Sunday, 21 December 2014

Four lessons learned in 2014

Part 1 of the Radio to Go 2014 retrospective: more next week

We're heading out of 2014 at speed. As usual, it's been an eventful year. Lots of changes, and tons of great stuff to celebrate. I'm saving most of that for next week's review - some of the high and low points of the year and a look forward to 2015.  

Before that, a word of thanks to you for reading the blog in increasing numbers. As of publishing date, total page views were well over 237,000 - nearly double last year's total. Three years ago, when I shifted the focus more onto music, I'd hit 10,000 over four years. Writing the blog has led me to an awful lot of interesting topics, and hooked me up with some fantastic people. 

This week's post, also a yearly blog feature, is a lot more personal. Here are a few lessons that I learned - or, relearned - this year. They may be a bit counter-cultural, but, hey, that's how it looks from here. It's all about:
  1. Webanomics, winners and losers, 
  2. Things changing at media - slowly, slowly...
  3. Yet another way the beeb is losing out
  4. And...Albums. 

1: e-slavery...? 

The internet may be good for big business, and those who catch a wave, but for the rest of us? I'm not so sure. I feel like I'm there so someone else can make money, off me or from me, no matter what I do, or where I go. That's webanomics. 

Take voiceover work. I've been voicing (commercial and training videos, museum guides, that kind of thing) all my working life. It's a useful way to make a bit on the side. Here's my demo page if you're interested. Five years ago, I went online to reach new markets. I didn't really have a choice: most of the small indie producers I'd worked for had been squeezed out by web operations. And for a while things were OK. I paid a yearly fee to get job leads; I pitched a demo each time; I got some work; I came out ahead. 

The job lead agencies I used aren't fussy - they'll take anyone's money, and they'll post anyone's job spec. Now, anyone can set up as a voice guy. Kit is cheap; you don't really need a studio. So as the recession bit, more and more people came on board. Fees got smaller and jobs got harder to land. Clients failed to pay up. When you're stiffed by someone three thousand miles away, you're just not going to get paid. The job lead agencies wash their hands of the problem - all they do is introduce, you see. 

It's that famous web-powered level playing field again: a field so big you can't see the end of it. Great for producers; crap for talent. Now, people watch the job sites like hawks, and bash out a demo the moment a gig comes up. That works for some, but not me, not at least if I want to have a life. Spending my days welded to a computer screen for a chance to get work is not my idea of scraping a living. I met an ex-radio guy last year who told me he spent an hour cutting a demo for a ten quid gig. He didn't get it. Someone undercut him, by five quid. 

This doesn't just apply to my little market. There are sites like fiverr: places where you pitch for five buck jobs - or four bucks after commission. This is, effectively, e-slavery. A studio owner friend told me his market now splits between bedroom laptop warriors, a shrinking middle ground, and a top end in London where the big money goes. It's the same with voicing. Fine for the girl who voices for all the supermarket check-out machines - and good luck to her - not so fine if you're not in that market.

So I've bailed out of that way of working. Spending hundreds of hours a year chasing dwindling job prospects, while laying out over £200 per site for the privilege, just doesn't add up any more. I have some regular trusted clients who call on me to do work, and that's fine. I'm better off, I've got more time, less stress and I'm not funding companies - there's lots of them, and I've tried most - who make empty promises and then throw you sales pitches promising to help you get more business for yet another fee.   

Still, it could be worse. I could be a small business pitching through Amazon.

2: At LAST! signs of evolution at radio/broadcast media/video

But if webanomics are screwing you, there are upsides. Tech is allowing more flexible creativity. I've done a lot of really interesting and enjoyable radio and audio work this year. It's all been for the love of it, working with some astonishing people. And it's absolutely not conventional music radio. There are people who think differently, and some of them are starting to get traction. 

Change is coming, well away from 'conventional' radio. It's not just pert vloggers like Zoella rewriting the media landscape – there are now addictively good podcasts out there, and they're starting to find the means to pay their way.

I think the key is focus and direction. The big BBC and commercial radio platforms know exactly what they are doing. Whether you like them or not, they have a clear and solid idea of where they are going, and how they want to work with their audiences. The most successful of the new players do that too. That's something that small-scale radio often lacks.

It's also obvious that radio, the web and tv are converging. Formats and concepts dating back fifty years are being outpaced. Consider: dirt-cheap production software allows streaming of radio and video on the same channel. That opens up a ton of possibilities.

This converging broadcast/streaming world is going to continue to change. I can't wait to see what comes up - as long as it has focus, it stands a chance. Most of the time the web throws mind-rotting trivia at us: cute kittens, baby pandas and buzzfeed. That tide of trivia has a purpose: it's click-bait, it makes money. But a lot of radio has simply followed along, lapping it all up. Mistake. 

There's much more than that in play. If long-form television series, with demanding, intelligent plot lines and terrific characterisation, manage to punch through, breaking existing moulds, why not take that idea on to radio, and do it really well? That what Serial has done, with huge success.  

3: The BBC continues to cut its nose off to spite its face in the Midlands. 

Auntie, Auntie, Auntie! There's a screamingly obvious step you could take, right now, that would cost peanuts and boost your reputation no end. 

I've had long chats with the affable Tommy Nagra this year. He's Head of Business Development for BBC Birmingham. Part of his pitch is to sell Birmingham. No argument from me – I've been here since the early 70s. Tommy also praises the city's diversity. That's familiar ground as well. I was the first radio guy anywhere to put UB40 on air. Oh, and Ruby Turner, The Specials, Steel Pulse and The Selecter, too - all of whom wrote the book on Midlands multi-cultural creativity in the late 70s.

But here's the point I made to Tommy: it's even better now, and you're not doing anything about it. We're living though a new golden age of musical and literary creativity of all types. And where do we see this represented on our national broadcaster? Um...

If Auntie really gave a damn about the Midlands, rather than trousering the license fees we send down to London, while continuing to cut jobs up here, they would be all over this talent like a rash. It wouldn't cost much: this is a radio thing and radio is cheap. The BBC just needs an effort of will to lose its bunker mentality and actually connect with this market. Done right, this would be hugely powerful. All Auntie has to do is reach out for the low-hanging fruit, and find ways to celebrate it. 

It's deeply ironic: in 1927 the BBC had the biggest music studio in the whole country, right here in Birmingham. Even fifteen years ago they still had a gorgeous 16-track facility you could put a seventy piece band into. Now, that's a distant memory. There has never been any explanation for how and why the BBC came to so disrespect its largest region - the one which contributes a quarter of total license fee revenue. 

That hot talent isn't just in the Midlands, in fairness; it's all over the country... but this is my patch, and I am massively frustrated for all the local talent we have in our region, constantly passed over because the networks don't even bother to look. I'll come back to this, and what the beeb has done - or not - in 2014, in a few weeks. But remember: I still love and admire you, Auntie, and I always will. Right now, you're our best hope.

4: Albums matter. Oh no, they don't. Oh yes, they do.

Next week I'll list some of the corking albums that we've seen in 2014. This week I just want to flag up a question: why do we stick to the album format? I wrote about this a while back, and all the arguments are still valid. And here's a pertinent music industry blog piece from July this year.

Songs travel singly, especially when the web and mainstream broadcasters carry them, one at a time, on iTunes, Spotify and YouTube. So why do we stay loyal to a dated concept of a parcel of songs, originally physically gathered together around one concept, or one period of time? Well, we're not, really. Just ask Bono. As a mainstream business proposition, it's odd. Musicians lose out by handing their album over to streaming services. You have to pay, remember, to get your stuff up on Spotify. They make money, you don't - more e-slavery. 

Ah, but as an artistic proposition, it makes sense. Dated concept or not, an album is something that artists still buy into as part of their creative process. In some cases, it's pure vanity. In other cases, it represents a body of work, a milestone, a statement of intent. Musicians still plan out sets of songs for live work. So its logical that they would embody those sets on CD or Bandcamp downloads. 

The distinction is that the musician trades on a relationship with his or her audience, while the music industry trades on saleability of product. And at cottage industry level, the album stacks up. You go to a live gig and the artist blows you away; you take away a memory; the artist gets his or her due. In fact, it seems to me that, at local level, where so many excellent artists ply their trade, the ability to sell your own work directly has given local music-making a massive shot in the arm.

The paths that music and musicians take to reach listeners are many and varied. The only time that fashion comes into the equation is when you're being sold something. 

Bottom line? Creativity is in rude health. But many creators are not - yet - getting their rewards. Again. Still.

Have a peaceful Christmas. 


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