All posts tagged industry

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Tall Poppies: Tasmanian opiates’, March 2015

    A story for the March 7 issue of The Weekend Australian Magazine. Excerpt below.

    Tall Poppies

    It supplies up to half the world’s legal opiates, but Tasmania’s poppy industry sees danger ahead.

     The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Tall Poppies: Tasmanian opiates' by Andrew McMillen, March 2015

    Perched in a corner of Keith Rice’s office, atop a cupboard and behind a bright yellow hard-hat, sits an old white sign that warns of grave peril.DANGER. Prohibited area. KEEP OUT. Trespassers ­prosecuted.

    In front of it, an updated version includes a skull-and-crossbones captioned POISON. In bold red text, the bottom of the new sign reads: ILLEGAL use of crop has caused DEATH. This recent shift in tense — “may cause” to “has caused” — came after three deaths from poppy misuse in the last three years here in Tasmania. Clearly, something had to change, beginning with the signage that borders roadside poppy crops.

    Rice, chief executive of Poppy Growers ­Tasmania, keeps glancing at the sign as we chat over coffee on a cool Launceston morning. A tall 66-year-old with tanned features and thinning white hair, he’s talking me through the complex web of politics, painkillers and, more recently, protectionism in which he has been involved for nearly 30 years.

    Above Rice’s desk hangs a wall calendar ­bearing a colour photograph of green countryside flanked by snowy mountaintops, as well as the name of Tasmanian Alkaloids, one of two pharmaceutical companies to have invested heavily in the poppy industry. It has been a big earner for the state, which grows up to 50 per cent of the planet’s legal ­opiates — from which morphine, codeine and thebaine can be extracted — that relieve the pain of humans throughout the world in the form of medicines such as OxyContin and Nurofen Plus. The warning signs are required by law to be displayed on all ­roadside paddocks to deter would-be drug experimenters from picking poppy heads and brewing the ill-gotten plants into a tea. “It’s a dangerous crop because you don’t know the alkaloid content,” says Rice. “Thebaine is like strychnine in your system.”

    Tasmania produces around 90 per cent of the world’s thebaine, which causes convulsions in humans at high doses. In the past two decades thebaine production has eclipsed the old fav­ourite, morphine. A more effective painkiller, ­thebaine is also much more dangerous, as two Danish backpackers found last February after stealing 40 poppy heads from a farm near ­Oatlands, in the centre of the state. The pair brewed the plant into a tea; one of the drinkers, a 26-year-old male, fell asleep and never awoke. In November 2012, morphine toxicity also killed a 17-year-old who stole five kilograms of poppy capsules from a farm at Lewisham, near Hobart, and consumed a poppy tea. In February 2011, a 50-year old man died in similar circumstances in the Launceston suburb of Ravenswood.

    Tasmania’s $100 million dollar poppy ­industry is hidden in plain sight: drive north from Hobart towards Launceston in the ­summer and rolling fields of white, pink and purple flowers dot the landscape. At its peak a few years ago, 30,000ha of poppies were planted in a season; that number is now closer to 20,000ha per year due to a dip in world demand following changes in US prescription policies arising from drug abuse.

    The pharmaceutical companies who pay farmers to grow their products have a long ­history on the island, but mainland state ­governments have been paying attention to the economic consistency of Tasmania’s poppy crop, too. Last September, then federal health minister Peter Dutton wrote to his state and ­territory counterparts asking them to revise a 43-year-old agreement that has restricted poppy production to the island. Soon after, legislation was passed in Victoria and the Northern ­Territory that allowed the narcotics to be grown under strict licensing conditions following small-scale commercial trials during the 2013-14 season.

    It’s a worrying development for Tasmanian farmers who for more than four decades had cornered a secure and lucrative market. The path of Tasmania’s poppy industry so far has been one of prosperity and productivity, with the occasional pothole when misuse of the crop has caused death, or when heavy rains have ruined crops or a mildew outbreak occurs, as it did last November. The great unknown is how big a pothole the mainland expansion will be in the state’s proud history of painkiller production.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

  • Freelance journalism presentation at Walkley MediaPass student industry day, August 2012

    I was invited by the Walkley Foundation to speak at the Brisbane leg of their annual MediaPass student industry days, which are held at capital cities across Australia. The brief was thus:

    Surviving and Thriving as a Freelancer

    Find out how to pitch a story, network and negotiate contracts. Featuring:
    [from left to right, below]

    Before an audience of around 40 final-year journalism students at the Brisbane Powerhouse, we each gave a five minute presentation and then fielded questions from the audience for the remaining half-hour. I spoke on the topic of ‘twelve points for all beginner freelancers to keep in mind’.

    My presentation is embedded below. Click here to watch on YouTube. (Apologies for the footage being off-centre.) I’ve also included the text of my talk underneath.

    Twelve points for all beginner freelancers to keep in mind

    1. Freelancing, at its heart, is really just hustling. It’s learning how to support yourself through persistence, energy and ingenuity. That’s all. Learn how to hustle and you’re set. The only problem is that it takes years to learn how to hustle consistently.

    2.When you start freelancing, the learning curve is steep. You’re fighting against the world; fighting to be heard, fighting to get your name recognised, fighting to get paid. You probably won’t make enough money to pay your rent in the first year, which is why you should do other work on the side until you’re ready to freelance full-time.

    3. But eventually – perhaps years later – it becomes less of a fight. You learn to glide through the world rather than struggling against it. You see things differently, with wiser eyes. You can dip in and out of conversations, projects, and work relationships with much less friction, because there’s much less to lose. You have less to prove, because you’ve already proven yourself to some extent.

    4. There’s a lot to be said for starting slow, though, and at the bottom. For example, I wrote for street press, essentially without being paid, for nearly two years before I decided that writing and journalism was what I really wanted to do. From there, it was a slow process of me working out how to get paid for what I really wanted to do.

    5. Find your gap in the market, but be patient. After doing freelance journalism for a few years, I eventually realised that my gap is to read between the lines and write about what others aren’t. That’s when I’m happiest. That’s not to say that all of my writing consists of that kind of work. I’d say less than half of my income comes from writing those kinds of investigative feature stories. It’s worth pointing out that I only had this realisation in the last 12 months, too.

    6. I definitely didn’t know my gap in the market when I started freelancing. In fact I had very little idea of what I was doing when I started freelancing. I just did it. I followed my interests, and my instincts, and kept knocking on doors. Some opened, some remained closed. When I started freelancing, music journalism was the only kind I did. Gradually, other interests took hold, and now music is one of many topics that I write about. I’d likely never have found these other interests, or that I could write about them, unless I’d started with music, though. So don’t be afraid to specialise early. You never know where your career will lead if you just keep at it.

    7. Hunger can’t be learned, only encouraged. You, and you alone, must be hungry enough to want to succeed. This is an inbuilt character trait, I believe – you can’t be taught to be hungry. You’ve got to be serious, and dedicate yourself to your work, if you want to succeed at freelancing.

    8. Your professional reputation is everything. Guard it with your life. Act with integrity at all times. Don’t do things in private that you wouldn’t be comfortable with, if it became public.

    9. Make a list of the best practitioners in your field; your favourites. Consume their work over and over. Work out why you like them and what they do that appeals to you. Then think about how you can put an original spin on their approach, or their approaches. It’ll take you a while to find your style and voice in any creative medium – writing, photography, comedy, illustrations. Don’t rush it. I’m not even sure if you can rush it, anyway. It’s a process that can’t be short-cut.

    10. Surround yourself with allies. Not necessarily other freelancers. Not necessarily people working in the same field as you. But you should start building up a support network, and regularly keep in touch with as many of those people as you can, because some of your best work will arise from one-off meetings or incidental friendships. Allies are important because freelancing is generally a solitary activity. Everyone needs to communicate with others at some stage. Best to start early.

    11. Be wary of anyone who glamourises the so-called “freelance lifestyle”. Most of freelancing is incredibly mundane. Seriously. Most of my days are spent alone at the computer. Some weeks I don’t even leave the house during my workdays. But there are definitely occasional glimmers of awesomeness that remind you why you’re doing this, and why you love it. Don’t get me wrong, freelancing is great, but to a certain extent it’s a job just like any other. There will be days when you won’t want to do any work. However, if you can push yourself to work even on those shitty days, you’ll eventually be a great freelancer.

    12. Don’t talk so much online. Just do good work, make meaningful connections, and be pleasant to everyone you meet behind the scenes. Try not to buy too much into meaningless talk-fests on Twitter and Facebook. Ultimately, you are the only person standing between success and failure. While you’re tweeting away your workdays, your freelance competition is quietly beating you. Don’t give them the chance.

    Elsewhere: I participated in the freelance panel at the Walkley Foundation’s last MediaPass student day in September 2011, too. Footage and text here.

  • Mess+Noise story: ‘The Lost Weekend: How A Festival Featuring The Drones, Dinosaur Jr Went Down’, March 2012

    A story for Mess+Noise. Excerpt below.

    The Lost Weekend: How A Festival Featuring The Drones, Dinosaur Jr Went Down

    Almost two years to the day since he pulled the pin on his fledgling festival, the founder of Brisbane’s Lost Weekend speaks for the first time about what went wrong and why punter apathy is the biggest threat to would-be promoters. Interview by ANDREW MCMILLEN.

    Billed as a three-day camping event located at a conference centre 45 minutes south-west of Brisbane, a 2010 music festival named The Lost Weekend seemed a worthy contender for the interests of Queensland rock fans who couldn’t afford to head south for Golden Plains. Headlined by Dinosaur Jr, The Dirty Projectors, Wooden Shjips and Nashville Pussy – among Australian bands like The Drones, Tumbleweed, Little Birdy and Whitley – the festival shared several of Golden Plains’ bigger names. Unpowered camping ticket prices ranged from $166 to $207, for a two- or three-day pass, respectively. Hardly a princely sum, considering the ever-increasing costs of competing events on the annual calendar.

    Alarm bells began ringing three months after the initial announcement. A month out from its debut, The Lost Weekend was downsized to two dates and relocated to the Brisbane Riverstage due to apparent licensing disputes. The two-day ticket cost dropped to $150. A M+N news story reported that organisers were determined to make the event in March the “perfect end to the festival season”, and not another Blueprint”. And then, just days out, organisers pulled the plug citing “insufficient time to achieve critical mass”. Unlike the aborted BAM! Festival, an overly ambitious camping event that was set to be hosted at the same venue, The Lost Weekend at least had the foundation of an appealing event by booking a strong, rock-centric line-up.

    It also had festival promotion brains and experience behind the operation. Founder Michael Kerr, 38, had hosted the Sounds Of Spring festival at Brisbane’s RNA Showgrounds in 2008 and 2009, and appeared to be slowly growing the event: the second year saw 14,000 fans take in artists like The Living End, Tex Perkins, My Disco and Giants of Science (the latter two in the midst of a rare dust storm). Yet as The Lost Weekend disintegrated, Kerr went to ground, and hasn’t publicly commented since the public failure of his latest festival attempt. Sounds Of Spring has yet to return, either.

    I meet Kerr for the first time in March, two years and two days after the event would’ve debuted – if only he’d sold a few more tickets. He sips a hot chocolate while we sit at a cafe outside the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. During a wide-ranging conversation, I find Kerr to be quite upfront about his mistakes, slightly disdainful toward the unfortunate habit of Brisbane concert-goers to postpone buying tickets until the last minute, yet optimistic about the possibility to organise future events here in Queensland. He also laughs a lot, even though the topic we met to discuss isn’t particularly funny – or so I thought.

    What was your original desire with The Lost Weekend?
    There was nothing going on. Generally, you try to do events because nothing comes to Brisbane, and we miss out. So we got onto the guys at Golden Plains, and agreed to share some bands but not all, and grew from there. [Laughs] Just to make a good weekend. It was never going to be that large. Never wanted it to be that large. [I wanted it to be] something I want to go to.

    So the Golden Plains connection was pretty integral to making it all work?
    Yes, and no. We probably picked that weekend so we could [make it work], but if nothing happened there wasn’t a big issue. There were enough bands around otherwise to make it work. We did pick up seven or eight of their bands, but not all of them. And that was a deliberate thing we spoke about, because we didn’t want to just do what they were doing, and they didn’t want us to do what they were doing as well.

    Why Ivory’s Rock [Convention Centre]? Had you looked at a few other locations before that?
    We looked at a number of places; particularly it was a really good site. It had all the facilities, had an undercover amphitheatre, had everything; places for food stores, toilets, loos, showers. [It had] everything, everywhere to deal with; where everything else was getting port-a-loos and sleep in the bush. It had proper, flat, perfect camping areas. And no neighbours to disturb.

    How did you come across it in the first place? I had never heard of it until The Lost Weekend was announced.
    Neither had I, actually. Ipswich City Council, who actually were really supportive of doing something, and I originally spoke to them because I was interested in using the Archerfield Speedway area, and they said, “Oh, you should check this place out.” So I checked it out and it worked. [Laughs] Nothing will ever happen there now, though; they don’t want to do anything. They had a change in management and the new managers – it’s run by this religious organisation. The guru from India comes out and speaks there every couple of years and they have like 6000 grannies there. Well, not just grannies but all these people come and hang out there, and pay 500 bucks to hear him talk for five days.

    That sounds interesting…
    The manager at the time wanted other things to go on there, and he pushed really hard to get events in. He’s gone, and the new management don’t want to do a thing.

    So they don’t like the idea of a rock music festival?
    They don’t like the idea of anything else. It’s their little land just for them.

    As you know, after you, BAM! Festival tried to go there. It’s interesting to know nothing at all is going to happen there now.
    Nothing’s going to happen out there.

    To read the full story, visit Mess+Noise.

  • A Conversation with Scott Bagby and Carter Adamson of streaming music service Rdio, February 2012

    The concept of paying month-by-month to stream music from your computer and smartphone remains a relatively new idea in Australia. In the last year or two, a number of contenders have emerged. Nokia has had their ‘Comes With Music’ service for a while now. Sony launched their ‘Music Unlimited’ product in February 2011. Hulking, canary-yellow retailer JB Hi-Fi launched their own streaming platform in December 2011, dubbed ‘NOW’. BlackBerry, Samsung and Microsoft all have proprietary systems operating in some capacity. Rumours abound of Spotify’s Australian launch. A site named Guvera offers a slight twist on the idea: ‘guilt-free’ mp3 downloads. None of these services have yet gained any real traction in the Australian market.

    Clearly, it’s becoming an increasingly crowded marketplace, as app developers and record companies alike cosy up to the assumption that most people don’t give a fuck about music ownership anymore. That whatever CDs, vinyl and cassettes they own gather dust on a shelf somewhere, immobile and largely useless in the era of interconnectivity. These companies believe that most music fans – ‘consumers’ – simply want the ability to take all the world’s music with them, wherever they go. For a monthly fee, of course.

    The newest contender on the Australian market is named Rdio [pictured above]. It’s web-based and also has apps for the main phone platforms (iOS, Android, BlackBerry… Windows Phone?). It was founded by a couple of the guys behind Skype, it’s been public in the States since August 2010, and it’s pronounced exactly like it’s written (‘radio’ minus the ‘a’). For AUD$13.90 per month, you get access to unlimited PC and mobile streaming of their library, which apparently consists of over 14 million songs. Ahead of a launch party at Bondi’s Beach Road Hotel in early February 2012, a couple of the Rdio guys flew me to Sydney, bought me lunch, and answered my questions as best they could.

    Andrew: How long has Rdio’s Australian launch been in the works?

    Scott [Bagby, VP Strategic & International Partnerships; pictured left]: I first came down to Australia to start the discussions at Easter 2011. We were pretty much sewn up by the end of the year. So not quite a year.

    There’s been a few streaming services available in Australia over the last few years, but none of them have had any real success in terms of market penetration. Is that fair to say?

    Scott: Streaming services on the whole, globally, are quite nascent. I was just hanging out with a bunch of labels. I can’t verify these numbers, but this label guy told me that worldwide, there’s only about 7 million subscribers, to any streaming service. It is very much in the early days of all streaming services. But the potential is huge. They’re planning on massive growth in the area, especially this year. I think you’ll find that here in Australia, as well. There’s still an education that needs to happen for the user to understand streaming services. [They need to] just learn about ‘em, and use ‘em, and get what I refer to as the ‘a-ha’ moment, of why streaming services are so much better than buying individual tracks.

    Carter [Adamson, co-founder; pictured right]: But seven million music subscribers in a world where everyone loves music? There’s a lot of room to grow. For ten years, we’ve had various fits and starts with digital music: DRM, tethered CDs, and that kind of stuff. We have services like Rhapsody in the US, who are stuck at around 600,000 subscribers. Now within the past year, you have more than a handful of services that have well over a million subscribers apiece. That only happened within the past year. You have markets like Australia, where 40% of all music revenue is digital music revenue. Korea’s over 50%. For the first time, digital music revenue globally is growing quicker [than physical sales]. I think we’re now at an inflection point with digital music subscription services.

    Scott: The timing’s also great, because of the iPhone and other smartphones. People want to take their music with them. Back in the old days, when I was travelling around I used to have a CD case [for a discman], but that’s just too much of a hassle now. With this streaming service, we have 14 million songs at your disposal, no matter where you are in the world. You can download songs to your phone, switch ‘em out; every Tuesday, there’s new releases [on Rdio]. These sort of things – that’s the education that has to happen, and that’s the ‘a-ha’ moment when you get all of that going. The perfect alignment of the ubiquity of smartphones is what’s really helping it along.

    Carter: Well, connected devices. Any single device that can talk to the internet is a playback device now. Whereas before you had one device; a record player, CD player, 8-track player. Now there’s a wide array of devices that are effectively playback devices, so it no longer makes sense to buy one song for each device. It no longer makes sense to port all the downloads that you bought a la carte via external hard drive to every single device that you have. The only thing that makes sense is for you to access it seamlessly wherever you are, using whatever platform or device you have.

    Using the US service as an example, what percentage of users are using Rdio on their phones?

    Carter: Over 85% of our subscribers are on the higher-priced tier. [Note: PC-only access to Rdio is AUD$8.90 per month – five bucks cheaper than the PC/phone combo.] And that makes sense, because the value proposition has always been seamless mobility. People always wanted to move their music around. No-one’s ever bought a song on iTunes to just play it on their computer. They’ve been waiting for 10 years for this whole seamless mobility thing to become a reality. Now it’s finally here.

    Scott: I think that’s one of the reasons that the music industry faced such a piracy problem in the past, because they didn’t offer it in a format in which people wanted to consume music. Now that it’s coming into that format, you see a lot of people moving into services like ours. They wanted to listen in several places at once, but they couldn’t, so the only way they could do it is to steal it. It was still happening up until a month ago in Hong Kong. Everyone was saying, ‘I want to buy music, but there’s no iTunes, there’s no digital services here. I can’t buy what I want; you leave me no choice but to steal it’. These people were lawyers, bankers – people that had the means [to pay], they didn’t want to steal it, they just didn’t have it.

    Carter: And also, the price has never been so low. We’re talking about 34 cents a day for access to the world’s music, across all your devices. That’s an insanely low price.

    Tell me about that education process you mentioned earlier. How do you turn seven million streaming music subscribers into seven billion?

    Scott: [laughs] Well, one of the benefits is to have your music everywhere and anywhere. Part of my job is to go around to all the different countries and get the rights sorted, so at least it’s available to everyone. Once it’s available, the education process is an ongoing one. And it’s one for the entire industry to be involved in. The best way to get there is to allow people to get that ‘a-ha’ moment. That moment comes at certain times, like when they’re at their friend’s place, they’re sitting around and they want to hear that song from their childhood that they’re all laughing about. Obviously no-one has it in their collection anymore, but then you – boom – you stream it down, you get a big laugh, and it kicks off. You can almost have Rdio and some beers, and you have a party.

    I think a lot of people would be using YouTube for that purpose at the moment.

    Scott: But YouTube, again, isn’t all that mobile. I mean, not as mobile as Rdio is.

    Which labels do you have on board for the Australian launch?

    Scott: We’ve got all the major labels, and we have some indies like Shock, MGM and Inertia. We won’t open up in any market, anywhere in the world, unless we have the domestic music, as well. At the end of the day, it’s about enjoying the content. That’s what makes a good service – the titles that you have. We have a whole team who just make sure that we have as much music as we can on the service. Funnily enough, I was just in Germany, doing a radio interview with a DJ. She is in love with Australian music, specifically Australian hip-hop. She used to fly out here, buy the CDs, then play it on her station. What she loves about this now is that she can now follow Australian influences [using the service], get the music that she wants, and find new music just through the service.

    Will Rdio have an Australian office?

    Scott: Yes.

    In Sydney, I suppose?

    Scott: We’re looking for some key players. Who’s the best person to hire? Once we find that person, they can determine where the office is going to be. Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth… they’re all options. It all depends on who the best person is to run [Rdio] Australia.

    You talked about the ‘a-ha’ moment earlier. For me, when I was testing out the app, that moment was when I realised that Rdio had taken over the iPod player interface on the iPhone [ie the screen that appears when you’re playing music]. I thought that was pretty clever, how similar and familiar that screen was, even though I was using a web streaming service.

    Carter: Two of the most common pieces of feedback we receive: “I just deleted my iTunes collection because I no longer need it,” and “I’ve discovered more music on Rdio in the past two days than in the past two decades”. We’ve obviated a lot of what you would’ve needed iTunes for, and we’ve made it even better with the whole discovery [aspect].

    Scott: How we discovered music in our teenager years is we’d go to our mate’s house and you’d wait to hear their song. It wasn’t until you’d heard it a couple of times that you’d go out and buy it. It’s rare that you’d buy a song without hearing it first. That was one of the disadvantages that iTunes has; you couldn’t hear it without purchasing it.

    Carter: Every Tuesday, new music comes out [on Rdio]. You don’t have to pay a dollar a song, or eighteen dollars an album: you can play literally everything that’s out on Tuesday. You can save it to your mobile device, you can un-save it and throw it back into the water if you don’t like it. People are consuming more music now. I’ve never seen higher retention or engagement metrics in the 17 years I’ve been doing consumer software, or consumer services. It’s insanely high. People get on it, they love it, they use the hell out of it.

    The recommendation worked really well for me. It’s probably a simple thing, but it seemed to work better than most other services I’ve tried.

    Carter: We wanted to be the most comprehensive service out there. Unlike the other services, we offer a little of everything. We not only have the social music discovery stuff, which is always front and centre, no matter where you dial up the service; we also have the algorithmic recommendations, which you were playing around with. They’re getting better and better every day as we see more data, and learn more about you. We also have the on-demand aspect; “I know exactly what I want to listen to,” whether it’s a song or a playlist. And we have the passive listening stuff; “I like an artist, but I don’t really know which song or album to play. Just play me some of this artist’s songs, and maybe mix in related artists.” Or you can play your ‘heavy rotation’ or your entire collection as a radio station. Or your network’s ‘heavy rotation’, or collection.

    In the US… we haven’t carried it over anywhere else because no-one uses it, but we have built our own iTunes store. So you can buy [songs] a la carte in the US, but we found that no-one uses it, because once you’ve used the streaming service, there’s really no reason to buy stuff a la carte.

    How does the Australian subscription price point compare to the American version?

    Carter: Scott, I’ll let you take that one…

    Scott: [laughs] Thanks. The price point is heavily influenced by the rights holders. Between different markets, we have similar… every market to us is the exact same. So the price point basically was just taking into [account] what we had to pay the artists, the labels and publishers. How does it compare? Unfortunately it’s more expensive than the US market. That was just due to market circumstances when we came here. But we personally didn’t treat Australia any different to the US.

    How do you pitch the service to fence-sitters? Those people who say they love music, but rarely pay for it. They might go to a lot of shows, but most of the music they download is via torrents and other shady methods, not via iTunes or equivalent stores.

    Scott: I think in general, most people want to do the right thing. Music lovers want the artist to get paid. I’ve never come across a music lover that says, “Screw the artist, I want to steal from them”. I think the key is making the service as easy and quick to use that it’s almost the default. So that you’re almost paying for the convenience. Instead of researching on BitTorrent, I have ‘social discovery’ [on Rdio]. I’ve built my playlists around my influencers. I like a particular DJ, and a good friend of mine knows a lot about music, so it just kinda bubbles up [in my playlist]. What used to take me a half hour of reading different music blogs and listening to their tunes, it just comes to me easily, now. As Carter says, discovering more music in two days than in two decades – that is what’s going to engage these music lovers, and make it worth them spending the money that they would otherwise gain through BitTorrent.

    Can the service be used offline, or do you have to be connected to a 3G network or equivalent for it to work?

    Carter: You can save as much music as you want to your device’s memory card. So if you have a 32gb iPhone, you can save that much. Again, for 34 cents a day – instead of spending $10,000 to fill up your iPhone or iPad…

    The mp3s are saved onto the device’s hard drive?

    Carter: They’re locally cached, yeah.

    Has that been hacked yet?

    Carter: Not yet. [laughs]

    What are the most common comments you get when people are engaging with Rdio for the first time?

    Scott: The people who’re born before 1980, their concern is: “why am I just renting my music? I want to own it; I want to have a collection.” I think that’s just a lack of understanding of the access model. It almost goes back to the heyday of having a massive CD collection, and looking at it, touching and feeling it. But more and more, as that moves on… there are a lot of 21 year-olds who’ve never owned a CD. So that question is more of a theoretical until they start using the service, and then they realise, “Hey, I can hear all my songs, and it’s actually better because I can hear my entire collection no matter where I am, not just in my house.”

    Carter: I think there’s a general lack of knowledge. Most mainstream consumers don’t understand why they need a service like this, but strangely, they’re already doing it with other types of services, like movies, videos and books.  You have a digital book reader; you pull down your books electronically, you don’t have a physical copy. Same with video. They’re getting the fact that, “Oh yeah, this is what I do with other forms of content. Now I have this wide array of connected devices, I don’t need to buy one song for every device.” But I think there’s a general lack of education on why you need the service. I don’t think it’s a resistance, per se.

    The desktop client – which is optional to download – has a matching feature, which looks at the music on your iTunes or your computer, and if we have the rights to stream it, it automatically moves it to your Rdio collection. It’s kind of like a locker service, for those people who’ve paid a ton of money – or any money at all – buying digital downloads a la carte. We do that as well. We make it an easier transition.

    Going back to what you were just saying about existing libraries; part of my job is being a record critic. It shits me to tears when labels still insist on sending me a CD – which I’ll rip to mp3 immediately anyway – rather than supplying the mp3s so that I can hear the music instantly.

    Scott: The industry itself is still in a physical mode. It’s turning around. I get CDs all the time, but I don’t have a CD player. My laptop doesn’t have a CD drive. I can’t rip the CDs. I say “thank you very much” and I usually hand ‘em over to the maid at the hotel. [laughs] It’s a transition period.

    Carter: In general, we’re leaving a hit-driven business when you move to services like this. It’s a more personalised view on music. You follow specific people because you like their taste in music. You don’t go to Rdio and look at a ‘top 50’. You go there and you look at what’s relevant, what your friends are listening to. That is a fundamental shift in the industry – along with the mobility [the app allows].

    I want to touch on what artists are being paid through Rdio. As I’m sure you’re aware, Spotify had some bad press about how little artists were being paid per-stream. What’s your model like compared to Spotify’s?

    Scott: The model’s similar, because the tariff is going to be similar.  There’s a couple ways to approach this question. First and foremost, we don’t know about the labels’ relationships with their artists. Those are confidential. I have no idea how the labels are paying the artists. I know the majority of our revenue goes to the rights holders. How that’s being distributed afterwards is a black hole as far as I’m concerned. Having said that, there’s other ways to look at this. Net present value of money and all that other stuff aside, if you buy a [music] download, you only get paid once. That person can listen to that song thousands and thousands of times and you don’t get paid for that. On Rdio, you get paid every single time that song gets played. If it’s a good song, and it goes on for a long time [in terms of popularity], you’ll get paid a lot more than you’ll ever get paid than by a [single] download.

    The second way of looking at things is, there’s been cases where artists or labels will pull their music off streaming services off Spotify. It was funny, because this label guy I was talking to – the one I mentioned earlier – was talking to a big artist of his. He turned around and said, “OK, you want me to pull it off streaming for these reasons? That sounds good. So you want me to close YouTube as well, and also the radio?” [The artist] was like, “No no no, keep those open…” The label guy was like, “Hang on a second. You make 200 times more on the streaming service than you do on YouTube, and 150 times more on the streaming service than you do on the radio. So… I don’t understand your reasoning.”

    So I think there’s another education [required] on how these [services] can help and build the labels. The actual money pool for these artists, as of 2011 – two months ago? It probably was too nascent, too small to be anything significant to walk away from. However, the way that the ‘hockey stick’ [graph] of digital music and streaming services are going? I don’t think you’ll see those same stories this time next year, because the pie is getting bigger. That is one of the biggest complaints – that dollar-for-dollar, they’re not getting as much from our service as they are from iTunes. But the iTunes pie is a hell of a lot bigger than seven million people worldwide. I understand the gripe now – again, I don’t know what [the artists] are getting from their labels – but if they look at it in a promotional way and also that this is a nascent service and it will grow, you’ll see more and more people come online and stay online.

    Carter: In a nutshell, we’re driving up music consumption. Once people are on this service, they’re listening to a lot more music. As Scott said, there’s been a model shift in terms of how they’re paid. So you’ll no longer get paid from only one transaction; you get paid each time you play a song. And we’re driving up consumption. So theoretically, that should even out very soon, as we get to scale. The other part of the equation is, we’re hitting segments of the music value chain that have never paid for music, or only pay $30 or $40 a year through iTunes gift cards. We’re reaching new segments. More people will be paying for music again, as we reach scale.

    Scott: And not only that, but the smaller independent labels in each country – because we do worldwide deals – we’ve now given them reach, very quickly and with no cost to the label or artist. In America, in Brazil, in Germany. That exposure can translate into a great opportunity that they’ve never thought of before.

    Carter: They can be big in Japan.

    Scott: Yeah – it’s not just a t-shirt! [laughs] Going back to our Skype days; when we first launched Skype, we had no idea that Brazil was going to be as big as it was [in terms of users]. It was huge. I’m sure there’s some artists sitting here going, “I don’t know if we can do stuff in Brazil.” Now they’re getting feedback from streaming services and they’re like, “OK, everyone in Brazil is streaming our music, now it makes sense for us to tour there, rather than taking a blind punt.” Or maybe they wanted to go to Rio anyway, which is an understandable blind punt. But this sort of exposure is global, at very, very little cost.

    Those are some well-rehearsed answers to a very hard question.

    Scott: [laughs] Well, we think about it. It is a concern for us. Because if all of a sudden, the artists don’t want to be on streaming services, we’re in trouble. But we’ve thought about it. It’s an industry-wide discussion.

    ++

    Andrew McMillen (@NiteShok) is a freelance journalist based in Brisbane, Australia.

    For more on Rdio, visit their website.

    Edit, June 2012: I wrote a feature story for The Global Mail named ‘Unchained Melodies’, which examines the streaming music market in Australia following the launch of Spotify. Click here to read it.

  • Mess+Noise interview: ‘Heatwave Festival founder and CEO Patrick Whyntie’, January 2012

    An interview for Mess+Noise. Excerpt below.

    Heatwave Promoter Breaks Silence: ‘We Bit Off More Than We Could Chew’

    In his first interview since his fledgling hip-hop festival came to a dramatic close last week, besieged Heatwave promoter Patrick Whyntie tells ANDREW MCMILLEN that he’s determined to prove doubters wrong. 

    A festival “worse than any other failed festival in the history of Australian music” was how Tonedeaf reported on the final leg of Heatwave 2012, a national hip-hop tour that began in South Australia as a three-night camping festival on January 12 and ended in Melbourne on January 22. Between those dates, capital city shows were booked in Brisbane, Sydney, Perth and Canberra, in some of those cities’ biggest venues.

    The festival debuted in January 2010 with a single South Australian show, at Abbotts Reserve, 90 kilometres south of Adelaide. Headlined by American rapper Xzibit and Australian DJ tyDi, the all-ages event was attended by an estimated 800 people.

    Festival founder Patrick Whyntie – who also performs under the MC name Mastacraft – was 22 when he staged the 2010 show. His LinkedIn profile states that he has “been around the Australian entertainment industry for 10 years” and has “connections from Australia all the way to Detroit”. Whyntie had previously told the Victor Harbor Times that people were “blown away” by the first event. “There are a thousand things I can grow and build on for next year,” he said at the time, “but we had tons of security and everyone was safe.” Though there was no 2011 event, Whyntie returned to concert promotion in 2012 with a significantly ballsy move: a national hip-hop tour.

    Announced some 35 days before the tour’s first date, Heatwave 2012 – featuring Kid Cudi, D12, Obie Trice, Tech N9ne, Chamillionaire and Crazy Town – was an eclectic proposition from day one. By the end of the 10-day stint, D12 had missed most of the tour due to mishandling immigration paperwork, the Perth show was cancelled via Facebook on the day of the event, and the whole thing culminated in a disastrous Melbourne leg that saw liquor licensing issues, a no-show from Chamillionaire, and Kid Cudi trashing the stage after power was cut due to reported schedule mismanagement. A couple of Facebook hate pages emerged in the wake of the Melbourne show, with punters calling for refunds and describing it as “the biggest music festival fail ever”.

    Schadenfreude runs rife in the notoriously vicious live music industry, so it was unsurprising to see sections of the Australian music media taking delight in Heatwave’s perceived failures, especially following recent debacles such as Blueprint and BAM!. However, recent Flo Rida and Mos Def tour cancellations have highlighted how bringing US hip-hop artists in this country can be an exercise in hair-pulling frustration at the best of times, not to mention the difficulties faced by even seasoned promoters such as the Big Day Out’s Ken West.

    In an email interview with M+N, 24-year-old festival founder and CEO Patrick Whyntie speaks for the first time about the controversial 2012 events; his regrets, the so-called media “misrepresentation”, dealing with Kid Cudi, and what he’s learned after coordinating his first national festival.

    What inspired you to become a festival promoter in the first place, Patrick?
    Festivals are great fun and I wanted to bring some entertainment to my local area – which has never seen anything like this.

    I’m guessing that the 2010 event was a big learning experience. What did you learn?
    Quite a lot: from visas, to how much fencing was required, to how to deal with on-the-spot problems. A substantial learning curve.

    Who funded Heatwave 2012?
    Outside investment.

    Leading into your preparations for the 2012 event, were you concerned about whether or not the Australian market could support a national hip-hop festival like Heatwave?
    I think if all the stars align, any genre of music can be supported. It’s always a risky business, and things need time to grow. We did go too big, too quick.

    It seems to me that the festival’s main point of differentiation is its low cost. The festival’s marketing reflects this, and I saw on the event Facebook that you even taunted rival festivals about this. How did you manage to keep costs so low?
    We decided to put prices extremely low – the cost of, say, one concert act – to attract more people in. We took a risk keeping them low.

    Did the 2012 line-up reflect your particular musical tastes, or were you aiming to book a diverse group of bands to attract as many people as possible?
    Hip-hop is obviously my fave genre, however I listen to a wide range of music. We booked a range of hip-hop – from mainstream to underground – to reach all bases.

    Tell me about how you were feeling ahead of the tour’s first show, in Adelaide. Did you have all your ducks in a row? Were you happy with how the event planning and set-up went?
    Costs blew out substantially and we were having battles with council and police to keep the event going. This cost quite a bit of money and time, fighting something they should have supported. The camping festival [in SA] was a huge undertaking, and in hindsight, we would preferred to have concentrated solely on this [event], and had other national promoters taken the other states.

    At what point were you told that D12 had missed their flight?
    D12 was an ongoing struggle to coordinate them here to Australia. There was a range of problems. We were desperately trying to negotiate them getting here for the Saturday [for the first weekend, at the SA camping event], or even the Sunday.

    What happened next? Did you have a contingency plan in place, or did you have to scramble to make new plans?
    Just like most major festivals, an act sometimes does miss a few dates. We moved things around, of course.

    How many staff did you employ to assist with the festival?
    It varied in each state. SA had well over 50 staff, and even more volunteers.

    You told me via email that the Sydney and Canberra shows were “awesome”. What worked with those two shows, as opposed to the rest of the tour?
    Sydney ran well both nights, though minor problems occurred. The crowd was great for Sydney, aside from a guy running on stage and quickly being removed by our security guard.

    For the full interview, visit Mess+Noise.

  • The Vine story: Interview with Sam Speaight, Mos Def’s Australian tour promoter, January 2012

    An interview for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    Interview: Mos Def tour promoter Sam Speaight: “I literally broke down and cried.”

    One year ago, acclaimed American hip-hop artist Dante Smith – stage name Mos Def (pictured right) – was set to tour Australia for the first time. Eleven shows were booked, including headline festival appearances at Soundscape in Hobart and The Hot Barbeque in Melbourne. After failing to appear at his first scheduled performance in Adelaide, he went on to randomly skip four shows of the itinerary. Such was the ensuing confusion, that following the postponements, cancellations and sternly-worded press releases from the promoter, Peace Music, became something of a sport here at TheVine. For background, revisit our news story ‘Mos Def gone missing on Australian tour’.  (I’m pleased to note that he made it to Brisbane for his Australia Day show, which was actually pretty great.)

    What did those four cancellations mean for Peace Music, though? The promoters were awfully quiet for the remainder of the year, which posed the question: “Did the Mos Def debacle put an end to their live music interests?”. In late 2011, I contacted the company’s managing director, Sam Speaight, requesting an interview about the logistics of touring American hip-hop artists in Australia. “I’d love to do this,” he replied via email. “So often promoters are dragged into the street and shot (proverbially speaking) by the ticket-buying public over hip-hop artists’ cancellations and their childlike antics. Few people understand that, in many cases, the promoters have driven themselves to the brink of sanity and financial ruin to avoid an artist cancelling.”

    A couple of days later, we connected via Skype. “The total chaos that seems to govern most of all the management side of these artists’ careers is just dumbfounding,” Sam told me from his new pad in London. “If people knew what went on behind the scenes, if nothing else, it would be a spectacle worth reading about.” He’s not wrong.

    AM: Tell me about the Mos Def tour, Sam. Was this your worst experience with touring hip-hop artists in Australia?

    SS: Oh, yeah. That was definitely the worst example of madness and insanity from an international artist that I’ve ever seen, or heard of. Utter madness permeated everything that happened, in terms of the artist’s management, the delivery and management of the artist’s live engagement. He’s since pulled similar things at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. They’ve just gone through a similar experience to what I did, but fortunately, they only had one show to deal with, whereas I had an entire headlining tour.

    Let’s go back to the start. When you first confirmed the booking, was there a point at which you realised that things might not go to plan? Were alarm bells ringing at any point during the lead-up to his arrival in Australia?

    Good Lord, yes. Even before I signed the contract with his “management”, in inverted commas, I was aware that this was a difficult, tricky, potentially trouble-fraught artist to deal with. I structured as best I could my strategy for dealing with this artist to minimise the potentiality for misadventure in the establishment phase of that project. But all the pre-planning in the world couldn’t have prepared me for the living nightmare that was the reality of doing that tour and dealing with Mos Def. [Laughs] I literally broke down and cried partway through the tour.

    You need to set the scene. Where were you when you broke down and cried?

    [Laughs] I was at home. It was a Sunday afternoon, if I recall correctly, at my house in Redfern – which I’ve now sold, by the way. I’ve moved to the other side of the world to try and forget all about this experience! [laughs].

    I was at home, hanging out with my lovely girlfriend, Gillian. Earlier in the day, Mos’ tour manager had called to advise that the rescheduled make-up show, which had been put in place in connection with one of the shows that he’d cancelled on his tour – the Tasmanian show. He advised that the make-up show would not be going ahead, and they would be unable to play it. Which was a disaster. One of a string of disasters that occurred on that tour. I was in an awful state of mind as a result of that, because it meant yet more massive financial losses, and yet more damage to my company’s name and reputation insofar as I was delivering the show to a promoter in Tasmania, I wasn’t promoting it myself. So there was a third party affected by this madness.

    A few hours after I dealt with that disaster, I got a call from my tour manager, to say that he’d been asked a question via [Mos Def’s] managers, the question being: “Are there any other shows that we can play on this tour? Can you please investigate booking us some more shows? We would like to try and play some more shows.”

    This is three or four days before the end of the tour. I remember reaching this psychological breaking point, where I’d been assaulted by this emotional nightmare every day for a month, in the lead-up to the rescheduling of, then delivery of this project. I said to my tour manager, “I can’t believe you’ve just asked me that question. You know how much money I’ve lost here. You know that the tour’s four days from completion. Are you totally insane? Who in the southern hemisphere is ever going to book this artist ever again? After what’s gone down here, for a start. And further to that, how on earth would I be able to organise any new shows within the space of four days given the fact that I’m staring down the barrel of financial ruination?”

    That was basically just what tipped me over the edge. I just remember being in my living room, just losing the plot. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back! [laughs]

    But it gives you an insight into just how warped and twisted, and how absolutely separated from reality the awareness of management – within the scope of that being a professional function – is, in the minds of these artists. They seem to live in such a bizarre, self-constructed reality that is so far away from what you might describe as career management, business, or just basic logic. [Laughs] Their worldview and outlook… it’s difficult for people like me — and I assume like you, too — to understand people who have to justify their existence by earning a dollar, which is then pursuant to them doing a good job of things, and being a professional. This is just a world that a lot of these people seem to be able to avoid living in.

    And Mos Def’s a great example. If you Google, you’ll see that in the last 12 months there’s been a spate of these absolute last-minute cancellations. If the cancellation or postponement is done in a way that allows the promoter some opportunity to minimise their losses and to at least deal with the ticket buying public in a professional fashion, so that it doesn’t damage that artist’s fanbase and the promoter’s business, then cancellations are unfortunately sometimes a part of doing business in the music industry. But that’s not the approach that’s usually taken in these situations by these American hip-hop artists. More often than not, there’s very little justification if any given for it. It’s oftentimes just a childish whim, whereby they’ve decided that something about the project isn’t to their liking, or they’ve got something better to do that day, or they don’t feel like getting out of bed that morning.

    As a result of that, they’re perfectly happy to – in some promoters’ cases – turn people’s lives upside down, and send peoples’ whole businesses spiralling toward the ground without any thought for basic humanity.

    This is probably a long bow to draw, but I see a lot of this same attitude toward happily disregarding other people within the scope of business, and totally ignoring the massive financial ramifications of doing something like cancelling a show 24 hours out, to the problems we’re seeing across the entire global financial system at the moment. You’re basically talking about an approach to doing business that is morally bankrupt. It’s the exact same underpinning ideology that I see caught up in the actions of Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America, whereby these people are perfectly happy, without a single qualm in the world, to destroy peoples’ lives, trash peoples’ businesses, send people broke, without even a second thought. Just as long as – whatever they decided to do that day, gets done. I think that’s what really drives at this. The financial system that these people are participating in, and their actions, by association and as a function of that system, are absolutely and utterly morally bankrupt. But that’s a very long view, I guess. [Laughs]

    For the full interview, visit The Vine.

  • The Australian story: Hillsong Music Australia, October 2011

    A short feature for The Australian’s arts section about Hillsong Music Australia, the record label arm of the Hillsong Church. Excerpt below.

    The power in grooving for God

    [Photo above: Hillsong Live plays at the Sydney Entertainment Centre in December. Thousands of fans attend Hillsong’s conferences and live album recordings each year. Picture: Trigger Happy Images Source: Supplied]

    The crowd roars as the lights dim. All eyes are focused on the stage, where smoke obscures the silhouetted figures. Four guitarists, four singers, two keyboardists, a drummer and a dozen-strong choir break into song. The sound is loud and clear. A boom operator swings a camera across the front rows; its images are fed on to three screens, which also list the song’s lyrics in a huge white font.

    The visual aids seem superfluous, though, as most know these songs by heart. Once the strobe lights disperse at song’s end, one of the singers asks: “Does anybody love Jesus here tonight?”

    It’s Friday night at the Brisbane campus of the Hillsong Church, yet the production values wouldn’t be out of place at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre, about 25km away. About 3500 worshippers surge through these doors each weekend for services on Friday nights and Sunday mornings. The first third of this 90-minute service is more rock show than sermon: there are about 600 people in attendance tonight, all grooving on the spot to the rhythm section, hands held aloft in praise, voices singing, “Our God is greater than all”.

    All the musicians on stage are volunteers, as are the sound and lighting technicians. But unlike other live music venues across Brisbane, there’s no pursuit of a pay cheque. Instead, we’re witnessing musical expression in search of divine approval.

    After the band leaves the stage, an advertisement for Hillsong’s annual live album recording appears. This year, the recording takes place at Allphones Arena in Sydney, where 15,000 people are expected to attend. Hillsong Music Australia manager Tim Whincop calls the recording — to be held this Sunday — “an extension of our church services”.

    “With so many services across a weekend, we don’t often get chance for our whole church to worship together at the same time,” Whincop says. “Our gathering at Allphones Arena will allow us to achieve this, and we will take this opportunity to record our next worship album.”

    Since its first album in 1988, Hillsong Music has become one of the most successful independent record labels in Australia. According to Whincop, the label has sold more than 12 million records worldwide, and more than one million records in Australia. It has 21 ARIA-certified gold records to its name, 11 certified gold DVDs and one platinum CD: the 1994 live album People Just Like Us, which sold more than 70,000 copies. Yet, apart from when it pops up in the charts a handful of times each year, the label exists outside the nation’s mainstream music industry.

    Hillsong Music emerged in 1983 out of the congregation at the Hills Christian Life Centre in Baulkham Hills, Sydney. Whincop says its music interests have grown from “a small team of passionate people to a group of hundreds of singers, musicians, songwriters and production volunteers” based at three campuses in Sydney, one in Brisbane and 12 extension services held in venues including bowling clubs, universities and cinemas.

    Hillsong Music Australia — a department of the church — employs 17 full-time staff.

    Its artists and repertoire have little in common with other labels. Where a company such as Dew Process in Brisbane has a diverse roster of artists, such as Sarah Blasko, the Panics, Mumford & Sons and Bernard Fanning, Hillsong has just three bands on its roster: Hillsong Live, Hillsong Kids and United, the church’s best known “praise and worship band”, which was founded in 1998 and has 13 albums under its belt. Like the Hillsong Live series, United releases an album each year. The label’s next release has a Christmas theme.

    For the full story, visit The Australian. [Note: you may have to register for an account to read the full article, as News Limited has imposed a paywall as of October 2011]

  • 1UP story: “Rumour: “Massive Layoffs” at Canadian Studio Silicon Knights, October 2011

    A story for gaming website 1UP; my first for them. Excerpt below.

    Rumor: “Massive Layoffs” at Canadian Studio Silicon Knights

    Sources tell us the team has shrunk from 97 to 25 employees.

    All but 25 staff at the Canadian video game development studio Silicon Knights have been laid off, according to sources close to the company.

    Silicon Knights has not officially confirmed the cuts, but two credible independent sources contacted us with the information over the weekend. One wrote that “Silicon Knights has had massive layoffs. They are now down to a core staff of 25 people.” The other said, “It may interest you to note that SK laid off all but 25 employees today.”

    This outcome follows the St. Catharines, Ontario-based studio receiving three recent funding grants, totaling CDN $8 million: $1 million in 2008, invested by the Ontario Media Development Corporation, $4 million in 2010 via the federal government, and most recently, $3 million in July 2011 via the Ontario government.

    Silicon Knights president Denis Dyack stated in July 2011 that the CDN $3 million investment would allow the company to improve its technology, hire 80 new people while keeping 97 current jobs and allow the company to become “self sustaining.” We do not know at this stage what went wrong, nor how the studio’s payroll has shrunk from 97 to 25 in three months. A source says, “I heard they laid off all of HR including Denis’ wife,” in reference to Joanne Dyack, SK’s director of human resources.

    On October 26, another source told 1UP that “you might want to keep an eye on SK in the next few days. If you were connected to many of SK’s directors and producers on LinkedIn, you would be noticing a very disproportionate amount of CV updating and connection-making activity. And yes, I have heard that the worst is happening. Stay tuned.” Silicon Knights’ publicist responded that same day, saying “Silicon Knights is not shutting down and no layoffs have happened at this time.”

    For the full story, visit 1UP. Expect more stories concerning Silicon Knights in the near future.

  • GameSpy story: ‘The Health of the PC Gaming Industry’, October 2011

    A story for GameSpy.com; my first for them. It’s a feature split into two parts: one to discuss the retail side of PC gaming, and one for digital.

    Excerpts from both halves included below.


    The Health of the PC Gaming Industry Part 1: Retail

    Dying or developing – just how is the PC doing?

    If you want to make a hardcore gamer roll their eyes in exasperation, tell them that the PC gaming industry is dead and/or dying. Variations on this well-worn statement have been circulating for years, and it’s never been particularly true. In 2011, it’s less true than ever: thanks to digital distribution, more people are buying and playing PC games, so it’s no surprise that developers and publishers continue to invest heavily in the space. Their efforts don’t necessarily have the goal of extracting gamers’ wallets from pockets, either: the burgeoning ‘free to play’ model is being taken seriously by publishers like EA and Activision. And though the hardcore among you might be loath to admit it, those who choose to while away their hours playing Facebook games are technically PC gamers, too.

    All told, PC game sales accounted for $16 billion in revenue worldwide last year, according to research conducted by DFC Intelligence on behalf of Nvidia. If DFC’s forecasts are to be believed, PC games will eclipse console game sales in 2014, and incur a sense of deja vu among those gamers old enough to remember a pre-console period where the PC ruled the emerging market for home video games.

    In this two-part feature, GameSpy will examine the health of the PC gaming industry across two fronts – retail and digital – in an effort to dispel those pesky death rumours once and for all.

    Bricks and Mortar
    When compared to the reams of laudatory material that have been dedicated to praising the virtues of digital distribution platforms, it’s easy to overlook the roots of PC gaming: the humble bricks-and-mortar retailer, a place where chunky, colourful cardboard boxes containing CD-ROMs once received pride of place on shelves a few short years ago. Though the cardboard boxes have been downsized and the CD-ROM technologically superseded, Steve Nix counters that there’s still a significant market for over-the-counter sales of PC titles.

    As general manager of digital distribution at GameStop, the world’s largest video game retailer – who employ some 17,000 full-time staff, and whose annual earnings in 2010 were $9.47 billion – Nix is well-placed to survey the PC gaming landscape. It also helps that he spent four and a half years at id Software, as director of business development and later, director of digital platforms. He’s been with GameStop since February 2011. “Many years ago, PC games were the largest category for GameStop,” he says. “But PC retail sales didn’t look good over the last ten years. There’s been a steady decline. As a PC gamer first and foremost, that always was very concerning. In the early 2000s, I was wondering, ‘What’s going to happen to the PC? Is it going to become completely extinct at some point, as a gaming platform?'”

    We now know that the answer to this question is a firm ‘no’. At the time, Nix reflects, “my strong belief was that we were seeing a user experience problem with PC games in a retail box, versus console games. Really, if you think about the fastest, easiest way for people to get a game and start enjoying it, it’s the consoles. They offer a really nice experience: you get your game disc, you pop it in, and you’re playing in under a minute. Whereas, by the mid-2000s, for PC gamers, games had gotten quite a bit larger. Before the DVD, you’d have nine CDs for some games. And then you might have to search the web for the latest patches. If you’d done everything correctly, maybe a couple of hours later, you’d actually be playing the game after all this work. Really, I think that a lot of customers who were PC gamers started transferring to the consoles just because the user experience on the PC was poorer at that point,” he reflects.

    According to Nix, all GameStop saw at that point was “the decline of the physical PC box sales, so they decided to focus on the console business. But fortunately, in the last few years, some of the leaders in the PC digital space have been more public about going out with their numbers. They’re seeing amazing growth. That information started to get back to GameStop, who did some extensive research and said, ‘the PC market is thriving, but it’s just shifted online. It makes sense for us to be a major player in the PC digital space’.” The company will invest $100 million in digital initiatives in 2011, according to a report in March. We’ll return to Nix and GameStop’s recent forays into the online marketplace in the second part of this feature, which focuses on the digital market.

    To read the rest of part 1, visit GameSpy. An excerpt from part 2 follows.

    The Health Of The PC Gaming Industry Part 2: Digital
    There’s money to be made in them thar online hills.

    In part one of this feature, we examined the boxed-retail past that many gamers have abandoned. Now we take a microscope to the digital-driven future of PC game distribution, which many gamers have already embraced. Like downloading music, downloading games for your PC makes a shitload of sense: it’s fast, convenient, better for the environment, and you can do it in your underwear and no-one will ever know. Sneaky and classy.

    Where did all the money go?
    Half to 70% of the $4 billion market for downloaded PC games are purchased through a platform named Steam [pictured below right], according to an article published by Forbes earlier in 2011. (Steam operator Valve refused to comment on the accuracy of this claim.) Though Steam was a right royal pain in the ass when it launched in 2002 during the beta period of Counter-Strike 1.6 – any gamer who recalls that frustrating time will no doubt concur – using the software is now as akin to the average PC gamer as breathing and circle-strafing. It’s the gaming equivalent of iTunes. Both are clear market leaders; both maintain an enormous brand loyalty worldwide.

    That same Forbes article quotes North American market research firm NPD Group as stating that, in 2010, “sales of PC games via download outstripped sales of boxed games in stores for the first time”. When I question Valve VP of marketing Doug Lombardi on the significance of this outcome – was this always a goal on the agenda, or happy coincidence? – he cryptically replies, “Our goal has always been to deliver a higher quality of service to the customer, regardless of where or how they purchase the product.” Perhaps enormous consumer uptake and financial success was always going to be a consequence of aiming to develop the market’s best digital distribution platform.

    Lombardi makes it clear that Valve still values traditional retail and healthy competition in the digital distribution market. “We don’t advise folks to skip retail, or other digital outlets,” he says. “Every publisher and developer should consider the widest possible distribution possible.” I’m curious as to how he pitches the service to prospective Steam clients – from indie developers, to the world’s biggest publishers. “We start with the 30 million-plus gamers connected to the service, the instant access to data on their Steam sales, and the increasing number of Steamworks features we offer free of charge such as matchmaking, anti-piracy, support for in-game DLC, and more.” Also of note is Lombardi’s eyebrow-raising claim that “Steam has grown over 100% year-over-year for the past six years.” A userbase of 30 million is a fairly compelling reasoning for both developers and publishers to do a deal with Steam, I’d imagine.

    Game developers such as Tripwire Interactive are among the legions of Steam supporters. The Roswell, Georgia-based studio – creators of Red Orchestra 2 and Killing Floor – have been fans since they signed up in 2005. “And we still are”, says vice president Alan Wilson. “They still have that Valve sense for what the people buying the games actually want, will give it to them at a good price, good customer service – and they treat the developers/publishers right as well. They’re always easy to work with. There are other good services out there – D2D, GamersGate and so on. But until Steam either starts getting it all wrong, or the others find some miracle formula, Steam will stay king of the pile.”

    To read the rest of part 2, visit GameSpy.

  • Talk: “Team Bondi, L.A. Noire and The Truth: The Perils of Online News”, October 2011

    This is the transcript of a presentation I gave at the Brisbane Emerging Writers Festival on Saturday 15 October 2011, as part of a panel discussion around the topic of “Writing online – How different is writing for an online audience, how can you do it creatively, and what are the challenges and opportunities for writers working in this field?”

    Footage of my presentation is embedded below.

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    Team Bondi, L.A. Noire and The Truth: The Perils of Online News

    by Andrew McMillen

    This is a cautionary tale about online journalism. It’s about learning first-hand how the internet can be a beautiful and terrible place to break news. It’s about choosing what kind of writer you want to be.

    In June, the biggest story of my career was published. It was the result of four months of investigation, based on my interviews with 11 former employees of a company named Team Bondi, who made the biggest, most expensive video game ever made in Australia, called L.A. Noire. These 11 sources all spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. Between them, they’d spent a combined 24 years at Team Bondi. They each alleged that their experiences working there were uniformly terrible: long hours, no overtime pay, a praise-free workplace led by a guy who treated them like crap. As a result of these factors and high staff turnover, the game took seven years to make, which is an incredibly long time in the games industry. I put these allegations to the Team Bondi founder, who did not deny what his former employees had told me, and made no apologies for his style of management.

    My story encapsulated all of this, and was published on the gaming website IGN. Within 24 hours it received over 120,000 hits, and was being reported and analysed by the gaming media around the world. My four months of patient work – including building trust with my sources, and many conversations with IGN’s editors about the story’s final shape – were reduced to a handful of quotes and rushed summaries rewritten by other gaming journalists. To my knowledge, nobody tried to track down my 11 sources and verify what they were saying, nor did anyone seek additional comment from Team Bondi.

    Soon after the story was published, two other former employees emailed me, and provided some more information, including company emails they’d saved from their time at Team Bondi. This new information shed more light on the fact that the company had been stringing their employees along for years, consistently saying that the game was close to being finished, even though it clearly wasn’t. I combined this new information into a supplementary feature that was published on the gaming website, GamesIndustry.biz.

    One of the more interesting comments made by one of my sources in this second story related to the breakdown of the relationship between Team Bondi and Rockstar Games, who published L.A. Noire. You might know them as the guys behind games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. My source said, and I quote:

    “I’ve heard a lot about Rockstar’s disdain for Team Bondi, and it has been made quite clear that they will not publish Team Bondi’s next game. Team Bondi are trying to find another publisher for their next title, but the relationship with Rockstar has been badly damaged.”

    Now, keep in mind that these are informed comments made by a person who worked at this company for a few years. Still, these are some pretty strong allegations to make, about some high-profile businesses. My source has inside knowledge, for sure, but it’s very easy to start these kinds of rumours – namely, that one of the world’s best-known videogame companies has decided to cut ties with the Australian studio that they’d sunk millions of dollars into. In the eyes of every sane and rational person in the world, though, allegations and rumours stay just that until they’re either confirmed or denied by those in the know.

    Over the next couple of days, I was surprised to find that many websites were not exercising caution when publishing these additional rumours. Some sites didn’t even acknowledge the source of these allegations, instead simply saying that, quote “Rockstar have decided not to publish Team Bondi’s next game”. Full stop. It was alarming and disappointing to see my work skewed beyond its original form, purely because other writers didn’t care enough to provide full context.

    To complicate the situation, neither Rockstar nor Team Bondi made any public comments on any of these matters. I learned during this process that their silence bred a kind of quiet acceptance of ‘the facts’ of my stories – which is a really shitty thing. To this day neither company has publicly commented on what I reported.

    This whole experience was simultaneously exhilarating and depressing for me. Exhilarating because it was the first real newsworthy story I’d worked on, and I got a kick out of watching it being passed around the world. Depressing because I also watched commenters misinterpret my findings, and fellow journalists misrepresent my work in their editorials. It made me wonder what would’ve happened if I was less restrained with my own analysis and storytelling. Arguably, my stories would never have been published if they didn’t meet editorial standards, but the manner in which other online publications were loose with the facts made me wonder how far I could’ve stretched the truth and gotten away with it.

    This is an interesting thought to entertain. And I should point out that my two published stories on this topic did not stretch the truth in any way. But hypothetically, let’s say that I’d fabricated a few quotes that were supposedly made by my anonymous sources. The reader wouldn’t know any better, and it’s doubtful that I’d even get found out. The story was re-reported with such breathless enthusiasm, often containing only the most inflammatory and controversial quotes, that it would barely have mattered. The success of the stories, and the additional opportunities that have since been offered to me, might have led me down an entirely different path. I might have become addicted to seeking easy controversy in my journalism, had I made that choice.

    I didn’t, and I haven’t. I’m glad I was thorough and responsible in my reporting, but the alternative is still fun to think about occasionally.

    This experience taught me a valuable lesson, about how quickly people tend to believe what they read online as the truth, especially in the absence of denial from the parties in question. The more the story was reported around the internet, the more true these allegations became to most readers. This is reflected in the comments sections of these articles. I watched the tide turn from acute doubt, to utter contempt for Team Bondi and Rockstar, in a very short period.

    This experience taught me that no matter how thorough and careful I am with my own work, once a story is published online, it’s completely out of my hands. I think that, in the rush to ‘first’, some web publishers are a little loose with their words. This is troublesome, because whoever reads their articles may not have the time or inclination to read the initial source material, and if a website has their facts wrong when re-reporting a story, then the reader’s understanding of a situation may be compromised. It’s hard to shift facts in people’s minds once they’ve come to a conclusion, and I think web journalists, editors and publishers have a more pronounced responsibility than their print counterparts to check the facts and exercise caution before hitting ‘publish’.

    It’s tough, though, because on the internet, there is little incentive for this kind of cautionary, responsible journalism. Inflammatory and controversial stories spread much faster than their circumspect alternatives. This has always been the case, with any kind of news, but the trouble with the web is that the publishers of these kinds of stories are rewarded with traffic, which in turn directly benefits them, as advertisers are more willing to pay them to run ads on their sites.

    A few thoughts to close. Writing for the web, it’s very easy to become swept up in instantaneous, inflammatory, controversial reporting. But I urge you not to go down this road. To do so is to toss away your integrity, to swallow your pride and sense of self-worth in favour of short-term gratification. It is a fucking shame that online journalism appears to be built on this principle, and that it is so ingrained in our day-to-day web browsing that you probably don’t even notice.

    Like I said, there’s little consequence for following the path of ‘publish first, fact-check second’. But if you have even a shred of integrity, again I urge you: do not take the path of least resistance. Always err on the side of caution before pressing ‘publish’. You owe it to your readers, your sources, your fellow journalists and yourself.

    Andrew McMillen is a freelance journalist based in Brisbane, Australia. http://andrewmcmillen.com/