itunes

Dwindling Choices

A couple of weeks ago, Ofcom released its annual Communications Market Report. It’s always stuffed full of information about the UK media marketplace that can be fascinating to dissect.

In 2016, ownership of DVD players (including Blu Ray and games consoles with DVD functionality) was 67% of UK households. This year, it’s just 63% of households. That’s still most homes, but it’s indicative of the way that physical media is in decline as consumers move to streaming services.

Then yesterday, Amazon announced that it was closing Lovefilm. You may recall that Lovefilm was originally the UK’s version of Netflix in that it was a DVD rental by post business (Yes – that was Netflix’s original model too). Their basic service saw users renting films for a flat monthly fee and then posting them back when you’d watched them. In time, Lovefilm added a movie streaming service, so that by the time Amazon swooped in to buy them, it was the streaming service that Amazon was really interested in. That morphed into Amazon Prime Video, but the Lovefilm postal service remained.

And it still worked well, because unlike streaming services, customers had the ability to watch just about any film or TV series released on disc. That included classic films, genre titles and world film titles that never make it onto major streaming services.

And there’s the rub.

We have ownership of machines to play discs falling, and yet digital is not a direct replacement.

It’s all very well have a Netflix or Amazon Prime Video account, but those do not represent a full range of choice. In a Guardian piece bemoaning the death of Lovefilm, the author likened the film selection on the streaming services to the DVD selection in a petrol station. A handful of decent titles – all of which you’ve seen – and a load of trash you’d never want to watch.

That’s a little harsh, but it’s not far from the truth. Yes, the catalogues are slowly improving, but the reality is that on any given day, it’s hard for anyone to actually know what films are available on what services.

Distributors package up groups of films – some are good, some less so – and licence them to the online streamers for certain periods. That period might be measured in months, or it might be measured in years. By and large, the same film is unlikely to be streaming on both Amazon Prime Video and Netflix at the same time. So which do you buy? Both?

The reality is that the all-you-can-eat streaming services offer a fairly meagre range considering the vast breadth and wealth of cinema history. There are a few choice morsels alongside a lot of filler.

Furthermore, you can’t be certain on any given day, that a service you subscribe to will have the film you want to watch available to you.

Ah, but that’s OK. I can get everything else I want to watch from iTunes, Amazon Video (the rent-per-film part) or Google Play Video!

Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

If the film was pretty popular and released in the last twenty years or so, then yes, for around £4.49 for a rental, you probably can stream a copy, with luck in HD. But I think you’ll find there’s an awful lot missing.

Older films, classic films, mid-list films, genre films, TV series and many more.

Question for Film Distributors

If you’re a bit of a film fan like me, then from time to time you suddenly have the urge to watch a film. Assuming you don’t have your own Blu Ray or DVD copy to hand you head to the streaming services and search for it. Only to find it’s not there.

Why in 2017, is not a distributor’s entire catalogue online?

It seems to me that if you own the rights to a film, then you’re deliberately leaving money on the table if you do not at least make it available to purchase digitally in places like the iTunes and Google Play Video stores.

I’m not talking about things you’re holding back to repackage in various ways for maximum revenue – Disney, I’m looking at you!

I’m talking about average films, that if I wait long enough will pop-up once every couple of months on FilmFour or BBC2 anyway. I’m talking about solid mid-range titles, that once upon a time, I could happily find in physical format in a largish branch of HMV or the Virgin Megastore.

Here are a handful of films that I have genuinely wanted to stream but not been able to find on streaming services when I looked, all from within the last thirty years, and all currently or previously released on physical media.

  • Truly, Madly, Deeply
  • The Grifters
  • Rambling Rose
  • Enchanted April

If I started searching for older films then the list would get much longer much more quickly.

What I really don’t understand is that the costs of making catalogue movies available on these services is surely basically nil. You don’t even have to worry whether HMV will give up shelf space to a title, or Amazon warehouse space. You just list the film and let the money run in (or at least trickle in).

In 2017, if you’re a bit of a movie buff, then while the streaming services might sate your appetite a little, you’re not getting the full picture.

What you can’t do is draw an analogy with music. Spotify has a catalogue of ~30m tracks, so perhaps you could ditch your physical music collection and rely solely on their service (I wouldn’t personally, but many do). The same simply isn’t true for films, and we don’t seem to be close to that point.

Indeed if you don’t own a DVD or Blu Ray player, you’re limiting yourself enormously. And that’s before getting into the lack of extras that most streaming or download services offer.

As a consequence of all this, my physical film collection continues to grow.

iTunes 12.6.1.25 and Windows 10 Creators Update – A Possible Fix

This is really here as both to potentially help others, and for me to moan about the incompatibility of the current products of two of the biggest companies in computing.

I don’t really use iTunes any longer. I don’t have a personal iPhone, and my iPod Classic is now resting in retirement. These days my music collection (yes – I own, rather than rent) is stored on Google Play Music. They let you store up to 50,000 tracks. But I retain iTunes to rip the occasional CDs I buy (Yes – this is something I still do), and as a handy offline backup of all my music. My iTunes library sits on an external hard drive.

Now because of my low usage, I hadn’t recently opened iTunes. But a newly purchased copy of Burials In Several Earths by The Radiophonic Workshop meant that I needed to rip my new CDs. In this instance I usually fire up iTunes, and then grab the digital copy to upload to Google Play Music. Nice and simple.

But iTunes really wasn’t playing fair with me. It did load slowly the first time. But it then hung. I force shut the application and tried to relaunch it – without success. New Tasks were appearing in the Windows Task Manager but iTunes wasn’t working.

Eventually, after several reboots and failed attempts, I went for the uninstall option. For the record, despite iTunes installing with a single installer, you have to uninstall six separate applications. Then I reinstalled.

Still no luck.

I did notice that if I opened as an Administrator by right hand clicking, I could open iTunes. But that wouldn’t see my library which is stored on a network attached (NAS) drive. But I had succeeded in creating a new local library. Furthermore, I wasn’t now able to change library, because I couldn’t see a way to both launch as an Administrator, while holding Shift which is necessary if you want iTunes to open a different library. (Why, after so many years, you can’t choose to open a new library inside iTunes, I don’t know.)

By now I was Googling for solutions. But of course there are thousands of people who’ve had problems with iTunes over the years. I did find some suggestions to try an older version of iTunes. One person seemed to have had success with 12.5.5.5 from January. But having uninstalled and reinstalled it didn’t work for me. Furthermore, it couldn’t even open a library from a more recent version of iTunes.

More Googling finally showed that it seems to be a problem with the recently released Windows 10 Creators’ Update. Now while this hasn’t been pushed out to most machines yet, I had recently downloaded it from Microsoft. This is, after all, the big Spring update. And they’ve already announced a second update for later in the year. It’s been through the beta channels and is theoretically ready for prime-time.

But that doesn’t seem to be true.

For me, the solution came from this page on Microsoft’s site.

You have to kill the Bluetooth Tray Application (BTTray.exe). I did this just by launching Task Manager (Ctrl – Alt – Delete > Task Manager), finding the application and closing it. I should point out that I use both a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard with my laptop. Closing this application didn’t stop them working. However if I permanently disabled the app, I’m not sure if this would help. In any case, I do like to be able to use Bluetooth.

Fortunately for me, I use the hated iTunes little enough to be able to cope with this small inconvenience. But clearly something isn’t right if the current versions of iTunes for Windows and the latest version of Windows 10 don’t work together.

I assume that it will be sorted in due course. But in the meantime, perhaps this will help someone or other.

The Tow Center Guide to Podcasting

Headphones in Studio 2

There’s a terrific new report that the Tow Center for Digital Journalism – an institute within the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. It has published called A Guide to Podcasting. It’s an unashemedly US-centric view of the podcasting market in 2015, detailing the history of the medium, and presenting a series of case studies of big US podcasting operators.

It’s well worth a read if you’re curious to see where podcasting stands today.

The report is long, and I’m not going to go into it in full. Instead I thought I’d pull out a few key findings, and add some of my own thoughts to them. Some of them are things I’ve talked about before, but in each instance, I think they’re especially worthy of note.

The massive skew in mobile podcast consumption towards iPhones. The Tow document quotes a LibSync report that shows that there is currently a 5.4 to 1 ratio in favour of iOS devices over Android ones in the mobile market. Whereas the report notes that there something like one billion Android devices set against 470m iPhones.

I’ve stolen this wonderful (US focused) chart which illustrates this perfectly.

PODCAST15_clammrfuture_android

Note that this report seems to have been written before Google announced its entry into the podcasting market. But the report does note that there’d be likely to be developments between the report being completed and it being published. The Gimlet case study also misses out on their recent second round of funding.

67% of US podcaster are aged 18-34. They know how to use the technology. It’s not that it doesn’t appeal to other audiences as my septuagenarian father can attest, once he knew how to use the BBC iPlayer Radio app on his tablet. So it’ll be interesting to see how ages broaden out as podcasting increases. In the meantime, the 18-34 audience is one radio broadcasters are very worried about losing.

Podcasting really needs to broaden its user base. The previous two points are key parts of that – growing users beyond one type of phone, and getting those aged over 35 to listen. And the current audience can only listen to so many podcasts – something my inordinately sized PocketCasts library can attest to. Indeed the report suggests that it’s just six podcasts on average per week.

Slow and steady growth. As the report makes clear, podcasting has been around for a long time, and it’s had its moment in the sun before Serial came along (Season 2 out now!). The report includes a chart that shows podcasting as having had slow and steady growth since its inception.

The report goes on to note that the Serial phenomenom actually happened at time when the iPhone podcast app had just been separated out in iOS as its own app, and as the wider media was covering podcasts more. Both of these will have given it a healthy push.

I’d compare podcasting growth to UK DAB growth which has also been slow and steady rather than explosive as some consumer technologies have been. I wonder if this is a factor of audio? It’s not quite as sexy as video, but we still like it.

Searching for podcasts is an overall bad experience. iTunes is not great at surfacing podcasts beyond ones that are either popular according to its secret algorithm, or the handful that iTunes’ editors choose to feature on their site. Other podcast providers have similar issues.

The popular example of a company who manages this well is Netflix and its ability to aid viewer discovery. I’m not sure that’s the best answer – my experience is that all sorts of rubbish gets thrown at me. But I do hear very positive things about Spotify’s Discover playlist with regard to music listening.

Instead podcasters have to rely on social sharing and working within their own networks. Thus both Serial and Gimlet’s Startup launched by being included in the This American Life podcast feed.

That’s an opportunity only avaialble to a very limited number of podcasts and not at all available to those outside, say, US public radio circles. On the other hand it greatly aids those burgeoning podcast networks like Panoply and Gimlet. They can properly support and promote their own shows. An independent producer is going to struggle unless they have the budget to buy promotional airtime on those same shows – a route to market that others have taken.

One of the most exciting elements of Google enterting the podcasting space is what it can do with search. As well as utilising metadata, it’d be interesting to see if voice-to-text technology as utilised by Google Now, Siri and Amazon’s Fire and Echo devices, could be set to work on podcasts to provide more context for audio files, and enable discovery.

In car listening has its place. Cars are important, but it’s worth noting that while 44% of US radio listening is in car (according to a 2014 Macquarie Capital report), in other markets that aren’t as car-centric, it’s much less. For example it’s only 20% of radio listening that happens in-car in the UK. And in any case, new technology added in the car today doesn’t fully flow through the Car Parq (the industry term for all the cars on the road) for a number of years to come – 11 years on average in the US. In other words, just because a new off the assembly line car today comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, it’s going to take a while before everyone has the ability to seamlessly stream audio in their cars without a combination of 3.5mm jack leads, Bluetooth connectivity or even FM re-transmitters.

Data issues. Not only are mobile podcasts disproportionately listened to by iPhones/iOS devices, but the bulk of traffic is delivered via iTunes – 70% is claimed in the report. That’s both a blessing and a curse. Apple was a very early supporter of podcasting, and therefore everyone should be thankful for them. On the other hand, they have the whip hand when it comes to data. Advertisers would like more data, as would podcast producers. I’m certain Apple could provide additional data were they to choose to, but that would involve changes in user agreements and generally it’d be doing work for little to no reward. (Plus nobody needs and even longer iTunes User Agreement!)

The report notes that Apple’s most recent iOS update actually favours streaming over download, with the latter taking an additional click to play back. Streaming, of course, provides more data than consumption of a “dumb” mp3 file.

Meanwhile, as well as adding dynamic advertising into podcasts at time of delivery, another area that is being developed according to the report, is the use of tracking pixels. Now I must admit that I’m unclear how this will work. Ordinarily such pixels are used to track digital advertising in web environments where there is live data. So a hidden pixel is delivered and the fact that it was shown means that you have some data about where and when it was delivered. But pure podcasts are simply mp3 files. While they might have “album artwork” embedded within them, I’m not aware that this would allow for any tracking. Indeed, when you’re listening to an mp3 offline, there simply isn’t a feedback mechanism.

Within bespoke apps this might be possible, and certainly platforms like Spotify employ it, although the free version of Spotify which displays advertising requires internet access.

Yet both Panoply, who have purchased the Audiometric software platform, and Acast are both talking about this technology. I’m curious to learn more.

Direct and foundation support is more normal in the US. Most US public television and radio is partly funded by viewers and listeners. The audience is regularly asked to dig deep and contribute. If you enjoy these programmes, then you need to pay is the message. That’s why this has been a key way a number of podcasts have supported themselves using a direct funding model.

But this is not something that’s “normal” in Britain and elsewhere. If there’s a pledge drive happening on TV or radio, it’s for charity. For some, it’s actually a bit “embarrassing” and runs against the traditional stiff-upper-lip attitude we have as a nation.

Now it’s certainly true that the landscape is changing, and more people are getting more comfortable asking for monetary support.

There is not really a history of foundations supporting radio and television services. These foundations just don’t exist in the same way in the UK, where spending of that type might instead be focused on visual or performing arts. Instead, across Europe, much public radio is supported by various forms of licence fee. Notably the UK television licence pays for all BBC Radio as well as BBC TV and other services. This is undoubtedly changing as podcast listening is not limited by borders (Hence I hear all sorts of advertising for products that are unavailable to me). And Radiotopia’s fundraising success internationally was such that it saw fit to hold supporters parties in various parts of Europe.

But philanthropy tends to reveal itself in different ways in different countries – so the US model does not necessarily work internationally.

Podcasters need to own their direct relationships with the audience. This is an important one. The case study on the Reveal podcast makes this point well. Obviously podcasts do have a relationship between themselves and their listeners, but they don’t own it. Without direct intervention, a podcast producer does not know who you are. And that places them at something of a disadvantage.

When you hear a podcast urge you to sign up for an email newsletter, like them on Facebook or even follow them on Twitter, that’s because these are they only ways they can form a relationship with you. As it stands, that relationship is actually “owned” by the podcasting platform – so Apple in all likelihood.

The reason that magazine and newspaper publishers have always been so keen on you taking out a subscription is not just that they have a guaranteed form of income, but that they get to add a name to their database. And they can develop a direct relationship from there. That could be selling additional products and services, or learning more about the audience.

Indeed a podcast producer needs to think, “What would happen if for some reason Apple shut down podcasts tomorrow?”

No, they’re not going to do it. But they could. It would be a painful, and very probably expensive business rebuilding that audience.

The only podcast I can think of that I subscribe to that knows who I am is The Cycling Podcast, because I’ve paid to become a premium member. They have my email address.

It’s the same argument some news providers have had with Apple – sometimes falling out with them. Apple owns the relationship (and takes a healthy cut of subscription revenues). The middleman has the keys to the castle.

In subscription television, the same is often true. It’s why BT Sport went around quite a convuluted route to get Sky viewers to register directly with them to enable the BT Sports channel rather than the less painful route of adding the channel via a few clicks of the remote control. Now BT knows who those Sky subscribers are. If they hadn’t taken that route, they’d have just known how many subscribers they had.

And finally, if you know who your customers are, you can also more easily shift platforms should you ever wish or need to in the future.

The ethics of podcast advertising is not straightforward. There was a very good recent episode of Gimlet’s Startup podcast looking at money and in particular what the company would and wouldn’t do. It’s really worth listening to if you’re interested in this area, as it explores many of the issues. Indeed Gimlet has always been very upfront about how they work advertising into their podcasts.

In the US, the most effective type of podcast advertising has proved to be presenter-read adverts. They tend to be delivered in the same tone as the overall podcast rather than from a specific script. The way the advertising is weaved into different podcasts can vary a good deal – the listener sometimes only belatedly realising that they’re actually hearing an ad. Sometimes specific music is used, or words along the lines of, “And now we must thank another sponsor…” But neither of these are always the case.

The presenter-read model can also lead to a lot of implied endorsement of products. Perhaps the presenter has indeed used the product and strongly recommends it. But are we certain? Indeed an earlier season one Startup episode also examined this area.

And what happens if a product maybe isn’t best-in-class? Their money is still good though…

Another “ethical” question is the use of native podcasts, or ad-funded podcasts. This kind of advertising is considered both very effective and profitable. There are clearly lots of companies now interested in having podcasts made for them.

But how do they get promoted? What’s the mechanism for launching them? Do you drop them into your regular programme feed? Or should potential subscribers be pushed in another direction?

If you ask different people these questions, the recent Startup episode suggests you’ll get different answers.

The current case to look at is The Message, which is paid for by GE and produced by Panoply. It’s an SF drama delivered in the guise of a presenter-led podcast. I’m not aware that the full podcast was placed in any other Panoply streams. Instead there were a number of promotional trails (in radio parlance) and ads promoting the series.

But it seems clear that there are no firm rules across the full podcasting environment and what some people will do, others will be uncomfortable doing.

Networks – them and us. The way things are working at the moment, the big networks are best suited to prospering. But what about smaller or independent podcasts? Is there a way through?

The beauty of podcasting originally was that it’s very cheap and easy to do. You can make a professional sounding podcast with an inexpensive microphone, a laptop and free editing software.

But in many ways podcast networks are raising the game. They have more resources, they have sales teams to sell advertising, and they can cross-promote their own new podcasts.

If you’re not part of a big network or broadcaster, you probably are at a disadvantage. You’re not out of the game – but like indie films versus studio blockbusters, or independently published books versus those from major publishers, you’ve got your work cut out for you. On the other hand, there are ways through.

More disruption in types of podcast is needed. It does feel like too many podcasts are just public radio programmes that might have previously existed given a fair wind and a friendly commissioner. There surely needs to be a wider range of podcasts dealing with a broader set of interests? Currently many of the more popular podcasts can feel very middle class. And that’s not surprising because it does seem like every half-decent producer in the US who was working for public radio has been poached by a podcast producer or network!

This isn’t necessarily true of all podcast types, but I tend to think it is true of the bigger shows in terms of listeners and awareness.

Finally the Tow Center report is also accompanied by a very smart interactive timeline telling the podcast story from a US perspective.

BBC Store – Initial Thoughts

After much ballyhoo, the BBC Store is finally with us, and well, um, it sells downloads and streams.

You buy episodes rather than rent them – although the prices are much of a muchness really with television. And then you play them back via the web, or in due course, mobile apps. To be honest, I’m surprised that the apps aren’t there at launch, but we’re told they’re coming.

Now it’s true that the BBC Store doesn’t offer particularly better value than other retail outlets. A few comparisons:

– Fawlty Towers costs £15.98 for two series on BBC Store, £14.99 on iTunes and £9 on DVD at Amazon
– Yes Minister costs £24.99 for three series on BBC Store, £9.99 on iTunes and £14.50 on Amazon (but you get two series of Yes Prime Minister in that boxset too!)
– Edge of Darkness costs £7.99 on BBC Store, £5.99 on iTunes, while the DVD is £4.17 on Amazon (an utter bargain whichever way)
– Planet Earth costs £10.99 for SD and £12.99 for HD on BBC Store, and the same pricing in iTunes, while the DVD is £7.71 and BluRay £10.90 on Amazon

(Note: I’ve not factored in the current 25% off they’re offering for introductory purchases)

Essentially the BBC isn’t able to undercut its rivals by selling programmes cheaper, but this random selection shows that it’s mostly more expensive.

However, if all of that sounds negative, then there is always the great redeeming feature of finding something you thought would never otherwise be available to buy.

I doubt that the current Helen Czerski series on BBC Four about Colour would have ever been made available to buy on disc, yet you can buy a download on BBC Store for a very reasonable £4.99 for the series.

Similarly episodes of BBC Four series Timeshift on some very esoteric subjects are also available to own; whereas they’d never have been made available to buy on physical media. Although it’s a shame that I can only see one episode of Arena (they claim two), which is the recent Nicolas Roeg edition, when I know there’s such a rich history to that series.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that there’s anyone alive who needs to own one of the 248 episodes (at time of writing) of Bargain Hunt that are available to own for £1.89 a pop, unless you actually appeared in it. In which case, didn’t you either record it at the time, or get the production company to send you a copy? But fill your boots otherwise!

Casualty isn’t the kind of series that regularly got DVD releases either, but there are 137 episodes (at time of writing) up for grabs if you just can’t get enough Charlie.

And every episode of Eastenders since August 2014 is there to buy too. (And there are over 400 episodes of Doctors come to that!)

I would imagine that the cost of adding programmes to the BBC Store is low, so putting these episodes online is probably near automatic and for the few devotees who do want to buy individual episodes then there’s minimal cost to stocking these programmes and selling them to those who want to own them. That’s the beauty of digital.

The store does let you know when episodes are still available to watch free of charge on iPlayer which is good, because episodes can reach the store as soon as they’ve aired.

Programmes usually include subtitling and occasionally sign language – almost certainly a rarity. And there is a parental lock available on programmes labelled as such. I must admit that I find these things fairly arbitrary – either being unrated (family friendly) or “G.” Who knows what determines a “G” rating?

But there are a few problems.

We’re promised mobile apps will follow, although I’d have thought that they should have been there for launch. And I can’t access my programmes from within the TV app versions of iPlayer right now. I can however reach them from the regular iPlayer site within My Programmes > Purchases. Again, we’re promised that this will be fixed in due course. This is all a bit unfortunate because I like to watch TV on, well, my television. I ended up using the Windows 10 app, and outputting the pictures via Micro DisplayPort on my PC to HDMI on my TV. All a bit messy really. Incidentally, there was a free Fast Show offer for users of the Windows 10 app.

It doesn’t make clear anywhere whether episodes are in HD or not – you have to click on a price before it tells you. Clearly that won’t be the case for older archive material, but it’d be nice to know from just looking at the programme that it is available in HD. I also don’t like the practice of hiding higher HD prices behind lower SD ones. Sky is also guilty of this.

And while we’re told that HD is at least 720p, my TV is capable of more than that. I’d like to know that I’m getting 1080p if the programme was made in HD, as I would if I bought a BluRay.

There’s a serious lack of meta data behind the store from what I can see. I can’t search by actor, writer or director, unless the store has already created a section for them – so I can search for Benedict Cumberbatch or Dennis Potter, but few others. That’s a big miss as both Netflix and Amazon realise a lot of people look for things starring particular people. It would be great for finding “before they were famous” appearances in Casualty and the like.

I did find some pricing oddities including a Timeshift episode priced at £1.89 for SD and £12.99 for HD! Definitely a mistake, and in any case, it’s a bit dubious having increased HD prices for a series made up largely of SD archive material anyway that for the most part has just been upscaled to HD.

The FAQ on the BBC Store downloader only mentions Windows 7 to Windows 8.1. They might want to mention Windows 10 – even just pointing you to the app (I searched for it in the Microsoft Store). Similarly OSX stops at 10.10 with no mention of the now current 10.11. And the use of Microsoft SilverLight for offline downloads is a serious disappointment since it’s no longer being actively developed by Microsoft, and support is beginning to be removed from major browsers as most video streamers move to newer technologies.

One download device per account is very stingy. Let’s hope that’s upped when mobile apps come along otherwise it’s unsustainable.

There are also issues around descriptions of programmes. It’s nice that I can buy BBC Proms concerts, but I’d probably have to go somewhere else to get a bit more information:

Episode 13: Friday Night at the Proms: Bernard Haitink Conducts
4 Sep 2015 120 mins
Schubert’s Italian Overture and Ninth Symphony, and Mozart’s A major Piano Concerto.

I’d also like to know the orchestra, and it wouldn’t be hard to include a bit of additional detail in there from the Proms website.

I note that they’re steering clear of allowing user reviews.

And of course everything is full of DRM meaning that long term, I can’t be certain I’ll have continued access. From the help section:

We cannot guarantee that you will be able to stream or download content that’s in My Programmes forever. However, when our right to make content available is due to expire, we will do our upmost to inform you of this by email so that you have the opportunity to download and then continue to playback the content through the BBC Store Download Manager.

If I had DRM free copies of course, I could make them part of my back-up regime, and should the BBC Store ever close down, I wouldn’t lose anything, or be reliant on technology that might have limited or no future support. This is the key issue with all DRM-d media, and it’s why for the most part I continue to purchase physical copies ahead of DRM-filled downloads. Even though there is encryption on DVDs and BluRays, they can be ripped, and I can maintain access once players become redundant (I confess, I’m not looking forward to days of ripping however).

But I will forgive an awful lot when I find a series I’ve been after for years, is now available to buy on the BBC Store. In this instance I’m talking about Tender is the Night, the 1985 Dennis Potter adaptation of the F Scott Fitzgerald novel with Mary Steenburgen and Peter Strauss. I’ve longed to be able to get hold of a copy of this, and missed the recent BFI screening. Curiously the series is not listed in the Dennis Potter section of the store.

For me, issues surrounding pricing and playback options at launch can be mitigated by depth of catalogue. So let’s see BBC Store add more classic material to its output. I’d like to see things that aren’t currently available on DVD or BluRay, but have never been released before.

So dig deep into the archive and surprise me! (And get those mobile and smart TV apps sorted out.)

Note: Prices correct on 20 November 2015 when I wrote this.

[To readers of James Cridland’s Future of Radio newsletter – welcome! I should point out that the BBC still has a BBC Shop – it sells physical discs and, er, Doctor Who Christmas jumpers. BBC Store is their online only operation. Interestingly when Google first opened their online offering in the UK they localised it to be the “Google Shop.” They subsequently reverted back to Google Store. Yes, it’s Americanised, but I’m not sure that it’s not the right name for a digital outlet.]

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.

Top Tips for Podcasters

An upfront disclaimer: I’ve never made or distributed a podcast. However, I have been listening to them for many years – from a variety of providers.

Since podcasting is suddenly the hot new thing, some ten years after the name was first coined (and yes, I’m aware that they’re older than that), I thought I’d run through a little list of simple things that people could do to make their podcasts a little better. Not so much the audio – although there’s that too – but the process around it. And yes, I’ve come across all of these things since the start of 2015.

1. Make sure you have an RSS feed.

You might not really understand what one of these is, and despite them being very smart and versatile, it feels that many others have no idea either. But they’re essential if you plan to have anyone listen to more than a single episode of your podcast. So you need one, and you should make it visible. That allows people on mobile especially to add your podcast to their podcast apps.

2. If you’re using SoundCloud to host your podcast, then get on their, still beta, podcasting programme.

This is the same as #1 really. It gives you an RSS feed, which is essential for people subscribing to your podcast. Linking to your SoundCloud page is not good enough. That just lets me listen in a browser, which is not the most convenient way of listening.

3. A link to the iTunes store page of your podcast is not good enough.

Unless your podcast is aimed solely at Apple users, you need to have a page somewhere – probably a website – that points, yes to iTunes, but also to your RSS feed. Because although you and all your friends listen on iPhones, most of the world doesn’t have one, and you might like them to listen too. In any case…

4. You probably also want to have a stream available to listen via a PC somewhere on a website.

According to one recent piece I read, 40% of popular podcasts can still be delivered via direct streams. Aside from anything else, having a website gives you a place to link to when you’re directing people to back episodes, or to put detailed show notes and relevant links. There is no easy way to share podcasts across ecosystems at the moment, so directing other users via your site is perhaps the best way. So an individual page for each podcast you make is a good idea.

And vitally, this also makes your show properly searchable. You do want people to find you via Google don’t you? (If you really wanted to go to town, then including a transcript of your show would be awesome, but also enormously time-consuming until technology can make a decent fist of it anyway, or there was a script in the first place).

5. Include show notes in your podcast.

There’s a place for them, and ideally they should say more than the name of your podcast. Different podcast players use or don’t use them to greater or lesser extents. But since you’re putting together some text for a page on the website (see #4 above), then put this in the show notes too. This should include links to other things you were talking about on your show. If you have advertisers then they’ll like you for linking to them too!

6. Make some artwork – and put some words in it.

Create a show logo for your podcast. We live in a visual world, and people will judge you a bit by your logo, so if you’re not able to make one, find someone who can make one for you. You can actually also create episode images which may be worthwhile, although not all podcast apps will make use of them. But be sure to include the name of your podcast in the logo. When a user is browsing visually in a podcasting app, they’re often presented with a sea of tiles, so ensure that your podcast is identifiable in that sea. You may think your logo is instantly identifiable, but to be honest, you’re not Coca Cola are you? So it really isn’t. For bonus points, ensure that what you call it in your logo matches what you call it in the text. This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised…

7. Unless there’s a very good reason, keep your podcasts alive in perpetuity.

To be honest, you’re probably going out of your way if you’re not making them permanently available. But it’s worth remembering that unless you’re already massive, there’s going to be a long-tail discovering your previous episodes, and depending on the timeliness of what your podcast is about, they may remain relevant for months or years.

Of course there may be rights arrangemnts that prevent this, or your may choose to monetise your back catalogue in some other way. But if you’re not doing those things, then why not make them permanently available?

8. Nobody is really happy with the name, and quite a few people aren’t happy with the technology, but don’t try to rebrand podcasts on your own.

You know who you are.

9. Can we all agree to ‘level’ our podcasts the same please?

This is getting better as production skills are improving, but nobody really wants to be dialling their volume up and down between different podcasts. There are lots of places online that will explain this.

10. Have you optimised the audio of your podcast?

Does your podcast need to be stereo? Does your mp3 need to be 320k? The answer to those questions will depend on what your podcast actually contains. But broadly speaking, if it’s simply two people speaking, then you probably don’t really need to be making a stereo podcast, so downmix it to mono, and save bandwidth for all concerned. On the other hand, if your podcast is all about music (and you have the appropriate rights to include it), then leave it as stereo and at a decent compression level.

Oh, and if you’re planning on dropping the occassional video into your podcast stream, think twice about including a 30 minute 1080p clip in your feed. It might look lovely on your tablet, but it’s going to fill a lot of your listeners’ smartphones, and they may not appreciate a 0.5GB video on their 16GB smartphone without warning.

Podcast Numbers – Does Serial Tell Us Anything?

In a world where there are so many metrics available, there’s often a curious shortage of figures in some parts of the tech industry where you’d like there to be. Amazon won’t tell you how many Kindles its sold. Netflix won’t say how many episodes of House of Cards it has streamed. And so on.

So it’s interesting to read today that Apple has said that it has delivered over 5m downloads or streams of Serial so far. This is the fastest ever podcast to reach that number. But what does that really say?

Well so far there have been 8 episodes of Serial, so if everyone who used iTunes to listen to Serial, dutifully listened to each episode, that’d mean 625,000 downloads of each episode.

In reality, I suspect that the first episode has been delivered more than any other. Despite it being “the Breaking Bad of radio,” not everyone will get on with it and might drop out after a handful of episodes.

Here’s a possible breakdown of listening by episode based on nothing more than random guesswork taking that thesis into account:

One way or another, I expect the chart would look more like this than a fist line.

This does of course ignore the fact that once subscribed, you might not unsubscribe and just ignore podcasts piling up on your device. They still get credited as a download.

But unfortunately, in the scheme of things, we don’t really know what this all means. While Serial has been sitting at the top of the US and UK iTunes podcast chart for the last couple of months, that doesn’t really tell you anything.

iTunes tries to keep its podcast charts dynamic. If it didn’t, then the top performers would fill the slots repeatedly. So it’s never a question of just how many podcasts have been downloaded over a given time period, but they inject some secret sauce into their formula that almost certainly looks at the rate of growth of a particular podcast, and factor that in too.

And it’s important to note that not all podcasts are delivered via iTunes. You can stream many podcasts direct from the websites of those podcasts, and if you’re using a phone – particularly a non-iPhone – there are any number of podcast apps that you might use to download your listening. Stitcher is one popular one. I currently use Pocket Casts on Android for my own listening. But there are many others.

Depending on your own set-up, if you have your own podcast, you might be able to get your analytics software to determine where your audience is coming from. iTunes is almost certainly the biggest single delivery mechanism, but others are important too, even if cumulatively.

But how does your podcast compare with others out there? Well that’s where you run into difficulties. Certainly you can look at the iTunes podcast charts, but they’re flawed as I’ve mentioned.

Now however, you can look to see whether your last eight podcasts have delivered 5 million downloads or streams via iTunes. If they have then congratulations – your podcast is as big as Serial. Why haven’t I read about it in the weekend broadsheet press?

And if your last eight podcasts were delivered 50,000 times in total by iTunes, then congratulations – your podcasts is 1% the size Serial. We do at least have a comparator!

Podcasting – What Next?

Tomorrow evening, there’s a Radio Academy event taking place in London looking at podcasting. As I’ve written previously, you always feel that podcasting is the perennial bridesmaid and never the bride in the digital media, and digital audio world.

I suppose I’ve been thinking a little more about it recently because one of my favourite podcasts has stopped production. The Guardian recently ceased its regular weekly Media Talk podcast, for reasons never quite specified. One can imagine that it was financial though, with the podcast taking some time, and perhaps more importantly some production money to make each week. And in return, they were probably seeing little direct financial benefit. Sadly it does sometimes feel that the only people who truly believe in podcast advertising over time have been Audbible, and latterly Squarespace. And those deals are almost certainly all direct response.

As my past piece said, there are some fundamental issues with making money from podcasting, and I can only think that these are partially the reason why the Guardian made its decision.

Media podcasts interlude

As for Media Talk? Well it’s reappeared in an entirely unrelated guise as The Media Podcast. But there’s a difference – Matt Hill who produces it, and previously produced the Guardian’s podcast, has decided that crowdfunding is the way forward. He’s duly launched a Kickstarter to make a year’s supply of programmes. That’s actually a pretty modest £9,000 that he’s trying to raise. Nobody is getting rich off the back of this, but it costs money to host audio and find studio space.

Anyway, at time of writing they’re at about a third of the money needed, with just sixteen days to go. So get over there and give it some love. While we all enjoy The Media Show on Radio 4, they’re much drier, and sometimes spend just a bit too much time on certain subjects (Yes – I’m talking about a replacement for the PCC. Honestly, thinking of news media as just the press is so outdated. Never mind what happens if The Sun prints something untrue, what about if Buzzfeed gets it wrong?). And obviously, the programme was certainly “inspired” by hearing the Guardian’s podcast.

Anyway, let’s have some choice. (And yes, I know there’s the Media Focus podcast too!)

What next?

Given the need for advertisers to have some kind of proof of delivery – regardless of whether or not those digital ads they are buying are actually delivered – and The Ad Contrarian is well worth a read on this – it does seem leave the idea of ad-supported podcasting in something of a flux, with its lack of proof-of-delivery. Indeed it’s sometimes a worry that a new release of iTunes might actually push podcasting down in their hieracrchy. For an example of this look how iTunes Radio has become “Radio”, while actual broadcast radio services became “Internet Radio”.

Assuming that it costs me to make a podcast, and ideally I’d like to at least cover my costs, employ talent and production people to make it properly, and invest in kit to deliver a decent audio quality, and pay for my hosting, even a modest means of making money would be great.

So what’s to be done?

Well I suspect that podcasting will never be completely mainstream, but it can be super-niche. And that doesn’t mean that those super-niche audiences shouldn’t be considered very valuable. They can be very valuable indeed. A year or two ago, I was producing a session for the Radio Festival and that session’s speaker was Google’s Matt Britten, VP for Northern and Central Europe. It turned out that he listened to Media Talk – a valuable listener indeed.

And it was interesting to hear Emily Bell in the final edition of the Guardian’s podcast suggest that there’s been something of a resurgence in the form in the US. Incidently, the much suggested Slate Money podcast with Felix Salmon is an excellent addition to my listening. Slate is obviously ad-funded, but they also have a listener subscription scheme to remove the ads and for some of their podcasts, add additional segments.

Slate’s subscriptions are voluntary, but another option is that taken by Velocast, a cycling podcast I’ve listened to in the past. They offer a selection of cycling podcasts based on a monthly fee. It seems to be a successful plan, although I must admit that I currently only hear the free daily news edition they put out.

Rumour has it that Apple is trying to help boost its podcast section of iTunes. They could provide some generic information about how much people actually listen to the podcasts, and other metrics that they almost certainly have from their iOS device usage stats. While that would only be part of the overall podcast audience – ignoring usage on other operating systems such as Android, and usage in apps outside of iTunes (e.g. Stitcher) – it would still be very indicative, and might help podcasters monetise their productions.

So is the future for podcasting bright or not?

I don’t know.

Looking beyond the regular ad-supported model does feel to be the way to go right now. And perhaps in a world where every part of the internet is trying to support itself with advertising, that’s right.

Overall, I’m modestly upbeat.