Archive for December, 2010

When more is less

23 December 2010

I know this is the traditional time of year for lists of top things of the year (I will probably try to write some over the next week), but this is a list of things that annoy me.  Not a radical move for a blog, I know, but they are collectively something I’ve thought about for a while. It struck me that in many ways the music industry cons and shams the fans of bands – again no great surprise, but it is sad how many credible and thoughtful bands do it, especially when it is done under the pretence of giving more when actually they are giving less (or taking more for a small return).  I’m sure there are more examples, but I’ll stick to three:

3. Greatest hits plus an exclusive new track

I suspect that itunes has pretty much killed off this phenomenon, but it was rife about ten years ago. Bands would release their ‘greatest hits’ (or a retrospective album at least), usually while they were still releasing records, and would include a song or two that had not been on previous singles or albums. Clearly this song was not a greatest hit!  This might seem unsurprising in the case of, say, Gold by Steps, but when the band was one with fans who are completists it is pretty shoddy. The bands were basically telling these fans, ‘OK, I know you’ve already bought all our albums/records already, but if you’re a real fan you’ll also buy this because it has another song on it’.  Notable irritating examples of this are Pulp’s Hits and A Secret History by The Divine Comedy. On the positive side, both were released as extended albums with extra videos (Pulp) or genuinely obscure recordings (TDC), which makes up for the con of the extra track to some extent.

2. Extra dates added due to phenomenal public demand.

Your favourite band is playing a gig in a few months! At a great venue, maybe smaller than you expected… you’d better rush and buy a ticket before they all sell out!  Now they’re sold out.  Hang on, there’s a another date at the same venue added due to public demand… and another date.

Surely the tour manager realised there would be such a rush for tickets, didn’t they? Yes, of course they did.  It is just a marketing ploy to generate a rush to buy tickets for the gig that was announced first.  As with the ‘bonus’ tracks, this is something one might expect to be done for big pop acts but not, for example, for Godspeed You Black Emperor. Having announced one London date, which sold very quickly (hardly surpringly given their extended hiatus and frankly awesome live shows), the promoters suddenly announced two extra shows on the next two nights. Personally this was irritating since the first gig (which I went to) was the day after the ATP/Bowlie 2 festival, but more generally it was really unexpected of (or on behalf of) an avowedly anti-capitalist band. Not that it has all that much to do with capitalism how their gigs are announced, but it just didn’t seem fitting.

I am a fan of seeing bands in smallish venues; generally I’d rather a band did 3 nights in a smaller venue than one in a huge arena. But it does seem massively dishonest to announce that the extra dates at the smaller venue are due to extra demand, rather than simply a marketing ploy. When gigs genuinely sell out unexpectedly, they are moved to bigger venues (for example, some Leeds gigs used to be moved from the Cockpit to the Blank Canvas) or are simply sold out. Extra dates at large and decent venues are rarely just sitting there for the taking, nor are tours usually planned with the bands lazing about in London around the time of their gig.  Why not just say, This band is great and loads of people want to see them so we’re putting them on for 2 or 3 nights? People would still go.

1. Encore

The band have played their set, but the crowd want more.  What should they do?  Go out and play some more for their adoring public?  Of course… but what’s this, they’re playing the famous single, the one that half the people here have come to hear!  Anyone would think they had planned to be called back onstage to play some more.

Encores at rock and pop gigs are the clearest example of audiences being given less under the guise of being given more.  The band goes off stage at about 10.45 for three or four minutes before coming back out and playing a few more songs in time to end at the 11 o’clock curfew.  Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if they had just stayed onstage for those minutes and kept on playing through to 11?  That way the crowd would get more songs.

There are levels of goodness and shoddiness of encore.  The worst kind are the ones where the most eagerly awaited songs are played in the encore – or even two encores. Step forward Radiohead and collect your prize for shoddy treatment of your fans under the guise of extra tracks. Two encores, really Thom?

Better than this is the encore where the singer comes out and does and acoustic track, or the band play an unusual live track (Idlewild doing ‘Chandelier’ or Belle & Sebastian doing ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ for example) or perhaps play a request or two, having done all the obvious tracks already. These can be quite entertaining and can justifiably be separated from the rest of the set.  They are also things that wouldn’t have been missed from the set if they hadn’t happened, they are slightly special.

The best kind of encore is the genuine, unexpected encore.  From memory I can only think of two of these that I’ve seen from signed artists.  One was at ATP/Bowlie 2 a few weeks ago, when Edwyn Collins played an encore at the end of his set.  I can’t be certain, but the fact that mid-afternoon sets usually don’t do encores at ATP and the amount of time it took him to get off stage and back on again make me think this was genuinely unexpected.  His set was one of the festival’s highlights for me, and for many others by the sounds of it. The other was Seafood (anyone remember them?) played at the Twist in Colchester on the tour for their first album.  Having played their set, they disappeared up the stairs to the backstage area, but after about five minutes of crazed cheering from the crowd one of the band members came down to see if these people (most of whom hadn’t heard them before) really did want them back on stage. They did.  Seafood came out to play, but had to admit that they had already played all of their songs, so they played one of them again. They seemed pretty pleased, and so were we – it was a genuine encore, driven by unexpected support from the crowd.

I can understand that encores are simply part of the show at most gigs, planned into the set to allow fans to show their appreciation and for bands to appear to be giving them more of what they want.  Really, though, it makes more sense to just play through; Alfie did this at a few gigs of theirs that I saw. Whether it was from a conviction that encores were a sham or from fear of not being called back onstage I couldn’t say, but it made me think about the stupdity of the practice of encores as a standard part of the set. Also, I don’t know whether it is just the gigs I’ve been going to, but the process of encoring (?) a band seems to have become more of a chore for audiences – unless a gig has been amazing the applause is often a little half-hearted while the band are off stage and only picks up again when the singer returns. Surely better for us all if you just play all the songs you’re going to play, without a big gap.

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Charlie Gilmour is a moron

16 December 2010

It seems an obvious thing to say, but I’ll say it anyway: Charlie Gilmour is a moron.  In the protests last week, the expensively-educated moronic son of a pop star was photographed dangling from one of the flags on the Cenotaph.

My feeling that he is a contemptuous buffoon are not because he can afford an expensive education but was protesting against fees for future graduates – that is fair enough, people should protest for the good of other people. It is not even that annoying that he dangled from that flag; in fact, I’m surprised the Cenotaph doesn’t get caught up in riots more often, given where it is; anyway, it’s not like he tipped it over or wrote swear-words on it. I think he was foolish for doing it, especially so visibly and, frankly, while having such a famous Dad.

What seemed more idiotic to me was his response:

“I would like to express my deepest apologies for the terrible insult to the thousands of people who died bravely for our country that my actions represented,” … “I feel nothing but shame. My intention was not to attack or defile the Cenotaph. Running along with a crowd of people who had just been violently repelled by the police, I got caught up in the spirit of the moment.”

Expression of shame, fair enough – that was expected. But re-read the second half and then look at the photo:

Apparently he was caught up in the spirit of the moment in a crowd of people who had just been repelled by the police.  Except that there is no crowd and the spirit seems to be relative calm; the only person nearby is actually completely ignoring the moron dangling from the flag.

What a load of cobblers, Charlie.  Nice of the Grauniad to reproduce his statement unquestioningly, though. Cheers.

Anyway, like I said… moron.

An Education

8 December 2010

I was going to write a whole bunch, possibly multiple posts, about the proposed Higher Education reforms, ahead of tomorrows vote on increasing the cap on the ‘variable fees’ brought in in 2003 (aka ‘top-up fees’). I’ve been thinking a lot about the subject, but feel like there are a few particularly pertinent things so I’ll stick to them.

Private or public

What the coalition are proposing is a massive change in the philosophy of higher education, a part-privatisation – a change from publicly-funded but private institutions to being private bodies with government assistance for research and for teachingexpensive/strategically-important subjects.  They are not simply saying that graduates (who will pay the fees, not students) should pay more, but that it should be through their choice of courses and universities that directs the funding for teaching, rather than block grants from the state.  This does not mean a massive cut in funding for teaching, per se, but it is a market-led version that is not (contrary to some government statements) what the Labour government were going for in 2003.  Fundamentally, if one accepts that this student-led investment in teaching is a good thing then the proposals are fairly good – give or take flaws that will hopefully be ironed out, and of course the fees question. The measures to widen participation are a welcome addition (even if cutting Education Maintenance Allowances acts directly and oddly contrary to that ambition), as is the removal of up-front fees for some part-time students.

Fees

In terms of fees there are three big questions: Who benefits from higher education? Who should pay for it? And how should they pay?

Individual benefits:

It has been estimated that undergraduates cost (on average) £7000 per year to teach. Graduates currently pay £3,290 per year of their degree (they pay afterwards, hence graduates not students); it has been estimated that this year’s intake will leave with an average debt of £25,000 from the fees, loans and other costs of a three-year course.

There has been much talk of a ‘graduate premium’, said to average 23%, varying from 13% for history to 30% for physics and chemistry and more for medicine and law. These statistics (from a 2005 report – link) translate to a pre-tax premium of £89,630 for history, over £186,000 for physics and chemistry and £128,000 overall.  Since then, the average has apparently reached about £150,000; the Browne Report, the post-tax premium is given as £100,000 (or rather $158,074)

Nationwide benefits:

The higher education budget is £14bn per year; this is 0.85% of GDP, below the OECD average of 1.03% (2006 statistics).

Universities UK estimate that higher education contributed 2.3% to UK GDP in 2007/8, and that the sector generated £59bn of ‘output’.  The average return to the state on its investment in HE is said to be about 12.1% (compared to the graduate’s 23%).

So, who benefits?  Clearly, the greatest benefit is to students/graduates themselves, but there is a national benefit in terms of income and job-creation from the sector as a whole as well as from an educated workforce.

Who should pay?

There is a strong argument that funding from general taxation is fair, not only in getting rid of fees, but also because even the graduates with the lowest ‘graduate premium’ will pay more than the cost of their fees in income tax according to the life-income modelling. The post-tax premium for history (the lowest premium and the subject I studied) of £65,471, which suggests that £24,159 is paid in tax by these graduates that would not be paid those leaving school at 18 with A-levels. The statistics for physics and chemistry are around £55,000 and for all subjects (average) around £36,000. It seems incredibly unlikely that there is any widespread public support for free education though – it worked when 10-15% of young people went to uni, but not for 40-50%.  It is hard to know for sure, though, since pollsters don’t even bother asking.

The opposite end of the scale is for the full rate to be paid by the student, either up-front or (as, roughly, in the new proposals) by graduates.  Of these, the government plan is clearly better, since it does not charge students up-front.

An in-between idea would be to keep fees roughly where they are but make the payment system fairer.  Or to allow an increase in fees (to, say, £5000) but not to cut teaching funding, so that the extra money could be spend on improving education!  Imagine that! This would surely be a better plan, it would keep a balance of national-individual cost in proportion to benefits (around 70-30 to the graduate) and put more money into education.  If the £3300-5000 bracket were to be treated like the proposed £6000-9000 fee bracket, it might even be useful for widening participation.

Another alternative, although where it sits is unclear, is a graduate tax. Apparently Alan Johnson has this week been won round the the idea, which his leader Ediband has been keen on for ages.  It is now HM Opposition’s policy.  I say policy, what I actually mean is talking point. There is no policy there, just a phrase and a vague commitment to a 2% tax on income over a 20-year period. It is unclear what the target amount to recoup is going to be, would it reflect average fees of £3000, £5000, or more?

But wait a minute, a tax on income (presumably meaning over a certain amount) for a certain period to pay off fees, so that those who earn more pay more back… that sounds rather like the government’s proposal. Both are systems of graduate repayment that are in proportion to earnings and will stop below a certain rate (it is not a mortgage, your degree will not be at risk if you stop payment).  The fundamental difference is that in the government system there is a specified (albeit increased) end figure for repayment; with a graduate tax, that is not the case. Which is less discouraging, the knowledge that one will be repaying a large but specific debt or the knowledge that you will be paying an unknown amount, possibly subject to changes by later governments wanting more money? I have a feeling that the former is more off-putting, but there are not a world apart. Again, the debate would be easier if there was actually a policy against which to compare Willetts’ scheme.

Lack of proper debate

In all the anger over fee rises and teaching-funding cuts (often talked about as if they were unrelated rather than one making up for the other), there has been little real debate about alternatives – let alone about the fundamentals of why and whether we want so many graduates and the benefits to the state vs the benefits to the individual.  The complete lack of a plan from Labour does not help matters at all.

The worst part of the lack of debate is the speed with which the reforms are being pushed through.  In order to start the new scheme in 2012, the fee increase/variable-rate does have to be decided now (to allow decisions and prospectus-writing at universities) – Mr Willetts is right about that. But surely, surely, it is better to wait until the system can be debated as a whole, rather than pushing through the funding issue now – thereby making the remainder a foregone conclusion even before the White Paper is produced.  Willetts says that the wider reforms (and CSR-dicatated cuts in spending) will happen whichever way the vote goes tomorrow – this seems to have given him licence to tie the entire issue up without proper debate. Why not wait until 2013 for the reforms – produce a White Paper on the whole package in the Spring and debate it properly? Sadly, it is almost certain to go through.  Even if you think the change is a good idea, the speed and manner of the current debate and changes is worrying.

Anyway, those are my hastily-written thoughts on the matter. I wish that the Labour amendment to delay the fees vote until the White Paper had come out had passed, it it did not.  I hope that my MP (Bob Russell, Lib Dem) will vote against the fee increase tomorrow. I don’t think that fees should go up to £6000-9000 per year, although some other bits of the general policy are good (participation, etc).  What I do want is a proper debate on the subject and on the policy as a whole.  I fear I will be disappointed.

I name thee… Tory!

6 December 2010

There are many things about the way that politics is covered in the press that are quite irritating; worse they are often misleading, so that people see only the bright light of the headline rather than the actual detail of the debate or statement to which it refers.  One of these is Tory-hunting, by which I mean the desparate hunt by journalists and others to find things to make the Tories sounds like the ‘Nasty Party’ or recall the Thatcher Years.  There is a directly opposite and almost equal tendency to search for evidence of ‘Old Labour’ ‘tax and spend’ or fiscal irresponsibility in New Labour and what-is-it-now? Labour.  I say this is a media thing, but that’s not quite true, actually it is something politicians join in with, which is equally annoying.

Anyway, here are some recent examples:

The UK Film Council is being closed down.  If you believe (or indeed are) Colin Firth, the Coalition/Tories want to stop funding British film. Mike Leigh strongly inferred the change it was akin to the scrapping the NHS (although to be fair he may have been referring to the suddenness as much as the scale of the change). The UKFC is closing, but funding for films is not going to stop; the BFI is taking on the role. Given that the last goverment were attempting to merge the two bodies, it is not exactly a gross miscarriage to merge their functions in one body (although of course no one knows quite how well it will work in practice).

IDS: two of Iain Duncan Smith’s statements have been leapt upon this year.  First he had the gall to tell people that there might be jobs they could do that they would have to travel to rather than simply looking in their towns.  He suggested that maybe people might have to travel for an hour (like many do in London) to get to work… and get this, he said they might have to “get on a bus”.  You see, it’s just like Norman Tebbit’s “on your bike” comment, isn’t it?  Isn’t he evil? There are problems with what he said, of course, the cost and unreliability of travel being just two among them. But the media reaction ignored the simple truth at the core of it, that lots of people travel to work.

The second ‘evil’ IDS statement:

“We created over four million jobs in those 13 years and … 70% of those net jobs were taken by people from overseas because people in this county weren’t capable or able to take those jobs.”

According to the Guardian, this meant that ‘its a sin that people fail to take up work’.  To others, he was saying that unemployment itself was a sin. Actually, what he said was the it was wrong that those without work were not capable of taking up these jobs; to put it another way, that they had not been trained sufficiently/correctly while out of work.  At least that’s my take on it.  He said it badly; sin was certainly the wrong word to use.  Nonetheless, it was a statement that the failure to deal with unemployment was bad, not that the state of unemployment was inherently sinful.

Margaret Thatcher Milk Snatcher.  This tory-hunting is not a recent trend.  Before becoming Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was the education secretary who withdrew free milk at school from children aged 8-11. For this she became “Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher”.  As John Redwood points out, though, free milk for those in school from 11-18 was cut by a Labour government, and for 5,6 and 7 year-olds by a subsequent Labour administration. They, of course, were not milk snatchers!  The subsequent lack of reintroduction of free milk for over 5s since 1979 suggests that neither party is all that bothered by the matter. People just like the rhyme.

I could go on, but it is worth pointing out again that this is not simply the preserve of the left attacking the Tories. The image that Labour have had to try to live down is one of fiscal irresponsibility, against the party’s unfortunate track record of devaluation of the pound. New Labour were attacked as a party of tax and spend, recalling ‘Old Labour’, even after adopting Conservative fiscal policies in 1997.  Whatever the cupability of Gordon Brown in the financial crash, the current Coalition trick has been to explain the deficit and cuts as being due to Brown’s ‘reckless spending’ since 1997.  Occasionally people like to point out that Brown’s spending plans were accepted by the Tories up to 2007, but to little avail so far.

Alan Johnson summed up the damage done to Labour’s image recently:

He is quick to agree that Labour’s economic credibility is in pieces. “We lost it. That’s the truth of the matter. We’ve lost it to such an extent that when we do polling, the 13 years of what we did — low interest rates, inflation under control, the highest level of employment in our history, paying down debt — all that’s been turned into 13 years of overspending and debt. The Conservatives have been so effective at getting out this mantra that when we poll the public we’re back to where we were in the tortuous days pre-1997. On economic credibility, we are in a really worrying position.”

The arguments are not completely baseless, Tories are more likely that Labour members/ministers to want to cut things and to say unacceptable things about those out of work or on benefits. And of course they are making very deep cuts in public spending (at the same time, Labour would have cut substantially and it was Nick Clegg who said, well before the election, that ‘savage cuts‘ were needed).

And Labour do spend more; also Brown liked to hide spending in PFI debt, while banking of ever-continuing growth and failing to rein in the excesses of the market and proerty bubble.

If we were to boil the two parties down to their core differences, we can see where these criticisms come from and why the parties have acted the way of have done in their last few years in opposition (respectively). Essentially, the Tories put economic growth (and hopefully stability) first – the idea being that increased growth will improve life in Britain, for them and their investor/business-owning friends, and for those who will be employed by them (in theory at least).  Labour put social factors first, figuring that it is more important to make sure that everyone can find a job and be in a decent situation now, rather than waiting for future growth.

In 1992, the Conservatives lost any semblance of fiscal responsibility, swiftly followed by the New Labour reassurances that the economy would be safe in their hands.  When the the supposedly-banished bust turned up at the end of the boom years, Labour lost that credibility again (as Johnson said).

A powerful legacy of the 1980s for the Tories is the image that they do not care about anyone but themselves and their middle- and upper-class friends. What David Cameron made a great effort to do in opposition and with the coalition’s stress on ‘fairness’, was to reassure the public that they really did care.  Not for nothing does the phrase ‘compassionate conservative’ exist; we don’t need the phrase ‘compassionate Labour’.  It seems incredibly unlikely that the cuts (or rather halting of public spending increase and consolidation into specific ring-fenced departments) are going to be ‘fair’.  Benefits and public services are inherently used more by people who can’t afford any alternative, or who would be worse off having to do so.  The poll figures suggest that the image of caring Tories is already on the way out, Labour have slipped ahead a couple of times recently despite not really having any policies of their own.

So, there are reasons for the simplistic headlines, but they are often misleading.  Much better to read the actual story or statement rather than say ‘evil old Tories’ or ‘reckless old Labour’ in response to a tedious soundbite.