August, 2007

Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela

I’ve just been listening to an amazing concert that I’m really annoyed I didn’t go to. I’m talking about the appearance of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela under its 26 year old conductor Gustavo Dudamel.
Now before you go scooting on believing that I’m getting all high falootin’ talking about classical music, you really do need to listen to this concert.
As I say, I missed it, not managing to read about it until the following Sunday, thus missing out on the BBC’s Listen Again facility.
But fortunately on Wednesday the Prom was repeated on Afternoon on 3. So until next Wednesday afternoon you can hear it here. Fast forward about 1 hour 35 minutes to get to the start of the Prom.
And if the prospect of the Shostakovich fills you with dread, then skip another hour to 2 hours 35 minutes when a wonderful performance West Side Story’s symphonic dances is performed by this massive orchestra of 200 12 to 26 year olds.
And then stay with it for some wonderful South American music and three encores.
Just read what others are saying here. More than one person is demanding a CD/DVD release of this excellent concert!
The concert was also on BBC Four, which of course I missed too. But I’m certain that there’ll be some repeat performances over the coming weeks and months. The first chance to see the performance again is likely to be next Thursday’s “Youth Orchestras of the World” on BBC1 at 10.35pm. I’ll be tuning in.
Why does Venezuela have such wonderful young musicians? It’s all down to a system that lets any child in the country learn a classical instrument. Hundreds of thousands have participated and leading to a musical renaissance. There’s a programme all about it that you can download here.

Pirate Internet Radio

A couple of great posts about internet radio revenues in the UK, from James (late of these parts) and Kevin Coy.
While I might rail on incessently about record companies desperately trying to extend copyright periods for no good reason, I passionately believe that performers and artists deserve a fair remuneration for the broadcast of their work in whatever capacity.
Companies like Last.fm seem to just avoid paying fair dues while others stump up.
Have I told you about my great new business idea? It’s called Last.movies. Here’s how it works. You tell me which movies you like, and you can stream them direct to your PC. My clever algorithm finds other movies you might like based on people with similar movie tastes, and the service will stream those movies to you too. It’s great! All you do is log on and watch the movies you love, and movies you don’t know but will love. Now I haven’t done any deals with any Hollywood outfits, but I’m going to stream the movies anyway, and with luck my website will be so big that all the companies will keel over and do business with me at a fair rate determined by me.
What could possibly be the problem with that?
Just because my great idea is to stream movies you might like based on ones you tell me you like, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have to licence those movies

Apple Offer Something To Watch

It’s interesting to see that iTunes in the UK is now finally offering some TV programmes for anyone with a video iPod to actually watch.
More to the point, there might actually be a reason to get an Apple TV now (although I suspect that an Xbox 360 might be slightly wiser).
Previously there was a limited range of Pixar shorts or music videos to download. But today Apple has started selling a range of Disney sourced programming including Lost, Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy, with each episode costing £1.89.
I’m not completely convinced that it’s worth my while paying for these downloads when I don’t yet have an iPod video (although there are reports of what will almost certainly be new video iPods being launched on September 5 – think iPhone without the phone bit). And I also need to know what the quality is like. If I was to get an Apple TV and plug it into my (so far mythical) HDTV, would I get the programming in HDTV format? That’s certainly not been the case in the US to date.
The programmes on offer seem to run up until the most recent series, but I’ll be very interested to see how future releases. Channel 4 has in the past offered downloads of Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives with releases timed to coincide with their airings of the shows. But we all know that C4 won’t start showing the new series of these show until January next year, yet they’ll be starting on ABC in the US in September or October this year. So when will episodes hit iTunes UK? I’d expect that releases will still be timed to synchronise with UK broadcast dates, but in a global economy can we be sure? Time will tell. Lost is likely to be less of an issue with Sky One likely to be airing it in the same week as it airs in the US as it’s trying to do with 24. And Channel 4 does have 4OD don’t forget. But many of its US shows are available for rent rather than for purchase (99p for 7 days v £1.89 forever – hmmm). While Five’s nascent download service has different rules for different programmes: an episode of CSI will cost me £1.49 to buy, while an episode of Grey’s Anatomy is only available to rent for 99p.
Price is the other main issue. The complete first season of Ugly Betty costs £32.99 on iTunes, but the DVD box set is only £29.99 at Amazon. And the DVD version is not tied to a limited iTunes account. I can rip those DVDs to my PSP should I want to (albeit not quite within the letter of the law); I can lend those DVDs to all my friends; and I can sell the set on eBay when I’m bored of it. I should say, in fairness, that the complete third season of Lost also costs £32.99 whereas the DVD boxset is closer to £45 at Amazon. However, that’s mainly because the UK distributors of this series like to release it first in two parts, and then as a boxset – a practice that’s becoming all too prevalent, being replicated with Heroes and Prison Break in the UK. The US release is £32.99 at Playusa.
What’s going to be interesting going forward is seeing when UK programmes start to arrive on iTunes. Why wouldn’t ITV offer episodes of Coronation Street relatively cheaply? Certainly, I can catch up online for free, but some might pay 49p to watch on their journey into work. And it’ll be really interesting to see when BBC shows end up there – perhaps indie produced ones like Kudos’s Spooks, particularly when they’ll be available via the BBC’s iPlayer.
At the moment however, there’s very little incentive for me to buy programmes via iTunes.

Last.fm and Future Music

There was much excitement recently, when it was announced that a revamped Music Week would include a chart from Last.fm. This is the site, we’re told, that really discovered the Arctic Monkeys and so on.
Now I must admit that I’ve never really persevered with Last.fm to the extent of using it properly. It might well introduce me to all sorts of music that I’ve not previously heard, but I’m always suspicious of just hearing the will of the masses. In other words, the most popular albums will always ride to the top because everybody has them.
Anyhow, it was with interest that I turned to this week’s Music Week to see what interesting new songs are being highlighted by Last.fm.
Well the top ten is dominated by Kate Nash who has four songs in it, including the number one – Foundations, which is also her current single. The album only came out last week, so it’s not surprising that everybody’s listening.
The number two is Misery Business by Paramore (misspelt in the paper incidentally) which is a single released back in June that didn’t trouble the charts too much reaching the dizzy heights of number 31. For a band like Paramore, this is probably helping their album, Riot, which currently sits at number 47.
Elsewhere we find Starlight by Muse at number 5. A great song undoubtedly, although it came out in September last year, so not exactly cutting edge. Just behind that we find Kanye West’s Stronger, which is also the current number one. Then there’s another Muse track, Supermassive Black Hole, a single from June last year.
Then there’s Hey There Delilah by the Plain White T’s [sic] which is still high in the charts at number 6, although the album it comes from, Every Second Counts, was originally released last year. However, the album is currently unavailable, with an imminent re-release next week.
Finally there’s Golden Skan by Klaxons which was released in, er, January this year.
What I’m trying to say here, is that this chart isn’t much use for predicting the next big thing, aside from giving Kate Nash’s record company some food for thought when they think about what to release from her album as a follow up to Foundations. And a few other record companies might be a bit miffed that some songs weren’t as big hits as they might have been – but that’s always been the case.
To be fair, there are two additional charts that Last.fm is reported to be supplying: a global version (this one is UK only), and a “hype list” showing artists that have risen most in the last month, and as the Guardian column linked to above suggests, it’ll be this chart that’ll be the most useful. But it remains to be seen how different it’ll be from the radio airplay charts already published which obviously include pre-release tracks, as well the overall pre-release top 20, which is currently led by James Blunt (1973), The Twang (Two Lovers) and the very fine Scouting For Girls (She’s So Lovely). Although with Razorlight’s America at 17 and Lily Allen’s Smile at 19, I’m not quite sure what “Pre-Release” actually really means.

When Is A Download Not A Download?

A company called Lionsgate Films has been advertising recently on the tube as well as in newspapers such as today’s Metro (Note: I saw the ad over somebody’s shoulder – I still don’t read Metro).
Here’s a copy of the ad:
lionsgate
Lionsgate seems to specialise in offering recent US TV fare on DVD. Now none of the three series in the ad especially appeals to me: I saw The Lost Room and thought it was fairly average; The Dresden Files doesn’t appeal, and I wasn’t really taken with Weeds.
Nonetheless, the ad offers a free episode download, and I was curious. So I committed the URL to memory (lionsgatefilms.co.uk/viptv – not the easiest URL to remember when you’re on the tube and out of internet access range) and gave it a go. As much as anything I was keen to see what format they were offering the downloads in. Windows Media perhaps, or Quicktime? Would I be able to play the episode on a PSP or iPod?
None of those.
A closer examination of the advert shows this:
“Download will be via streaming and will be the first episode of each series.”
Huh?
Let me explain for the hard of thinking – download is not the same as streaming. Now I’m not about to go to the ASA to complain, but companies really need to be careful about how they advertise these things.
If something is a download, then I believe I should be able to save it somewhere and play it back later at my convenience without the need to go online. So don’t advertise a “Free Episode Download” when it’s not. How about “Watch an exclusive episode online” or “See the first episode free”?
In fact, I’m not sure why they don’t simply make the episode available as a DRM-free download. If you like what you see, you may well go and buy the DVDs.

Charting Again

Do you follow the charts?
No, me neither. But I couldn’t help noticing that Elvis is having something of a resurgence.
Currently there are three singles in the Top 40:
Blue Suede Shoes is a “new” entry at no. 13.
My Baby Left Me is a “new” entry at no. 19.
Suspicious Minds is at no. 26 having slipped from last week’s no. 2.
What’s going on?
Well a couple of things. First of all, Elvis’s label, RCA, is releasing 18 Elvis singles over the coming 18 weeks to build an “Elvis the King” collection. Avid collectors dash out to buy these limited edition re-issues which can be stored in a box. The collection “commemorates” the 30th anniversary of Elvis’s death.
But hang on. Didn’t something like this happen a couple of years ago? Why, yes it did. On that occasion it was “celebrating” the 30th anniversary of Elvis’s birth.
They seem to be a different 18 singles this time around, but there is obviously plenty of bonus material bulking it out. Suspicious Minds and Blue Suede Shoes are the most recent releases.
But what about My Baby Left Me? That’s not part of either singles collection. Instead it’s the first major Elvis release now his material is out of copyright in the UK. As Music Week reports on its front page this week, it has been reissued by Memphis Recording Service and sold exclusively through HMV. In this instance, the recordings have not been sourced from early vinyl, but from masters and safety masters that the record company has got its hands on.
As ever, it should be pointed out that the songwriters of My Baby Left Me, do get paid. It’s just the performers (and producers) that don’t.
It should be noted that aside from these singles, there are also a considerable amount of other Elvis material proliferating at the moment with a partwork having just launched, and collections of Elvis’s films readily available. And if that collection of Elvis Number Ones from a couple of years ago is not enough, you could pick up Elvis The King instead (which does have a further 21 tracks including some biggies like Blue Suede Shoes and Always On My Mind which the previous collection didn’t).
But you might want to wait for “Elvis Presley: The New York RCA Studio One Complete Series” coming before Christmas. It’s another unofficial release taking advantage of the UK’s copyright laws. I rather suspect that Elvis completists – those who’re putting these re-issued singles so high in the charts – will be getting this CD too.

Will the Standard Survive

In today’s Media Guardian, Alan Ruddock ponders whether the venerable London Evening Standard will survive the onslaught that has been News International’s London Paper and Associated’s very own London Lite.
It has been a year since the two free papers launched, and neither of them are yet profitable. The Standard has unsurprisingly taken something of a hit with distributors practically fighting over who’s newspaper you take away free. There have been plenty of promotions and free gifts – I’ve gained iTunes vouchers, a natty little umbrella, an emergency phone charger and a handful of free audiobooks (in terrible quality incidentally). There have also been a selection of free paperbacks, and a variety of snacks – all given away by street vendors on payment of 50p for the Standard.
But the overwhelming problem is that the Standard is simply not a very good paper. It’s nowhere near as bad as either the London Paper or London Lite which both leave me reeling; I really don’t care at all what Pete Doherty or Amy Winehouse was up to last night. Please don’t tell me that and other non-news like it. If I wanted that, I’d buy Heat or one of those sordid downmarket equivalents. I care not a jot about what the latest off-the-rails American starlet has been up to, or how many hours in prison she had to spend afterwards.
I care more about whether the papers are being recycled and why London Transport doesn’t put massive signs at the top and bottom of escalators telling commuters not to leave their papers there in the morning. How many jammed escalators are being caused by trapped freesheets?
The biggest impediment to me buying the Standard is not the alternatives, but the dire nature of the paper itself. There’s no proper news in it. London news is minimal, with the editor seemingly wanting to turn it into The Daily Mail. But that’s not what Londoners want – if it was, well, we can already buy the Mail if we have to. I want information relevant to me, and include both national and international news. Features are fine, as long as they’re upmarket ones. Of course with the web at work, we’ve all got a good idea about what’s happening in the world before we leave the office, but with a good set of journalists, the paper could add depth of coverage and background information. Instead we get more of what’s already in the freesheets, and as a consequence, I don’t buy the paper (unless it has a gift that’s seemingly worth more than the 50p I’m being charged – but that’s got to be unsustainable hasn’t it?).
Whilst on the subject of freesheets, I should mention that I rarely if ever read Metro, although I do believe it to be generally a cut above the others. The reasons I don’t read it are twofold: firstly, I prefer to read either a book or a proper newspaper on the way to work, and secondly, it’s not distributed at my station. Actually, a couple of weeks ago, a telltale Metro dump bin was suddenly in place at my station, but was empty. A couple of weeks on, and I’ve still not seen any sign of papers. Now it may well be that they’re all taken by 7.30am, which I’d find surprising, but it’s a curious state of affairs.
And finally there’s also Sport, the sports weekly that’s doing fairly well by all accounts. I quite like it myself – except that I can rarely get it. The distribution at Oxford Circus seems to be a single person, despite there being upwards of seven exits to the station. Wrong exit? No paper.

A Trip Around Dorset

Since Saturday was lovely, but I was indoors for too much of it, I though that some outdoor adventure would be an idea.
I quite fancied the beach, but it was blindingly obvious that thousands of others would also be heading beachwards, so I was going to have to be quite careful about where I went.
Much Googling (well – some, anyway) told me of Ringstead in Dorset. It seemed to be reachable by bike from a station, and I could get a train that wouldn’t quite take me all day to reach it. So off I went, having first planned a route via my Anquet software. Sadly, a failing printer meant that I still had to pick up an OS map on arrival in Dorset.
A word or two first about the train. South West Railways 8.35am to Weybourne seemed quite empty when I first boarded it about fifteen minutes before departure. I managed to get my bike in one of the three non-reservable bike bays, and took a seat in the carriage that was designated the quiet carriage. No iPod for me on the way down then. Soon the bike bay designed for three had about eight bikes and the quiet carriage had been joined by a party of about twenty young Spaniards who weren’t entirely quiet. Incidentally if you ever meet a mobile phone designer, please thump him from me, and insist that the ability to play music without the aid of headphones was the single worst thing to so far happen this century.
My Woking, the train was completely rammed, but I was pleasantly surprised by South West’s legroom, and was buried in The Observer.
The train nearly emptied at Bournmouth, but I was heading to Moreton. From there it was a few miles, first down, and then up some quite steep hills until I was high above Ringstead.
Overlooking Ringstead
I took the footpath down, having to carry my bike a bit, and was soon on a stony, but relatively quiet beach. The water was quite cold, but after a few minutes, you could swim around quite nicely. I believe the redness of my face this morning may have something to do with spending a couple of lovely hours on Ringstead beach.
Ringstead Beach
Then it was up to the clifftop and the bridleway. There’s a coastal path that runs much closer to the edge of the cliffs, but cyclists are taken inland a little to a well signposted bridleway that’s soon enough close to the cliff edge. Despite the awful weather we’ve had this summer, much of the path was completely grassed over, and great fun to cycle across.
Clifftops
I was heading towards Dagger’s Gate (somewhat disappointing when I got there) and Lulworth. It had been many years since I last visited Lulworth, and although I guessed there’d be a few people about, I was in for an enormous surprise.
As I joined the road that lead down to Lulworth, I couldn’t help but notice hundreds of cars parked on any grass verge they could. These were for people who were heading over to Durdle Door. I took the steep road down into the Cove itself and soon found an enormous car park jammed full of cars with literally thousands of people embarking on the climb to Durdle Dor from Lulworth.
Lulworth Car Park Looking Up To Path To Durdle Door
This is a tiny village, yet it was completely over-run by tourists. I found it hellish.
I went down to the Cove, spent literally minutes there taking in the heaving throngs, and turned around to leg it.
Lulworth Cove
A different steep road out of Lulworth took me to the edge of the military area to the east, and then it was a leisurely ride down to the village of Wool, where I got a refreshing pint from The Black Bear before catching the much less crowded train back to London.
Dorset Countryside on a Fine Day
Here’s the route I took:
Route of Dorset Ride - August 2007

State of the TV Nation

Over on the BBC’s Editors’ Blog, Newsnight Editor Peter Barron invites readers to post their thoughts on the current state of British television. He’s one of the organisers of the Edinburgh Television Festival and he’s planning on putting the comments on both the festival website and the walls of the conference centre (I assume they’ll be digital in some way).
Go away and read what people say – they have some quite interesting thoughts. And for completeness, I’m reproducing my thoughts here:

  • Show some respect for programme makers – stop telling me what’s on next before the programme I’m still watching has finished, and then shrinking the credits to an unreadable size whilst telling me again about what’s coming up.
  • Stop putting ever more invasive graffiti all over the screen – I’m trying to watch your programmes and don’t actually care that much about how colourful and jazzy your DOG is, or the fact that this weekend is a “Morse Weekend.”
  • Address the training shortfall. With the BBC shrinking, we’re left with media studies students wandering around with cameras a touch better than a home videocamera recording footage without caring about getting their white balances correct or worrying about whether the sound’s audible.
  • Step away from the overnights – big numbers are not the only criteria a programme should be judged by. Do not cancel a series or banish it into the wee hours if episode one under-performs. If you carry on doing this, I’ll never bother even trying to watch your programmes again. If you’re not going to invest your time in them, I’m not going to bother either.
  • Combat internet downloads by airing shows as close as possible to US release dates.
  • Stop paying silly money for US imports that are never going to be *that* successful, then leaving yourself high and dry with two of them when Sky One outbids you for season two.
  • Stop stealing shows from one another’s channels. Remember the outcry about Thames when it “stole” Dallas? It’s a free market, but how about building your own shows.
  • Don’t behave like a petulant four year old when negotiating which channels your competitor’s cable service can carry.
  • Just because BBC Four exists (for now), that doesn’t mean that BBC Two has to “dumb down” – step forward British Film Forever. This could have been a wonderful series, but is spoilt by a demeaning narration and spurious interviewees. The whole series is pitched at a level somewhere around the average Channel 4 list programme. Wasn’t it nice to see an episode of Civilisation over Stephen Fry weekend?
  • Prevent the seemingly likely severe cut backs in the budgets of such wonderful fare as Storyville, Timewatch, Horizon and other factual programming.
  • Let’s do something to combat the diminution of science on television. Guess what? Science is actually really really important.
  • Stop public service channels featuring a single reality show across upwards of a third of a year. Channel 4, you do realise that I avoid your channel during the whole of this period don’t you?
  • Explain exactly why BBC Three costs twice as much as BBC Four. Isn’t there enough television for 15-34s?