Monday, 26 February 2007

Damon Albarn Jo Whiley interview, music business tips, the Net and music

Jo Whiley and Damon Albarn

This is a summary of the Lost in Music 2 seminar at the Scala on Saturday 24 February 2007, which I'd mentioned recently. There were some great tips for people wanting a career in the music (or indeed any) business, and also some very interesting observations about the future of music, DRM and filesharing. For those who missed it, there will be a podcast of the event, the organisers say later this week - watch this space.

I didn't think I'd be free to go but I managed to sort something out and made it there in the end. It was incredible value for money at a mere £10 per ticket (including sandwiches and fruit for lunch which were tastier than what my workplace serves up, at least!). In fact it was sold out, although only about half the people actually turned up on the day (which was odd, even with the problems with the Northern Line at King's Cross that day). I gather Lost in Music 1 took place some 15 years ago, so it's certainly about time they held another.

Organisers Tenon Media are accountants and business advisers. Clearly via this seminar they'd like to be able to sign up budding artistes, or at least raise their profile amongst musicians, singers and other creatives in the music industry, and then hopefully share in their future success, by being generally helpful to them in the early stages and also making them aware of business and financial issues. And I say, all power to them - the seminar really was excellent.

They mustered a very impressive lineup of music business professionals to give their advice and tips and answer audience questions. There was an obvious Damon Albarn / Blur / Gorillaz / The Good, the Bad and the Queen connection - not only did Damon Albarn turn up for a half hour interview with influential Radio 1 DJ Jo Whiley (both pictured above, the interview will also be in the podcast), but also many of the panel had worked with Blur, and Dave Rowntree of Blur (and the Ailerons) was on the panel too. But that isn't surprising given the close relationship between Blur and Tenon Media. Apparently their MD Julian Hedley pretty much saved Blur's bacon when, despite their musical success, they were on the brink of financial bankruptcy because of the way their affairs had previously been run. I'd be grateful to him too!

Damon Albarn and Julian Hedley

The seminar covered getting started, your rights, the future of music in the digital age, financial management and what to do after getting the deal. I won't go into detail as the podcast should be out soon (and is well worth a listen if you're thinking of making it in the music business). I'm just going to mention what seemed to be the top tips, and also some comments on the future of music which I thought might be of interest to those who, like me, are interested in the impact of technology and the Net on entertainment and the media.

How to succeed in the music business: top tips and hints

Most of this is common sense really, and would hold true for success in any business, not just music - but they bear repeating, certainly when they've been emphasised by so many music industry movers and shakers. They were aimed mainly at musicians (the vast majority of attendees were musicians or vocalists - about half bands, half solo artistes - with only the odd manager or songwriter there). Here's a summary of their howtos and hints:
  • To paraphrase Damon Albarn: you must have balls and determination, don't get depressed, and if you do get depressed write it into a song!
  • You have to have great songs and image, and good promotion.
  • Have total self-confidence. Believe in yourself unshakably and you'll carry others along with you; if you don't have faith in yourself, why should anyone else?
  • Music industry people are very busy, they get huge piles of CDs and emails all the time. They usually don't have time to listen to every single one of them and they generally won't unless they've had a referral or recommendation from a contact (especially with MySpace links).
  • There's too many others out there competing for their attention. You have to be different, make yourself stand out, be noticed, be memorable (but in a good way), to get them to listen to your demo. Be nice, be pleasant, be amusing, explain why you're different. Don't be a nutter, remember no one wants to work with divas (and the music business is a small world, word will spread). If someone says they don't like your work don't throw a tantrum; get their feedback, find out why, ask if they know someone else in the industry who might like it, try them instead.
  • Don't just email or post or leave your demo or Myspace link. Do your research. Find out who might be interested in your genre of music, phone, ask to speak to them, or talk to them in person (find out where they'll be and be there). The personal touch makes a huge difference - a handwritten letter, press release etc.
  • Don't forget to include your contact details!
  • Be politely persistent in pestering them, follow up. Be blunt, be direct, even cheeky (in a nice way!). Make them listen to your demo in your presence if you can. Do whatever it takes to get your music heard. Personal contact always helps to get their attention. Wine and dine them if you can.
  • Similarly, your manager should be likeable but persistent. Some don't believe in management contracts, certainly if you can't work together (anymore) having a contract won't make any difference. Consider a trial period? The standard manager's cut in the UK is 20% of the net revenue, by the way.
  • It's a team effort - artistes, managers, record companies, pluggers etc. Everyone wants to be part of a successful team. Make them feel yours will be. Make all of them, each person in the record company that's releasing your music lowly or high, each music journalist, promoter etc, feel part of it, feel they're involved, feel that they were the one who discovered something new and special. Make friends with them, make them tea, bring them coffee!
  • Follow expert advice. If a plugger advises editing e.g. cutting or speeding up a song for radio play, don't be precious about it and refuse. Work with booking agents on devising a live strategy. Don't forget press agents too.
  • Record companies are relying on smaller and smaller groups of artists to support the other artists (and the companies!). It's increasingly difficult and expensive to promote new acts and record companies don't have the time or resources to do the kind of micromarketing and promotion which now seems necessary. The more you can do yourself in the early stages - building up your own initial fan base etc - the more attractive you will be to them and the more likely you are to succeed. You ought to achieve the first 10,000 yourself, the record companies' role is in the tens of thousands and beyond. Create a buzz, stimulate conversation, recommendations, referrals.
  • Remember, it's the music business. People are in it to make money. They have to see an opportunity to generate revenue from you, or they won't be interested. And in negotiating deals, record companies will want to get as many records as possible from you, for as long as possible for as little as possible; though bands are increasingly having their own managers and lawyers etc to fight their corner too.
  • Look after your finances. Get a lawyer and an accountant and a manager, they can cross check each other effectively, you'll be less likely to be ripped off unless they're all in it together! (this from Dave Rowntree).
  • Myspace - mixed views. You probably ought to have a page there and maybe not even bother with your own separate website. Contact promoters, leading bands etc in the same genre and ask to support them. But only if they're a good fit, and ask politely, etc, see above! Myspace may be more convenient for some to listen to, but CDs can do a band more justice, and it could be disastrous if the link doesn't work. Give them what they want. If they ask for a CD, don't just tell them "It's on MySpace". If they want an email link to your demos, give them that.
  • It doesn't sound like it's worth setting up your own label, you can sell CDs without it.
  • Decide if you're a live band or a studio band. Live gigs are important in terms of building up a fan base and getting attention.
  • Don't forget music is increasingly international. You may do better playing in Eastern Europe. Get fans from Japan.
  • There's an excellent book which everyone in the industry seems to use as a resource. I couldn't quite catch the name but I think it's "The Music Management Bible", and it explains all sorts of aspects of the music business, including technical and legal, in plain English.
  • Network, network, network!

Tim Medcraft, Alasdair George, Dean Marsh, Julian Hedley, Adam Barker, Jon Webber, Mike Smith, Mal Fogarty

Other points

  • CDs - it's good to produce CDs to sell at gigs (as opposed to trying to distribute them to record stores, which is very hard if you're not with a known record label). People are willing to buy them after a good gig, it's many bands' primary source of funding. Albums are better than singles, they cost the same to copy and you can have a bigger markup on them e.g. price them at £8. Don't forget to include your Myspace or Web address on them.
  • Join the PPL - it's free to join, they pay record companies and performers when their music is played on TV or radio, they administer ISRC codes which you need to get your music stocked on iTunes etc.
  • EP or album etc? - doesn't seem to matter, if they like it they'll cover your music, promote it, etc.
  • Bands - if you join the Musicians Union they have standard contracts for sharing profits etc between band members, which you can use.
  • Your rights - there was a run through of the kinds of income e.g. mechanical income, performance income, the different socieits like the PRS, MCPS etc, but for time reasons it really was a canter through. It sounded useful but I'll have to listen back to the podcast to get it all!
  • Work every day - Damon Albarn thinks every songwriter should have a 4-track (he says he still doesn't know how to use a digital one!) and work on writing every single day, even if you get no output for 10 days. I've heard novelists say much the same thing too.

Dave Rowntree, Julian Hedley, Stephen Taverner, Kathy Johnson, Dave Newton

The future of music, the impact of the Net, DRM, filesharing

Some observations on the future of music, technology etc, in no particular order.

Maybe I misheard. The podcast will confirm. But I swear I heard Mike Smith, managing director of the UK division of major label Columbia Records, say that he felt DRM should be got rid of! (DRM is digital rights management, which stops people from ripping CDs and copying and sharing or transferring audio files freely). There was also some discussion of Steve Jobs' now notorious suggestion that digital rights management should be abolished, which people variously ascribed (cynically, but I suspect accurately) to the fact that Apple with iTunes have the sale of music by download virtually sewn up, they want to be able to sell across Europe (who are increasingly anti-DRM), and it's no coincidence that Jobs said what he did in the year when Microsoft are launching Zune, their rival to the iPod and iTunes.

Filesharing is on the increase, but the live music scene is booming. Home taping didn't kill music, it increased demand for it, and the same is happening here. People will be consuming music through their mobiles, trading them too, and Mike Smith could foresee a time when you send a file through your mobile to a friend, you get 2p for doing it, they pay 30p for it.

The gap between A&R and marketing is shrinking. Record companies are increasingly working with e.g. brands, sports etc. There will be consolidation of the major labels in the next few years. CDs will die, but not yet. Independent consultant Alasdair George said CD sales are falling, digital sales rising, but not quickly enough to plug the income gap for record companies, who will be trying to find more sources of revenue from new areas e.g. share of live income, merchandising etc, investing (and expecting a return from) more aspects of the artists (and Mal Fogarty of Frukt pointed out that fans wanted to be involved in more and more aspects of the creative process too, not just physical CDs and artwork but backstage, videos, forums etc). But artists' traditional mistrust of major labels may provide independent labels with an opportunity here. Record companies might even shift to just having rights for a few years after an album was made.

Jon Webber of the BPI said that with people increasingly wanting instant gratification - hear a track, buy it, not the album - plus iTunes' sales of music by tracks rather than albums, there was a move towards tracks. Mike Smith also thought there was a move to a song by song basis.

There perhaps should be variable pricing too, Tim Medcraft of Bucks Music Group thought.

And as an aside, in terms of great use of technology, I was interested to hear that Dave Newton of Shifty Disco and has a special A&R server where bands upload their music, and he just listens to the stream, rather than having to change CDs or click email links.

All in all, a very interesting and constructive day.

Sunday, 25 February 2007

Mortgage exit administration fees: claim a refund?

If you 've paid off or switched your mortgage recently, and you got charged a higher than expected admin fee by your original bank or other lender, you might be able to claim a refund or at least get a bit back. If you're about to pay off or change mortgages, this might be of interest to you too.

In response to concerns that mortgage exit administration fees (MEAFs) were being increased unfairly, so consumers were being charged higher exit fees than they had expected to pay, under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations UK regulator the Financial Services Authority last month issued a statement of good practice on administration fees and press release on what they expect from mortgage lenders. It's been agreed by the Council of Mortgage Lenders too, which is the trade association for mortgage lenders in the UK.

People ought to be told when they sign up for a mortgage what mortgage exit administration fee they will pay on exit, or should be given a clear idea of how the fee might be increased fairly.

Key points

Current customers

Lenders must decide by 28 February 2007 what they will do in relation to their current customers:
  • charge no MEAF;
  • charge the original MEAF;
  • charge a revised MEAF; or
  • charge their current increased MEAF.

The FSA is unlikely to investigate further a lender which does one of the first two, or the third if the revised MEAF is lower than the original MEAF. (The “original MEAF” will usually be the MEAF that was disclosed to the customer when they entered the original contract, took out a further advance, or changed their mortgage product.)

But the FSA will require lenders that do anything else (i.e. charge the current increased MEAF) to "justify their position".

Past customers

Now this may be of particular interest to some. The FSA expects lenders to treat past customers who complain about the level of the MEAF they were charged when they exited their mortgage contract in the same way as comparable current customers.

So, for example, if a firm will only charge its current customers the original MEAF, then if a past customer who has paid a higher MEAF to exit complains, he or she can expect a refund of the difference between the actual MEAF paid on exit and the original MEAF.

So if you've repaid or transferred or changed mortgage providers in the not too distant past, and been charged a higher exit fee than you expected, you might want to consider your position and maybe complain to your original lender.

(As with everything else in this blog, this isn't financial or legal advice - I'm just alerting consumers to some good news that might be useful to them, if they haven't already heard about this.)

Firefox: security update

If you use the fab free Firefox browser () it's probably already prompted you to upgrade, but if not, you should update it immediately as yesterday a new version was released which patches various critical security holes as well as including fixes e.g. for Windows Vista.

LG Shine KE970 phone: Gmail howto; & browser tips

You can now sign up for Google's Gmail (Google Mail) without an invite. Want to access Gmail on your LG Shine KE 970 mobile phone? (see general review of Shine here, also there's a separate post on how to connect your Shine to your computer to sync your contacts and phone numbers, transfer tunes, ringtones and music MP3s, and also pics and photos). Well read on first, it may save you some time and teeth grinding.

1. Don't bother trying to go to the main Gmail site via the Shine's browser. I tried several times and it always hung when trying to login to my Gmail.

2. Don't bother trying to use POP to download your Gmail to your Shine cellphone. After several attempts, when I found that the Outgoing SMTP server setting always reverted to the default of 25 even though it seemed to save initially, I ascertained from LG (thanks Manisha!) that unfortunately the Shine does not support SSL ports (465/995). And, as Google said, "if your client does not support SMTP authentication, you will not be able to access your Google Mail messages".

3. Don't bother trying to download the Gmail Java app (a.k.a. "Gmail for mobile application") to your phone (which normally you can get by pointing the phone's WAP browser at You're just giving your hard-earned money away to your carrier for nothing (why not give it to me instead if you insist, I could sure put it to better use than your network...)

The software installed fine:

And it even seemed to work, at first:

But then when I actually tried to sign in, I kept getting the known error "This programme requires a data connection. Please contact your carrier or visit the Google Mail Mobile FAQ on your computer for more info".

I checked the Permissions for Net Access in the Options for the downloaded Gmail app and it seems that the only option available is Ask. On trying to use the app, it does ask for permission - 2 options, ask next session or ask next time, I've no idea what the difference is, but I've tried both options and neither works.

Here's another fun screen you may get if you keep trying. You could watch it for hours if you really must, as a great alternative to watching paint dry:

(Incidentally, that same Gmail Java app works without a hitch on my Nokia 7710, though I prefer to use POP on that smartphone. Also, my data plan is fine, again I've used the same SIM card on the Nokia 7710 and accessed full Gmail via the web browser as well as POP, without any difficulties.)

4. Ignore Google's recommendation to enter "" (or "") in your Shine's WAP browser. That just took me to the main Gmail login page (not their WAP Gmail page), which then wouldn't let me login - see 1 above. Similarly if you go to the page on your phone and try their "web version" link, it only takes you to the standard login page, see 1 above again.

How to access Gmail on the Shine mobile phone then?

What does work? Does anything? Well, you'll be pleased to know that one thing does, after all my experimenting with various different ways.
  • Point the WAP browser at
  • If you get messages like "No matching CA certificate was found. Do you want to continue anyway?" just press OK (left soft key). But do it quick, or it may time out and you'll have to try to connect all over again.
  • Enter your username and password. How to do that? Use the scroll key to move to the Username box, if it's not already highlighted, and press down on the scroll key to get a screen to enter your Gmail username (use the # key at the bottom right of the keypad to get you out of T9 and into alphabetical or numerical, if your username isn't in their T9 dictionary), then OK, then scroll to the Password box, press the scroll key again to get a screen to enter your password, and OK. Scroll to the "Sign in" button (past the "Remember me" box - tick it if you want quicker access next time) then press the center of the scroll key again to sign in:
  • Et voila! My Gmail inbox, having scrolled down a bit (and you navigate between links with the scroll key, again):

That, my friends, is the only method I could find that works. And of course you can save that URL to your bookmarks for speed.

I'm very disappointed that neither POP Gmail access nor the Gmail for mobile application work on the Shine. I'd hoped that LG would do better with this than the Chocolate. The connectivity is even more disappointing than with the Chocolate, but that's for a separate post...

More Shine browser or Gmail tips

  • How to get to your Gmail fast. As mentioned, you could save the URL to your browser bookmarks (I assume I won't need to explain how!). But another way to get to the bookmark quickly is to save it to your Shine favorites. While on the main home screen of the phone, press the small cylindrical key at the immediate right end of the scroll key to get to your Favorites (I like to turn on the display - menu Settings, Display, Home screen shortcut On, you'll see the Heart symbol onscreen as a reminder of what that key does). Scroll down to a line marked <Empty>. Select that, go to Browser, go to Bookmarks and select that (or change an existing Favorite entry if you prefer). In future you can get to any bookmarks from the home screen - via the right cylindrical key then Bookmarks.
  • How to get out of a menu option. The C key on the top line of the keypad works to cancel out of a menu option. Yes there's a Back option for the right soft key but sometimes that takes you to the previous webpage, when all you want to do is get out of the menu without selecting anything. This seems to work for all Shine phone menus that I've tried, by the way.
  • How to turn off images on the Shine browser. If you want to save a bit of data downloading charges from your network, you can turn off "Show image". For some odd reason, you can't do that from the Browser Settings. You have to viewing a webpage via the browser, then choose Options (left soft key), Settings, and you'll see the Show image option, which you can then set to Off. Then images will be off for all webpages, not just the one you're currently on. Why that option isn't available in the main Settings menu (when you go into Browser) is a mystery to me. Here's a page with images off, no Google logo:

Gmail: free Google webspace too on Page Creator

So, anyone can now sign up for Gmail (aka Google Mail) without an invite from an existing user (Google have even produced a Youtube video extolling the features of Gmail though I find reading the features Webpage quicker myself!). What a nice Valentine's Day present from Google. However, Gmail still remains in beta.

Google have certainly been busy with Gmail, having recently introduced:
  • integration of Gmail with Google's D&S or Docs & Spreadsheets, so that whenever you receive a spreadsheet or a document attached to your Gmail, a new link next to the "Download" link saying "Open as a Google document" lets you automatically import the attachment into Docs & Spreadsheets and add it to your personal document list where you can make changes, invite collaborators and search for it later; and
  • (on a gradual rollout basis) Gmail Fetcher, which allow retrieval of mail from up to 5 other non-Gmail accounts (e.g. with your ISP), as long as they support POP access. And you can even send email with a From from those other accounts too. This is great as you can access all your email in one place and if you change ISPs you can just add the account for your new ISP in Gmail.
But one thing I wanted to point out was that if you sign up for Gmail, not only can you get Gmail's features with bags of storage space for your email - you can also get free Webspace too, on Google Pages (Page Creator) Beta.

Now that's not obvious. If after you've created your new free Gmail account you go to your "all my services" link at the top of the page (or "My Account"), you won't be able to see Page Creator anywhere (at least, not at the moment). Not even if you click "More" under "Try something new" - Pages just isn't visible as an option on the "More Google Products" page. Possibly because it seems they're still limiting new sign ups for Page Creator, and have a waiting list!

However, if you sign up for Gmail, then sign in to Gmail and, while leaving yourself logged in, go to, it seems you'll be able to sign in to Google Pages there with the same user/password, tick to accept the terms, and then there you are, you've got yourself a Page Creator account. Next time you go to Google's "all my services" or "My Account", you'll see Page Creator there listed under "My Services".

While I think Page Creator is no great shakes as a Webpage creator or editor (not even for beginners - I'd suggest NVU instead, to install on your computer; and I find the lack of features and control for more experienced users frustrating), they do currently let you upload your own HTML and certain other (limited) types of files there. So it's free webspace - web hosting and file hosting of sorts. And you can even have several different URLs for your webpages. Plus, Page Creator is gradually improving over time - my initial review still mostly holds true, but at least they've fixed some of the issues like not being able to get at the Edit HTML link.

I have a feeling this is an unintended loophole and that Google will close it at some point, so that soon having a Gmail account won't automatically let you get yourself a Page Creator account and free Google webspace. But I hope they at least will let people who've signed up in the meantime keep their Page Creator accounts and webspace!

Friday, 23 February 2007

Google Desktop: get vital security update!

For some time I've used the free Google Desktop search tool to index and track down documents, emails, and particularly Webpages from my browser history (both Firefox and Internet Explorer), and I find it invaluable. (You can download Google Desktop by itself, or as part of Google Pack - if you have the Pack, you'll have Desktop). But if you have it, you should make sure it's updated immediately.

There's a serious security flaw in Desktop which could enable malicious attackers to access your files and other information on your computer, and ultimately even take control of your computer. The vulnerability:
  • "enables a malicious individual to achieve not only remote, persistent access to sensitive data, but full system control as well. This outcome is the result both of the integration between the Web site and Google Desktop, and Google Desktop's failure to properly encode output containing malicious or unexpected characters..."
  • "...allows an attacker to install persistent JavaScript malware. Every time the victim searches using Google Desktop, the malicious script is silently executed in the background—without attracting attention..."
  • "An attacker controlling the victim's Google Desktop can search for almost anything on the computer. It is possible to search for and immediately find sensitive information including Office documents, media files, email (in many cases, even deleted ones), Web history cache, chat sessions, and an extensive chronologic record of the user's activity on his/her personal or corporate computer." And even enable searching of password-protected files and secure webpages (https), so they can access your online banking details etc, yet hide the preference changes from the victim.
  • "executable files (.exe) can be executed as well. If a malicious executable file is dropped into the victim's local hard-drive, it is possible to execute it, effectively gaining full system control."
All this is possible if you've clicked a single innocent-looking link, whether in an email, on a webpage or in a newsfeed. Doesn't matter if you have a firewall, and existing anti-virus software and anti-spyware etc won't catch it. Scary indeed.

The problem was discovered by Watchfire who produced a white paper Overtaking Google Desktop - A Security Analysis (by Yair Amit, Danny Allan, Adi Sharabani) and even a video demonstrating the attack (see their 21 February 2007 press release). For anyone interested, the video is excellent - very clear, and comprehensible (at least in the early stages!) even to relative non-techies like me.

Fortunately, Google have now released an upgrade to Desktop which fixes this vulnerability.

Now I'm one of those security and privacy-conscious people who has tweaked their GDS preferences in the way described in the video, and I've even disabled searching of my Gmail and certainly Search across computers. Plus, from the start I've made sure Google Integration is disabled so that my normal Google searches won't also search my desktop and display Google Desktop search results on the same page as Google Web search results (Preferences, Display tab, last item "Google Integration" not ticked). So I'm less vulnerable than some. Plus, I have Google Pack with Google Updater (and the "Automatically update software" option checked), so Google Desktop should have updated itself automatically, as other Google Pack software has in the past. But it hadn't.

Don't assume your update's automatic!

Despite thinking I had Google Pack on auto-update, as soon as I read about this security issue I checked to make sure my Desktop had been upgraded to the latest version. And guess what? It hadn't (and on searching, I noticed that I'm not the only person who found this). When I went into Google Updater (just via my Start Menu) and clicked the Updates tab, the Google Desktop update was shown in the list, but it hadn't been installed. So I had to click to install it manually, and then restart my computer for the security upgrade to take. And then check that the version of Google Desktop was now the latest one.

How to check your version of Google Desktop

If you use Google Desktop, you should urgently make sure you've patched that security hole. Check if you have the latest version: rightclick the icon in your system tray, choose About; a Webpage will come up, and at the very bottom in tiny print it'll say Google Desktop plus some numbers. If it's not at least Google Desktop 5.0.0701.30540, make sure you update it at once. Do what you have to to make sure it's updated, and if the upgrade won't take (check the version again as mentioned above to see if the number has changed), then uninstall and reinstall it if you have to.

(Via Heise Security)

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

London theatre tickets: discounts end 17 March from Get into London Theatre

The Get Into London Theatre (GILT) scheme, run by The Society of London Theatre, has been going for a few years now. I've been several times and always found it well worth it. As a dedicated consumer, I always like a bargain!

You can get tickets at discounted prices for loads of West End shows - not just musicals but also plays, opera, ballet and other entertainment. But it only runs during the quiet season, this year from 10 January to 17 March. So if your idea of London nightlife is a good show, and you want to take advantage of the special prices before this year's offer period ends, best book quick - only a few weeks left to run! Check out the listings of available shows. You can book on the Net.

They've also teamed up with restaurants, hotels and travel and parking companies to offer special deals from them.

Music business: Damon Albarn's advice at seminar 24 February

A seminar to simplify the music industry for budding musicians, writers, producers and managers will include an interview with Damon Albarn of rock band Blur. Participants will also get to hear opinions, advice and tips from a panel of successful music industry artists, managers, labels, lawyers and agents who, according to the ECCA events page, created, managed and promoted the careers of artists such as Blur, Robbie Williams, The Verve, Supergrass, Foo Fighters, Ash, Gorillaz, Arctic Monkeys, Gomez and The White Stripes. A very impressive line up indeed, then.

The "Lost in Music" seminar organised by Tenon Media is on 24 February 2007 at the Scala, King's Cross, in London - yes, that's THIS Saturday. You can register to apply for a ticket, which will only cost a tenner.

More info here. They'll cover getting started in the music business, your rights, the future of the music industry in the digital age, management of finances and working with people after you've got your deal. So it sounds more targeted at singers, musicians and songwriters than producers or managers.

The ECCA page on this seminar says it's from 9.30 to 4.30 (the Lost in Music site just says "late afternoon") and your £10 will even include lunch. Sounds like a bargain to me, but believe it or not I have to stay at home for a delivery this Saturday. Sod's law & all that. If anyone attends, let me know how it went. And if advice from the seminar leads to your music business success, you can mention me in your memoirs... (Though chocs would do as well. Or a suitable contribution from your pending millions!)

Monday, 19 February 2007

Technorati: new support forums

Blogosphere search engine Technorati recently started up some support forums - at the moment there are 8 separate ones. I quote:
  • Technorati General — New to all this? Find some helpful info here.
  • Best Practices — For better indexing or to get indexed in the first place.
  • Blog Claiming — Having trouble claiming your blog?
  • Indexing Your Blog — Posts not displaying in Technorati? Check here.
  • Links — Problems with your link counts or links to/from you.
  • Tags — Questions about technorati post or blog tags?
  • Account Issues — Questions about your account or account features.
  • Other — The infamous other bucket! For topics that just don't fit in the other forums
As you can see various tips and suggestions are posted there, as well as specific requests for help, and answers - some even from Technorati staff.

Now I know tons of people have had all sorts of problems with Technorati before (just search my blog and see the comments there as well as my posts!) - from not getting their blogs indexed or crawled at all, Technorati saying the blog hasn't been updated for yonks though it has, and (my personal bugbear) tags not getting picked up in their tags database or showing on their tags pages, to difficulties with trying to claim their blogs. Bloggers have also complained about poor customer service and support with no replies at all to queries or requests for help, or responses taking absolutely ages to be received.

So from a consumer viewpoint it's good that these forums are now available, and it's excellent that Technorati personnel are actually responding online to some of the questions asked, but we'll see whether they really do help. It's great that Technorati are now harnessing their customer base for support, and it's about time too, but a major issue is that a lot of the problems I've come across with Technorati in the past haven't been down to lack of user knowledge or action, but have been caused by bugs or issues at Technorati's end, behind the scenes (for one thing I've noticed at least one apparent contradiction between what Technorati told me and what they've posted on their forums, and shall raise that when I get the chance).

Extra support is now available, so do use it! Let's hope that these forums help to free up Technorati staff time to really iron out those issues once and for all. Indexing and searching blogs and tags is their core business, and they need to focus on getting all that to work properly and consistently.

Sky on digital terrestrial TV

I have mixed feelings about Sky's plans to launch a subscription television service on digital terrestrial television (DTT) this summer.

The new service will provide access to some of Sky's most popular programmes - including sport (
live coverage from the Barclays Premiership and other top sporting events), movies, entertainment and news - through a normal rooftop aerial, as with Freeview, but via a special new DTT set-top box (STB).

There will be
four 24-hour video streams of pay TV via MPEG4 compression technology, using a secure conditional access (CA) system like the system Sky uses for its satellite TV service, with "further improvements expected in future". The use of MPEG-4 is intended to increase the amount of content that can be carried. (The Ofcom item, see below, mentions a mix of MPEG2 and MPEG4 however.)

You'll have to buy a STB with the relevant CA software and MPEG 4 decoder, and also pay a monthly subscription. Sky expects "multiple manufacturers" to produce compatible set top boxes and other DTT receivers.

The bad news? To free up capacity for their new service, Sky will scrap
Sky Three, Sky News and Sky Sports News - those three Sky DTT channels currently available for free will cease to be free-to-air via DTTV, even ahead of the launch of the pay-TV service. And I do watch some Sky Three programs.

Well I must be one of the only gadget freaks left in the UK who doesn't have Sky. I can't have a satellite dish on my roof (long story), so having Sky on digital TV would certainly finally give me access to Sky channels. But I barely have time to watch what's available on terrestrial TV and Freeview as it is, never mind Sky too, and I'm forever trying to clear space on my Topfield PVR!

The communications regulator Ofcom are to consider the proposals and have yet to approve them. They'll be consulting the public first, probably over a 10-week period after they receive the formal request for approval, on:

1. The impact on consumers of Sky's proposal to use MPEG4 compression technology via new set-top boxes, in order to increase the amount of content which can be carried. Ofcom say they would need to assess:
  • The potential benefit of a rapid migration from the current compression standard MPEG2, to MPEG4 which will ultimately increase the number of channels available on digital terrestrial television;
  • The potential detriment associated with a reduction in the number of channels received by existing set-top boxes or digital televisions;
  • The risk that existing set-top boxes or digital televisions might be incompatible with multiplexes broadcast using a combination of MPEG2 and MPEG4 coding;
  • The overall effect on consumer confidence in the digital switchover process.

2. Whether any variation to the channel line-up might unacceptably diminish the appeal of the channels to a variety of tastes and interests and whether a reduction in the current range of free-to-air channels would be compensated for by the proposed introduction of the new pay television channels.

3. The effect of any change to existing licence conditions and / or the need to include any new licence conditions to ensure fair and effective competition for the benefit of consumers.

On balance, from a consumer viewpoint I'd rather not lose having Sky 3 for free, even if it means I'd have access (for a monthly fee) to a whole range of other Sky channels too. It depends on the exact packages that will be available, and the pricing of course. Sky say "Full details, including branding, pricing and the complete channel line-up, will be revealed closer to launch." So, we'll see.

Sleep: health, memory, productivity

Sleep can actually be good for your heart health, and therefore your longevity or life expectancy - and sleep also helps you learn and perform better. Recent New Scientist articles reported that naps can reduce the risk of death from heart disease and sleep deprivation can severly affect your ability to learn.

It's already known from previous research that sleep, including short daytime snoozes, boosts ability learning and memory (while conversely sleep deprivation makes you forgetful and absent-minded), and that "power naps" improve work productivity.

Siestas and heart health

The recent study following nearly 24,000 people for on average 6 years found that those who regularly took midday naps were nearly 40% less likely to die from heart disease than non-nappers. Researchers suggested siestas might protect the heart by reducing stress hormones levels. They found "people who took at least three naps per week lasting 30 minutes or longer had a 37% reduced risk of death from heart disease than their non-napping counterparts. Those subjects who occasionally took short naps lasting less than half an hour had a 12% lower risk than people who never napped... The results suggest that taking naps might be just as important to protecting the heart as other measures, he says, including eating right and taking cholesterol-lowering drugs... The apparent protective effect of these siestas was more pronounced among working individuals than retirees. The researchers suggest that the naps might boost heart health by keeping levels of stress hormone in check... They add that this potential stress-busting effect might be most pronounced in people burdened by heavy workloads."

Sleep and learning, memory

Studies in rats showed sleep deprivation can increase stress hormone levels in the brain, which then disrupts nerve activity in the hippocampus. Possibly a similar mechanism causes memory deficits in sleep-deprived humans.

A full night’s rest after studying can improve learning, it is already known, but the new study suggests that sleeping well before studying new information is also important. People who failed to get a good night’s sleep before studying new information were found to remember about 10% less than their well-rested counterparts.

Why are sleep-deprived people worse at remembering how to do newly learned tasks than they are normally? "We know that sleep deprivation is stressful, and that it impairs certain types of learning and memory. Also, "It points to the importance of sleep in the right hormonal conditions... These are altered if you sleep at the wrong time of day, or if you are stressed generally," he says. The results explain how shift work might damage memory by producing "a different hormonal milieu". Although I should point out that there is a view that sleep deprivation damages memory only in extreme cases.

On the work performance front, it had previously been found that when volunteers slept 60 minutes midway through a series of gruelling tests, their performance dramatically improved compared to their wakeful counterparts. It is well-known that a good night's sleep consolidates what you've learned during the day, and the research shows that even a short nap can help.

Siestas for me and you!

The Spanish certainly know what they're doing. I wonder if anyone has done research into the incidence of heart disease in people from cultures that believe in daytime naps, compared with other cultures? The results would certainly be instructive.

I'm very glad to hear about these studies. Sounds like one of the best tips for improving your health and productivity is to have lots of sleep, including daytime naps of at least 30 minutes (ideally an hour), at least 3 times a week if you can get it. And sleep well before studying or working, and have a good night's sleep after learning something new too.

My mother always took a half hour nap during her lunch break every day (she could because she was self-employed), plus a longer nap after lunch at weekends - and she looks and is fabulous for her age. Maybe the daytime snoozing is a factor, even though she worked very hard. I've taken to napping during the day at weekends too, when I can, and always felt the better for it, especially when I'm very busy generally (it's interesting to see that the benefits of snoozing are more pronounced in people with heavier workloads). Now, I feel justified - sleep is clearly a medical necessity if I want to increase my chances of a longer life!

Maybe I ought to invest in Metro Naps (who lease sleep pods to office workers, businesses, spas, gyms and universities, stores etc in New York, Vancouver, the UK, Germany, and now Australia, you can even buy a nap pass for a 25 min snooze and "The MetroNaps pod will wake you with a gentle combination of light and vibration" - this is real!). Or try a start up in competition with them.

Right, I'm off for an afternoon snooze, now...

Thursday, 15 February 2007

LG Shine phone: manual, software download

UPDATE: for the full low down on connecting Shine to PC, transferring MP3s and pics, the LG GSM Sync software, how to use it, tips, problems and troubleshooting, see this post.

I notice that the manual and PC connectivity software for the gorgeous new LG Shine KE 970 cellphone, recently launched in the UK (see my pre-launch review, photos of Shine phone, launch party photos) are now available for free download.

UPDATE: the LG Mobile site is now back up. But they've made it impossible to link direct to the manual & software. For the latest versions of the LG KE970 Shine UK manual and software try this page; but you'll have to scroll or use the dropdown, and it won't work if Javascript is off. Or go to this main site and navigate to your own country's support pages, then find the KE970.

  • LG KE 970 Shine mobile phone manual (PDF) - manual is nearly 5 MB (the official LG manual isn't very helpful. See my unofficial manual). NOTE: that link won't work as the LG Mobile site is down, supposedly for a revamp. Why they can't do it all behind the scenes and then get it updated on the production server in an hour or even a day I don't know. They're behind schedule too, at first their site said they'd be back up on I think it was 23 or 24 Oct. Today they removed that message. Pah. So here's another copy of the manual, I'll take it down when the LG site is back up. It's the UK version.
  • LG KE970 Shine software (zip file) - NB software over 74 MB - now called MobileSync LGE GSM PC Sync. NOTE: that link won't work as the LG site is down, I've uploaded a copy of the software here for now. It's the UK version and may not work elsewhere.

Now note that I haven't had time to look at either properly yet, and I've downloaded the software but not tested it - hopefully I can this weekend. But of course I'll report further once I've tried it.

Just to mention for now that it's uninstalled my Chocolate USB modem driver and installed a new one, plus created a new folder in my Program Files called LGE GSM PC Sync which contains 3 subfolders:
  • LG GSM PC Sync
  • LG InternetCube
  • USB Setup.

The Contents Bank has gone (for more on some of those, see my post on some issues with the LG Chocolate and computer connectivity).

For how to use the LG Shine software, including issues connecting the Shine to the PC, how to have your own MP3 ringtones, how to sync Outlook contacts and other tips, problems and troubleshooting, see this post.

UPDATE: for the full low down on connecting Shine to PC, transferring MP3s and pics, the LG GSM Sync software, how to use it, tips, problems and troubleshooting, see this post.

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Wednesday, 14 February 2007

How to switch your DSL broadband ISP: easier procedures, with teeth for Ofcom

"It is very hard to vote with your feet when someone won't let go of your legs." - A Vint.

On Valentine's Day 2007, don't forget to send Ofcom a card. The sweethearts at my favourite communications regulator are smacking the naughty broadband industry's hands, and from today a new regulatory rule will make them let go of your legs so that you can change your broadband ISP more easily and smoothly - whether your existing provider likes it or not. Ofcom will finally get the teeth to nip at broadband providers' fingers and make them sort out the kinds of problems that affected customers of E7even and, more recently in November 2006, V21 (Biscit). And one of the major problems with getting your first ever broadband connection should be addressed, too.

How to switch broadband ISPs

If you, as a UK consumer using ADSL broadband for your internet access, want to switch your internet connection to another ADSL broadband provider, you should now be able to move to another internet service provider with minimal loss of your broadband service by asking your existing ISP for a MAC (a special code) and giving that code to the provider you want to move to.

The new rules apply to all providers (wholesale as well as retail) of broadband DSL over BT copper loops. However, they don't apply to cable broadband customers moving to other cable providers, or to migrations between cable and DSL.

They apply to migration requests from domestic and small business customers (i.e. customers with up to 10 employees, whether working in a paid or voluntary capacity), but not larger corporate customers.

Both losing and gaining providers will now have to follow a set procedure for the switch, within certain timelines, according to new Ofcom rules - and if they don't, Ofcom could take action e.g. fine them. From what I've read of the new rules, this seems to be the procedure now (but you need to seek advice for your own situation if you have issues with migration):

1. Request a MAC

The existing provider has to give you a special alphanumeric code called a MAC over the phone, or within 5 working days after you email or write to them requesting it. It will be valid for 30 days after issue and they're also supposed to give you the exact validity period and expiry date. They should remind you of your MAC whenever you ask for it, and if it expires they should give you a new one on request.

2. Give the MAC to the new ISP

You should of course give the MAC to the new ISP before it expires (or else you'll have to ask the old ISP for a new MAC).

The switchover is meant to take place within 5 working days after the new ISP asks the old ISP to transfer your existing broadband service across to them - and the new ISP ought to tell you the migration date too (which you should generally be able to get postponed if necessary).

3. No charging for MAC or threats of termination

One good new thing: Ofcom now specifically ban your old ISP from charging you just for providing a MAC (though if you're still within your contract period you may have to pay to terminate early). Nor can they refuse to give you a MAC even if you owe them money e.g. for unpaid subscriptions (a practice known as "debt blocking"). And their wholesale broadband provider in turn also can't refuse to give them the MAC to pass on to you.

They shouldn't be able to blackmail you into staying with them by saying that if you ask for a MAC they'll disconnect your broadband service, whether you've had the chance to give the MAC to another provider or not. (Although Ofcom's A1.13 rather puzzlingly suggests that if you say you do NOT wish to transfer your broadband service to another ISP, they can stop your service altogether?! How I hate double negatives! So I'd make it very clear to the existing ISP that I don't want them to cease the service when I ask for the MAC, myself.)

And wholesalers who have disputes with resellers or retail broadband providers will still have to give them the MAC to pass on to you.

4. Proper information on the migration process must be given

ISPs also have to give you proper information about how to switch providers and how the MAC process works, both on their website (which, cynically, I suspect will be hard to find on websites, because Ofcom don't require them to make that info easily accessible or prominent!) and also by sending you a copy of the info if you ask for it.

To ensure consumers receive accurate and consistent advice regarding whether and how best they can migrate, in November 2006 Ofcom together with OTA (Office of the Telecommunications Adjudicator) and broadband providers produced a matrix which shows how a switch can be made, based on which the new ISP is meant to advise consumers as to how best to migrate to them. Ofcom will be publishing complementary advice and help for consumers on their website, but meanwhile you can see the broadband migration customer advice matrix here. It brings together information on all possible broadband migration combinations (there are a lot, depending on the types of broadband services you're migrating from/to!), what processes apply, and what advice customers should be given if they contact their broadband service provider with a problem.

5. Complaints

Any complaints about the migration process will have to be dealt with as part of the ISP's complaints handling procedures - see Ofcom's consumer guide on problems with switching ISPs (and they have a phone helpline for consumers).

But - where's the ultimate deadline?

Now one thing that's not spelt out is how long the new ISP has got to migrate your broadband connection across. The consultation said: "The customer gives the MAC code to the GSP and tells the GSP when he wants the switch to happen (with a minimum of five working days’ lead time)." But there's nothing about that in the new rules.

Maybe I'm misreading the rules. However it seems to me the final new rules don't set out a particular deadline this, they don't even require the new ISP to do the migration within a "reasonable period" (unlike for home moves), so the new ISP could take their own sweet time getting your service migrated to them, even though the old ISP has a deadline of 5 working days after the move request from the new ISP. I guess this isn't thought to be an issue because the new ISP won't get your business and your money until they've changed you over to them, so they have an incentive to do that ASAP. Plus, I think the info which broadband ISPs now have to give users includes what their usual migration date following receipt of a MAC from a new customer who wants to move an existing broadband service over to them (GC 22 Annex A 1.19(f)).

Still, if the new broadband provider has inefficient staff who take ages to get their act together, I can see there might be problems. I wish Ofcom had spelt out that the new ISP has to get the move done within a reasonable period too, because if they don't do it before the MAC expires you'll have to ask the old ISP for another one all over again. But if the new broadband provider is that useless then maybe you'd reconsider whether you want to move to them anyway, assuming you're allowed to change your mind.

Tag on line, LLU migrations, home moves addressed via new "high level obligations"

Ofcom hopes the "tag on line" problem (see below) will be dealt with by the new rules too.

So should problems with migrations from broadband services supplied by ISPs via LLU (local loop unbundling) - provided to retail ISPs by BT's Openreach - where they use BT's copper telephone wires to supply their end user customers with:
  • data and voice services (MPF, Metallic Path Facility, or full local loop unbundling, where the ISP installs their own equipment in BT local exchanges), or
  • just broadband services (SMPF, standard metallic path facility or shared local loop unbundling, where a splitter is used).
Yes I know, as far as the consumer is concerned, it really shouldn't matter whether their ISP employs Openreach LLU, or IPStream or DataStream from BT Wholesale, but believe it or not there were problems getting a MAC if you had an SPMF service (though since December 2006 there's a new "provide with MAC" process which ISPs are meant to use for migrations away from SMPF.)

All this is via new "high level obligations" i.e. more general rules for situations where the MAC process isn't relevant, notably new broadband connections (e.g. on home moves), from MPF or SMPF, and between LLU providers. For brand new broadband connections, migrations to and from MPF (and I guess migrations to SMPF) and home moves, the new rules should also apply, so that the ISPs involved are supposed to:
  1. facilitate the migration (or where applicable, connection) of the Broadband Service in a manner that is fair and reasonable;
  2. ensure that the migration (or where applicable, connection) of the Broadband Service is carried out within a reasonable period.

Spread the word!

If you want to know more about what led up to all of this, and Ofcom's future plans on this front, read on. But first, do spread the word. It's important to increase consumer awareness of the new rules - it's no good having new consumer rights if consumers don't know about them.

Otherwise, unscrupulous ISPs can continue to lie to customers about what their rights are under the new rules, just as they lied about their rights under the voluntary code, relying on customer ignorance. I speak from experience - I've recently read the current voluntary code (summary, full code - also annexed to the Ofcom statement) and realised that when I inquired about a MAC a while back, my ISP, supposedly a respectable one, said something to me to put me off switching, which was directly against the code. I should have read it then, of course. And certainly recorded the call. (But that's generally illegal in the UK. Whenever companies can record your call "for training purposes", I feel it's only fair that customers should be able to do the same "for the record", otherwise it's too one-sided. But that's another rant...).

Also, don't forget that as a last resort you can always complain to Ofcom if you find your ISP isn't following the new rules and they don't respond to your direct complaints to them.

Background - the problems

The broadband migration situation in the UK had clearly gotten beyond a joke.

No market can be truly competitive if consumers can't easily switch to buying something else when they're not happy with a product or service's quality or value for money.

The MAC procedure

In the UK, to switch broadband providers with minimal interruption to your Internet connection you have to get a MAC (migration authorisation code) from your old ISP and give it to the new ISP. A voluntary broadband migration industry code of practice, to which most of the major broadband internet providers had signed up, was supposed to facilitate that process, and a set procedure was meant to be followed to ensure a seamless transfer with minimal disruption to the customer's broadband service. (More detailed step by step outline of how the MAC procedure works, see para 3.12 onwards.)

Without a MAC, in order to change ISPs you'd have to cancel your existing broadband service, wait several days before you can order from a new broadband provider, then wait further until the new supplier is able to provide a service (I think they call that "cease and reprovide"). So you have not only to pay for the re-connection via your new ISP but also lose access to your Net connection for several weeks. Few broadband users want to bear the extra cost or risk that long a disruption to their internet service, so if they can't get a MAC they'd probably end up gritting their teeth and living with their current unsatisfactory ISP.

Not following the voluntary code

In practice many ISPs, yes even those on the voluntary code list, haven't behaved very well when asked for a MAC, dragging their feet, putting obstacles in the way of consumers getting a MAC, misleading customers into thinking they have to pay for a MAC or will lose their service immediately they ask for one, etc. Sharp practice and dirty tricks, in other words. Or maybe just incompetence, in some cases. And of course, if you owed them any money (even if you'd stopped paying them because of shoddy or non-existent service at their end), some ISPs would refuse to give you a MAC altogether until you'd paid up.

But that's not entirely unexpected. Imagine effectively giving your existing supplier complete control of something you vitally need in order to switch to another service provider. If all they need to do to keep raking in your monthly subscription is to do nothing, they're not going to rush to do it unless they're forced to, are they? They can effectively hold you to ransom.

There were particular problems "where a broadband supplier fails to provide its customers with a working broadband service, but then does not respond to customers’ requests for MACs. A particularly acute example of the difficulties that consumers can face when they are unable to get MACs was the recent withdrawal of broadband provider E7even from the consumer market. Two of E7even’s wholesale suppliers, Tiscali and Netservices, were unwilling to release E7even’s customers once E7even had terminated their contracts." (para 1.14 of the consultation). Tiscali and Netservices effectively made E7even customers sign up to a 12-month contract with specific broadband providers (more expensive than others), as the alternative was to lose broadband service for several weeks. Ofcom just couldn't stop them from tying down E7even customers in this way. If your broadband ISP went bust, you were stuffed.

Also there were problems where an ISP's own wholesale provider refused to give it a MAC for its end user, e.g. because there were disputes between them.

Tag on line

"Tag on line" was also a big source of problems. "Here, a customer tries to order broadband, but is told by his chosen supplier that he cannot have service because there is a “tag” or “marker” on the line – which may mean that another supplier is already providing service on that line. The customer may have recently moved home, or may have recently ceased service with a different broadband provider – or may have done neither of these things" (consultation para 1.17).

Tag on line was a particular problem when moving home. If the person who previously lived in your new home had omitted to cancel their existing broadband service before they left then, believe it or not, you'd be stuck.

At the beginning of 2006, Ofcom was getting as many as 1,000-plus calls a week from customers who couldn't get broadband because of tag on line, and could find no one else to help them. (Although BT have since started a tag on line helpdesk, which has improved things on this front.)

Ofcom consultation and outcome

So, after many consumer complaints and an official consultation about the issues, Ofcom decided to force broadband ISPs to let go of our legs, and the new rule will give Ofcom teeth to bite their hands if they don't - if you'll forgive the mixed metaphor. (See Ofcom's official consultation on broadband migration: summary, full statement, news release 13 December 2006.)

The solution? New broadband rules from 14 February 2007

From 14 February 2007 there's a new General Condition 22 from Ofcom (now incorporated into their full General Conditions - link updated 2 May 2007). GC22 is based on the old voluntary code, with some tweaks. (Ofcom have provided a comparative table of the differences between the old code and the new MAC procedures, in Annex 3 of their broadband migrations statement).

So, from now on:
  • communications providers must comply with the new compulsory MAC process where relevant
  • where MAC's not relevant, e.g. tag on line or home moves, communications providers have to follow certain "high level obligations" aimed at filling in the gaps and making ISPs act fairly and reasonably towards end users anyway
  • Ofcom can investigate potential breaches and even fine ISPs for not following the procedure properly, hitting them in the pocket where it hurts (unlike say with the E7even debacle).

The future?

Ofcom know GC 22 is just a start.

Consumers still need a way to get MACs from elsewhere if their existing broadband provider can't or won't provide them. In the first half of 2007 Ofcom will be working with the industry - BT, Openreach, LLU operators and broadband providers - to try to come up with something workable on that front, but then they may consult on more formal regulation (e.g. making such a process mandatory) if despite this "co-regulatory approach" they still think it's needed to protect consumers.

Ofcom will also consider whether migrations to and from cable broadband should be covered too, and maybe other fixed broadband technologies like wireless.

All in all, a good outcome for us consumers. We can now start shopping around for better broadband deals and asking for those MACs! I certainly intend to.