subscriptions in their packages, and not all of those subscribers will take them up on those deals, but revenues are probably collected. I know that I used to have a Deezer subscription via Orange that I essentially never used.

The major labels may also have determined minimum pricing per stream. Under the Subscriber Share model, it’s possible that the price paid per stream would drop, and that may cause issues.

And it’s worth noting that while I’ve no doubt that the Big Pool method works satisfactorily for the major record labels (they wouldn’t have signed up otherwise), it must surely do OK for the independent labels represented by groups like Merlin. Spotify et al need indie labels for their services. As well as some major superstars like Adele appearing on Indie lables, the services simply wouldn’t have the requisite breadth without them.

Summary

As I said right at the start, I wouldn’t argue that the Subscriber Share method isn’t a valid one, but it’s not as black and white an issue as might be painted. Spotify is a service, and like every service you use it to a greater or lesser extent. But it does at least treat artist equally, and each play is valued the same. So in that sense it’s equitable.

And the Danish report suggests that it’s actually a better deal financially for smaller artists. In fact it’s the biggest artists who should be complaining.

A Sheringham Timelapse

Sheringham Timelapse from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

Here’s a timelapse shot in North Norfolk before Christmas around sunset on two consecutive days. Obviously I really needed to spend more time capturing material, but I thought it was worth putting this together.

(In case it’s not obvious from some recent blogposts, I’m spending some productive time finishing off projects that I started but hadn’t completed.)

Releasing a Soundtrack Album

This is a small frustration, and quite possibly it’s specific to me, but why are record labels so tardy in releasing soundtrack albums.

Everyone knows that for most films, the opening weekend is key. The largest number of people tend to see a film on its opening weekend, and in many instances, the film gets its widest distribution that weekend too. If you’re lucky the film grows, and perhaps opens on more screens subsequently, but you at least plan for the opening and take it from there.

So you’ve been to see a film, and you want to buy some merchandise. How are companies set up? Well if the film you saw was a Marvel film, a James Bond film or a Disney film, then you can bet your bottom dollar that product is sitting on the shelves already. You couldn’t move without seeing Minions this summer.

But what about if you’ve seen an indie film and liked the soundtrack. Well you know from the start that this might be trickier. Are they actually releasing a soundtrack album at all? There are costs, and they include licencing music for “sync” in the first place. There’s extra to place it on the soundtrack.

In a vinyl/CD world, this sort of made sense. You had to speculate to accumulate. You put the album out there and hoped it would sell. That’s why it’s only much later that many films got their soundtrack album. There was a measurable demand and now was the time to meet it.

But we live in a world of instant gratification.

I remember years ago having come out of a cinema and headed straight for the late-opening record shop nearby to pick up a copy of the film’s soundtrack on CD. I got the shop’s only copy. As I reached the counter to pay, the man ahead was in conversation with an assistant. She was busily tapping away on the keyboard: “Well it definitely says we have one copy in stock. Perhaps it’s not been shelved in the right place.” She headed off with him to look. I guiltily bought said single copy from another assistant and left the shop.

Today, I can whip out my phone as I leave the cinema, check online music stores, buy the album (or listen as part of a subscription if you must), and have it playing in my headphones as I head home.

Except, it doesn’t always work like that.

Case in point: the Mistress America soundtrack.

I loved the film, and wanted to hear more. Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips composed the music, and they have a fanbase. On top of that, the film also features a few licenced songs, notably Souvenir by OMD.

Here’s what I did about getting the soundtrack.

  • First of all establish whether there is a soundtrack album in existence? There is.It’s out, and available at least on US download sites.
  • OK – try Google Play. It’s the easiest option on an Android phone. No dice. OK, I’m not necessarily surprised because Google Play does seem to be a bit slow with some major albums.
  • Let’s try Amazon. They had one copy on an import CD priced at £15.17. But it wasn’t an AutoRip CD. So even if I paid that money, I wouldn’t get the instant gratification. That single copy sold pretty quickly incidentally. At time of writing they’re out of stock.
  • Go home and try iTunes. At the end of the day, if you’re releasing your album digitally, you have to have it on iTunes. It’s not easily searchable on an Android phone, so I used a PC at home with iTunes. No luck. The album’s not there.
  • I wonder if I can buy the album from Amazon.com where it’s $9.49? While my account works, it doesn’t let me buy a download with a UK credit card.
  • Clutching at straws now. I wonder if I can buy myself an Amazon.com gift card for $9.50? I can. And now can I use that voucher to download the album? I cannot. I now have $9.50 on my US account. How useful.

And that’s your lot. It’s a North America only release, seemingly, despite the film being released simultaneously in the US and UK. I can’t think of another outlet that will sell me a download version without having either regional difficulties or a worse selection of music than the big players. I could visit an actual record shop, but they are few and far between, and the range isn’t what it once was. Will they carry an import only CD? So it’s probably an import CD from Amazon when they have stock, or maybe the label might want to release the soundtrack in the UK. The digital-only cost is surely negligible?

And if you make it really hard, there are always the not-so-legal routes to get an album.

[Update] I note that the album is on Spotify. But… I can only stream three tracks from it – notably previously released tracks that are on other albums including the aforementioned Souvenir. My quest continues.

Note: All prices and availabilities (or lack there of) based on the time of writing, which is right after the film’s opening weekend.

Trent Park – Drone Footage

Trent Park from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

I’ve been playing with my DJI Phantom 3 Advanced a little more.

Things that I need to spend more time include optimising the video output for Vimeo (I’m using Premiere Pro CC’s “Vimeo 1080” setting here, but I’m not happy with it, and Vimeo says that I can do better, but then it prefers 720), and the colour grading. I’m still learning how to use that, and need to understand what LUT files can do some more.