Bauer Launching Scala Radio with Simon Mayo

UK radio really is quite exciting at the moment!

Bauer has just announced the launch of Scala Radio, a new classical music station which will launch digitally on the 4th March 2019.

Simon Mayo is the big name signing. He’s been keeping everyone guessing about where he might be going since he left Radio 2 at the end of last year. Would he be joining Chris Evans at Virgin? Or taking over breakfast on Smooth?

Neither. Instead he’ll be on Scala Radio which is positioning itself as a ground-breaking classical entertainment radio station, offering classical music for modern life.

Mayo’s show will be weekdays between 10am and 1pm, and will feature interviews and features like “Classical Confessions.” (That 1pm finish should allow him plenty of time for him to get across Oxford Street from Golden Square to New Broadcasting House for his 2pm film show with Mark Kermode.)

Interestingly, Kermode is also going to have a show on the station exploring film music. Other presenters will include Angellica Bell, Goldie, Chris Rogers, Charles Nove, Mark Forrest, Sam Hughes and Jamie Crick. Both Forrest and Crick have previously been presenters on Classic FM. There’s no specific mention about who’ll be on breakfast.

Bauer says the station will be on national DAB and available via all the usual streaming methods. A couple of days ago, Bauer removed Heat from the SDL national multiplex, so it would seem likely that this is where Scala Radio will go. But unless they broadcast in DAB+, expect the service to be mono on DAB.

It’ll be really interesting to see what kind of audience Bauer is targeting with this new station. I’ve often pointed out that although the incumbent classical music stations, Radio 3 and Classic FM would seem to target the same audiences, they don’t really.

Crossover between Classic FM and Radio 3 audiences, RAJAR Q3 2018.

As the chart above shows, Classic FM has the larger audience, but only a relatively small proportion of either station’s audience listens to the other station. And both Classic FM and Radio 3 have fairly stable audiences.

So the question is, where will Scala Radio fit?

Well the average age of a Classic FM listener is 56, while that of a Radio 3 listener is 59. So my guess would be targeting a slightly younger demographic, and possibly a little less ABC1.

Age demographics – RAJAR, Q3 2018
Sex and class demographics – RAJAR, Q3 2018

Depending on how broadly you define “classical” music, then there might be room for reaching a younger demographic. Bauer’s press release name-checks living composers like Karl Jenkins, Rebecca Dale, and Thom Yorke (of Radiohead), as well as long dead ones like Mozart and Holst.

I suspect that the popularity of Simon Mayo will give Scala Radio a good bit of help in getting the station off the ground and running early on. But as with Virgin Radio it will be interesting to see how much marketing Bauer puts behind this station. As the Wireless Group has done with News UK titles, Bauer has a wide range of sister magazines it can use to give market the station. Simon Mayo was getting an audience on over 6m on his Radio 2 drivetime show, and while that kind of audience would be beyond the wildest dreams of Bauer, it’ll be really interesting to see what it does do.

Radio really is quite exciting at the moment! The Deloitte report published last week, that was very positive about radio, doesn’t seem to be wrong.

PS. The name is interesting. La Scala is obviously the very famous opera house in Milan. But to me The Scala is a theatre near King’s Cross that used to show cult films, but now is mostly a music/club venue. Mark Kermode mentions it frequently on his and Mayo’s film programme.

Breakfast Show Sponsorship

In his first breakfast show on Virgin Radio this morning, Chris Evans is reported to have said:

“This show will be commercial free for at least the next 100 years…”

That would suggest that, at least as far as Evans is concerned, that his new breakfast show is not going to be taking ads for quite some time. I’d previously hypothesised that Wireless Group’s strategy of not running advertising spots during the show would last until perhaps August or September this year once the Q2 RAJAR figures had come in. At that point, the show would [probably] be posting decent numbers and advertisers would want to be there. At launch, the only numbers that Virgin has to trade on are so small, that giving up advertising is probably worth it from a marketing perspective.

You will recall that Sky is the sponsor of his new show, and interestingly, Sky is credited in the advertising surrounding the show – something that is normal for TV sponsorship, but rarer with radio sponsorship. (I once suggesting adding a small sponsor’s logo to an upcoming breakfast show outdoor campaign to show willing to the sponsor, and was considered a lunatic for even countenancing it!)

Sponsorship and promotions – or branded content – is a major part of overall commercial radio revenues. It accounted for £110m in 2017. As a result, a number of the leading UK commercial breakfast shows have sponsors – often more than one, if you also consider weather, traffic and travel, and sports sponsorship opportunities.

For example, Absolute Radio’s breakfast show has, for many years, been sponsored by Wickes, while Magic’s breakfast show is sponsored by Bensons for Beds.

As the poster displayed above shows, Virgin Radio’s marketing is going big on the benefits of being ad break free. The question then, is how is this sustainable?

Getting accurate sponsorship revenues is notoriously tricky, and precise figures tend to be closely guarded secrets. For a big ticket breakfast show with a sizeable audience, a sponsorship deal is likely to surpass £1m a year, although how much it surpasses that figure is going to be down to a lot of other things, not least of which is the size of the audience. Radio advertising executives will create detailed promotional plans that give advertising buyers details of how frequently their messaging will be heard, not only during the show itself, but in other dayparts, calculating the overall audience size. Recall too, that this new incarnation of Virgin Radio has launched a couple of sister services – Virgin Radio Anthems and Virgin Radio Chilled – that will also carry the show. Beyond all that, there will have been discussions about how deeply the sponsorship is integrated into the show, and how the sponsor might be involved in other promotional activity.

Interestingly, during Chris Evans’ first show, alongside a multitude of guests that included Cold Feet star Fay Ripley and musician Richard Ashcroft, Evans also had comedians Rob Beckett and Romesh Ranganathan who star in a new Sky One six-parter. They also had a sports guest on the phone, one Gary Neville, a football pundit who is contracted to Sky Sports.

These are all quite legitimate guests for any show one way or another, but Sky integration seems likely to feature heavily.

How much is Sky paying for all of this?

Who knows. It’s rumoured that Wireless Group were out pitching sponsorship of the Evans show at a very high number indeed. A particularly healthy seven figure fee – and certainly substantially more than any other UK commercial sponsorship opportunities. Of course, any good salesperson starts pitching high, so who knows at what price it was actually sold for. But the fact that it was being pitched also suggests that although Sky was until relatively recently a sister company of News UK (owner of Wireless Group and Virgin Radio), Sky’s advertising agency probably still took a close look at what the Evans show is truly worth.

It’s also worth noting that for many years, Sky has been a strong supporter of commercial radio, and sponsorship has been a key part of that support. It sponsored Absolute Radio’s breakfast for many years, and has also been a major sponsor on Talksport.

Sky is the third biggest sponsor in UK commercial radio spending an estimated £16.8m in the year to November 2018 according to Nielsen figures published by Radiocentre. That places it as the third biggest spender in UK radio, very slightly behind McDonald’s and BT. (Notably, those figures also show that it had decreased its spend substantially in the past year. But also note that estimating sponsorship spend is particularly tricky for companies like Nielsen.)

Is the show sustainable with Sky’s sponsorship alone, assuming Evans is getting at least as much as the BBC paid him for Radio 2, in addition to the costs incurred in poaching the rest his team from the BBC?

If Sky paid even close to that big rumoured fee that Virgin Radio was asking for, then possibly. But Virgin will still need to run adverts across the rest of the station, which may come as a rude awakening for listeners who carry on beyond 10.00am when Eddy Temple-Morris takes over. Indeed it’s notable that Virgin hasn’t [yet] announced any additional big-name talent signings.

The much anticipated marketing campaign has begun. There’s a TV ad, which is clever (even if it does bear a certain similarity to a classic 80s comedy film) and London is home to a number of outdoor posters for the show. However, it’s not yet clear how large those campaigns are, and that may take weeks or months to become clear.

Probably the biggest marketing initiative thus far has been today’s wraparound of The Sun.

As for the show itself?

I heard about 40 minutes of it on my work to work this morning. But it’s day one, and Chris Evans is a professional broadcaster who knows what he’s doing. It’s not remotely worth reviewing the first day of a breakfast show, because everyone is finding their feet and as Nik Goodman pointed out a couple of weeks ago on Trevor Dann’s Radio Today Roundtable Podcast, many of those new features will be quietly dropped in a few weeks once they’ve not worked, while other things will organically start up as the show finds its feet again. (That said, Radio Today reports that Evans has directly brought across a number of features from his Radio 2 show.)

Of course that review logic didn’t stop everyone doing just that with both Lauren Laverne’s and Zoe Ball’s first shows, and it won’t stop those reviews of Evans tomorrow.

Sports TV: UK v US

Yesterday evening, UK time, the NFL championship games took place, deciding which teams will contest the Super Bowl. I have an on/off relationship with the NFL – but will flip over to catch a bit every now and then. So last night, when I wasn’t watching Les Miserables on BBC1, I caught a bit of these games including an entertaining overtime in the Rams v Saints game.

I also caught the start of the second game – the Patriots v the Chiefs. The first score was a touchdown for the Patriots. The pictures we got from the host broadcaster, CBS, showed the player celebrating their touchdown, cutting first from the wide shot to a handheld camera that gave us a close-up of the player. And then, the next shot, before we’d seen any replays, or any crowd reaction shots, was of the Patriot’s owner in his glassed off luxury suite applauding the score.

The owner’s reaction to the touchdown is implicitly more important than anyone else’s.

OK, it was a road game (i.e. away fixture), and there were probably very few Patriots fans in the stadium. But there will have been some. And they will have looked less like a company’s board all shaking hands after a particularly good takeover had been achieved.

Compare and contrast with the Premier League. When a goal goes in, we likewise tend to cut from a wide shot of the goal, to a close-up of the player celebrating and being congratulated by teammates. Then we get replays of the goal from a few angles, perhaps a crowd reaction shot, and probably a manager reaction shot.

What nobody is interested in is what the owners’ response is. We almost certainly won’t see them at all. There might be a cutaway at some point in the live game, with the commentator explaining who the person is. But most coverage will ignore them altogether unless there’s great fan unrest towards the owners.

The only UK sport I can think of where owners might get some acknowledgement is horse racing. If your horse wins the Gold Cup or the Grand National, the horse and jockey get most of the attention, then it’s the trainer, and then finally the owner.

I shouldn’t be surprised by the American angle on sports. These aren’t teams (implying a group of athletes), they’re franchises (like a branch of Subway or McDonalds – a business opportunity).

A business imperative is built into the very fabric of US sport.

British Cyclo-Cross National Championships 2019

Last weekend, I headed down to the Cyclopark in Gravesend to see the British National Cyclo-cross Championships. These are held annually and the winner gets to wear their national flag on their jersey for a year (unless they go on to win the World Championships of course). The event was taking place at the Cyclopark, somewhere I’d never been to before. Essentially it’s a strip of land with lots of cycling facilities on it, including a BMX track and a long road loop. Allied to all of this are changing facilities and a café.

For the Nationals, the course was designed in such a way that there were a few places where you could see a good chunk of the action. I spent my time wandering between several of these points. When you factor in the 30 minute walk from the station, my smartwatch tells me I walked about 18km on Sunday.

I arrived just in time to see Harriet Harden defend her title in the womens’ junior race, while Ben Tulett (in the World Champions’ jersey) easily won the men’s race.

The U23 and Elite races were run together, with Nikki Brammier winning overall. She was having a tough contest with Anna Kay (who is an U23 rider), until Kay’s bike suffered a mechanical and she had to run/freewheel to the pits to get a replacement. That left Brammier with an imposing lead. Meanwhile, Helen Wyman caught up with Kay and they fought it out until the end when Kay just got away from Wyman to pick up second.

In the men’s race, it was complete and utter domination from Tom Pidcock. He got away very early on, and extended his lead lap after lap. Unfortunately for other riders the “80% rule” was in place. This meant that if you weren’t getting lap-times within 80% of the leading lap-time, you get eliminated. In other words, anyone in danger of being lapped is pulled from the race. It’s in operation to avoid much slower riders being lapped – perhaps repeatedly. Over-taking isn’t easy in cyclo-cross, and with a title on the line, being slowed up by lapped riders is seen as unfair.

But the result of employing the 80% rules was that with over 100 starters, only 11 riders actually finished on the same lap as Pidcock by the end who was over a minute clear at the end and managed to do a “superman” as he crossed the line.

Anyway, I took lots of photos there – the main reason for going. A few are below, and the rest can be seen over on Flickr.

Longer Lasting

Over the last few weeks, a lot of things around me have started to break.

Most annoyingly, the TV that was given to my father just over 18 months ago has developed a fault in the panel – the lower quarter flickers and then stays slightly greyer and fuzzier than the rest. It’s only 18 months old, but it’s outside the warranty period.

At the same time as the TV, they got a soundbar as well, and that has now broken too. I simply don’t understand how, and I’m really not inclined to buy another Sony A/V product right at the moment.

Meanwhile at home, my Sony receiver is also playing up. It will turn itself off at random intervals – normally after a few hours. The TV no longer controls the sound on it. I’m not 100% certain when I bought it, but it’s well over 5 years old at this point.

Then there’s my Sky box. This has on occasion needed a reboot every month or so, but now it’s getting a little flakier. It seems to lose signal from one and then the other LNB at various points. A cold reboot fixes it, but the end is clearly nigh.

Most urgently, there’s my washing machine. A week or so ago I had completed a wash cycle, but had not yet emptied the load. While I was doing some washing up, I heard a loud bang, the source of which I couldn’t track down. I subsequently emptied the load and on trying to put a second load on, noticed that there was no power. The fuse in the machine’s plug had blown. But when I replaced it, although it seemed to come back to life, a flashing door icon restricted me from doing anything else. Nothing I did could make the machine work.

A friend on Twitter suggested that replacing the master board on a washing machine isn’t that difficult. I quick check of a YouTube video confirmed that such a job was well within my wheelhouse. However, I’d be spending £40-50 on a part that I didn’t know wouldn’t instantly break again.

Suffice to say that a new machine arrived on Friday. And to give it some due, the previous machine had run without issue for 10 years.

The reality is that most of these devices aren’t really fixable. A good washing machine technician could probably have sorted out that. But once call-out, parts and some billable time had been included, I’d be at at least half the price of a new machine. Things with moving parts do break after all. And this new machine will be more energy efficient than my old one.

The TV and soundbar faults are more frustrating. I can’t attempt to fix them, and again it’ll be cheaper to buy new items. As an aside, I’m giving Resolver a chance to help to me. But it gets complex because I don’t live near my parents.

On a related note, I started looking at Sky HD options considering it looks like the box is going to die soon. Sky has its new Q box, but goodness – they’re expensive.

One significant issue for me is that my current Sky box is quite full. I would need to “watch down” everything before switching devices, as there’s no supported way to transfer recordings between boxes (There are very much unsupported options of either using HDMI out to record to another device, or using software to decode programmes direct from the machine’s hard drive).

More to the point Sky Q boxes are rented from Sky and not owned. There’s a flat £12 a month fee for that rental, which quickly adds up. Plus they seem to want £199 for installation – as I’m neither interested in, nor wish to pay for multi-room. Of course, if I was a new subscriber, I wouldn’t have to pay nearly as much as this.

Since I don’t have a 4K TV, this is all a bit moot, since it wouldn’t offer a great deal more. Instead, I can buy a new Sky HD 2TB box for around £140 from Amazon.

Finally, over Christmas, I noticed that my laptop’s WiFi was a little flaky. I mostly use it at home, and connect it via ethernet so hadn’t noticed. Fortunately, that at least looks like it’s an achievable fix that I can do myself.

Netflix’s UK Drama Originals

One of the issues that Netflix has to face is how it can satisfy all its users in every country around the world. If you set up in France, you need to produce local French programming. If you set up in Australia, you need to produce local Australian programming.

To some extent, Netflix has been able to dodge some of this in English-language markets, because a UK audience will happily watch a US-made Netflix Original (NB. What constitutes a Netflix Original is an interesting story in itself). Netflix can get around some of this by licencing lots of BBC, ITV and C4 programming, as well as buying ex-US rights to US network or cable series. But in the end, a drama on Netflix probably has to work in multiple territories. The sums just don’t add up if they have to make substantial commissions in each territory in which they operate.

So more and more, Netflix is commissioning UK originated material. I’m going to explore some of Netflix’s higher-profile drama shows, and see what they really mean and who they’re targeting.

The Crown is probably their biggest success. It’s quite possibly the most expensive drama Netflix makes full stop, on a per hour basis anyway, and if we exclude some of their films. It’s premium quality drama and it wins lots of awards. (An admission: I’ve not got more than an episode and a bit into it. I know, I know. I will get around to it).

Of course, a drama featuring the lives of the Royal Family is going to have international appeal. This is the kind of series, that had the BBC been able to make it, would have shown up on PBS in the US too.

Safe, which was released in May last year, was a very curious piece indeed. Theoretically, it’s a British crime thriller, but everything about it was wrong. The series was created by Harlan Corben, an American crime writer. It starred Michael C Hall (of Dexter fame) playing a British paediatrician whose daughter goes missing within their gated community.

So a series created by an American (although written by the very British Danny Brocklehurst), featuring an American lead actor who has a very mannered, yet nondescript British accent, and set within the type of community that’s actually fairly rare in Britain (I’m not saying that there aren’t such places, but they tend to be more frequent in the US).

Throw in a French teacher played by Audrey Fleurot (or Engrenages/Spiral fame), and you get the distinct impression that several boxes had to be ticked to get this series green-lit. American audiences will watch for Hall; French audiences will watch for Fleurot; British audiences will watch for everything else.

The series even avoided mentioning any locations, by not really giving anyone any regional accents, and talking about going to “the city” rather than anywhere too specific. I really hope that this wasn’t because international viewers might get confused by anywhere in the UK that’s not London.

I confess that I bailed on this before the end.

The Innocents appeared midway through last year – and seemed to be aimed at teenagers. I didn’t watch most of this either, although I note that while the cast was mostly of unknowns, there’s also Guy Pearce in there.

It’s a strange supernatural tale that seems to be partly set in Britain, and partly in Norway. There are some accents, although the story is such that what producers were really going for was a sense of alienation and other-worldliness.

Which brings us to Netflix’s most recent UK original, Sex Education, starring Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson. It’s hard to know where to begin with this frankly bizarre series.

Butterfield plays Otis, the teenage son of Jean (Anderson), and best friend of Eric. They are outsiders at their local school, which is kind of understandable, because it seems to exist in some kind of strange time warp. Although the series is very much contemporary – smartphones and mentions of Ed Sheeran – everyone dresses up like they’ve walked out of a John Hughes movie from the eighties, and the soundtrack is stuffed full of the kind of music you might of heard on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack. Everyone seems to drive vintage cars, and Otis and Eric ride to school on old racing bikes.

The school itself is a curious American-style High School, with “jocks” wearing jackets and it having a swimming team – or should that be “swim team”?

And everyone is obsessed with sex. If you thought The Inbetweeners had a one tracked mind, you haven’t seen this lot. It must be something in the water.

As it happens, Otis’s mother is a sex therapist, and the premise of the series is that Otis will use what knowledge he’s gained from his mother to help his classmates out with sex-advice for their various issues.

If you think that’s a deranged premise – that anyone at school, learning about their own sexuality, would pay heed to a classmate in such matters – then you’d be right. But like everything else in this series, you have to go with it.

The series is theoretically set in a Welsh valley, although nobody actually seems to speak in a Welsh accent. Instead there’s a general you-could-be-anywhere feel to the series, even though the valley were they shot this series is fabulous looking.

Now part of all of this is clearly a kind of stylistic device. We’ve seen similar kinds of things in other series like Legion and Maniac with retro-contemporary settings. But you also wonder whether Netflix is consciously trying to make something that doesn’t completely alienate a US audience.

I do worry that so many of Netflix’s UK originals seem to have any sense of localness surgically removed from them. I’m not saying that they should only be making dramas that would give Jimmy McGovern a good run for their money in their depictions of troubled inner-cities, but providing at least some sense of place would be nice.

Last week the BBC opened a consultation on being able to keep programming on iPlayer for longer than 30 days. They note that audiences – especially younger audiences – expect to be able to watch full series as they do on Netflix.

The concern for all British broadcasters must be that Netflix dominates in due course. But their idea of a British drama is very different to current broadcasters views of drama. A British series shouldn’t just be an American series with different accents and cars on the other side of the road.

Great Sadness

This week, the Paweł Pawlikowski film, Cold War, was released on home video. I missed this in the cinema, even though I found the film’s trailer utterly entrancing.

So I thought I would treat myself to a Blu Ray copy of the film. Earlier in the week I actually saw an advertisement for the film in the paper, letting me know it was out on DVD in Sainsbury’s. That didn’t seem the likeliest home for it, but a good film is a good film.

I could, of course, have ordered the disk from Amazon. But that would take a day to arrive, and I wanted to watch the film that evening. No matter, the walk to an external meeting would route me past the Covent Garden branch of Fopp. I’d pick up a copy there.

Except, I wouldn’t.

I’d popped into that same branch of Fopp a week or so earlier, and had bought a couple of things then. I had wondered whether to commiserate with staff in light of the HMV news. I decided against it, thinking that perhaps the staff would prefer not to be reminded about the potential of them losing their jobs fairly imminently.

When I visited the branch again this week, there was nothing obvious to say that there were any problems. The shelves were full of stock as ever. But looking closer, I couldn’t find a copy Cold War. This surprised me, as in normal circumstances I’m sure that this branch would sell plenty of copies.

I confess that my first thought was that they’d actually sold out. Cold War is on the Best Foreign Language film shortlists for both the BAFTAs and Oscars.

Eventually, having spent a few minutes failing to find a copy, I asked an assistant. He first of all suggested that it had yet to be released, because it had only been in the cinema fairly recently. I replied that I thought not because I’d seen it advertised that week. Then he admitted that they weren’t receiving fresh stock at the moment.

Of course. With the parent company, HMV, in administration, suppliers like Curzon Artificial Eye, are not supplying Fopp or HMV, because of uncertainty about whether they will ever get paid. That’s desperately sad, since Fopp is probably the natural high street home of a release like this.

I left, saddened.

My mind turned to where else in central London I might get a copy? HMV is the obvious alternative, but they will have the same stock issues. Beyond that, there’s basically nowhere.

I looked into the mid-sized Covent Garden Tesco Metro (bigger than an Express; smaller than a retail park branch). The previous year, I’d popped in there to get a blue security tag removed from the Dunkirk Blu Ray I’d bought at another branch. Without that tag removed, you can’t get into the case! However, a year later, and the branch no longer sells any discs – music or video.

In the end, I nipped over Waterloo Bridge to the BFI Shop where I grabbed a copy – making use of my BFI membership card to bring the price lower than that which Amazon charge! But fine though that specialist store is, it’s scary to think than in future, if I want a physical disc, that might be the only place in Central London to go to!

Sure, I could have downloaded or streamed a digital copy of the film, but there are good reasons to prefer physical media. Discs tend to be encoded at a higher quality than many streams offer. There aren’t bit-rate limitations that your internet connection might cause. That’s important if you’re watching on a big TV.

Then there are the extras on the disc. It’s rare that the digital providers offer these. And I’m the kind of person who likes to watch at least some of them. Commentary tracks too!

Finally, of course, there are the vast quantity of titles that just haven’t been released digitally.

I’m hopeful that there’ll be some kind of eleventh hour saving of the HMV group – at least in some semblance. Otherwise I will have to become 100% reliant on Amazon, or use film distribution companies directly.

Cold War is an amazing film by the way. It’s probably the most beautiful film I’ve seen for an awfully long time. Every shot is just stunningly framed, and a visual treat. The performances are excellent and the music is just gorgeous.

HMV

His Master's Lost His Voice
Spotted in Soho in 2014

A few thoughts on the new difficulties faced by HMV. 

In part this is response to some utter nonsense I’ve read online, and some of the news reports surrounding HMV heading into administration for the second time in five years. 

There are undoubtedly structural problems with how music is sold in 2019, but I think there are multiple reasons for HMV’s failure – regardless of any mistakes or management decisions taken by their owners. 

I’ve tried to examine each of these in turn. 

Music Models 

We’re obviously moving away from a music ownership model to a rental model, although I’m still unconvinced that this is sustainable in the longer term.  

Firstly, it is not yet profitable for the businesses that are doing it. OK – that might not matter for Apple or Google who have vast income streams from other parts of the business that can prop them up, but it does matter for companies like Spotify and Tidal. Indeed, even Apple or Google will shut down a division that simply doesn’t make sense after a while.  

The lack of profitability might be a temporary thing, and perhaps the business models will improve over time. But let’s put it this way, I wouldn’t even begin to attempt to get into the streaming market right now. And will Apple or Amazon at some point stop even selling downloads? (Thank goodness for Bandcamp!) 

However, as I’ve argued previously, the current music rental model simply doesn’t work for a large proportion of the population.  

Consider my father. He buys or gets given one or two CDs a year. In all probability any discs he buys come from a supermarket – for him, the only easily accessible physical outlet for music now. He listens to those CDs a fair amount. But there’s no way on earth that he’s going to spend £120 a year on music. Nor are an awful lot of people. Certainly, Spotify has a free tier, but that’s ad-funded, and my father no more wants to hear ads interrupting his music than anyone else does. The alternative is that perhaps the majority of the population stop purchasing music altogether!  

The most recent RAJAR Midas survey suggest 24% of the population listen to on demand music services, while Ofcom’s Technology Tracker suggests it’s closer to 29%. Either way, that’s 70% of more of the population who don’t use such a service. 

So, we need some level of music ownership. That means an ability to buy music. 

Lazy Reporting 

One of the things that frustrated me was a report that used vox pops of various people standing outside the Oxford Street branch of HMV explaining how they hadn’t bought a CD in years and that they streamed everything now. 

Vox pops are, to my mind, nearly always useless. They are completely unrepresentative of the population, and more often than not, just colour a report to say what they the reporter hoped that they’d say. We never know how many vox pops were gathered and which ones made the cut. Think of it this way, if you stood in the street ahead of election day, asked two people how they were likely to vote, and got the same response: “I’m voting Green!” You wouldn’t then go on air and suggest that the Greens were going to win with a landslide (Unless you were in Brighton). 

Physical sales have undoubtedly fallen as streaming revenues have risen, but the IFPI Global music report 2018 still attributed 30% of recorded music revenues coming from physical sales (CD and, to a very small extent, vinyl) compared with 38% for streaming and 16% for digital.  

In the UK, we know that sales are falling. The BPI says that 2018 saw 32m CD sales down 9.6m year on year. But if 70% of the population don’t have an account with Spotify or its peers, then there still needs to be a way to allow listeners to buy The Greatest Showman soundtrack or George Ezra’s latest CD (the biggest two albums of the year). 

Physical music sales are still worth £2bn, and HMV accounts for 31% of all physical music and 23% of DVDs and Blu Rays. 

So, there are plenty of people still buying CDs. Indeed, I note that recent deluxe boxsets from both The Beatles and Kate Bush are only available in physical form. The streaming versions of both sets have significantly fewer tracks. That said, these are clearly aimed at collector/completists and the cynic might think that the labels are wringing as much cash as possible out of those now distinctly middle-aged fans. 

Most people aren’t streaming their music, and while they don’t buy as much as the keener music fans, these are consumers who still need to be reached – selling rather than renting them music. 

The Vinyl Fallacy 

Hitherto, the best place to buy music has been a record shop. Yes, there’s Tesco. And yes, there’s Amazon. The former has a very limited offering – and no, I don’t really care about the cool vinyl selection your big Sainsburys superstore has. That’s “cool” because it knows its customer. In the DVD aisle you’ll find boxsets of Airwolf and The Persuaders. All of these are because they’re serving a generation that got old, and buys these things for nostalgia reasons.  

The vinyl resurgence is all very well, but while the percentage increases might have been massive (the growth was much smaller in 2018), but they are still dwarfed by CD sales. Don’t just use revenues as your comparator, since vinyl invariably costs more than the equivalent shiny disc.  

A record shop in 2019 can’t really just exist by tapping a niche market like vinyl. Perhaps in a big city like London, but London has all kinds of shops that are unsustainable outside big cities. For example, there are shops where you can buy film processing gear. That doesn’t mean a largescale resurgence in film photography is likely. These places instead serve a diminished marketplace, but there are so few other outlets left that they mop up enough business to survive. 

Music is a mainstream art form, and it needs to survive in a manner that is accessible to all, regardless of their access to big cities. More and more, that probably does mean a combination of Amazon and supermarkets, with niche outlets filling a small hole. 

The Loss of Curation and Serendipity 

The real challenge for the true mainstream audience is music discovery. It’s all very well having a Spotify playlist, but for the “70%” who don’t use a streaming service, they’re probably relying on the radio (90% weekly reach recall), or perhaps mainstream TV shows like Graham Norton or The One Show.  

I’ve long argued that computer algorithms are still no match for a carefully curated shop display or the simple act of stumbling over something you didn’t even know you wanted. (A good radio station and/or presenter of course is massively valuable too.) 

One of the joys of a record shop, is the stumble-upon factor. You look at a shelf of new releases, or a thematic display somewhere, pulled together by someone who likes music. And in there, you find something that you didn’t know existed, or didn’t even know that you wanted.  

I’m not naïve.  I know that stores sometimes charged for those shelf-end displays or front of store racks, but either way, I can’t begin to think about how many times I just found something I didn’t know I’d come in for just by seeing it on a rack. 

Compare and contrast to every digital offering I’ve used, where the search box is the primary mechanism for digging into their warehouse. Yes, Amazon has more music than I can listen to in a lifetime, but they display it abysmally.  If I know what I’m looking for, I can [probably] find it. But nobody “browses” at Amazon.  

I recall spending many a lunch hour at the Oxford Street HMV browsing film soundtracks looking for obscurities and just seeing what they had. You’d find an Ennio Morricone compilation you didn’t know about or whatever.  

Over on Amazon, I can see what’s selling the most, but that’s about it. They probably have that exact same compilation, but unless I already know about it, I’m never going to find it.  

Maybe Spotify might lead me to it somehow. Maybe not. I find that most algorithmic playlists are far too constrained musically and don’t explore the wider breadth of what’s out there. You like this guitar-based rock-band? Here’s another guitar-based rock band.  

Browsing is one of nature’s delights, and it just doesn’t work on the virtual shelves.

The British High Street 

We all know that the UK high street is changing rapidly. In some parts of the country, they’re becoming ghost towns. When a larger store closes down, smaller stores follow, and shops get boarded up. 

On the other hand, store rents seem to sail inexorably upwards. The high price of rents is often quoted as a reason for store closures.  

It’s never entirely clear to me how this can be. There’s surely a dynamic market, and a landlord you would think would prefer something rather than nothing.  

But inevitably we hear that the real issue is that Britons are spending more money online and no longer shopping on the high street as they once did. Every year, the volume of shopping online creeps upwards, and big brands either fold altogether, get sold to Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley, or announce that they closing a number of branches.  

However, there are still some things that don’t quite add up. 

Over Christmas we heard that online powerhouse Asos had suffered from severe discounting across the market, which led to poorer than expected profits.  

And while online sales are indeed rising, reaching 21.5% of all retailing in November 2018, that still leaves an awful lot of sales that are not online.  

This suggests that even with a retailer whose majority of sales are in-store and not online, the growth of online can put the store part of the business into loss even though it still accounts for the majority of sales. Indeed, the volatility of some businesses to even small declines in sales would seem to back that up. Sometimes that’s because they’ve over-expanded and borrowed on the basis of sales that only head upwards. Or maybe it’s because the owners have grabbed a lot of money out the business… 

Anyway, this is just another reminder that next time a clothes brand on the high street shuts down, and you see a vox pop on the news with a contributor saying that, no, they don’t use the high street any more, and that they only shop online for clothes, in fact 78.2% of textile and clothing sales are not online. 

Conclusion 

There are no easy solutions to any of this. I truly hope that HMV continues in some form over the coming years. It’s just one of a narrow set of places that the more casual music consumer can actually buy music. I would hate to be limited to just what my local Sainsburys stocks.  

But we should also be wary of overly didactic reporting that suggests that “everyone” has moved to streaming. While the biggest music fans may well have done, the average consumer does not stream their music. The problem is that high street stores can’t rely on not getting their custom for 11 months of the year, before they pop in December to pick up an Ed Sheeran album. 

There seem to be more structural problems with the retail industry. Rents may be increasing, but many chains have over-expanded, and it would seem that even the smallest fall in sales can lead to dire consequences.  

Being a music snob doesn’t really help anybody. You may be lucky enough close enough to Rough Trade or whoever, and enjoy their brilliant curation. But most of the population doesn’t. London can support such shops. Small towns all over the country can’t.  

I’m not a muso although I do buy and listen to a reasonable amount of music. I have a streaming subscription, but I also buy CDs and mp3 downloads. The first record I ever bought was in HMV. I loved going there on Saturdays examining the singles chart in great detail, and later flicking through the albums. There was an independent music shop on the opposite side of the road that I also enjoyed. But the local department store also had a record section, as did WH Smith and Woolworths. All were part of my Saturday trawl.  

Later I would spend far too much money downstairs in HMV on Oxford Street, or upstairs in the DVD section.  

Just after Christmas I popped into an HMV in Norwich to pick up a Blu Ray of Leave No Trace a film I’d missed in the cinema but which has been popping up on loads of “Best of the Year” lists. I could have streamed it, but the quality of physical media is better, and the disc was actually cheaper than some streaming services. (It’s a fantastic film by the way, and fully deserves its plaudits). 

I will miss HMV if it is to finally leave high streets for good.

Is Bandersnatch the Future of Television?

No.

No, it’s not.

Bandersnatch is the recently released episode of Black Mirror from Charlie Brooker available on Netflix. It takes the form of a choose your own adventure book/game and I loved it!

In many respects, this episode ticked just about every box for me. It was set in the eighties, in and around writing games for the ZX Spectrum. I bought my ZX Spectrum in 1982 (I still have it), and WH Smith did look like that – on the outside anyway. The one in Bandersnatch looked more like a record store on the inside, whereas records were just one thing you could get in a WH Smith.

I also read and played lots of the choose your own adventure books written initially by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. I remember trawling around London bookshops desperately searching for a copy of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain when it too was published in 1982. I seem to remember finding it in the Puffin Bookshop in Covent Garden.

I read magazines like Your Sinclair, Popular Computing Weekly and Crash. I bought games from WH Smith, Boots, or mostly frequently, a stall on my local market. We copied games with our tape to tape players, and I failed to learn assembly language from Machine Code for the Absolute Beginner.

I bought The Quill and wrote my own adventure games – including having one broadcast on LBC on a show that I have subsequently learned included Ed Miliband as a contributor!

I digress…

Bandersnatch was great. It cleverly incorporated the choose your own adventure nature of following paths into the actual fabric of the story. In other words, it’s quite a meta experience.

The real issue with choose your own adventure stories is that if you’re not careful, quite a lot of material will be thrown away and perhaps never experienced at all. When the books came out, the theory was that kids would play them repeatedly, and go through all the various endings and options. But short of being incredibly methodical and mapping out the various “paths” it’s hard to do.

An author probably hopes that most of their words get read, but when authoring a choose your own adventure book, they probably have to accept that not everything will be read. But even then, there are tricks to keep people on the main narrative. Sometimes there are just side-paths that in due course get you back into the main storyline. What you don’t want to do is have a binary choice fairly close to the start of a story and then tell two widely divergent stories whose paths never again cross: “Do you go to the city, or go to the seaside?”

That’s even truer in television, where every minute costs more money. How long should a TV choose your own adventure last? 45-60 minutes? But if you have to shoot 120 minutes of material, that effectively doubles the cost.

Bandersnatch avoids a certain degree of that wastage by taking the viewer back through some of the different choices they could have made. While I don’t believe I’ve seen every ending, I think I’ve seen most of them – and that was all in one sitting.

But in the case of Bandersnatch that sort of made sense. The structure of story worked to allow you to experience multiple options without feeling that you’ve repeated a lot of what you’ve seen (You’re not made to sit through the same 10 minute sequences on a repeated basis).

I don’t see choose your own TV programmes being a big thing because of reasons of cost and the fact that many stories don’t lend themselves to it. And nor do I really see Netflix taking great learnings from this kind of technology as a writer on The Verge suggests.

Choose your own books are much more economically viable, and yet no major novelist has, as far as I’m aware, written such a title. There are one-offs here and there, but it’s not a thing.

That all said, I loved Bandersnatch, and need to catch up with some of the Black Mirror episodes that I’ve not yet watched.

DJI Osmo Pocket: A Slow Motion Test

Over Christmas I treated myself to a new camera – the newly released DJI Osmo Pocket. This thing is a wondrously small gimbal mounted camera, that I thought might be really interesting to carry with me on bike rides.

This absolutely isn’t a proper review, since I’ve not had the device long enough. Instead, it’s a few early thoughts.

The thing is tiny. I knew this as everyone said it was tiny, but it really is. Even the box that it comes in is tiny! But it’s size means that you can put it in just about any pocket. Certainly it’d be safe in a cycle jersey pocket.

Yes, phones are great, and more and more of them have optically or digitally stabilised cameras, but you can’t beat mechanical stabilisation with a bit of leeway for shakes. And there’s no real problem taking both this and your phone out with you. Indeed, you can use the two together to get a proper screen Note: This can be important if you want to get your focusing right. Focusing is perhaps the thing you need to most worry about with the camera. A couple of the shots above are definitely a little “soft.”

To really use this phone properly you will need either a USB-C enabled phone like a Google Pixel device, or an Apple iPhone. If your phone uses micro-USB you lose a lot functionality. I suspect that limitation is because different manufacturers have the micro-USB port oriented differently. USB-C and Lightning connectors are reversible, and the adaptor to the device only works if you have the screen facing you.

The device is 4K and can shoot at 60 frames a second, meaning that you can slow it down a bit if needed. But it also has a good slow motion mode, shooting at 120 frames a second in regular 1080 HD. The video above is shot using that 1080 mode.

Usually I edit all my videos in Adobe Premiere Pro CC, but for this I thought I’d try a more portable solution at least to start with.

I shot that video without a phone attached – people barely could see there was a camera there. Then I edited it roughly using Adobe Premiere Rush, Adobe’s new lightweight video editing application. It’s iOS and desktop only at the moment, so I used it on an iPad rather than my Pixel 2 phone.

I did a rough-ish edit on the iPad, but also did some colour grading there too. Then using the Adobe Cloud, I opened the project on a laptop to fine-tune those edits. I’m not sure that Rush is quite there yet for really precise editing – certainly not on a touchscreen interface. Shortening clips can be tricky. On the other hand – you can certainly get something out the door very fast with it.

Incidentally, I seemed to need to open my project it in Rush on a PC before I could open it in Premiere Pro CC on my PC. Theoretically, I shouldn’t have had to do that, but the project failed to open (although a previous project did!).

I ended up finishing up the video in Premiere Pro CC, where I tightened edits some more, added some music, and added a couple of fades (Rush has limited transitions available). Finally, there was a little bit of camera tracking to be done in After Effects to get that text on the wall at the start. Not necessary, but the wall lent itself to it.

While you can edit a 4K video on a phone using something like Rush, I don’t think it’s all that practical. Mostly that’s because of the sizes of video involved. Your phone or tablet will need plenty of free space to work with, and even transferring the files between camera and device is a slow process. If your phone has 128GB or more, then go for it. For short videos anyway. But even a 15 minute video might be difficult to find space for.

Anyway, I might write a fuller review of the Osmo Pocket once I’ve used it for a while. But in general terms, I like it a lot.