Climbing up the (pay)walls

6 12 2009

In the beginning, there was news.

Then people, for argument’s sake let’s call them journalists, thought it would be a good idea to print news. The newspaper was born.

Many years later, the internet came along.

The internet quickly became a repository for anonymously abusing people, watching pornography, and of course reading news.

When the UK’s national papers jumped on the online bandwagon they thought it would be a good idea to make their content free to whoever wanted to read it.

Sales of physical newspapers were not in as dire a state as they are now and anyway, if sales started to fall away they could always start charging and people would be happy to pay up, right? Wrong.

“Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today.” – Pink Floyd, 1973

Last week, former Cardiff Journalism School student and current UK editor of paidcontent.org Rob Andrews came back to his old stomping ground to give a talk about the problems facing newspapers as they try and bring in money from online sales.

The main issue is very simple. People don’t want to pay for something they can find for free somewhere else.

Rob explained how difficult it is for online sales to put money in the kitty

You see, you should never underestimate people’s willingness to shop around for freebies.

And with so many news aggregators around online, it is becoming easier for people to find free news if they are determined enough.

While some papers, including the Financial Times, have experienced some success after setting up paywalls, Rupert Murdoch’s ambition to do the same with The Times is likely to be less fruitful.

Because you’re worth it

Now I’m not saying many – if not all – of the UK’s national papers deserve income from their online stories.

While the stories themselves may be the same as those available for free elsewhere on the web, The Times and its counterparts frequently display a far greater standard of journalism.

Take, for example, this brilliantly-written article from Daniel Finkelstein.

It shows a lot of depth that cannot be found elsewhere, yet people will still prefer to read articles like this which are free, informative and to the point.

Keep it snappy

When I went on a work experience placement at BBC Sport, one of the first tasks I was given was to write four-paragraph stories.

I was told that four paragraphs are all you see on the first page of Ceefax, and that on the website you have to scroll down to get to paragraph five.

People don’t like scrolling down, I’ve heard. It requires too much effort.

The difference with the FT and other similar sites is that they provide expert information.

People go on sites like this because they are looking for something specific. And by ‘something specific’ I don’t just mean ‘Who is Katie Price going out with this week’ or ‘What film did I see that actor in?’

I mean information that people can trust, specialist information that readers need to be able to rely on.

Mmmm… free goo

Recent trends seem to show that people are moving towards free sites, no matter how uninformed or useless the information they provide is.

And the polls which Rob showed us seem to suggest that forcing people to pay for news will be ambitious at best.

The one potential saving grace, which seems like a fairly remote possibility, is that Murdoch’s plans will drive readers back to print media.

Is this the end for print media?

But have people really just stopped reading papers because they can get the exact same stories for free, or is it because they simply don’t like carrying a paper around with them every day and ending up with a pile of useless ‘old news’?

The Evening Standard would seem to side with the former, jumping the  gun by becoming a freesheet and – one would assume – seeking to get advertising companies on their side early and generate something approaching a steady revenue.

And while Murdoch hopes to buck the trend, few have been able to convince themselves that paywalls are the answer to journalism’s woes.

After all, the success of paywalls requires something far more difficult than writing an award-winning story. It requires convincing people to change their habits.

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Album of the decade: At the Drive-In, Relationship of Command

29 11 2009

Muse. Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Clash. What do these three bands have in common?

They all released great albums in their time, but none of them knew when it was time to stop expanding and experimenting.

The failure to cut the multitude of dross from the final cut of RHCP’s Stadium Arcadium epitomises this fact, as do the unreal overproduction of the Clash’s Cut the Crap and the OTT aberration that Muse have tried to pass off as a new direction on Uprising.

It is frustrating to see once-great bands fall by the wayside in such a manner, and has convinced me to put my case forward for At the Drive-In’s swansong Relationship of Command as the album of the noughties.

Push becomes shove, days become months

When ATD-I split up in 2001, they were at the height of their popularity, with a sell-out world tour emphatic of their rise to the top.

Not only that, but they had just released an album – in the form of Relationship of Command – which ticked all the boxes.

Lyrically ingenious, wonderfully paced and the perfect length, the album had it all. Not only that, but it silenced those doubtful of the band’s ability of topping their stunning 1998 release In/Casino/Out.

It is impossible to single out one track from the album, but this is the moment which made me realise ATD-I were far more than just another great post-hardcore band.


Must have read a thousand faces

Now, for all their popularity across the pond, I am aware that ATD-I are not as well-known in the UK.

Some of you may, god forbid, never have even heard Relationship of Command in all its glory.

Consequently, I feel it my duty to give you a brief run-through of the album itself, through all its peaks and its troughs (ok, there are no troughs), and provide you with links to each individual track.

That way you can either see for yourself what you have been missing, or simply relive the glories of this majestic record which has been topped by nothing in the nine years since its release.

Bitten on the entrance

The band dives in at the deep end, the blistering drumming of Tony Hajjar on opening track Arc Arsenal letting the listener know he or she is in for one hell of a ride.

In fact, it is nearly a full minute until you are introduced to the primal roar of Cedric Bixler-Zavala, barking his lyrics out loud so clear.

It is not long before all the pieces of the jigsaw come together, with the guitars of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Jim Ward, as well as the wonderfully understated bass-playing of Paul Hinojos, coming to the fore on the multi-layered Pattern Against User and the deliciously uncommercial lead single One-Armed Scissor.

Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (left) and Cedric Bixler-Zavala

If there’s one main strength to be picked out of ATD-I’s music, it’s their ability to continually engulf and amaze the listener.

After a long, relaxed playout at the end of One-Armed Scissor, Bixler-Zavala launches mercilessly – and without warning – into the uncompromising vocals and surreal lyrics of Sleepwalk Capsules, before taking some time to chill out on the beautifully mellow Invalid Litter Dept.

Pacifier Pacifies

If the genre of post-hardcore has had to face one criticism, it is that the music is often unrelenting and brash, not allowing the listener to recover.

One of the strengths of Relationship of Command is its ability to let the listener breathe without bombarding them with an aural assault throughout the album.

This is demonstrated by the fact that two of the heavier tracks, Mannequin Republic and Rolodex Propaganda, are broken up by the chilling and complex Enfilade.

It is clear that this is an album which makes you, nay, forces you to think.

With a track as accomplished as Quarantined so far down the track listing, ATD-I could almost be forgiven for setting up the preceding tracks as a countdown to the album-defining moment.

But anyone who has heard the ambition of Cedric and Omar’s new band The Mars Volta, or even Sparta, the less-successful side-project of the band’s other members, will realise these guys don’t do things by halves.

Rather than sit back and wait for the majesty of this pivotal track to astound everyone within the vicinity of the listener, they almost set themselves the target of improving on perfection. And of course they pass with flying colours.

Not only that, but they follow it up with a triumvirate which showcases their versatility and unreplicable talent.

First comes the affecting Cosmonaut, whose closing lyric ‘Is it heavier than air…am I supposed to die alone’ presents the track as a heavier, yet no less poignant, repositioning of Pink Floyd’s forgotten classic The Gunner’s Dream.

Then, as if the album was not already heart-wrenching enough, Non-Zero Possibility comes along.

A tale of desertion and depression whose true meaning only the band will know, the penultimate track paints a moving picture which will stay with you for weeks.

And, appropriately, the closer Catacombs is a fitting way to end not only a classic album but also an accomplished career, bringing together all the strengths of this incomparable band.

Dancing on the corpses’ ashes

So, what of the band’s legacy?

As I have already alluded to, three of the band broke off to form the unheralded Sparta, who in my opinion never received the plaudits they were due.

The reason for their lack of attention? A little band who go by the name The Mars Volta.

TMV’s debut De-Loused in the Comatorium, a concept album based on the life and death of artist Julio Venegas, features on many people’s lists about the best album of the decade, yet for all its brilliance it is not a patch on ATD-I’s final bow.

To relegate such an inventive follow-up to the status of also-ran shows how marvellous an album Relationship of Command really is.

In the nine years since its release, many pretenders have attempted to usurp its position as album of the decade, but in my opinion it has brushed this plethora of challengers to one side and retained its crown with ease.

The other entries so far:

Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not – by Ciaran Jones

Sufjan Stevens – Come on Feel the Illinoise – by Alex Smith

Bloc Party – Silent Alarm – by Joe Curtis

The Libertines – Up the Bracket – by James Franklin

Brand New – The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Meby Hugh Morris

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Agoby Ammelio

Daft Punk – Discoveryby Will Gilgrass

The Killers – Hot Fuss by Nick Moore

Kings of Leon – Only By the Night – by Caroline Cook

Bright Eyes – Digital Ash in a Digital Urn – by Emma Davies

Coldplay – Parachutes – by Dan Bloom

The Strokes – Is This It – by Alfie Tolhurst

Kings of Leon – Youth and Young Manhood – by Becky Rutt

Snow Patrol – Eyes Open – by Sarah Scott

Regina Spektor – Begin to Hope – by Fiona Roberts

Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around – by Mike Brown

Arcade Fire – Funeral – by Rob Goodman

Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP – by Tom Mooney