Why I worry about the new Spare Rib

The women’s issue of Frendz, done by the Angry Brigade people, started the meetings of the women in the underground that then produced Spare Rib, so you could actually say that the Angry Brigade were responsible for Spare Rib.

Rosie Boycott, in Days in the Life edited by Jonathan Green

Charlotte Raven’s picked up Boycott’s baton, and instead of passing it to a new generation, she looks set to toss it about amongst her media friends, and some “middle-aged punks”, whatever that means.

Everything I feel is good about the drive to make this world a better place should be encapsulated in a revived Spare Rib, and yet today’s interview with Raven in the Guardian made me sad, and not a little frustrated.

For a start, there’s that weary dismissal of what Pussy Riot may, or may not, have come to represent in an era where marketing departments commodify everything. The fact is, commodification of the Pussy Riot image was vital to the spread of their message of defiance. It’s not the ’60s anymore. Capitalism won. So you fight with the enemy’s weapons. And if you fight so well that The Times puts you, and the words Pussy Riot, on its front page, then I think you can be congratulated, not turned into some intellectual quandary for a “middle-aged punk” in a big north London house.

Raven very nearly joined Pussy Riot on the barricades, at, um, Epsom Derby, but didn’t, because she couldn’t think of a particular issue to fight for. This is understandable, I suppose. The Occupy movement’s rallying cry became diffuse, for example, because it was co-opted by too many other voices. But still - they slept on the streets anyway, and slept there for many cold nights, and we saw the beginnings of a sea change in economic thinking.

Is all direct action for the good then? No, but even the awful Angry Brigade, with their shit bombs and crackpot ideals, ended up inadvertently giving birth to the first version of Spare Rib. The 21st century version was, according to Raven, catalysed by her media friends being a bit bored with the crap the mainstream media’s churning out. A mainstream media in love with narcissistic columnists. Oh the irony.

Is the new Spare Rib going to have the impact something like Emma Barnett’s Telegraph women’s section may have, bit by bit, on that paper’s hoary bunch of misogynistic bile-spewers? Because really, Barnett’s fighting the harder fight. Trying to impress Simon Kelner is not much of a stretch compared to stating your case, day after day, intelligently and without rancour, side by side with a column by Toby Young (a point I feel Raven may agree with, ahem).

Amidst all this hand-wringing over what feminism can do in this hyper-marketed, columnist-dominated media landscape, is the unspoken opinion that, actually, some of the major battles were lost somewhere along the lines, and need to be fought again - only harder, and in a more sophisticated way. This may be an unpalatable thought to some of the “middle-aged punks”, but we’re in a new era, and need new weapons. 

The thing is, many young women probably found Pussy Riot empowering because they’d never heard of, say, Valerie Solanas. And maybe they found Pussy Riot inspiring because they read about them in Vice, because Vice could see that the image was as important as the message, and you can engage with both and not feel like you’ve been duped by some marketing machine. 

I’m sure Raven and I are on the same page when it comes to something like Lean In. This is not where we should be headed. But equally, I don’t believe sitting around writing about how feminism needs to decouple itself from the insensitivities of branding and marketing will help matters. Do you realise how far back in the stone age that marketplace still is?

You have to fight this battle on the terms laid down by the aggressors, surely? Take yourself out of that arena and you become irrelevant.


Pay the writer? Sure. But start with the readers

So, the debate about paid journalism over at The Atlantic. Will you look at the size of that article? Nothing the media likes more than talking about itself. And people really love to read long bits of text in smallish fonts on their computers don’t they?

And no sub headings. Just a couple of pull quotes. What’s a pull quote? Oh, it’s a hangover from the days of print journalism, and serves no real purpose on the web. 

And all those comments! Really good to see the original writer engaging with them… oh wait, he isn’t. (I know, he’s busy. Too many posts to write every day).

And on it goes. 

This is an example, of which there are many across the web, of a media company more interested in its writers than its readers. It thinks it’s interested in its readers - “we’re writing top quality journalism for them!” - but it isn’t.

Upworthy, now there’s a site that cares about its readers. Short, mobile-friendly stories, often with video attached, with incredibly compelling headlines, easily shareable.

(“But oh god,” says Serious Journalist Person, “the content! It’s flimsy. It’s a sop to the tl:dr generation!” Well yes, exactly.)

Or you could look at Gawker. Look at how they incorporate their readers’ comments into the main article. They aren’t tucked away below the fold, unloved like the Atlantic’s, or those of the Guardian’s community of maniacs (maniacs because they’re unloved). It’s not much of a progression, but it’s a start. I mean, Clay Shirky left a comment in that Atlantic article, which could’ve started a new debate if the writer had been able to engage with it. It could’ve lengthened the life-span of the original story.

But no one’s listening to the readers are they?


Why are we still discussing the future of the CD?

A lot of discussion online today about HMV’s struggles. Inevitably, much of it focuses on the implications for the CD as a viable format. Some are saying - 

Wait, sorry. What? The implications for the CD? We’re still having this conversation? There is no future for the CD. Nor the DVD, though that format’s demise may be more protracted.

A victory for the streaming model? Perhaps. The mobile is the future of most media consumption, at least until connected TVs become even halfway usable. But I’m not going to suggest that this represents the end of the format wars (a war record companies need to stay commercially viable). 

Jimmy Iovine is after something more contextual from his digital music experience, hence his backing of new streaming platform Daisy. I think he’s on to something, just as I think Pitchfork is on to something with Advance. The delivery of music is solved. Let’s think about the experience around that delivery. Perhaps it will look something like Blue Note’s Spotify app.

Maybe these issues will never be mainstream concerns. Most people will simply download individual songs to their iPhones from iTunes. But I’ve got a feeling that a new way of looking at how we experience music will emerge from this mess. The ‘album’ is something tied to the CD/vinyl experience. The app is too expensive to replace this sort of simple song curation, but something in between Advance and the Blue Note app has potential.

Think of the current shift in advertising to branded content. The band is now in a similar position to the advertiser. No one’s paying attention. Everyone has access, and there’s no value in the relationship between artist and listener. Advertisers are trying to solve this by teaming up with content creators and starting conversations around their brands.

Perhaps the artist is now going to have to sell a story, or an experience, as much as an individual song. And I don’t mean a personal story, nor do I mean a live experience - although they’ll both play a part. The future is bands who come with a world that can be explored, just as brands now come with a magazine attached. So what? Now musicians have to be content creators, film-makers, writers, designers, maybe even coders?

Sure. It’s been that way for a while. But the end result hasn’t particularly evolved. All those skills and what’s the final package? A collection of songs or a video. Why not… the band as TV show? The band as fashion line? The band as magazine?

What does that mean? I’m not sure. But I am sure it would be exciting to find out.


The tech conference speech formula

I was at a tech conference in London this morning. It was quite similar to a lot of other tech conferences I’ve attended. I started to think about the tech conference speech formula, which has become ever more predictable in its pseudo-intellectual dot-joining. 

  • "I’m going to talk about [insert new ‘ism’]".
  • "I’m going to start with a story about [obscure person from the past]".
  • "What this illustrates is [tenuous link to ‘ism’]".
  • "Fast forward 100 years and [excitable pitch for some potentially disruptive technology vaguely related to ‘ism’]". 
  • "If you don’t act on this you’re going to get left behind just like the people who didn’t appreciate [obscure person from the past]."

People applaud, because they’ve been dazzled by the Malcolm Gladwell-ian/Adam Curtis-ian ability of the speaker to connect a couple of disparate things together and present them as a narrative.

"It was clever because it made me feel cleverer, even though there was nothing in the speech of much practical use in my actual business."

Then they go and eat some pastries.


Best Music Videos 2012

I have just written a report for Stylus on the most innovative music videos of 2012. Here’s a small selection of some of the promos featured.