Monday, April 20, 2009

Spotfiy's the difference

While undoubtedly the most high profile filesharing courtcase to date, Pirate Baygate has this weekend also become one of the leading global news stories. Sir Paul McCartney has brought the debate closer to the UK with his comments to the BBC, judging the verdict 'fair'; the Guardian has poured scorn on the ruling that will see four Swedes spend a year each in jail and pay (or not pay) in excess of $3m to the undernourished record conglomerates; while forums, Twitterati and online communities the world over have vowed to continue with their illegal downloading efforts. You only have to read the reaction of BBC website users to realise just how marginalised the support for the record companies is.

For one thing, Pirate Bay has been heralded in many places in the last few days for its innovation; it is a central location for links to torrents from which its users - which numbered 22 million in February - can download free music, film and television files. It represents the height of the digital revolution in accessing and distributing music. It stands as a beacon against the record companies who still want to charge £10 or more for physical CDs, and who have monetised the digital musical publishing industry for not much less of that cost.

Trouble is, its primary function is to facilitate an illegal practice.

While it plays the Robin Hood of the online music scene, there's a reason why the word 'Pirate' is in its name. Pirate Bay didn't host the free files, but allowed and assisted mass access to them. In the same way you can be charged separately for the possession and supplying of drugs, the Pirate Bay verdict has shown that music giants are capable of not just successfully prosecuting the people who own illegal files, but the ones supplying them too.

Where the real issue lies, though, and why the case has been derided in many circles, is that the ruling poses an insignificant threat to the activity itself. Pirate Bay does very little more than Google, a point that is being increasingly made in the fallout, in 'making available' copyrighted material. A Google search for BitTorrents will get you the links required to start your illegal downloading career. And indeed, if Pirate Bay had 22 million users in February, surely twice that many more have now been made aware of the service. The founders of the site will be behind bars, but the website will not be shut down. Its users will not stop, and it won't prevent other services from continuing. Napster, all those years ago, was ahead of its time and suffered for its art, but set a precedent that, given the ubiquity of the internet, is simply unstoppable in this day.

The answer is great value, legitimate online services, and many new start up sites are learning quickly how to make techniques pioneered by martyrs like Napster and Pirate Bay legal. Which is why the divisive verdict has been particularly timely for Spotify.

Something akin to the Twitter of online music applications, essentially Spotify combines the access of with the recognised layout of iTunes. It's free, legal, and they're adding albums in their thousands by the day (literally: check out their blog as they continue to bolster the Spotify library). What's great is that currently, the music labels are buying into it too: Spotify obtains licences for every single minute of music they put up. Their revenue consists of advertisers, whose 45-second ads crop up once every five songs or so if you're a non-paying user, and the fees from premium users, who pay £9.99 a month to forgo the adverts. Like much of what's good about the internet at the moment, it's innovative but simple, easy and accessible. And also, possibly, revolutionary.

It allows free, constant and instant access to pretty much all the music you could want on your computer - and if you can't find something, you can be sure it won't be long in coming. The one difference is you don't have the bytes stored on your hard drive. Is that so difficult to grapple with? Real music fans will not have a problem in paying money towards owning someone else's art, be it an official download or a new CD, if owning a particular song is so much of a burning issue. And in any case, to counter the overpricing problem, artists are increasingly finding innovative ways of packaging, complementing or adding value to physical copies of music: exclusive downloads, gig tickets and competitions, t-shirts, badges, books, DVDs, teabags.

The rise of online has caused a shift in importance from ownership to access, according to one of Spotify's founders. The method of free legal access to copyrighted material and free illegal ownership of it is indistinguishable, but Spotify is the most recent winner of the battle by being the safest bridge between the gap. It is, of course, in its infancy and no doubt will face a challenge in sustaining its business model against ongoing illegal filesharing and the newly-buoyed record companies. But it is growing, and conveniently doing so at a time where embracing some sort of digital model is the only way forward, regardless of who you are or where you stand on the internet's regulatory and ownership flaws. The Pirate Bay case has served to highlight how much there is a need for the gap to be bridged further still, but, for the moment at least, those who still respect the rights of an artist to their intellectual property will be able to Spot the difference.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Sun won't shine on Hillsborough

20 years ago today, 96 Liverpool fans were killed at Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough ground in an FA Cup semi final against Nottingham Forest. It was a disaster, the worst footballing tragedy the English game has known, one that resonates still today, and particularly on its 20th anniversary. Everyone knows what happened, and everyone is united in sadness and respect - Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton supporters alike, players, managers, fans and families.

Everyone except Kelvin MacKenzie.

The editor of the Sun newspaper at the time, MacKenzie's editorial on the Wednesday (19th April 1989) after the disaster was so badly misjudged as to be unheard of. The Sun's front page alleged that the Liverpool fans stole from and abused their own supporters, urinated and attacked the emergency services. It was simply unbelievable that a leading newspaper could support such claims. What was simply catastrophic is that it could parade the allegations - on the front page, remember - as 'The Truth'.

According to a book on the history of the Sun, MacKenzie was alone in his conviction behind the newspaper's stance on the tragedy, and as editor, no-one stood in his way. No one else at the paper, it seemed, thought that that day's edition of the paper was a mistake, or misjudgement, or confusion. To everyone but MacKenzie, that Wednesday's paper was little more than outright, and deliberately accusing, lies.

MacKenzie originally apologised for the error personally in 1993, excusing his actions on the grounds of believing what a Conservative MP had said, which had been supported - apparently - by the Chief Superintendent, who later admitted to lying in statements immediately following the disaster.

The Sun, in 2004, the 15th anniversary of the disaster, took the opportunity to apologise unreservedly for that terrible error, and labelled it - quite rightly - the worst mistake in the paper's history. It goes without saying that you would be hard-pressed to find another, by any paper, on that sort of level. But the fact remains that MacKenzie's editorial was a lone choice, based on statements by unnamed sources and hearsay, with literally hundreds of counter statements from supporters who were at the game, on the pitch, in the stands, at the time.

Despite not having a leg to stand on, MacKenzie then shot himself in both feet. In 2007 he stated he was forced to apologise by Rupert Murdoch in 1993, against his will. An infamous quote attributed to MacKenzie is, "I was not sorry then and I'm not sorry now." His only concession to this day, by all accounts, is that he does now 'not know' if everything that he stood behind in that paper's shocking coverage was true. In other words, still MacKenzie has no reason not to believe in what he printed.

MacKenzie, however, does not deserve to be forever tied to the disaster as it lives on in the memory of football fans. Nor does the Sun newspaper. Despite their hollow apology of 2004, obviously the paper has gone through many changes in 20 years and even being the rag that it is, is not capable of making the same mistake again. MacKenzie has said that the distinction between the tragedy and the newspaper story is blurred, and he is right. The blame for the events of the day that caused the 96 deaths should not lie at MacKenzie's feet - he was not responsible, or in a position of authority on the day that could have saved those lives. The Justice For 96 campaign needs to remember the facts, and they are firmly pointed toward the authorities at the ground on the fateful day.

MacKenzie, however, refused to deal in, and still fails to acknowledge, facts. His terribly misguided bullish stance has earned him notoriety in Liverpool, and indeed across most football fans who were alive at the time, and he is hated. However, such an arrogant, callous man does not deserve a place in history alongside one of the most genuine sporting tragedies, and neither does the diabolical decision he made to publish a newspaper story belittling it. Boycotted for the last 20 years by thousands and thousands of people across Merseyside, and indeed the nation, The Lies by the Sun and its editor will never be forgiven, of course, and there will never come a day where the paper can make amends for its shocking conduct over Hillsborough.

What is most important, though, is that what happened on the day is remembered beyond all. Only in the hearts of those who were at Hillsborough on 15th April 1989 are the full facts, and for the peace and mind of families and friends of the 96 victims, justice might never find its way out. But The Truth is that the dead need to be remembered, the mistakes need to be learned from (and have been), the grieving needs to respected and wounds need time, and support, to heal. The humanity of Hillsborough - the loss of life, the outpouring of emotion, the uniting of people in sadness and respect - is its greatest lasting memory, and one man and one issue of a tabloid are just tomorrow's fish and chips paper.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Mach ado about nothing

What was unthinkable just three weeks ago has become an exciting and tense footballing reality. Manchester United were swanning down the home straight to the Premiership title, had drawn the - on paper - weakest opposition in the Champions League, had two cups in the cabinet and were in the semi finals of a third. The question wasn't whether United would win more trophies, but whether they could win ALL five of them.

That has now changed, quickly and drastically. United met Liverpool in a make-or-break match - for the Anfield side anyway - that, had United won, would have all but settled the Premiership title race. But they crumbled at the hands of Rafa Benitez, whose well-organised, energetic side led by Torres and Gerrard carried out a clinical and thrilling 4-1 dismantling of Alex Ferguson's men. Since that result, United have put in three lacklustre performances since: a 2-0 humbling at Fulham, an undeserved victory against Aston Villa thanks to a 17-year old debutant's moment of magic, and a barely deserved draw at home in the Champions League (quarter finals, no less) against Porto.

The last four games have exposed severe frailties in defence and a worrying lack of creativity going forward. United have conceded more goals in the last three Premier League games than in their previous 15, and have proven that without the formidable Ferdinand/Vidic partnership, others - notably Gary Neville and John O'Shea, not to mention Edwin Van Der Sar - are nowhere near the level required to keep clean sheets against top teams when the pair are missing.

Similarly, United's attacking options have run out of steam at just the wrong time. Ronaldo seems to be sulking, though two excellent goals against Villa managed to stave off excessive criticism and he could yet prove to be the single deciding factor in United's success this season. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs both now look short on fitness when required to dominate the midfield in big games, with the latter virtually restricted to substitute appearances to affect matches. Michael Carrick, so essential for much of the season, seems to have run himself into the ground trying to provide defensive cover at the expense of the consistently injured Owen Hargreaves, and both vision and passing at the expense of Fletcher, who has neither. Whisper it, but a key figure for United currently missing is the Brazilian youngster Anderson, who can provide the perfect foil to Carrick's deeper creativity. United's bit-part midfielders, Ji-Sung Park and Nani, have suddenly become big game necessities.

Berbatov's disappointing season looks set to end in patches as he returns from injury, and United's predicament was summed up neatly by last night's performance,where only the industry and loyalty of Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez saved United's blushes - and the latter isn't even a full United player, still. The fans have made up their minds firmly on where Tevez's future should lie, though, and Ferguson should have the nous to realise how important he is to keep. If not, Barcelona or Real Madrid will surely come calling.

Against Porto, United were out-passed, outmanoeuvred, devoid of flair and that winning mentality that Ferguson instills in all of his teams, gifted their opening goal and lucky not to concede twice as many. Of course, that they had to work extremely hard against Villa barely 48 hours earlier showed. Again there, United were second all over the pitch for the third league game in a row, but the heroic Federico Macheda's last-gasp winner to steal three points was supposed to reignite the United march for five trophies.

The ecstasy and jubilation at that goal subsided last night, however, when United turned in another poor performance against a thrilling Porto team, and dealt their Champions League defence a hammer blow. It would be stupid to write United off in any of their competitions yet though - Ferguson's various United generations have made snatching victories from defeat's open jaws a habit over the last decade. An unprecedented quintuple would be Ferguson's greatest feat, possibly unrepeatable in future seasons, and United still have the time and the players to chase that dream.

Very quickly, however, Manchester United need to rediscover their form and self-belief of a few weeks ago, or the wonderkid's goal that supposedly set their title ambitions back on course will turn out to be much ado about nothing.