Digital Media

CMU Review Of The Year 2011: The media and the internet

By | Published on Friday 23 December 2011

Media Review 2011

CMU’s Andy Malt and Chris Cooke look back at a year of digital music innovations and developments, and at the big stories and trends in the media industry.

2011 was not a good year for British newspapers, even though, via their websites, most are now talking to bigger audiences than ever before. But print readerships and ad revenues continued to slump, while internet ad sales failed to grow sufficiently, mainly because of stiff competition from Google and Facebook for the ad man’s pound. With subscription websites not really working, most publishers now hope some kind of subscription-based app might be a solution, and some dabbled in that area this year.

But bigger than all of that was Hack-gate, a scandal that had been brewing for years, but which exploded when it was revealed in July that, as well as hacking the voicemails of celebrities and politicians, News Of The World journalists had accessed the answer phones of victims of crime too, most notably murdered teenager Milly Dowler. Worse still, a number of NOTW hacks were clearly involved, when the paper’s publisher, Rupert Murdoch’s News International, had always claimed there was just one.

Facing global outrage, NI took the radical step of shutting the NOTW down, but still public anger rumbled on. Former NOTW editor and then NI CEO Rebekah Wade resigned (eventually), Murdochs Rupert and James faced embarrassing questions in parliament, and it all ended up with a big government-instigated inquiry, with the crimes and lies of NI, the tactics of all journalists, and the tricky issue of privacy rights all combined into one big muddle. A major media story, if not hugely music related. Though George Michael got the boot in, and Charlotte Church appeared at the inquiry.

Hacking of another kind also cropped up in the headlines of 2011, as small groups of angry geeks around the world – many affiliated to the likes of Anonymous or LulzSec – targeted the servers of organisations, and sometimes individuals, who represented big copyright owners, or who it was felt were in some way censoring the internet.

Such attacks weren’t new, and had been prevalent in 2010, though an attack on Sony Corp’s servers, which enabled hackers to run off with the personal details of customers of both its PlayStation Network and streaming content platform (then still called Qriocity), was possibly the highest profile attack. And very embarrassing for an already struggling Sony company, whose handling of the crisis was widely criticised.

Though the authorities did start to fight back, with various hackers around the world accused of involvement in such attacks arrested, including some linked to the Sony attack, and more recently one accused of taking the website of Kiss man Gene Simmons offline in late 2010, after he said record labels should have sued all file-sharers.

Back in 2007, Morrissey gave an interview to the NME in which he appeared to say that an “immigration explosion” had damaged Britain’s identity. Which a lot of people pointed out came across a bit racist. Morrissey, however, claimed that the interview had been reworked to make him sound racist by then editor Conor McNicholas and vowed to sue.

No legal action was forthcoming though, until this year, when the former Smiths frontman finally sued for defamation. In October a judge ruled that the case could go ahead, despite NME publisher IPC Media’s protestation that as Morrissey has released albums and toured successfully in subsequent years, his reputation clearly hadn’t been damaged by the interview, something that is required for a defamation case to succeed.

The case is now pending a court date next year, and though this type of dispute is often ultimately settled out of court, both sides seem so determined to prove their innocence that it looks likely it will actually reach trial. A statement apparently written by Morrissey and published in November made his anger abundantly clear.

Little Mix recently won this year’s UK ‘X-Factor’, but they didn’t always go by that name. After being created on the show from solo entrants who weren’t deemed good enough to make it through to the final twelve on their own, the original name the girl group chose (or possibly had chosen for them) was Rhythmix, which has a nicer ring to it. Unfortunately, it was also the name used by a charity which works with children who have been bereaved, who are disabled, or who have been sent to youth detention centres, using music as a method to aid personal and communicative development.

The charity owns a trademark in the name for educational activities, but not for music, the space in which ‘X-Factor’ then applied for a registered mark. But the charity’s bosses, fearing Team X’s trademark would hinder their fundraising efforts, hoped that, once made aware of the clash, the show’s producers would change the girl group’s name.

But no, they told the charity that if they wanted to block the group’s use of the name they’d have to go to court. A very expensive pursuit. An online campaign in support of the charity began, though it was an open letter from the organisation’s CEO to Simon Cowell that finally brought ‘X-Factor’ in line, and Rhythmix became Little Mix. Though it took another open letter to actually get TV bosses to withdraw their trademark application, and a social media push to persuade Cowell and co to pay the charity’s legal costs.

Former commercial radio chief John Myers undertook a review of the BBC’s national music radio stations this year, concluding that the likes of Radios 1 and 2 are vastly over staffed, and proposing a raft of changes, most of which would help the Beeb in it’s mission to radically cut its costs. Predictably, BBC Radio boss Tim Davie congratulated himself on commissioning the report and ignored most of its recommendations.

But there was a little change at Radio 1 as Andy Parfitt, boss there for thirteen years, finally left the BBC after three decades with the Corporation. His former number two, Ben Cooper, took over, so radical changes seem unlikely, although he has already reshuffled the station’s specialists show DJs and pledged to work with more indie producers on programmes.

While we’re talking about Radio 1, we probably ought to remember that one of the station’s most iconic presenters of old, the one time face of ‘Top Of The Pop’s, and, some would argue, the first ever DJ – Mr Jimmy Saville – died in October.

This seemed to be the year that streaming music services really started to take off, not that any made any money, and several revamped their offers to cut back on the costly-to-run freemium on-demand options, Spotify in April and We7 in September. Nevertheless, most streaming platforms saw their user numbers grow, and there seemed to be big announcements from the sector every week, whether it was Pandora’s flotation, Spotify’s final long-time-coming launch in the US, or Deezer’s arrival in the UK and planned expansion to more countries than exist.

Success brings backlash of course, and both artists and smaller labels started to hit out at the royalties these services pay out. Whether that matters really depends on whether you think being on Spotify et al has a negative impact on iTunes sales. In the US Century Media, and in Britain STHoldings, both reckoned it did. The big record companies, though, were generally supportive of the streaming services, though they are possibly getting much better royalties. And nevertheless, some big artists, Coldplay among them, did keep their new albums off the streaming platforms. This debate will rumble on in 2012.

In September Facebook had a big party to make a big announcement. Everyone there seemed very excited. Alas, the technology changes happening in the background, which were possibly significant, were far too complicated to understand, so everyone focused on the content partnerships also revealed.

Said content partners could now make available widgets that would publish every song a user ever listened to, or every article they ever read. Quite why anyone would want that still isn’t clear, though lots of content partners have made such apps available, and apparently lots of people are signing up to their services as a result.

Possibly the most high profile partner was Spotify, who were brought on stage at the party to demo their app. The Spotify/Facebook love affair meant existing Spotify accounts synced to Facebook would automatically share data, and new Spotify users would have to sign up via their Facebook accounts. Some existing subscribers responded badly to this news, forcing Spotify to make it easier for said users to opt out of the Facebook love-in.

Talking of the app word, as the use of smartphones and tablets continued to grow this year, so too did the use of music apps. Most streaming services now have a premium subscription allowing users to access music via mobile devices using an app, this being seen as key to converting free users to paying subscribers.

Apps also became a routine addition to many artists’ promotional campaigns. Though while many (though not all) artist apps simply collate music, videos and text that already exists online, the bar was pushed high by Björk, who had special apps built for each of the songs on her ‘Biophilia’ album. The apps allowed users to manipulate the songs through various games and activities, as well as providing visual scores of the recorded versions and more.

Whether the app should be seen as a new type of album, a slick promotional tool, or a waste of time, is still being debated, but the trend for artists being creative with their apps will continue.

Digital locker services for music have been around for several years now, the most high profile until this year being founder Michael Robertson’s MP3tunes – a service that is locked in a legal battle with EMI which rumbles on despite a judgement in August.

But in March, Amazon decided to launch one too, making music-based lockers suddenly big news. Did the company get licences from the record labels and publishers to make this happen? No. As far as Amazon was concerned, no licence was required to simply store your music somewhere. Those pesky rightsholders, however, argue that there is if you want to then stream tracks back through a player attached to that storage.

At the same time Google was also preparing to launch a digital locker service, and it did get in touch with rightsholders first. However, when Google became frustrated with the slow progress of negotiations, it launched unlicensed too. Only Apple, which arguably has the most compelling offer of the three with its iCloud service, actually gained licences, and as a result is the first of the big players to launch a locker in the UK.

Talking of Apple, the IT giant’s co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs died in October this year, having been suffering from pancreatic cancer for some time.

His health problems had been high profile in recent years, of course, and were enough to cause Apple’s share price to dip at one time. But he had always returned to work after his various leaves of absence, so when he finally announced in August that he was unable to continue leading the company and stepped down, many feared the worst.

Jobs, of course, was not a music industry person, but such was his and Apple’s effect on the music world with the iPod, iTunes and more that it would seem strange not to mark his passing in our review of the year. His is a legacy that will live on for many years to come, in music and many other fields.

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