Finally, iTunes is in Australia

I love it, iTunes Music Store has arrived in Australia!

It’s great that the best and pretty much only decent digital music shop has been made accesible to Aussies, the only problem I can see is that they deliver the songs as 128kbps AAC files – I just bought Africa Babaataa’s “Looking for the Perfect Beat – 1980-1985” and it was ALL 128kbps M4A (AAC). Now these M4As are of a higher quality than standard MP3s, which is good, but only at 128kbps???? I would have thought the service would supply M4As (AACs) in at LEAST a 192kbps bitrate? It means higher quality sound, something along the lines of CD quality.

I can think of FOUR reasons (none of them acceptable) why they wouldn’t have supplied at this higher bit rate:

FILE SIZE: It would be a larger file, therefore less files can be fit on any one iPod

BANDWIDTH: As it is a larger file, it would take longer for people to download, but marginally. Maybe 20%-30% longer.

DECODING: The higher the bit rate, the higher the computing power therefore more drain on the batteries. The less bitrate, the less taxing on the processor and batteries, therefore longer battery life on the iPod.

RECORD COMPANIES: They still prefer people to buy their physical product, therefore would still want people to buy the “real thing”.

Good, but a shame. I’m going to leave some feedback that if we’re going to spend a LOT of money on a digital album ($16.99) the least they could do is supply it in a format which is even in the BALLPARK of CD or vinyl quality? Is this too much to ask?

KaZaA vs the world – digital downloads vs legal eagles

Sharman Networks, the owners of the KaZaA P2P file-sharing software, has been sued by a collection of record companies in a civil case in Australian courts. The company is under pressure as the record companies are claiming that KaZaA was responsible for rampant piracy and file sharing of coyrighted product.

At the same time, on the other side of the world, record companies are buying into and initiating strategic alliances with file sharing software companies.

“Share and share alike, I say”

How the hell do these record companies make any sense? They don’t! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – file sharing is the best thing to happen to the music industry in years. It has encouraged passion about music again. What is this Christmas’ hottest gift? The iPod! what do people do with their iPod? Listen to music!

The problem with the music industry isn’t that people aren’t paying for music, it’s that they keep merging and releasing less artists of lower quality – therefore people couldn’t give a toss.

As a side topic, part of the defence argument from Sharman Networks is that file swapping per se is legal in the US, where 98 of users reside. It’s an interesting point – it is legal to swap files, but illegal to actually break copyright laws. Let’s hope the Supreme Court of New South Wales follows the precedent set in the Betamax cases where VCR manufacturers actually advertised that people should buy their VCRs based on the fact that they could duplicate tapes. The court found that while the act of copying was illegal, the VCRs had a legitimate use therefore could not be made illegal.

Either way, it shows how out of touch the record companies are – they sue KaZaA and another one will pop up in its place: Acquisition, Limewire, et al. To paraphrase Princess Leia: the more they squeeze the more file sharers will slip through their fingers.

Sadly, I imagine this is how companies will behave as digital distribution eats their business model. Sue, block or lobby to stop their competitors from taking away their cosy business model and replace it with something consumers much prefer.

Welcome to the New Economy Part Two: CDs are dead

The CD is dead.

When will the record companies wake up and smell the coffee? In one of my earlier posts I spoke of how the new economy was passing the music industry by and that the obsession with distribution networks was denying the industry an ability to move with the times.

Now it seems the media on which most of us listen to music has become irrelevant. I’m talking of the announcement from U2 and Apple that the latest U2 “Best of” offering is not so much two CDs filled with their best songs, but a U2 branded iPod which has over 400 of U2’s recordings on it, including previously unreleased material.

All I Want is You

What does this mean?

Why go to a record company if you are a young unknown artist? Go to a bank, borrow money, record your album at the best studio in Australia (or if you’re brave, at home on your iMac) and release it online, using sponsorship and touring money to market and promote yourself. Distribution and the record company as “middle man” is over.

Not to say U2 are totally amazing; I’m a fan, but not their biggest fan. I saw them live at Sydney Football Stadium a few years ago for the POPMART Tour (a few months after Michael Hutchence died) and they played a great gig on a balmy night with the remainder of INXS, Kel and Rhett Hutchence and a whole load of other people who were close to INXS in attendance. It was a hot and balmy night, and just as U2 played “One”, the skies opened up, lightening arced across the sky and Michael Hutchence’s face glowed large on the two screens.

A beautiful, hopeful night; the exact opposite of the recorded music industry.

Shock and Awe – John Peel OBE 1939-2004

Legendary figure of the worldwide music industry, Mr John Peel OBE has died suddenly while on holidays on South America.

John Peel has been a superstar radio DJ, having broken literally hundreds of bands in his time on radio over forty years. Starting off in the sixties on pirate radio moored in tug boats off the coast of South East England, he was one of the original DJs on BBC’s Radio One when it commenced broadcasting in 1967.

Even to this day, he has pioneered musical genres often promoting acts and style which his contemporaries said would never catch on: punk, new romantic, indie, 1990s Britpop, dance, drum ‘n’ bass and techno. He often introduced musical styles which were outside the mainstream until he dragged them into the spotlight.

Stars of the music industry, past and present, have offered their tributes to the man who more than any other, actually took a punt and decided who and what he would play, and changed the face of world culture possibly more than any other individual broadcaster. He understood and loved music, and more importantly he got it! In the modern days of music directors and highly regimented and conservative playlists, he stood alone: his patronage of young bands, his passion and understanding for music, the famous “Peel Sessions” where unknown (for the moment) bands got a chance to play live for an hour on radio, the passion and the expression.

A sad, sad day for music. John Peel you will be missed.

Epilogue: John Peel was halfway through writing his autobiography. That we will never read his experiences from his perspective is something that is particularly galling.

A New Medium?

Robbie Williams released his Greatest Hits album on Monday, which was released on a multimedia card (MMC) format for the first time.

Is it the time to get excited?

Well I’m not entirely convinced. The point is that MMCs can be put into Palm PDAs, phones and a lot of other portable devices. But then again, all EMI have done is sold an MMC and the encoded album on it with a couple of extras.

New media or same stuff, different day?

So why not actually just sell a downloadable version of the album with all of the bits and pieces on it, lower the barriers to pricing by not having to sell people the actual card and sell more? The thing is, if you make people buy a card AND the album then it makes it very difficult for people to purchase it without having a very involved decision – it more expensive than buying the copyright in isolation.

On the other hand if you allow people the ability to buy the album online and download it into their iPod and their mobile or their MMC or their MemoryStick then it can be cheaper and more flexible. MMC is also not used in a majority of products anyway? Why did they choose MMC over any other format? Why go exclusively to MMC?

They may well be doing this already, I don’t know. If it is one thing that is good, it is that in the UK, the album will find a new, huge retail chain (Carphone Warehouse) who are selling music where previously they weren’t. That’s a positive.

Aussie Hip Hop – The True School

American Hip Hip is lost. The birth of Hip Hop, the expression of ultimate aspiration against all odds, has been perverted by the new school, bling bling, bullshit, get rich style of contemporary hip hop.

The old days of rebelliousness, of working against the odds and devoting the art of rhyme to the street struggle is long gone. But not in Australia!

Aussie Hip Hop is going through an incredible boom at the moment. The reason can easily be linked to the fact that young males need a musical outlet for their frustration; a voice which they can identify with, a voice which speaks from the position of some disadvantage or perception of a long road ahead with a lot of choices and difficulties. Aussie Hip Hop is delivering this in SPADES while US Hip Hop is rubbish. Bling Bling Nelly and his mates are too busy talking ’bout the Benjamins and driving Bentleys to be writing and singing about rebirth and pride.

Not to be a melancholy old school nostalgist, but Public Enemy used to call themselves “the Black CNN”. Ice-T invented gangster rap not to glorify rap but to show that a criminal lifestyle is “fun in the beginning but it’s pain in the end”. Boogie Down Productions talked about Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement. De La Soul just plain tripped.

But now? The stuff coming out of the US is rubbish. Not since Wu Tang Clan has there been relevant rhyming about the hard times, aspiration and the hope that one day there will be a better life. Honest rap, not the record company advance fuelled, multi-million film clip styling of a boring and irrelevant music industry.

Aussie Hip Hop is achieving this honesty because it is yet untouched by the boring old marketers who are so out of touch they think Fox FM is cool. Aussie Hip Hop is about “wishing I had $50,000 and some land” not rubbish which does nothing to appeal to the true school of Hip Hop fans. US Hip Hop has moved into full on product marketing territory, with songwriting and imaging manufactured to appeal to the latest brainwaves from a polling company’s study of 12-16 year old school girls.

It’s wrong and it won’t be long before Aussie Hip Hop charges into the mainstream of public taste. Hilltop Hoods and their stablemates at indie labels like Obese Records have come close with a Gold selling album, and it won’t be too long before TZU, Fizard and other Aussie acts achieve the same and maybe even the unthinkable – an Aussie Hip Hop success in the US.

Who is going to represent a rebirth of true school hip-hop in the US?  The Pharcyde?  Newcomer Kanye West?  Pray tell readers…

Free trade is music to my ears

The fear and loathing which has poured from the creative industries about the upcoming Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the US is an ill-informed and ill-performed stage show. The creative industries have got to be less outraged and more aware of what the FTA truly means, as they stand to benefit from such a change in our terms of trade.

There are multiple barriers to entry and distortions that governments all over the world set up in the name of protectionism. However protectionism serves only to destroy economies and harm the ability of consumers to pick and choose the best, rewarding the best and most efficient producers. Protectionism promotes complacency from the protected companies and producers of product and it lessens the ability for consumers to pick and choose goods and services that meet their needs the best, whether from Australia, the USA or any other country.

With the removal of trade barriers, the biggest winners are consumers. We find products at lesser prices, with a greater range. The savings we make on cheaper products we either save or spend on more products. The economy grows and the “dead weight loss” of protectionism leaves us wealthier.

However there are vested interests and arguments that have skewed the coverage of the negotiations. Whether these arguments are spurred by anti-Americanism (hypocritically, while the creative industries have their main source of inspiration and Mecca in the US, they find it easier to mock and ridicule its influence), or whether it is a total ignorance of economics and the advantages of allowing willing and informed people to trade with one another without the interfering arm of Governments standing in the way, or whether it is an unwillingness to stand accountable to investors and critics, the creative industries have been rabid. But much like Governor Schwarzenegger’s most recent films, their argument is a lot of interesting hype and no substance.

The Australian film and TV industry has been particularly vociferous in their argument over the retention of Aussie content on film and TV. They argue for the retention of quotas due to their perceived easy substitutability of foreign product. As their argument claims, TV shows are much of a muchness – an Aussie drama is the same as an American drama only more expensive – therefore we have to protect the Aussie content from being overrun.

Also, because the TV broadcast quotas affect the consumption of the product, that is that TV shows are services and as such are simultaneously produced and consumed and cannot be stored on the shelves and purchased later, they argue quotas are necessary otherwise it is possible that there would be no means for Australians to watch Australian TV shows.

These arguments are totally false in that they assume that people’s tastes are irrelevant and that they will consume what is served up to them, come what may. This is the same stupid argument that is used when people argue against other corporate (read American) behemoths such as Coke, McDonalds and Starbucks.

“Local restaurants will close and all we’ll have to eat are Big Macs,” they proclaim. “My local espresso shop will be driven out of business”. Their argument implies that all it takes for world domination is enough money and geographic spread. The tastes, preferences and simple, plain obvious evidence that people like their local coffee shop or local fashion label or local sport or local TV show because it provides something different and unique at high quality are ignored in this absurd argument.

A similar argument exists in the music industry. Radio quotas mean that Australian radio is obliged to play Aussie music at least 25 per cent of the time. Without these quotas, the music industry argues, radio stations would blindly adopt playlists of foreign radio stations and there would be no Australian music on the radio. This would, they argue, result in the end of the Australian Music industry. However this argument is again fundamentally flawed.

First, what is “Australian Music”? Radio stations that play a new song by Kylie Minogue could barely be playing Australian music, could they? A song funded by an English record company, written by foreign songwriters, published by a multitude of foreign music publishers, recorded, mixed, mastered overseas and sung by an artist who herself lives a majority of the year in the UK could barely be called “Australian content” could it? But it IS! AC/DC, a band that has not lived, nay visited, Australia in years is still regarded as Australian content for radio purposes. As is Natalie Imbruglia, who was signed out of BMG UK (therefore controlled and marketed from the UK) and for all intents and purposes is an English artist. If the basis of broadcast quotas is to encourage Australian culture, then how is it being aided in these instances?

Second, unlike the TV industry, Australian radio content laws apply only to the playing of music in terms of its role as a promotional tool. Unlike TV which has no other means of consumption, music is primarily produced to be purchased, with radio only playing the part of promotional tool (albeit a major one). Even if Australian radio failed to play Aussie music, it would not cause holocaust (just ask George, who were BARELY played on commercial radio and still managed to sell double platinum and win, ironically, the “Best New Talent” at the 2002 Commercial Radio Awards). And when was the last time a commercial radio station played a John Farnham song?

Furthermore, with the explosion of streaming music stations and portable music formats, radio is finding itself largely irrelevant in the discovery of new acts. How can a quota possibly cope with or be relevant in five years time when most likely we will be able to listen to a wireless digital webcast from a station anywhere around the world?

Third, if quotas were removed, local radio stations would STILL have a commercial interest in playing local music. Just as all politics is local, all radio is local. Radio plays the music that the local audiences want to hear otherwise their ratings suffer and their ability to attract advertisers suffers. Just like the earlier argument in the context of McDonalds and Starbucks, people DO want something unique and interesting; they do want things that are local, Australian, part of their community and importantly of equal or better quality than the other product.

New Australian music will still be played on the radio as long as it is better than the next best alternative. The same applies in every venture; people have unique tastes and local people cater better than foreigners – if they don’t then there has been no loss – we could have had the American Idol broadcast here but instead we have had our own!

Fourth, people are huge fans. People who are fanatical supporters of artists, whether Aussie or otherwise, will always support their band through thick and thin. They will not simply “substitute” their affection for one act for another just because they are playing a similar style of music. Something for Kate fans will not replace their preference for “like” bands and accept it as an alternative – they will want to hear Something for Kate.

There is an argument that in the long term bands such as Something for Kate will not exist to create a fan base if not for the quota system. However these bands currently struggle to get airplay until the quality of their songs, the fortitude of their record company and the size of their fan base (built through touring and other means of promotion) is good enough to convince recalcitrant Music Directors.

The point being if young bands are not good enough, then they don’t get played anyway. They have to be just that bit better to play in a free system. They get better by writing more songs, playing more gigs, taking more time in the studio – the outcome being their songs are very, very good when they are launched upon the world. What’s wrong with that? How is that any different to any other competitive environment?

Free trade has thankfully opened up industries which were bloated and inefficient and has created lean, efficient and largely far more successful products than ever before. The Australian car industry is a great example of this. For years we struggled with low quality, overpriced and generally unappealing locally made cars. When tariffs were reduced, car quality got better as the local manufacturers found themselves less “safe”. Yes, some jobs were lost. Yes, Nissan closed its manufacturing plants. But at the same time, Toyota, Holden, Ford and Mitsubishi have found that the utilisation of skilled and creative Aussie labour has meant cars are now made here which are exported all over the world – this never happened in the “good old days” of protectionism! They could have imported 100 per cent of their cars but they realise that not only is Australia a relevant market to cater to but a relevant market to export from. This is the outcome that Australia’s creative industries should be aiming for.

If (and it’s a very unlikely if, but if) the FTA means the removal of quotas it will hardly make a difference. The fact is that if the product is good, it will get a run in any case. The corollary being if the product isn’t good enough to compete, then what’s the point of even pushing it? If it’s not good enough to compete, will it sell? Highly unlikely. If it can’t get on radio by virtue of the fact that it doesn’t cut the mustard with the latest Madonna or Coldplay single, will it mean the end of the act? NO! It will mean an improvement, a greater incentive to provide a better product from the artist and the company. And the better the product, the more satisfaction from the consumer, and we ALL win.