A New Hope and how entertainment has changed…

I can still remember the first time I ever saw Star Wars Episode 5 – The Empire Strikes Back. I’d been invited to a school friends birthday party at which they brought out a film projector. Just to further date things, it involved a reel of film rather than HDMI and USB connectors.

Today I sat with my son and spent 30 happy minutes watching Star Wars Episode 4 – A New Hope together. For the non-geeks, that’s the original Star Wars with Luke Skywalker escaping a desert with Alec Guinness, and rescuing Leia. The time was cut short when I had a heartfelt request that he’d rather be playing Lego Star Wars than watching a film.

He wanted to be part of the action, not sitting and simply watching it. And viewing it through his eyes, I suddenly realised how slow the film actually moves compared to some of the things he loves – like Pixar’s output. Even then, he provides a Director-style commentary about what’s on the screen, what’s about to happen, and anything else that pops into his somewhat random mind.

It’s a feeling I often get when I attempt to watch television. As much as I can still love a slow-moving, atmospheric film, the examples of something which draws me in on television are few and far between, so I usually manage about 5 minutes before I feel like I’d rather be playing a game and actually achieving something for myself. Or writing, blogging, or doing other work.

It’s tempting to say every TV show should include as much interactivity as possible, but given the fact that I’d rather poke my eyes out than suffer the hugely successful talent shows which take this approach, it’s not the only solution.

The solution for TV and movies for me is that we get an ever increasing range of niche channels and programming which allow me to watch something over than the same episodes of the Big Bang Theory for the umpteenth time, just because it’s the least irritating option available.

Give me a custom channel of motorsport, Swedish crime television and technology/sci-fi and I’m happy – which is almost possible when I pull together about 20 different services myself, but it’s not quite as effortless as it should be by now. Why can’t there be a central hub for all channels from which I can pull what I want, and pay in aggregate, and why should so much be hampered by copyright after being shown years ago in the U.S? I’m happy to pay for legal access or put up with advertising to be able to watch, but so much is simply not available…

For once, I can’t conclude with a simple solution, but it’s definitely an indication to me that despite the brilliant rise of Youtube, iPlayer, Lovefilm etc, there’s still a long way to go before we reach the perfect entertainment solution.

Musical serendipity in a digital world….

My former Absolute Radio colleague Adam Bowie recently wrote about serendipity in music and books, and it’s been stuck in my head like a particularly determined earworm for a while. I’ll wait here while you go and read it.

'The Record Shop' courtesy Nicoze on Flickr (CC Licence)

Adam’s experience is that record and book shops provide an element of serendipity missing in online retailers, and this is also a familiar comment on news services, and information via social networks which connect you with friends likely to share your world view.

It’s interesting because of a crossover – Adam is fairly adept and accustomed with technology in various forms, and is certainly a user of most new tools for music and audio-visual entertainment. He’s also a very keen photographer, which itself is an interest rooted in technology and gadgets.

At the same time, I’ve had the type of trainspotter passion for music which was celebrated by the likes of Nick Hornby, with records and cds filling rooms, filed in alphabetical and chronological order. Music magazines ranging from the NME to Guitarist filled my teenage bedroom, the ‘Evening Session’ was required listening, and the hint of a good band appearing on a TV music show would require sitting through the other 27 minutes of tedium in barely-contained excitement. And 10+ years after I’d programme the family video recorder to tape ‘Raw Power in the early hours of the morning, I couldn’t stop myself mentioning to my friends that I’d shared a lift with presenter and then Mojo Editor-in-Chief Phil Alexander.

'Serendipity' courtesy Tojosan on Flickr (CC Licence)

So how does musical serendipity work without record shops?

So how has digital serendipity led to a time when long train journeys to London just to visit Berwick Street record shops (and possibly get served by Martin Belam years before we ever met), transform me into someone who didn’t buy any records during 18 months actually working round the corner at a radio station and yet has such a surplus of music to hear that it probably isn’t achieveable in my lifetime?

No Media – websites, blogs, radio, TV, books:

Strangely, despite the huge wealth of niche blogs and websites available, I rarely read them. Mainly because there’s already an overwhelming amount of tech and marketing stuff to read, plus a huge surplus of books recommended by bloggers and friends. The exception is when they appear as a result of a search for someone I’ve heard about but haven’t been able to locate. I do occasionally read and re-read books about artists and genres, and search out records mentioned – the majority of which are at the back of the highly recommended Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick.

Instead, the Related Artist rabbit hole:

I’ve often tweted about the fact I’ve fallen foul of the biggest risk when working from home – falling into the Related Artist rabbit hole on Spotify. Although it tends to be flawed when dealing with big mainstream acts, the old rule of six degrees tends to mean you can soon start finding songs and artists you haven’t encountered, or hadn’t yet listed to. The Spotify inventory is still a bit patchy, particularly when you get into more obscure and niche genres, but I’ve had some pleasant discoveries, including some slightly esoteric research into Peruvian punk music, or moving from punk through to psychobilly and punk/country crossovers.

And when Spotify fails, there’s the backup of Last.fm, which I’ve long held to be the musical Wikipedia, more than any type of online radio service. There’s a far wider range of the genres I tend to end up exploring, and enough of a sample of most to let me know whether to search further. Even if autoscrobbling can lead to embarrassment when I end up playing songs for my partner or son and they end up recorded forever on my profile because I never remember to delete them. Plus, despite it’s abject failure as a social network, Myspace is still pretty useful for finding a huge number of bands.

New services:

I occasionally use Blip.fm, which provides extreme randomness in the manner of a crowdsourced electronic John Peel. I’ve occasionally get some mileage from Soundcloud. But it’s actually Mixcloud, which for me might as well be renamed ‘HeavySoulBrutha radio‘.

Digital + People:

Like most people, I’ve got at least a few friends who are heavily into their music (@mattcharge happens to be an excellent DJ for example, and @pjeedai may be the whitest expert on obscure British hiphop before you stray into Tim Westwood territory). Only recently I discovered a very professional and respectable journalist I’ve known for years happens to have an obsession with Scandinavian Death Metal, whilst one chat with a marketing agency descended into an hour of the merits of hair metal.

And all of these people distributed geographically and professionally are able to share their recommendations with me regardless of whether they can be bothered to send me a C90 tape recorded from the radio, or want to risk their prized blue label Stax 45s in the mail.

But the funniest thing has been impromptu sound-offs. Recent Jodanma meetings were disrupted by my suggestion of an official Jodanma entrepreneurial soundtrack (available here on Spotify – add your own suggestions), and two days in client offices have involved ‘name that movie theme’ and ‘cheesiest rock’ competitions. Everyone in each situation was able to pull up their streaming service of choice, their digital music collection, or a quick Youtube video and jump in.

The prospect of DRM was long feared as ending the ability to share music. Despite the fact that some artists chose to allow their music to be distributed via Creative Commons, the other result was an ‘iPod sharing/swapping’ trend in playgrounds around the world.

'Mother & Daughter Flashmobsters' courtesy drewleavy on Flickr (CC Licence)

And retailers?:

I’ve occasionally had recommendations from particular record shop experts, or spotted something interesting when browsing, but I’m not sure the actual amount of discoveries has been much different to seeing the various related items on any ecommerce site. Adam’s right that the personal recommendations are based on previous purchases, so aren’t going to recommend something from an unconnected genre, but those tend to come from the sources mentioned above.

Considering I’ve had record shop assistants express disbelief at my seemingly random selection of CDs – “No, none of them are presents, and yes, I can enjoy thrash metal, Irish folk music and obscure 70’s funk”, I’m not sure an algorhythm could ever hope to cope.

Which is probably why the serendipity of music in the digital age has to come from the same place it always has – from other people exposing you to their music and sharing it. Whether it was mixtapes and bootleg cassettes with photocopied inlays being swapped around, or a friend’s dad enforcing a course of Pink Floyd indoctrination every time he gave us a lift to school, that method remains the same, but the potential pool of influencers is much enlarged, just as every aspect of our social circle is enlarged.

Footnote:

None of this means that I don’t still enjoy browsing record stores, although my sole purchases these days tend to be particularly obscure vinyl. By the same token, I still have an addition to visiting the likes of Foyles and far more esoteric bookshops, such as one devoted solely to motoring books. But the serendipity effect of a generic mainstream retailer such as HMV or Waterstones has been completely replaced by digital encounters for me, and judging by sales figures and the precarious state of most of them, the end of the mainstream High Street entertainment shop probably isn’t far away.

Blipster client will boost Blip.fm – great music microblogging

I’ve been a longtime fan of Blip.fm for much of my musical needs – I’ve decribed it as ‘crowd sourcing John Peel‘ because it provides a great way to discover new music, compared to Last.fm, Pandora etc, which tend to operate in practice more as players of music you already like with the very occasional new song you might enjoy.

But the biggest hindrance with Blip can be going back to the website endlessly to keep entering new songs and skipping others – particularly when I’m working. Hence why I’m not sharing as much as I used to (My profile is here).

And then I discovered Blipster, via DownloadSquad.

Blipster client for blip.fm

Blipster client for blip.fm

It’s an unofficial Adobe Air client created by Leo Lobato (also on Blip.fm and Twitter). So it works for PC and Mac, assuming you’ve got Adobe Air running – and if you’re using clients for microblogging, it’s worthwhile having the discussion with your IT department if you need to!

Blipster allows you to search, listen, add contacts etc, just as you would on the site, but without necessitating tab swapping etc.

Just the thing for helping me make more use of Blip.fm on a relaxing Sunday…

Internet pirates will sail the streams…

Interestingly, after postulating (and possibly posturing) my view on how streaming TV and video solutions are a bigger piracy threat than Peer-to-Peer services like Bitorrent (Which grab all the headlines and the attention of the multimedia industries), I spotted this: P2P traffic drops as streaming video grows in popularity.

While the Ars Technica article looks at legal streaming solutions, like the BBC iPlayer, Hulu and Veoh, the fact that it’s encouraging users to utilise faster broadband connections to consume content which is quicker, easier and safer to view means there’s likely to be an equally large amount of people realising ways they can share paid content for free via streaming websites.

Funnily enough, it’s not just problems with the content itself – The Spyware Guide blog reveals an example of a fake site claiming to stream the complete Batman: The Dark Knight movie – but the real motive is to get you to download a dodgy .exe file.

How I found music – and how that’s changed

When I was a child and teenager, I was as obsessive about music as it was possible to be. I combined aspirations of becoming a professional musician and DJ, with the compulsive behaviour of a serial librarian and collector. So you can imagine how many music magazines (NME, Melody Maker, Metal Hammer, Kerrang, Record Collector, Mojo, Q etc), and how many records and eventually CDs I consumed – just to make it clear I’m not completely over the hill, CDs came into circulation when I was about 11 or 12 I think…

And just as my interest in videogames and comics have both waned during early adulthood and resurfaced now due to meeting likeminded people online, my interest in music has seen a healthy resurgence. In the meantime, I still listened to all my old purchases, but I rarely found anything new. That’s changed a lot thanks to the internet.

There are basically three sites I use for all my music needs (although for the moment I still only have a radio in my car!)

  • Blip.fm – There’s been a lot of buzz around Blip recently. In fact, I even suggested it shows the best method of monetising Twitter, as it’s essentially a cross between a microblog, and an annotated John Peel show. You simply tell people what you’re listening to, and if it’s available on the site they can listen as well – and that’s all filtered by who you follow, with the option to buy MP3s if you like something enough.  It’s perfect for a quick blast to find songs I’d have never heard about, or listened to, unless it was recommended by a trusted source.
  • Last.fm – It’s essentially the only real option at the moment if you’re outside of the U.S. We can’t access Pandora (but founder Tim Westergren has stated it’s close to closing anyway), and Meemix seems to have focussed on extras rather than a reliable player.
  • Myspace – Yep, it’s hard to believe in the age of Facebook dominance, and open source Muxtapes, but if I hear a bands name, and I want to hear their songs really quickly and easily, I tend to end up going to Myspace even before last.fm – mainly down to speed. It’ll be interesting to see if that means I use it more when the Myspace streaming radio finally appears. It might replace last.fm, but only if it offers a stream of my favourite choices without a need to subscribe

And that’s about it for music. I very occasionally catch a music show on TV (I’ve been looking at 4Music as it’s co-owned by Bauer Media where I work, along with Kerrang). I hear the radio for about 10 minutes in the car (and that’s only until I replace the stereo so I can listen to podcasts), and my only real radio use is to listen to live football if I can’t watch it. Three online services, and the recommendations I receive have replaced pretty much all my other musical inputs.

And incidentally, all my latest CD and MP3 purchases have all been songs that I would never have heard on the radio, were all things I generally struggled to find in most music shops, and once again persuaded me how much easier it is to find music online.

Myspace MP3 store is a huge threat – but not to Apple

There’s been a lot of discussion about whether the new Myspace Music store will pose a threat to the Itunes and Ipod Applopoly. But I’m a little surprised by Last.fm co-founder Martin Stiksel being so ready to dismiss the threat to streaming music services.

The growth and success of Itunes, added to the image of Apple products and services, gives it a fairly secure position at the moment, and it would take something pretty revolutionary to overturn that. Certainly I’ve encountered enough people who have lost music collections from Ipods yet won’t switch to an alternative to realise Apple devotion works across all their products and services. And enough alternatives exist, even including supermarkets.

However, plenty of people already use Myspace to listen to individual tracks by their favourite artists, and offering a streaming radio service without limitations would make this option extremely attractive. And would seriously threaten several services.

I recently heard a stat regarding Last.fm which is pretty believable. Apparently just 25% of Last.fm users actually visit the website, with most using the ‘scrobbling’ tracking software, and possibly the downloadable radio player. It makes sense as the Last.fm site is hobbled by 30 second clips, and limits on the amount of times you can listen to individual tracks by specific artists. And although it does a reasonable job of finding similar artists, it won’t let you play the specific inspiration before sending you round the houses, which leaves the similar artists without any context. The arrival of Myspace could push Last.fm to concentrate on scrobbling and displaying widgets, which will either lead to new and interesting revenue streams, or could put a real chokehold on the traditional display advertising on the website.

Meanwhile Pandora.com is still on a U.S only lock down. And when you’ve taken something away from users, it puts you in a far worse position than when you’re launching for the first time. There’s no news on any re-opening to non-American markets, and in the meantime, along comes a site already extremely popular, and proposing free music streaming. Suddenly the non-U.S. world forgets Pandora exists. That’s going to limit expansion!

And then you have a myriad of small rival streaming services, like Meemix, which has a plethora of great add-ons and ideas around their music service – but has a corresponding amount of niggles and flaws, as if the ideas exceeded the ability to deliver in a simple and user friendly way.

Myspace can be far from user friendly – but enough people are already familiar with it and accept the problems to mean they’ll jumping all over new music options. And various research shows that the early adopters who jumped ship to Facebook etc are likely to still have a Myspace profile and pop in occasionally, so a fair few profiles could be fired up again to explore a new music option.

At the end of the day, it could be really good news for consumers, as Myspace plans to offer DRM free downloads (possibly pressuring others to follow suit), and it could prompt some serious thoughts about giving more value to users in the streaming market, and some serious attempts to differentiate and move ahead. It’s not often I praise and support Myspace, but for once their plans have my vote.