Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

I’ve had this maybe amazing idea whizzing around my head, involving Airbnb, to use its website structure to help loads of people, at no cost to the company and with universal benefit to society. I also thought of how to coerce them into doing it. I can’t find a flaw.

Please feel free to comment and please share this blog entry if you like the idea. Let’s make the ‘sharing economy’ live up to the tag.

10 Paid Nights, One Free Night.

Over the past three years Airbnb has grown hugely, exponentially, worldwide. If you don’t know it, Airbnb offers a website for people anywhere to rent out their spare rooms on an informal, short-term ‘holiday let’ basis. The system is kept clean and fair by a TripAdvisor-style open comment/rating facility, so people who rent out rooms are judged by those who’ve stayed with them. Like Tripadvisor and SpareRoom, Airbnb is having nothing short of a revolutionary effect; radically changing our lifestyles. We love Airbnb – for example we find it significantly more reliable than booking conventional hotels via Laterooms.com. We’ve stayed all over the place and met fascinating, lovely people.

So here’s what I want Airbnb to do (at first in the UK but with potential global roll-out). I think this could be a fantastic, enormous social benefit, while costing Airbnb almost nothing to implement. In fact it will benefit the company in long-term reputation and help to bring this new kind of informal web-connected marketplace model into the heart of our cultural mainstream. But also, in case Airbnb is unwilling to try it, I reckon the UK government has leverage to coerce.

The idea.

10 paid nights, one free night. Airbnb makes people renting their rooms out offer respite accommodation for carers and digs for touring artists. Anyone letting out a room for money gets 10 nights as normal, then they have to donate one night in that same room for free. This is regardless of room price. The room is offered with exactly the same description and conditions as normal. People renting out their rooms must sign up to either (or both) of two schemes:

Scheme #1 provides respite breaks for full-time carers. Carers are ‘approved’ by the charities working in that field and once they’re accredited, can book Airbnb rooms for free, as and when they need, up to a certain total (perhaps 50 nights per year). The charities do what they normally do (provide respite care in their absence and other support mechanisms) but no longer need to fund the accommodation, for carers to get a break. There is no cap on the number of full-time carers who can register; as long as they qualify, they’re on the list.

Scheme #2 provides digs for touring performing artists of all kinds (theatre groups, actors, musicians, comedians, perhaps even writers on retreat). This requires a slightly more convoluted structure, accredited through the Arts Council. Rather than individual artists being accredited ad infinitum (which would be open to abuse) ACE accredits specific touring shows and projects (or perhaps artists for a specified ‘travelling work period’, such as two months). The artists then book through Airbnb in the normal way. (Perhaps there’s a rule whereby artists cannot opt into accommodation and at the same time get other public funding, so you either join the accommodation scheme, saving those costs, or you apply for funding in the normal way. Accommodation is a major cost of any tour – the biggest cost by far for small-scale touring. A whole swathe of working artists who don’t want the layers of complexity and uncertainty involved in applying for formal ACE funding would still sign up and benefit hugely from this simpler in-kind opportunity. But I digress…)

If people renting out their rooms want to offer more than one free night, that’s fine. Doing this builds up credit – so if they give away four free nights in a row, they have 40 paid nights before needing to donate again. A whole two weeks given free = another 140 paid nights before needing to re-up.

These new service users feed back on rooms they’ve stayed in, in exactly the same way as paying customers, in fact not distinguished from them unless they state it themselves. This beautifully blurs the line between people paying to stay and people who’ve been donated a room because they’re fulfilling a crucial social function. It gives them an equal voice.

And ideally, eventually, this becomes the standard Airbnb model: one free night for every 10 paid nights.

So here’s how we coerce Airbnb into doing it. Airbnb has grown so fast it is now valued in the £billions, if you can believe it, it’s already a significant proportion of the value of the world’s entire holiday accommodation industry. The mainstream hotel business is terrified and lobbying fiercely (particularly in the USA at the moment) to have governments clamp down. In particular they’re building concern that because it’s informal and based on thousands of individuals doing small, cash-in-hand transactions, the people who make money from it won’t declare their earnings as tax. Also, they don’t jump through any of the bureaucratic, or health-and-safety hoops that commercial hotel or B&B businesses have to navigate. So there’s the fear that people renting rooms through Airbnb will have their data passed to the state, or that the site might get made liable and shut down.

Meanwhile, historically, the British Government (specifically HMRC, regardless of which party is in power) has been bloody shit at collecting huge amounts of owed tax from massive multi-national companies, for no discernible reason except they’re chummy with the bosses. They have so much leverage in this area that goes to waste, it’s sick. Yet because Airbnb helps many non-rich people earn small amounts of extra money that may be taxable, likelihood is, Government (especially the current gimp coalition) will consider going after it aggressively.

What if, instead of getting lobbied into the courts to grab Airbnb’s data, the Government just takes the firm’s UK bosses out for dinner and quietly says to them: donate one room in 10 and we’ll leave you alone?

I don’t mean for a moment that people using Airbnb will avoid owed tax; they’re still totally liable. It’s just, well, HMRC has happily sat down for posh lunches and made informal bespoke arrangements to pay almost no tax at all, with big fat bastards like Vodafone, Amazon, Starbucks and that tiny little bastard Ecclestone. Why can’t they use their weight to do something good for a change? Imagine, this could be a shining light, a morally beautiful example of the government’s tax powers directly encouraging a social good, without even letting anyone off paying what is owed.

Or maybe, to get ahead of this possibility and earn huge, lasting public goodwill in one fell swoop, Airbnb will just do it off their own backs. Use the UK as a beta trial, to see how viable it is...

Even the website bolt-on required is simple; doesn’t get in the way of any transactional mechanisms. And of course, Airbnb can offset costs of the web-build. Or perhaps the web developers will do it pro bono because they’re hip like that. More broadly, I can even imagine a bold move like this from one market-leading company having a permanent, paradigm shifting positive effect across the entire ‘sharing economy’, creating a presumptive good-spirited norm that the service being offered also requires a charitable, community-led element. Surely that would be incredible and forever undercut the negative perceptions coming out of more traditional industries.

And that’s it. Airbnb gets ‘persuaded’ to go for 10 paid nights, one free night. Donated to carers needing respite, or touring artists needing digs. It’s so simple, it feels perfect.

What do you think? Beautiful but impossible? Does it have any holes? Feel free to jump in with a comment if you have one. And if you like it, please share this argument because – who knows – maybe the Arts Council and carer charities will just build their own rival system. Or even better, Airbnb will just decide to do it anyway, out of the kindness of their hearts.

posted on March 23rd, 2014

The morning after, my manager phones me. “What the fuck did you say to Ed Harcourt?”

“Nothing? I don’t think we spoke, maybe he said hello? Why?”

“Chris, you’re an idiot, he was sat in the hotel lounge explaining to everyone what a rude cunt you are. You’ve done yourself no favours. For God’s sake.”

Hotel lounge. I’m remembering the last train home heaving with Croydon drunks and someone kicking my guitar.

“Sarge, I honestly don’t remember a conversation. You had me there from midday til midnight to play two songs with no food or money while everyone else swanned in and out, I was pretty fucking tired and pissed off at the end, maybe I was a dick but not in a proper personal dick sort of way, just in a me-being-a-dick sort of way and you know it was a fucking rubbish night, for that lineup it should’ve been rammed, Hitchcock and Stewart Lee and a half full room and some Plum Promotions arse and no atmosphere and you pretending to spin discs on your laptop, not even a real CD player and we turned down supporting fucking Decemberists at the Water Rats for that? Fucking Decemberists, they’re going to be huge!”

(Calmly) “No they’re not, Chris. You did the right gig. And you’ve got to be nicer next time.”

Last weekend we went to Collider at the Science Museum, the exhibition about CERN, the LHC and the discovery of the Higgs Boson. It is £10 for an adult, gets drastically undermined by its introductory film – and I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed coming out of a major exhibition. 

Is this what mainstream science-based curation is like?

Collider opens with a video introduction given by scientists inside a mocked up lecture theatre. It’s not clear if these are real staff members, or actors playing caricature. The lead is a Yaffle-ish cliché, over-enunciating like a first time local newsreader, giving us a kind of smug, self-absorbed monologue about peripheral, mostly meaningless stuff. Of course, if he’s a real CERN scientist I feel bad for dissing his delivery – but this whole section is desperate distraction rather than rich content. It feels like a hundred idiots tweaked the brief. It feels like a multi-agency fluff – where directors and editors entirely fail to establish target audience, or decide what needs saying, or oversee their presenters to be simple and economic. Actually, it feels as if the sole aim is not to explain the Higgs Boson or LHC at all, rather to ram home the point that scientists are interesting people with human lives. This is Cowellian distopic nightmare writ large and shoved worryingly deep into our science and innovation establishment. Emotive (and silly) personal life nonsense and generic “Whoa! how excited we are!” replaces any sense of authority or faith in the richness of what these experiments may mean. One scientist tells us she’s doing it all for the memory of her humble schoolteacher father – and her script reads exactly like one of those moments on X Factor when they force-grow audience empathy. My gears grind. We’re in a presentation to relentlessly tell us how important it all is, rather than showing us.

Also, they use the phrase ‘money shot’. How on earth did that get past an editorial team? “Mum, what does ‘money shot’ mean?”

There’s one teasing footage moment of Peter Higgs and some actual findings – less than three seconds – before we skim away again, uneducated and unmoved. Far more time is spent on an inane, irritating joke involving Brian Cox, who appears faced away from us, while a scientist calls him ‘new boy’ and demands a cup of tea from “what was your name again?” “Brian”. Meaningful look to camera.

And then one scientist makes this joke, with the clear implication that we’re meant to laugh with him, not at him: “My wife says I spend more time with the LHC than her. But I can get another wife.”

Gobsmacking. The scriptwriting is criminal. Imagine how much more powerful this film could’ve been if someone (yeah perhaps Cox, since they’ve paid him to show up anyway!) did the following simple steps: (1) explained the problems they wanted to solve, questions they wanted to answer in the first place (which don’t get a mention). (2) showed us clips of CERN at work and play, (3) then clips of the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs and maybe some Peter Higgs himself (that can be our emotional kicker). Finally (4) summing up (as simply as possible) what it all means. It’s, er, not rocket science. By god, an actual history lesson.

Collider’s opening salvo is sexist, badly put together and dumb, its compromised cheapness rendered obvious by the huge screen size. It fatally injures the rest of the exhibition, which without it (and without the entry fee) might’ve been perhaps mostly harmless. We need to suspend skeptism and, fundamentally, maintain interest in these scientists’ achievement in order to enjoy being briefly and vaguely immersed in their world. Instead we walk through the rest of Collider filled with the exact wrong responses. Sarcastic and flaw-spotting. Disengaged. There’s a high quality surround CG film that takes us ‘inside’ the LHC itself, whooshing around us on a huge screen, yet with no components or processes adequately explained. There are further scientist narratives which are much better; talking about individual aspects of CERN’s work. There’s the evocative recreation of an office space and corridor, which – again – aims to entirely prioritise the humanising of the staff, ahead of any explanation of what they do.

If Collider is this weak, it has a further problem: how vastly rich the experience is to simply walk through the rest of the Science Museum to get there. If you’re remotely engaged with, or interested in science, or if you have children who are interested in science, please visit the Science Museum, it’s a wonderful, overwhelming place. I found more of Prof. Cox’s trademark “Wonder!” in a single projected display showing vividly how many satellites there really are orbiting Earth (answer: a shitload, looking at it makes Gravity a ton more plausible) than the entire Collider walk-through. So please don’t spend the extra money to visit Collider. If they’re contributing to the Cowellising of culture like this, we’ll only encourage them if it’s successful. Instead, we can find other ways to discover and share the joys of the LHC and the stories of the scientists who built and used it. An hour on Youtube will probably do the job vastly better.

posted on December 9th, 2013

It’s that time again. I think this year has been exceptional for all strands of culture and I’m well pleased with how much I got to check out (especially films and books), compared to the last 2-3 years. So here we go, 2013 in culture…

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posted on October 31st, 2013

My third Pecha Kucha talk was given (as were both previous ones) for the Brighton Digital Festival edition of PKN Brighton. I love the format but this time it ran away from me…

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This article was originally published in Louder Than War magazine.

A great number of UK music artists I admire now use crowd-funding platforms like PledgeMusic or Indiegogo to raise cash from fans, to fund albums, videos, or touring. It’s very quickly been normalised in the music industry, to the point that you’ll almost never hear a bad word spoken about these platforms. Unusually, they’re popular with mainstream upcoming artists, the companies around them and also fully independent, self-described DIY or underground artists.

But something in me finds them disconcerting. I admit I’ve not once contributed money to an artist’s Pledge campaign. Each time I hear about one, even when I adore the artist, my heart sinks. Yet people clearly feel it works and there are a pile of happy (on the surface at least) customers. It’s a perfectly legitimate way to fund music in the new online paradigm.

So, what’s my beef?

As hugely successful US crowd-funding company Kickstarter launches in the UK; for the first time offering a serious competitor to PledgeMusic, it’s worth considering the case against, if only to enable a debate when the narrative is so blandly positive. Full disclosure: I’ve never tried it myself. Xtra Mile Recordings did run a successful Pledge campaign to replace stock (including my albums) destroyed in the depot fire (after the London riots) but I have no personal experience of running one. Trying to figure out why I’m not into them, here’s what I’ve come up with:

The emperor’s new clothes. Wasn’t half the point of going online to get rid of third parties? Instead it’s a messy battle. We binned major labels but got trapped in the price-controlled, tax dodging chaos of Amazon and iTunes, even when Bandcamp gave us a cleaner alternative. Then along came this whole new generation of third parties, jumping in ahead of the distributors to get their share, before the music’s even made. And because the process is automated, artists and punters alike seem blind to an obvious truth; at a basic fundamental level, web-based platforms are the same old villains wearing a hipper jacket. Yet again they find a thing that artists (wrongly) believe they can’t do alone, then slide in between artist and audience by offering that thing as a service, in order to cream off profit.

I’m convinced almost any artist with a moderate fan-base can crowd-fund just as easily, with less commitment, more control and a greater overall ROI (return on investment), just by having conversations with the right people. What is it about these formal frameworks that let the artist off the hook of asking personally for support, when it’s usually the exact same people who end up contributing anyway? You want someone’s money, fucking go and ask them. Write a letter. It feels as if everyone’s playing at grown-ups by using a third party website as a dressing-up box.

That’s too much money. For running a largely passive, artist-driven web-based platform (nothing more complex than Flickr, Instagram, Facebook or a hundred other free sites) with a simple financial processing structure bolted on, these companies charge 15% of revenue – and are less than transparent to funders, who are often only vaguely aware that there’s a percentage taken at all. And that’s a lot. That’s what a music manager or booking agent took in the old days, for doing a massive load of work to bring in income. Artists have spent 100 years deeply resenting – and regularly sacking or suing – managers and agents on the same percentage they now happily give to strangers for letting them sit on their web servers for a bit.

Treats for funders are embarrassing and a total arsehole to get done. Money is teased out of devoted fans with offers of rewards, exclusive content, private attention, all sorts. But these bring the wrong kind of closeness; too big a sense of a personal debt owed; often placing artists in uncomfortable situations. Trying to record music with 25 funders sitting in the control room as part of a treat day is a joke. A cause of this over-reach is also malevolent: the ever-increasing sense of urgency (becoming terror later) as the deadline looms, because ‘success’ is so important it erodes any objective sense of what is realistic or achievable. Which brings me to:

Something not even made yet is already a failure. On Kickstarter 56% of projects fail to make target and get zero. Unpack that stat and it’s pretty concerning: these creative people didn’t undertake Kickstarter lightly in the first place, they made a plan, shot a video, offered their fanbase all the bonuses in the world and still failed to hit target. That’s a whole lot of effort and commitment gone to define themselves as a big fat loser, for financial reasons rather than artistic judgement. I wonder what the damage done is, in real terms.

This is innately biased (of course) against inarticulate, disorganised and working class artists (whose wider communities and support bases tend to have fewer financial resources). I also reckon, although this is tenuous, that the system leans in favour of technically innovative, science-based, gimmicky, design or technical projects over pure art, because the former can be more easily explained, ahead of actually doing it.

New album releases go on forever. First the artist talks up the new album before even starting to make it. Then they endlessly document the process. Then it’s done and first they release it exclusively to funders. Then they do other posh formats separately, in order to send them out to other funders. Finally they release the album to everyone else. It’s been weeks since those first people got hold of it and someone immediately file-shared it. We’re bored now.

Finally, my biggest, most esoteric dissent speaks to broader issues about fundraising campaigns in general. These platforms rely on everyone turning a blind eye to a truth: that a very few devoted followers will fund almost everything. When artists draw resource from their audience, a very select core number of individual funders (relatively wealthy and truly devoted) will underwrite the whole ballgame. This is already true of the wider music industry: If we started analyzing the tiny contingency of people propping up our entire business, we’d be aghast. In crowd-funding, success or failure depends on whether the artist has those particular followers. I say this without specific data to back me up – however it is based on first hand experience not in the music world, nor business, but in the third sector (charity industry). In language and structure, arts crowd-funding campaigns far more closely resemble charity appeals than other kinds of business fundraising, right down to the ideas around ‘donating’ in return for special rewards. A charity industry ‘universal truth’ is that at least 80% of money comes from fewer than 20% of donors. Successful crowd-funding campaigns will always have exclusive, very high value rewards for much larger amounts, where ‘selling’ only a handful of them underwrites a massive proportion of the campaign. It’s an identical approach.

Honestly, so many artists I know who’ve crowd-funded would back me up here: because of this principle, the success or failure of a project is less down to the size of audience, or how hard the artist works the campaign across the breadth of their fan-base; it’s more down to whether they’re lucky enough to have a small core of very devoted and relatively wealthy fans, and/or some rewards of high value to offer those fans.

I believe, far too often, the artist becomes slave to the campaign, rather than the other way around. You would be astonished the number of artists out there who, even after publicly successful target-smashing campaigns, will later quietly express a range of regrets that they wouldn’t want their generous audience to know about. They look back and regret what they offered; regret the time wasted honoring those offers; regret how panicky they got about a ludicrous arbitrary definition of ‘success’; regret how the balance in their relationship with supporters shifted; regret not finding the funds elsewhere, so they could be more flexible about what it was they were making.

And these are the ones who won.

Now, I’m not really bothered; from all angles it’s just people making choices. I guess I just feel a bit sorry for them all, that they couldn’t try other ways first. And phew, I didn’t even mention Amanda Palmer.

ps. thanks to music fan and Words With Friends opponent Matt Rhodes for emailing me a question about recorded music pricing, which triggered this article – sorry I haven’t actually answered your questions at all, Matt, I’ll get to them.

posted on August 13th, 2012

I knew Kim Gavin’s Closing Ceremony would be the antithesis of the crazy-beautiful joy that Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce brought to the opening night: I knew it would be predictable and mainstream. But that was fine, we’d have a laugh, enjoy the music acts we like and I honestly thought it would still be funny after three hours. Witnessing the pop stars and lickspittles trying to equal Boyle’s heady brew. Art is subjective, after all.

I was mistaken: it was a numbing, disheartening disaster. The biggest floating turd we ever did whiff; reducing, demeaning and re-squishing Britain, at the very moment we’d felt shifted long-term for the better by these liberating Olympic Games. In one fattened pig of a gong-show, Gavin forced us back into clunky shackles that Boyle and Boyce briefly, tantalisingly freed us from, only a month ago. Far worse than just being bad, what unfolded was – I think – proper fucking dangerous. You know that phrase: the banality of evil. So.

There’d been rumblings that Danny Boyle didn’t put enough Churchill in. Our war leader, fast deposed in peacetime, wasn’t given enough of a strident voice for organisers’ tastes. Because obviously we need thoughts of conflict and top-down triumphalism, not co-operation and shared effort, to show us off to the world on the eve of a big sports pageant. Dur. Anyway, Kim Gavin kicked off by correcting that error, with admirable actor Tim Spall bellowing something from The Tempest, stretched over a noisy background canvas in awful parroting rasp, reprised in broader strokes from his performance in The King’s Speech. Not a fresh moment then; instead lifted from someone else’s casting and someone else’s process.

This flags up clearly what was about to happen for fucking hours: piles of stuff presented as unique, weighty or historical that was actually just re-staged ubiquity; hackney carriaged bits and bobs, flung up-and-out on stadium scale, nothing new added. Constantly disappointing, the show repeatedly heralded musical legends who weren’t there; Bowie, Bush, they didn’t appear, just backing tracks over a tannoy. Desperately a commentator tells us Kate Bush re-recorded her vocal part for the ceremony. Why even bother, though?

Another outing for Emeli Sandé. In the Opening Ceremony she performed too but it wasn’t so much about her, then, as what she was singing: The Meaning had little to do with her domestic fame or career path. This time it was the opposite: entirely about Sandé as a PR machined product – and she went on for ages. I have to believe both Adele and Leona turned down Gavin, for Emeli to have got this length of slot; I’ve forgotten anything about the song except the totally Adele-ish solo piano accompaniment. Foghorn Florence was too edgy to appear, or too smart.

Gavin couldn’t get Oasis to reform; instead relying on Liam’s Beady Eye to karaoke ancient song Wonderwall. And what the fuck has happened to Liam’s voice? Once perhaps the greatest sneering, louche roar this country has produced – a rich, northern counterpoint to Johnny Rotten – yet now I guess ravaged by cocaine,  inactivity, far too much soft cheese, it’s a horrible whining dither. Like when The Fast Show one week swapped Jazz Club for Indie Club (ha, there’s a boring, outdated 90s reference for you) it was a disinterested parody of ‘alternative’.

I reckon George Michael’s live auto-tune was still on as he spoke between his two songs, so his voice glitched out as if he’d breathed helium.

And the most audaciously lazy bit of all: the entire audio track of the opening section then replayed as backing soundtrack to the athletes arriving and partying. Gavin couldn’t even be bothered to pick some different tunes to play out over the PA. Even the shittest amateur wedding DJ wouldn’t pull that stunt. So cheapskate, one almost expected the Spotify adverts to interrupt halfway through.

Such relentless, vacuous prioritising of burger van iconography over real-life performance (or talent) is summed up by Russell Brand’s song’n’dance number. I like Brand but he is a stand-up comedian, television presenter and sometimes a useful cultural commentator. None of these are here, instead we rely on his hyperdriven celebrity itself to carry something that is patently (and self-knowingly, since he played it for laughs) drivel. Now I’m getting carried away slagging it off but there is a more important thing needs highlighting about this show, with a direct comparison:

From the Opening Ceremony, take Atkinson-as-Bean’s comic bit around Sir Simon Rattle conducting Chariots Of Fire. Whether or not you enjoy Bean, this was an undercutting and re-humanising of an epic ‘classic’ piece of music that – without fundamentally lessening its power (it was subsequently used throughout the Olympics) – took it to a previously unseen, interesting, funny place. THAT is how to treat an icon. It was Gerard Hoffnung-esque, de-mythologised the orchestra and took itself lightly without deadening itself. Meanwhile, there was Akram Khan’s powerful Indian dance in near silence, linked to Emile Sande singing Abide With Me in tribute to fallen comrades. Here, crucially, the ethnicity, or ‘exoticism’ of the dance is not the point of the dance, rather it is presented as part of a bigger ‘us’, while the emotion in the dance is its strength and focus.

Compare those two sections to their near parallel in the Closing Ceremony; where Eric Idle flounces through Python smash Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life before being interrupted by, again, some Indian dancers, who befuddle and confuse him, throw dust on him, leave him distracted. On a quality level; again nothing new or rare. Performances of this song take place every night somewhere across the UK as part of Spamalot. On a political level, it no way captured any of the subversive silliness of the original from Life Of Brian. All reference to the film’s edgy content exorcised, of course.

But far worse, this routine was entirely about the otherness and exoticism of the Indian dance juxtaposed against Idle’s familiarity; this was the dancers’ sole point; to be alien where previously there was comfort. This is deeply malignant. Idle’s uncomfortable adversity was cultural diversity, because that is how this ruinous establishment needs us to feel about multi-culturalism, even as we pay lip service to difference. We already saw clearly – for example in far-right Tory arsewipe Aiden Burley’s “multi-cultural crap” tweet and a Daily Mail piece so bursting with racism even they re-edited it – how Boyle’s opening work was drastically radical by comparison: ethnicity and background properly enmeshed and un-highlighted.

Kim gave a similar bashing to gender, sensitivity perhaps heightened by how the past three weeks has been an extraordinary Olympic Games for women; with significant, real steps taken. The ‘fashion biz’ segment in the Closing Ceremony was an unfathomably regressive bit of choreographed objectification. It felt deliberate, as if designed to rein in any aspiration or hopes that briefly glimpsed light this past month. Huge photos of girls in posh frocks. Superstar models appear, celebrified, apeing their runway work on flatbeds. It wasn’t a fashion show in itself, or a true celebration of design (which would’ve told us something about design). It was more like the revenge of the owner of the commodified clothes-horse: as if womankind needed to be ritually re-objectified, after a short respite month of being valued in a better way. Ramming back home the wider truths of rape culture and wealth-based costumery idealism.

Appalling on both fronts: politically (not party-politically but in its representation of us as a people, a nation, to the world) and culturally, through its sheer, gobsmacking lack of material. Kim Gavin’s ceremony contained not a single new or unexpected idea. Not one! Just relentless looping of overly-seen bits from other big recent shows, produced by the same hegemony. The Who perform. Tick. Brian May does a big guitar solo. Tick. Ed Sheeran. Tick. There is no content and no meaning here whatsoever.

They were perfectly within their rights to produce a poor show – or rather, a show I personally didn’t enjoy: one person’s piece of crap is another person’s fun party. But what they weren’t within their rights to do was claw back the goodness. They stole our rapture and they put John Lennon’s dead face onto commodified conventionalism. Kim Gavin is the perfect example of an endemic disease in the modern British arts industry: a hugely powerful establishment creative director who is not actually a creative person, or if he was, long ago outsourced it for status and pies. His show was not cookery but mere assemblage – a Lego house built from bricks we all saw already, outdated values and the co-opting and commodifying of grace. And not even an interestingly shaped whole.

What Boyle’s Opening Ceremony had done was open up the doors; a box of delights; the best of what we are and what we can be in Great Britain, how we built this motherfucker. Showing us our truthful crazy-beautiful spirit and heralding in two weeks of sport in such a way that we felt something could be reclaimed and changed. We repaid him by being the best athletes, volunteers and audience in history.

What Gavin’s Closing Ceremony has done is to throw Britain back in the box and slam it shut; fiercely and unquestioningly placing current hegemonies back in charge; re-infantilising and re-exoticising all that Boyle had tried to unlock for us; a revenge for the otherness and the hierachy and the celebrity-for-its-own-sake, just as these bullshit Cowellian things had seemed to be proven unneeded. It was a boot on our face. I wonder how we’ll repay him.

posted on March 2nd, 2012

I’m very proud to say I have an essay in the first New Public Thinkers book, available now. Edited by Dougald Hine and Keith Kahn-Harris, the book is called Despatches From The Invisible Revolution and includes some breathtaking writing from the likes of Pat Kane, Keri Facer, Noah Raford, Vinay Gupta, Smári McCarthy and many others.

Despatches From The Invisible Revolution

We were asked to write about 2011 as a fulcrum year. My contribution The Year Punk Broke seeks a connection between last year’s accelerated global changes and our personal ability to grow and change.

Find out more and purchase Despatches From The Invisible Revolution.

 

 

posted on February 24th, 2012

“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” – John Lydon

“They’re just a band.” – Scroobius Pip

If you’re remotely interested in live music (or just fucked off when you can’t get tickets for a show without paying double face value) then last night’s Dispatches programme was essential viewing (watch it on 4OD). It exposed the reality of ‘fan-to-fan’ ticket reselling websites like Viagogo and Seatwave; that they’re actually just online touting; regardless of any stated business model, they primarily cater to professional touts and promoters of major shows, such as SJM, LiveNation and Metropolis, who collude by allocating them batches of prime tickets, to make more money than face value.

Grim stuff, yet it was nothing one couldn’t expect or predict if one thinks about it for more than a few seconds.

However the investigation left out three points that I think could’ve been covered with equal vigour:

First, because Dispatches approached the issue solely from a consumer point of view, they failed to follow the money and investigate bands and their agents’ relationships with those promoters who’ve bumped up profits by re-selling. A fascinating (and potentially explosive) question is: do bands and their agents get a share of that extra profit, or not? Promoters and artists split profits of a sold out show, based (presumably) on number of seats times ticket price equals overall gross income. How is that calculated? Are the big artists being diddled, or are they complicit?

I ask because it will be terrific fun to watch, if it turns out promoters have ripped off some of the biggest names in music by reselling their tickets above the agreed sums, without passing on any of the profit. Unlike us humble punters, these bands have the resources and wherewithal to fight back, if they so choose. Or, if they’re complicit, they would make a much more effective target for consumer groups to attack, by publicly shaming the likes of Coldplay or Rihanna or Will Young, rather than the comparatively anonymous promoters.

Secondly, Dispatches should’ve investigated the perfectly legal and now almost universal, yet immensely damaging, exclusive closed pre-sales to owners of certain mobile phones or users of other services that have a relationship with the venue but no connection to the artist. By giving a specific group of people priority access to tickets, regardless of whether they’re a fan, surely the secondary market is being massively further nourished, while real fans are locked out in the cold. Arguably these pre-sales are actually worse for fans than plain touting, since they normalise the reselling process and turn otherwise normal ticket buyers into touts, for the bands they didn’t want to see but felt obliged to ‘take advantage of an offer’ on.

(I don’t mean pre-sales to artists’ own mailing lists or fan clubs, by the way, that would seem to me to be a perfectly logical and reasonable process.)

Finally, I would’ve loved to see Dispatches widen the investigation to look at the whole process of brand sponsorship of elements of the entertainment industry. If you’re an artist playing to 2,000+ people in the UK right now, it’s almost impossible to do that without becoming a tacit advertiser of O2. It’s not the Brixton Academy anymore, it’s the O2 Academy Brixton. Even smaller venues are increasingly branded. Yet did you know that if you purchase a t-shirt at a gig, the band aren’t getting all the money – the venues take as much as 25% of all income from merchandise, despite being supposedly ‘supported’ by a brand sponsor? Almost no bands are able to fight this – even the ‘guaranteed sellout’ bands who know they’ll fill a venue, make a venue and promoter a heap of money in drink sales as well as their share of ticket revenue, still are unable to work out individual deals to keep all the money from their merch sales. So one solution you increasingly find happening is artists and their management quietly supporting and supplying the ‘bootleg’ merch sellers outside the venue, to claw back some of that revenue…

and da-dah! …the system gets even more fucked and corrupted.

I have mixed feelings about this Dispatches. Although touting is fucking irritating and further snags up an already messy business, if punters weren’t so obsessed by certain hyped huge shows that they pay ridiculous amounts over the odds, it simply wouldn’t happen. Moaners seem to be calling for some kind of legislation to regulate an industry over and above other industries, simply on the basis of an annoyance factor. I hate it when otherwise-happy Capitalists do that, it’s one of the worst, nimby-est bits of liberalism. Last night on Twitter I called it a #sheeptax but nobody reacted (probably for the best!).

Anyway, there’s an economic case for saying it is proof that these shows are under-priced (ha! This isn’t something I actually believe, by the way) – a secondary market only exists while fans are willing to pay. So Madonna took a shit-load of heat recently (including from me) for saying her tickets should be £180, yet once you average the touted price with the official £60 face value Coldplay tickets, they actually came out at roughly the same figure. Many, many people paid £200+ to see Coldplay at the O2. Well, ultimately, do they really want my sympathy? Who’s the bigger fool?

So yes, it’s an appalling practice. But if people resolved tomorrow that they wouldn’t pay above face value, even if that means sometimes missing a show they wanted to see, pouf! the trade vanishes in a cloud of smoke.

I just had a killer idea for selling advance tickets to concerts online – a way of migrating ‘pay what you want’ across to the live music world, without having to do loads of gigs for £1.50. I think someone needs to build this app (or Eventbrite and other online sellers need to add it as an option). By the way, if this is already happening somewhere and I just missed it, I’ll happily stand corrected.

The ‘pay what you want’ model (popularised by Radiohead I guess) is now widely used by artists to sell downloads. It’s available as an option on Bandcamp for example; I tried it myself for 2010′s Christmas download and it worked beautifully. But to my knowledge nobody has set it up for gigging in a way that works: Eventbrite does have a ‘donation’ based ticketing option but it has two deal-breaking flaws: 1) they still charge a booking fee on the donation (!) and 2) if you reach capacity mainly from people who donated nothing, you can’t then prioritise those people who donated more. You get a room full of people who valued the experience at zero and turned away some folks who were willing to donate a chunk. So here’s a simple twist on the system that would make it beautiful:

Pay-what-you-like but the promoter can keep offering tickets after capacity has been reached. At close of sale (based either on a fixed point in time, or on a total amount of money donated), the highest offers (bids/donations) are the people who get the tickets and have their money taken.

The promoter can even set a cut-off point, so they want to earn a fixed amount and (once capacity has been reached) the system keeps prioritising higher offers (bids) until that amount is reached, then cuts off – which will still allow some lower bids access to the show. Meanwhile punters can keep checking back on a gig’s popularity and raise their bid / donation if they start worrying they won’t get it. It needs to be open to be fair, I guess.

*EDIT* and I guess it needs a reserve amount too, below which the gig doesn’t happen!? Hadn’t thought of that…

I bet this would be a relatively simple add-on for an advanced system like Eventbrite or The Big Cartel. (Not to even mention good old WeGotTickets, because they’ve got some catching up to do)

*EDIT* Luke Beesley (@LukeTotD) has found a catch: it makes life tricky for people who travel to gigs via public transport, since there’s an element of risk involved, yet you get much cheaper public transport bought in advance. And you’re more likely to want to donate *less* if you have to travel, because of the total cost involved. Yes, this is a problem.

I wonder if you could include in the model an option for a ‘secure it now’ price, for people who don’t like the risk. This would have the added bonus of encouraging gig prices upwards (from my point of view that’s a bonus since I fundamentally believe most non-’heritage genre’ or ‘tribute’ small live music events are currently underpriced), while taking the risk out for those willing to pay a little more. It’d also be fun and perhaps, with a forum-style comment space under the ticket thing, create more of a community out of gig goers?

Am I now over-thinking it all? Comments welcome below, as always…

*BIG EDIT* Rhodri Marsden made a strong critique of the idea on ideological grounds on Facebook, and he’s agreed I can add our conversation in below:


Rhodri
I thought “Wow! that’s a good idea!”. And then I thought, no, it’s not. The reason it works for music is that there isn’t a finite number of products. If people want to pay more, then they can. That’s fine. But excluding people from gigs because people with more disposable income pushed ahead of them in the queue just seems a bit crap.

Gigs shouldn’t be about exclusivity. Certainly not in our world. Part of the reason it’s nice is cos everyone has paid a tenner to be there. Except the freeloaders, but I don’t believe in freeloading either and always pay even if I’m on the guest list. (I’m rambling now. I also appear to have become more left-wing in the last 3 minutes than I thought I was.)


Me
my starting position (which you may disagree with) is that most small gigs (discounting ‘heritage genre’, ‘tribute bands’ and ‘lineup of local hopefuls’) are currently underpriced. Secondly, surely this system is no more exclusive than setting a fixed price in the first place? I believe a key to the gig industry is the disconnect between what promoters and artists believe people will / can pay for live music and reality. The myth is: people won’t pay £10 for a evening of live music but they’ll pay £8.50 for the cinema. To counter your ‘exclusivity’ issue, you can still run the ‘auction’ but stick in a ‘buy it now’ price.


Rhodri

Oh right. Yes. For some reason in my head we were talking about a room full of people who’d paid £20 squeezing out those who could only afford a fiver. If it’s a roomful of people paying a tenner squeezing out those who are only paying a measly quid, somehow it becomes more palatable.


Me

In many places in the country a glass of wine in a bar costs almost £5. I’m not feeling bad about people only prepared (able) to pay that, perhaps (sometimes) getting edged out. But fundamentally, folks would set their own levels.


Rhodri

But doesn’t supply & demand economics set gig pricing levels in any case? Popular gigs cost more money, less popular gigs don’t. I don’t think there’s going to be a rush of people (say) desperate to pay £15 to watch something at the Buffalo Bar.

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  • Kids putting together an acapella 'Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For'. It's so beautiful, Bono is almost forgiven.
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