Thursday 29 December 2011

Albums of the Year, 2011

Another year, another Best Of list. A year in which music really did become like
water from a tap, thanks to Spotify in particular. A year in which the value of
having trusted sources to help steer you through those millions of tracks became
even more critical, whether that be a radio DJ (still the most common source of
music discovery) or through friends, or through other music brands, the most
future thinking of which hooked up with Spotify to create editorial voices in
that database, via apps. Still, enough blah, here’s the ten albums I loved most in 2011.

Listen to the playlist on Spotify

Bombay Bicycle Club – A Different Kind of Fix
Their second wonderful acoustic album “Flaws” is still one of my favourites, but
this new one was most definitely not in the same vein: it had a more electronic
pop feel, and contains what is probably my #2 track of the year, “Shuffle”.

Bright Eyes – The People’s Key
This one’s a grower. If you give it the time it will get under your skin with melodies that are irresistible. Conor Oberst delivers a long, strong set of less acoustic sounding tracks than previously, including the wonderful “One For  You, One For Me”

Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Ok, so I admit to having been fairly obsessed with Bon Iver since his first beautiful and sad recorded-in-the-wild album “For Emma, Forever Ago”. This proper album #2, after much listening, doesn’t disappoint.

King Creosote and Jon Hopkins – Diamond Mine
Beautiful, wistful, sad songs, matching KC’s Scottish lilt with Hopkins' subtle electronica, including my #1 track of the year, “Bubble”. Quiet and beautiful.

The Antlers – Burst Apart
US indie band who finally broke through to near the mainstream with this their 4th album.Some may think it's a little, well, soft, but I love the melodies.

Feist - Metals
Canadian Leslie Feist's 4th album, and really the first time I'd paid much attention to her. Contains my #3 track of the year "The Bad in Each Other" which has a chorus to die for.

Kate Bush - 50 Words For Snow
Her 10th album, and probably the most uncommercial. Full of jazz influences with lots of piano, and generally downbeat, there are only 7 songs stretched out over 65 minutes. It's quirky (shagging a snowman anyone?) and bizare (Stephen Fry reciting 50 words for snow), but it's also gorgeous and enthralling.

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
Second album from the Seattle beardies. Could they live up to their first much loved album? Would it be a tired sounding re-run? There was no need to worry, as they managed to move on easily, still sounding definitely like the Fleet Foxes, but bringing in new sounds alongside uplifting melodies.

Matthew Halsall - On The Go
At the risk of ripping off the Mercury's format of one jazz album, this is my favourite new jazz album of last year. He's a brilliant young trumpeter and composer, and this album is simply a great listen.

Bjork - Biophilia
7th proper studio album by everyone's favourite Icelandic singer. As usual, it's eclectic, innovative, difficult and stunning.

Listen to the playlist on Spotify

Albums of the year, 2010

Albums of the year, 2009

Albums of the year, 2008

Sunday 10 July 2011

Now Playing: July 2011

Mainly this month I've been listening to...

It's a very very US focus right now, with a definite nod to great songs. I've been looking forward to the Bon Iver album since the stunning For Emma, Forever Ago was released a couple of years back. It doesn't disappoint, and will undoubtedly make many album-of-the-year lists.. King Creosote & Jon Hopkins collaboration can only be described as beautiful. Thanks to All Songs Considered for introducing it to me. I missed The Antlers when there was some online buzz around their last album Hospice, but this new one is gorgeous and will get them many new fans.

I was nervous about whether Fleet Foxes would disappoint with their second album. The first record was such a stand out album, I wondered if they'd ever be able to do anything as good again. I needn't have worried, the second release is every bit as good, and moves the sound on to new areas. Nothing on The Low Anthem's third release has the impact of To Ohio/Charlie Darwin from their first, and has a church-like feel to it, probably due to it being recorded in an old pasta sauce factory, but it's still very good.

The Tallest Man On Earth, aside from the rather bizarre name, is a must. A young Swedish singer songwriter who plays a mean acoustic guitar and sounds like early Bob Dylan (better, in fact). On paper it doesn't sound too good. In truth it's stunning. Check this backstage recording from Later with Jools.

Lastly, I'm still learning to love the latest Sufjan Stevens album. Yes I know, it came out ages ago. But it's a long, complicated and not an easy record to get into. I think I've tipped over from not really getting it to really really liking it. Better late than never.

Bon Iver - "Bon Iver"

King Creosote and Jon Hopkins - "Diamond Mine"

The Antlers - "Burst Apart"

Fleet Foxes - "Helplessness Blues"

The Low Anthem - "Smart Flesh"

The Tallest Man On Earth - "The Wild Hunt"

Sufjan Stevens - "The Age of Adz"

Saturday 9 July 2011


Photo of BBC Broadcast Centre: Graham Tait
So I didn't plan it like this. Three months ago I was set to leave both Audio & Music interactive and as a result, the BBC. I felt the need to move on from that role for several reasons which I won't detail here, and at that stage it felt like leaving the BBC would be the best option. But then I wasn't aware then of the massive opportunity that was just round the corner. The chance to lead the evolution of one of the BBC's ten digital products, and to immerse myself fully in the bit of my old role that I felt most passionate about (discovering and making great audience facing sites/services/products), was one I couldn't ignore.

So after a lengthy recruitment process I'm very happy to say that my new role is as Executive Product Manager for Radio and Music, in BBC Future Media, Programmes On Demand, or FM POD for short. Bit of a mouthful I know. I'm joining an existing team with many very talented people and an inspiring leadership team already working on the new product, but after just one week I'm quietly confident that I'm going to really enjoy this next phase.

BBC Broadcast Centre photo: R/DV/RS

I could be accused of post-rationalisation here, but in many ways I feel that I've been a product manager for ages in the sense that I have spent the last ten years creating products for national radio stations and the BBC's music output, but we didn't have that job title back then. Now that it's a recognized and highly valued role within Future Media and right across the industry it feels that I'm now in the right place.

Monday 13 June 2011

Thoughts on Lovefilm

I'm a fan of Lovefilm. I've been a subscriber for many years (since 2004) and have persuaded quite a few friends to sign up after hearing me extol the virtues of the service. I am what you might call a Lovefilm advocate, someone who likes the service so much that I want others to try it too. But it seems to me that Lovefilm is missing a trick or two, so here's some thoughts on what it could do better, for me.

Firstly, Lovefilm knows me and my family's viewing habits and predilections intimately. It knows every film we have ever rented (approaching 500 now), every film we have rated, every film we want to watch in the future. It basically knows more about our views on films than we do ourselves. Why then, when I visit, does it constantly suggest a whole bunch of films that it knows I have no interest in whatsoever? Why does it recommend films on it's homepage that I have in fact already watched? Why does it still offer me games when we have never rented a game?

Basically Lovefilm needs to get its recommendation engine tuned up, so that it offers me truly personal recommendations based on the information it already has about me. I want recommendations from people I know and especially people I trust to have good judgement on films, be that a professional film critic or a friend. Lovefilm should be a totally personal service, helping me filter the huge number of films available to watch, old and new, and quickly get me to what I'll most likely want to watch. I really shouldn't have to scroll through a long list of new releases every few weeks to find something I want to add to my wish list.
Secondly, online streaming. Clearly, the future for home consumption of films is less about DVDs through the post and more about streaming to a connected device, whether that is a big screen (TV) or a smaller one (smartphone, tablet), but right now that feels like an after-thought for Lovefilm. The catalogue available to stream feels pretty thin (about 6000 items), and the whole emphasis of the site is still aimed at DVD rental. Now, I'm sure the usage figures mean that physical product still has to remain the top priority to keep the majority of users happy, but they need to start making the online viewing offer more attractive. For example, right now they don't offer an online-only package; the cheapest unlimited online viewing package comes in at a hefty £10 per month and includes a DVD allowance. Shouldn't they be offering a low-cost online viewing package to tempt me to move from DVD to online viewing? Of course, I'm not going to do that until the catalogue is deep enough, but the right subscription will still be needed.

Thirdly, mobile. OK, I'm sure the good folks at Lovefilm are working on this, but shouldn't I get a great experience on my smartphone as well as via snail mail DVDs? The iPhone app lets me manage my account, to add or remove films from my wish list and see new releases. But I can't watch anything on it, and if you browse to you get the desktop site which is unusable. Really unusable. Why no mobile browser site? I'd be quite happy to watch some content, particularly TV episodes as opposed to full length films, on a smartphone or tablet.

Lastly, Lovefilm social. Yes there are Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and YouTube channels, but none of it is personal to me. If I want to engage with a service like Lovefilm in my social spaces, it really has to be personalised to me, not promo or marketing material pumped into my streams. I'd be happy to be alerted to content that Lovefilm knows I'll be interested in, but that means applying that personalised recommendation engine to social updates.

As I said at the start, I'm a Lovefilm fan. But if Blinkbox or Netflix (if they launch in the UK) offer me a better, more personalised service, I'll transfer my allegiances. Which would be a pity.

Monday 6 June 2011

Leaving BBC Audio & Music Interactive

After quite a few years in the interactive wing of BBC Audio & Music, creating and maintaining digital products and services for the BBC's national radio stations and music output, I'm moving on. It's been a truly exciting, and sometimes frustrating journey, with the department growing from a tiny handful of people in '99 to over a hundred people (technical and editorial combined) at it's peak.

There have been many highlights for me, but here are just a few. In the early days it was working with Hugh Garry and Helen Pendlebury at Radio 1, making it up as we went along but seeing the huge potential of combining linear media with the web; covering big events such as Glastonbury and Big Weekend (or One Big Sunday as it was then), and introducing live streaming and incoming SMS to network radio.

In the middle period my main memories are of developing the idea for the original BBC Radio Player (offering on-demand and live radio) then actually making it happen with Dan Taylor 6 years before iPlayer; working with Simon Nelson, Simon Hopkins, Dan Hill, Gill Weekes and Ayesha Mohideen during an incredibly intense period of development of  BBC online; launching 5 new digital radio stations across DAB, web and DTV; being exposed to the innovative thinking of Tom CoatesMatt Webb and Paul Hammond; appointing Dan Heaf then seeing him do great things at Radio 1, and helping Justin Spooner do creative work at Radio 3.

In more recent years it was working with Matthew Shorter and Tom Scott on the strategy and plan for digital music at the BBC, then seeing further big chunks of that delivered with Andy Puleston, Matt Coulson and Ant Smith; making the BBC's podcast service happen with Sarah Prag, building the music events strategy and delivering it with Andrew Barron and later Tim Clarke; working with Ben Chapman, Chris Johnson, Huey and Sam Bailey to grow the Radio 1 site to be the most popular radio site in the UK and probably anywhere; learning about the mobile opportunity with James Simcock, getting Now Playing @6music commissioned, and lastly working with John Moran and Peter Bradbury to get the rights to allow us to do much of the above.

This is just a snapshot, it's not meant to be comprehensive. It is, of course, all about the people you work with, and I've been lucky enough to work with some amazing talent and made some great friends. If I could change one thing, it would be to have argued even more strongly for audience needs over organisational priorities. Not always easy to do in a large fairly political organisation, especially one which has such a long history of traditional linear media brands.

For now though, it's time to move on to work in a different environment. More on that soon(*).

* i.e. when I know!

Monday 16 May 2011

Now Playing @6Music

I co-commissioned a new interactive radio programme in early 2011 which launched on-air in April. This article explaining my thinking was written for BBC in-house paper "Ariel", May 2011.

The question behind Now Playing @6Music is simple: how do we take advantage of the changes in technology and audience behaviour over the past few years and incorporate them into music radio? On the one hand, this is what our radio networks have been doing, to an extent, for many years via the phone, fax, SMS, email and now the web. On the other hand, I saw a gap whereby there wasn’t a music programme that was built on those massive changes from the ground up. Many other shows have integrated some elements, but where was the show which was entirely based on audience contribution using new digital music services, social networks and connected devices?

My vision for the programme was to put digital interactivity at the core, rather than as an add-on. In practical terms I refined this to mean that every piece of music and every recommendation would come from the audience in one way or another. The thinking is that music fans love to recommend and share their favourite music, and that many of those would be happy to do so with a trusted presenter (such as Tom Robinson) and radio station. In other words, taking what we used to call the “listeners” and putting them in the driving seat.

I’ve been asked how this differs to a standard request show. The idea is not about listeners sending in a request in real time, it’s about reflecting the online buzz about music, and gathering recommendations, comments and suggestions over the entire week, on a number of different platforms and services, and letting users discuss these with each other. From that discussion the programme emerges. So, whilst the programme’s producer (Rowan Collinson from indie Somethin’Else) may initially suggest a topic, we are happy to change it if the audience is moving in a different direction. And the tracks in the playlist come entirely from those users, in real time on Friday evening, or anytime over the past week. Less pushing our choices out, more pulling the audience’s in.

Paul Rodgers at BBC Radio 6 Music was keen on the idea, and with his help the new programme launched in April. One month in and we have some pretty clear strands running through the weekly two hour show. Firstly, the backbone is a themed playlist which people can add to via SpotifyFacebook, Twitter, email, SMS and the really very good programme blog. Secondly we reach out to music bloggers, big and small, and invite them to talk about what is rocking their musical boat this week. Thirdly, we dip into the Twitter stream to see – in real time – what tracks people are loving at that moment (using the nowplaying #tag), pull one out, re-tweet it and play the track. Lastly, we offer a digital digest of the week’s online buzz from the programme blog - what music fans are talking about and sharing online.

User feedback so far has been positive, but this is not a quick hit. It’s about iterating the programme format to focus more on what is working with music fans and listeners, and working out how we can reflect the online buzz about music in even better ways.

You can listen to the latest programme on the 6Music site.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Capital FM vs BBC Radio 1

NB these are my personal views and nothing to do with my employer

Ok, so excuse the title of this post. Couldn't resist.

Some thoughts on the new Capital FM, which is of course touted as a national competitor to BBC Radio 1.

I've been listening to Capital a fair amount since it went national at the start of January. The main thing to say is that it's incredibly different to Radio 1. So different that I'm not sure you can really compare, although you can certainly contrast. They are both music radio stations, but that's about it. They are so far apart in terms of content I'm struggling to see them as competitors.

For a start, Capital has an incredibly consistent sound, much more consistent than Radio 1. By that I mean that whenever you flick through the radio dial and get to Capital, you can tell it's Capital within about 3 seconds. Partly it's the high compression level being used, but mainly because the musical range is extremely narrow, which means it has very consistent mood and tonal quality. Radio 1 is not frightened of mixing up genres and styles, which means you're much more likely to hear a song you don't know or like, whereas if you like the type of music Capital plays, it's pretty unlikely you'll hear a song you don't like. Then again, you're much more likely to discover a new song or artist you like on Radio 1 than Capital.

Compare My Radio confirms what my listening suggested, that Capital is playing a small number of tracks on very high rotation levels. It's most-played song as I write this - "Cooler Than Me" by Mike Posner - has been played 156 times in the last 30 days, which is well over twice the number of plays the top song on Radio 1 has received ("Me and You" by Nero). Compare My Radio also shows that Capital has only played 195 unique songs, compared to Radio 1's 1,195.

I'm yet to hear a song being played live on Capital, compared to the large number of songs either recorded live or actually being played live on Radio 1, and not just in the evening. Of course, not everyone likes hearing live music on the radio, especially if it doesn't sound like the recorded version or the artist is unknown.

The other main difference I've noticed is the lack of speech content on Capital. Apart from the speech in the adverts, there's very little DJ talk, and what there is tends to be bland, upbeat but simple links between songs. Flick across to Radio 1 however, and you're very likely to hear either DJ's with "big" personalities (eg Moyles, Mills, Lowe, Grimshaw etc), being funny or interviewing artists, news bulletins, reviews or discussion. Try it for yourself now - switch over to Capital and see how often you hear speech, then do the same for Radio 1.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact for many people this is a good thing. Capital is a very consistent service where you know what you're going to get, and get it you will whenever you tune in. My daughter (10) loves the kind of commercial urban music that Capital focusses on (Rihanna, Cee Lo Green, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, Usher, Tinie Tempah etc), and now she's discovered the station insists on having it on. In fact, it's the first time she's ever really shown much interest in radio. So Capital has turned her on to radio. She loves the fact that whenever she turns it on, she's almost guaranteed to know the song being played, and it's very likely to be something she likes. Radio 1 is too eclectic for her, and she doesn't want to listen to DJ's talking or interviewing bands she hasn't heard of.

So, Capital and Radio 1, two music radio stations that are so far apart that I find it hard to think of them as competitors. Are there really many people who would admit to loving both stations, or are they in fact targeting such different demographics and tastes that they don't compete, they actually complement each other?

The other interesting thought is this: if Radio 1 were to heavily target a much younger audience, as some in the industry would like, would it in fact be forced to sound much more like Capital?