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Posts from the Bullshit Police Category

Anybody who has ever tried to take confectionary away from my children can tell you that “like taking candy from a baby” is a bad simile for something easy. They’re small, but those boys will take you down.

In the hunt for easy ways to add content to my blog, though, I see that “like making fun of people trying to find easy ways to add content to their blog/website/newspaper of record” is a winner.

We begin with Friday’s Times, where Danielle De Niese gives an interview which might have started off about her performance in La Calisto at the Bayerische Saatsoper, but certainly ended up as an excuse to print a picture of her in a leopard print leotard, talking about wearing a leopard print leotard. Top marks to Jack Malvern for understanding the job of the modern arts correspondent.

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Q. Am I really wrong?

Yes

Q. Are you sure?

Absolutely

Q. Can you prove that I’m wrong?

Yes, but, you’ll have to agree in advance what proof looks like, otherwise you could just move the goalposts after the game.

Q. How come I have so much evidence that I’m right?

That’s confirmation bias. Your brain carefully files away all the reasons you might be right, and disregards all the reasons you might be wrong.

Q. How come so many people agree with me?

They’re wrong too.

Q. They can’t all be wrong, can they?

Most people are wrong about most things most of the time. If there’s one remarkable discovery to be made in the study of science, religion and philosophy, it’s that being wrong about almost everything does people so little harm. The fact that every scientific discovery since the stone age has only doubled our life expectancy is a cutting indictment of the futility of knowledge in the face of ignorance.

Q. What about the evidence that I should be right?

Those are mostly just reasons why it’s embarrassing that you’re wrong.

Q. What about the mathematical proof that I’m probably right?

That just means we should have been momentarily surprised that you were wrong. Total denial is not called for.

Q. Why has nobody told me this before?

Given the way you’re acting now, it’s hard to imagine anybody feeling like you might be anything but completely receptive to information relating to your wrongness.

Q. So what? I’m supposed to completely rethink everything I thought I knew?

Well, bumbling blindly got you this far, and we wouldn’t be exploring all our options unless we at least considered elective ignorance. Eternal darkness loses some of its lustre once you embark upon it willingly, though, so perhaps you should take comfort in the knowledge that you’re probably wrong about all sorts of other things, too.

Dear Aaron Dunn (founder of Musopen),

My gripe is pretty simple:

You have a website dedicated to giving away music that is in the public domain. Some of the music on your website is not in the public domain. It belongs to people, who should be getting paid when it is downloaded. You have made almost no effort to prevent this, and you hide behind an absurd interpretation of a law you don’t understand in order to justify your continued inaction.

Let’s start with the public domain. Authors are entitled to copyright protection for a period of time, after which their work becomes free for anybody to reproduce. Copyright terms are a bit confusing, but if you want to know if something is free in the major markets, it works like this:

Public Domain

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I’m often astonished at the extent to which people who run record companies can be bad at maths.

Yesterday I sat in a meeting where it was suggested that the success of a promotion might be measured be checking the sales of the records in it before, during and after the promotion. It’s not a totally barmy approach, but without comparing the sales of the records in the promotion with sales of some other records over the same period, any increase or decrease might be the result of normal sales patterns or overall fluctuations in the market.

Still, that’s not nearly as daft as this thing I found today. The headline is “Which music services are growing, which are shrinking” which would make for a pretty interesting article if it actually told you the answer to that question.*

It’s not easy to measure this unless you sell music on these all the services** so the author has instead used Google Trends to find out which services people are searching for. In the medical world, this is known as a surrogate outcome. The thing you want to measure is difficult to measure, so you measure something related instead. It can go wrong.

The trouble is that a related variable isn’t necessarily strongly correlated to the outcome you care about. If you’re gong to use a surrogate like this, it’s a good idea to check if it’s really easy to find examples of it not working at all well. The examples below are literally the first things I searched for.

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 13.51.21

According to Google Trends, Steve Jobs was never more in demand than the day he died, and is still not as unpopular as  when he was alive (that last bit might be true).

Perhaps its fairer to compare Google Trends with a better-known indicator of company performance: share price. Here, Berkshire Hathaway’s search popularity has been in steady decline for the best part of a decade.

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 14.06.41

Don’t tell their shareholders that, though. According to the NYSE, business has never been better.

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 13.54.19

Meanwhile, at Yahoo, search interest hit a high plateau in 2010:

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 13.55.24

And the stock price is doing almost the exact opposite.

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 13.55.14

Pretty much the entire foundation of all scientific progress is to come up with an idea and then try to prove it wrong, because if you can’t prove it wrong, you might just be on to something. If the author had made even a cursory attempt to check how poorly search popularity was correlated with company performance, I think he might have offered a stronger disclaimer than:

“Of course, these search trends are not the same as having an actual measure of activity. Millions of people play music on Spotify or iTunes every day without performing a search. However, until we can get raw user numbers from every music service, this is probably about the closest we can get to understanding which services are growing and which are shrinking.”

When I wrote “almost everything you read about the state of the record industry is, at best, totally useless” this is just the sort of thing I was talking about.

Footnotes:

* Perhaps I should avoid reading articles with questions in the headlines. If they ever answer the question, it’s because the answer is “probably not”. This is often the way with rhetorical questions.***

** If you don’t sell music, why do you even care which ones are growing?

*** And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?**** And was the holy Lamb of God, On Englands pleasant pastures seen?**** And did the Countenance Divine, Shine forth upon our clouded hills?**** And was Jerusalem builded here, Among these dark Satanic Mills?****

**** Probably not.

The Times Higher Education Supplement and the Independent reported yesterday that the Royal Academy of Music enjoy’s the UK’s highest graduate employment rate at 100%.

There’s a small chance somebody might make a fairly important career decision (or at least spend £36,000) on the basis of this 100% figure (or perhaps on the basis of the Independent’s unambiguous advice “If you want to be employed after uni, study music”), and as these two respectable publications were apparently too busy to find out what it actually means, I thought I’d do it. It took 15 minutes. Here we go: (more…)

New business idea: begin making shiny boxes that don’t even claim to do anything. The marketing plan writes itself. We won’t lie. We’ll just make sure the small print is very small indeed.

Placebo

1) Whether you want reduced jitter, increased soundstage or a more (or less) “digital” sound, Placebo Audio’s products will do exactly what you expect them to. This makes for an entertaining read on the extent of the issue.

2) Does Fuck All.

3) Placebo Audio’s products are designed to have no detectable impact on frequency response. Or anything else.

4)  There’s a lot of literature on this. Within the specific field of consumer audio, you might try this. If you’d prefer something a little more clinical, you might prefer this study on the placebo effect in hearing aids.

5) The laws of physics do not apply to these products (unless you expect them to).

6) Your ears will say “I dunno”. Your brain, which can’t hear at all, will think it knows better.

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There’s an article on Digital Music News from yesterday entitled “Happy F%*@ing Birthday, iTunes…” and, as it illustrates so many of the reasons I avoid reading anything on Digital Music News, I thought I’d take a look at it here on my blog.

It opens with a personal attack on Steve Jobs who, if he hadn’t been dead for fifteen months, would surely have been humbled into changing his ways by the brilliant rhetorical device of calling him an asshole on the Internet*. It then launches into what seems to be the central assertion of the piece: that iTunes is “one of the greatest piracy-enabling vehicles the music industry has ever witnessed”.

This surprised me. The occasion for this piece is the 10th anniversary of the iTunes store, which sells music. I worked on the iTunes Store for more than half of the last ten years, and it never seemed like enabling piracy was a high priority for my department. If you’re going to make a claim like this then, naturally, you’re going to have some evidence for it, but we’ll come back to that, because there’s more.

The line “its legacy is a complicated one” dangles the possibility that we might get some meaningful analysis here.

One easy way to make headway through all this complexity would be to look at the winners and losers. The iTunes store made some people very rich, while others did less well. Whole companies sprang up to support the digital supply chain, while some businesses began a steady decline. In some instances the cause-and-effect relationship is quite obvious. One might even choose to divide the music business into “artists”, “audience”, and “people who take their money” and examine what ten years of the iTunes store has done for each of these.

Instead, we get a restatement of the famously positive things about iTunes, along with one other criticism: “the rise of iTunes also meant a fall in control for content owners.  Jobs demanded 99-cents a track, for every track, for years, and refused to entertain bundling tomfoolery like album-only downloads.”

The music business has its fair share of bad deals, but nobody is forced to sign them at gunpoint. To suggest that anybody is compelled to hand over control of their artistic output to a massive corporation (label or retailer), or that they are driven by anything but greed to accept a huge advance in return for their music is to fundamentally misconceive the way the world works.**

After this brief detour into moral outrage on behalf of the poor, defenceless label execs, we’re back to the piracy thing:

“…only a certain percentage of people were actually purchasing paid downloads.  Indeed, the IFPI routinely estimated that 19 out of 20 MP3s were pirated, ie, not purchased from the iTunes Store.  Yet, all of those downloads — free, paid, whatever — were feeding an iPod frenzy, with only limited restrictions on either side of the iTunes+iPod equation.  The source of the content didn’t matter; the consumer experience was everything.”

So there you have it. The iTunes store (which never sold MP3s***) is a bad thing because a different division of the same company sold hardware to people who may have also stolen music****. I sometimes wonder how we sleep at night. But wait. There’s more:

“Because if the iPod could comfortably hold 20,000 songs, the next question was where fans were getting these 20,000 songs.  CD-ripping, sure, but also ol’ favorites like Limewire and BitTorrent.  On the most basic level, no one was paying $20,000 for a digital collection.”

This is just innuendo, and it’s misplaced. I must have been off sick from work the day they called us all into Town Hall and said “So you guys, don’t worry about trying to get people to buy more music. It turns out we’d rather they stole it.” because I  don’t remember that happening. Still, I won’t ask you to take my word for it. Instead, let’s consider for a moment just how foolish this whole “iTunes only exists to sell iPods” argument really is.

The iTunes store looks like it will sell about $5bn worth of music alone this year. That’s a Fortune 500 company, all by itself, and around 4% of Apple’s turnover. Even a 5% profit margin yields a quarter of a billion dollars. I count 129 Fortune 500 companies that didn’t make that much profit last year. When you consider that iTunes had massive growth to finance out of its slim margins, articles about its break-even origins seem rather daft.

But I digress. Digital Music News still has one absurd paragraph left:

“Fast-forward to the present, and Apple is still getting away with mass murder.  Because iCloud and iTunes Match not only ports entire, multi-thousand collections in the sky, it’s also giving every pirated collection a pardon.  And $24.95 a year is all it takes to absolve your sins.”

This is a bit vague but it sounds serious. If you didn’t know better, you could be forgiven for thinking iCloud and iTunes Match made it easy to share your music, and that using iTunes Match would protect your from prosecution for music piracy.

Neither of these things are true. Access restrictions make it difficult to share music with others using iCloud, and iTunes Match will not protect you from prosecution for piracy*****. I don’t know where this rumour came from, but it’s widespread and very much mistaken: it’s the act of piracy that is illegal, not the possession of pirated music. It might not feel this way to users, but that’s an issue that could have been addressed in a bit of intelligent analysis.

I struggle to understand what the point of this whole article was. An enterprise as wildly successful as iTunes would surely have left some people worse off, but after reading this, I’m no wiser as to who those people might be.

If there’s a decision we might make differently after reading it, I can’t imagine what that could be either. If it was intended to inform, then it fails by containing almost no information – mostly just a bunch of bloviating. Indeed since it is, in places, misleading, you could end up knowing less after reading it.

I don’t read much news at all******, but I certainly don’t read Digital Music News any more. It joins the Daily Mail and Norman Lebrecht on the list of sources who seem, consistently, to place page-views above accuracy, creating content for the benefit of advertisers or personal vanity rather than for the benefit of the reader.

There’s space for both daily industry news and sensible analysis in the digital music space. If this is what you’re looking for, though, you’d do well to look somewhere else.*******

Footnotes

* This is the only thing in the whole article to get a citation, to another Digital Music News article about how Steve Jobs was an asshole.

** It’s reasonable to ask who wins and loses under such a deal, but to behave as if they didn’t have a choice is to absolve one party to the deal of responsibility for the outcome. The artists made their choice when they signed away their albums to a label, and the labels made their choice when they signed the deal with iTunes and accepted the billions of dollars they were paid in return. If you want to control how your music gets sold, you can sell it yourself. If you want to control how your catalog is priced, you can start your own shop. Occasionally markets need regulating to prevent monopolies from exploiting people, and it’s reasonable to point out when this needs to happen. Everything else is whining.

*** At least 100% of MP3s were not purchased from the iTunes store. If anybody had bothered to cite a source for this “estimate” we might get a clearer idea of what was being talked about. The closest I can find is this, where the estimate is based upon total downloads, without reference to (1) what percentage of these downloads are substitutes for a purchase or (2) how many, if any, of the illegal downloads are made by iTunes users.

**** The iPod could be filled up with stolen music, in much the same way that a suitcase can be filled with stolen money. We don’t condemn people for making suitcases. This would be dangerously close to the “guns don’t kill people, Americans do” argument, except that killing people (or transporting stolen music) was never the intended function of the iPod, and Apple made common-sense attempts to make piracy difficult. Unlike almost all other popular MP3 players, the iPod made it genuinely difficult for you to copy music off it onto a friend’s computer. It’s closely integrated with the best legal download store ever created and even came with a sticker on the screen that said “don’t steal music”. That’s not to say that no pirated music ended up on them, but I’d be interested to read what other reasonable steps Apple could have done to prevent this without completely hobbling the product.

***** It’s in the terms and conditions. “You hereby agree to use iTunes Match only for lawfully acquired content. Any use for illegitimate content infringes the rights of others and may subject you to civil and criminal penalties, including possible monetary damages, for copyright infringement.”

****** This article in the Guardian covers many of the reasons why I tend to avoid news coverage. I found the article when a friend shared it on Twitter – one several people I know who read it, evidently thought it worth sharing, and then went back to reading and sharing a steady stream of pseudo-news every day.

******* Not here though. Adrian Covert? You’re next.