State of the Music

The State of the Union (of Music)

Music is in crisis. This isn’t hyperbole, the last 12 months have been seismically bad for the music industry. Bands have seen a steady move from sales to streams to live events over the past few decades. This has been a worldwide phenomenom. But the Pandemic hasn’t helped, putting a stop to live music events for over 12 months. Worse still, the ongoing Pandemic and the rise of several new strains means we have the potential for a second summer without live music with some events already postponing their events for a second year in a row.


Physical media sales for music saw a deep decline in the 1990’s, the scare stories of cassette killing vinyl never came true in the 1980’s, but Compact Disc finally put the nail in vinyl’s coffin with the advent of the home computer boom. Everyone wanted CDs, but what they didn’t want was the price they had to pay for them. It was partly this high price of music that spawned the likes of Napster, and it’s effects are still felt today. In 2021 you can expect to pay £10 for a CD, maybe £15 for a double CD. In 1995 a CD would set you back £15. This was more than the price of the equivalent vinyl record, but it had the benefits of being digital, and small. No more scratched vinyl hiss, it reproduced the sound as it was recorded, without the limitations of a cheap record player. But everyone knew they cost less to manufacture than the vinyl equivalent. This in part fuelled resentment of the music industry that many music pirates would then use as their justification for music ripping. The result was a steady cost cutting exercise until CDs reached that magic price point where people would buy them again. And with CDs becoming cheaper to buy it meant vinyl sales declined. The problem is that in over 30 years the cost of a CD hasn’t moved much, still being cheaper today than at their peak 25 years ago. This is Crisis number one, a music industry hit by a perfect storm of stagnating prices and falling sales. It’s a pattern that hits home when you look at the rapid decline in sales of physical media since 2000 and the rise of digital sales. In recent years we’ve seen a revival of vinyl sales, but they’re still a niche market compared to how widespread they used to be, and today’s sales are dominated by digital and streaming.


The advent of streaming was seen as the saviour of music when it first started. Here was a way to listen to music legally, without the risk of the Copyright Police knocking on your door. For a handful of artists it has been a very lucrative time, with artists like Ed Sheeran breaking streaming records, and the top 10. But much like with physical CDs there is price inertia that has seen streaming revenue steadily decline. Part of this issue is how much is it worth to have access to a near infinite amount of music at your fingertips? Not much it seems as half of Spotify’s listeners still use their free service. For the rest it’s about the cost of a CD a month. No one can argue that Spotify isn’t good value for consumers, every album by all your favourite bands available at the touch of a button, a mouse-click, or even a voice command to your home streaming hub. There is more choice than anyone can listen to in a lifetime. The problem is that Spotify has become a victim of it’s own success, by being the largest streaming platform available it has drawn the ire of creators that don’t understand how the music industry really works. Peter Frampton famously claimed that Spotify only paid him $1700 for 55M plays. Or to put it another way, just 0.0031 cents per play. When you hear figures like this it stirs righteous anger, but Spotify’s payment system is actually fairly well known, at the time Peter Frampton was complaining about his royalty payments from Spotify they paid $0.004 per play, over 100x what Peter Frampton was paid. This is where how the music industry actually works comes into play. Spotify, like any business, pays the Rights Holder for the music. The same people getting paid for CD sales. That $0.004 is then split between Distributor, Publisher, and Record Label. In some cases these may all be the same company. The artist is then paid according to the contract they have with the record label. For CD sales this usually equates to about 13% of the cost of the CD. Or £1.30 per sale. There may well be other costs associated with the release of the CD, such as marketing that can reduce this by even more, but the average is still between 10% to 15% depending on the record deal, and whether rights have been sold for a lump sum. It’s not uncommon for an artist to sell their entire rights for a lump sum if they’re considered valuable enough. Who wouldn’t want $1M in the bank today rather than spread out over the next 20 years? What’s this got to do with Peter Frampton? Most record contracts were written before streaming existed, and don’t contain any clause for streaming royalties. Record labels have often interpreted this to mean that they get to keep all, or nearly all, of Spotify’s payments to them. Peter Frampton wasn’t paid $1700 by Spotify for 55M plays, his record label paid him that after keeping over 99% of the fee paid to them (minus publisher and distributor costs). For a modern musician they’ll most likely see closer to 10%, as streaming fees will be similar to their physical royalties, and for an independent musician they’ll keep the lot.

The other issue with streaming is that musicians see it as a poor return because they’ve gotten used to a physical sales based model. Whenever a physical CD is sold they see the whole of their share relatively quickly, or at least once the advance has paid out. A physical CD sale is near instant gratification, more so if you’re an independent musician selling your CD at a concert. Each CD sold is £10 in the back pocket. And that gives an artificially high value to the music when streamed. How many times do you hear “I need 2500 streams to make what I earn on a CD”? The problem is no one makes £10 on the sale of a CD, as mentioned above the average artist makes £1.30 on a £10 CD sale, after tax, distribution, publishing, vending… you get the point. At the most a band could make around £4 per CD sale if sold in a shop, if they publish through their own record label. And while they won’t be getting the wholesale price when selling at a concert they’ll still owe tax and production costs for anything sold. It’s not £10 profit. Even on digital sales artists only see two thirds of the sale price, and there aren’t any physical media costs to account for in digital sales. Digital sales have also revived music sales to the point where growth in sales has reached a higher point than at any time during the 1990s. The argument that streaming has cannibalised sales doesn’t hold true when you include digital sales from the likes of Amazon Music and iTunes. Sales are up, but Spotify is still seen as the bogeyman due to a concerted attack campaign against them, often using misleading figures such as “song writer” payments. This hasn’t been helped by some song writers complaining about how much their Spotify royalties have been, while neglecting to point out that they receive zero royalties from physical sales as they are not the Rights holder for the music. This is because some song writers were working on a flat fee basis for the record labels. Streaming royalties are also handled differently to physical media sale royalties as they are treated as a performance, the same way radio play is treated. This is because when you are streaming music you don’t own the music, unlike a physical CD or digital download.

It’s this disconnect between physical sale and streaming performance that most people don’t understand. While a physical sale is instant, streaming is the long game. When an artist publishes their music on a streaming site they are looking at a return over years, not weeks, but many artists are conflating streams with sales and expecting a return each month equivalent of a physical sale from each listener. As Noddy Holder says of Slade’s Christmas hit, “to you it’s a Christmas song, to me it’s my pension”. Streaming serves two main purposes for an artist, marketing and long term income. If it really was as unfair as everyone says it is then the likes of Ed Sheeran wouldn’t be able to earn £4M from one song. Musicians need to stop looking at the royalty rate and start looking at the underlying data that generates that royalty, the monthly listeners and the number of repeat plays that they generate. There are plenty of bands that aren’t considered as big as the likes of Ed Sheeran or Ariana Grande that do make a living from Spotify royalties alone. So when complaining that Spotify doesn’t pay enough start asking instead why people aren’t playing enough.


For those at the shallow end of the streaming pond there has always been live performances. It’s the bread and butter of any musician, you have to be something quite special to make a career in music without playing live. For any band starting out it can be a backbreaking exercise in masochism. Long drives, late nights, and very little pay. For some it will pay off, a support gig here, a demo played on radio there, and then that steady climb to making enough money from touring that the day job becomes a thing of the past. The live music scene was already in decline before the Pandemic, with venues closing around the country like clockwork to be replaced with identikit blocks of flats. And when each venue closes the country loses part of its culture forever. Charities like the Music Venue Trust exist to help preserve these grassroot venues, places like the Hairy Dog in Derby, and the Black Heart in Camden. The Pandemic has changed all that, with many venues that would previously have been viable now on the verge of collapse. The government has alleviated the issue somewhat by enabling venues to access funds, but with funds being fought for between rock and punk venues as well as traditional theatre and opera venues there has been a sense that the lion’s share has been towards classical entertainment venues and the rock scene has been left to primarily fend for itself. Some venues have been able to reopen in a manner of speaking and there’s been a boom in online shows, some of which have been more lucrative than the live shows would have been. With no physical cap on how many tickets can be sold to a virtual concert some venues have been able to sell far more tickets than would usually be possible. But even this income is now coming under threat as the government is looking at new licensing taxes to claw money out of music venues that are putting on virtual concerts. With no real end in sight it still remains to be seen when live music can restart without the limitations of social distancing.

Unlike the grassroots venues festivals aren’t tied to a physical location in quite the same way. While it’s unlikely that the big festivals will change their location, they could in theory be put on anywhere that has a field large enough. However the sheer scale of large music festivals does present them with their own risks. If a band has to cancel a show at your local pub someone might possibly lose a few hundred pounds. If a large festival cancels that can amount to millions. While fees are often a closely guarded secret it’s reported that headline fees can be in excess of £5M for some bands. That’s just for a single band, where it’s not unusual to be having over one hundreds acts appearing over a weekend. Glastonbury alone keeps a reserve fund of £10M in case of emergencies, and while they haven’t been forced to cancel due to the weather yet (they did cancel in 2012 due to a lack of toilets) it’s good to know they’re organised enough for any event that could put the festival at risk. In 2021 they have again cancelled due to the Pandemic, this time making the decision early to limit potential losses. With 2020 being a wipeout for the festival season those reserves can only stretch so far, and with no income coming in for 2 years running it’s important for festivals to take a more cautious approach. No festival could afford to have to shut in the middle of the festival due to an outbreak of Covid, and it would be irresponsible of any festival organiser to put the lives of so many at risk before a vaccine has been fully rolled out. Until festivals can be assured that their insurance can cover them for liability not only during the festival, but also for the risk of having to cancel at short notice it would seem more prudent to take the cautious approach. Expect more festivals to cancel before the summer.


As Roger Daltrey said, “what’s Brexit got to do with rock music?” With Roger Daltrey now signing the open letter demanding touring visas for musicians it would seem that even the legendary Who singer has realised that it actually has quite a lot to do with music. The old guard of touring bands, such as The Who and Iron Maiden, were very dismisssive of the touring hurdles thrown up by Brexit. Many of them pointed out that they were perfectly able to tour before the EU, but conveniently forgot that the rules for touring a foreign country 40 or 50 years ago are not the same as they are today. To better understand the issue it’s important to realise what difference a year makes to a musician wanting to play shows in Europe. It’s a different experience depending on who is touring, for a small band touring Europe for the first time the chances are they would be signed onto an existing tour as a support band. In 2019 this meant making sure they had a van that wouldn’t break down in the middle of Germany and a sat nav programmed with maps of the European countries they were playing in. If they’re lucky hotels would be provided for them as part of the touring deal. While that bit hasn’t changed today they also have the added burdens of visas, carnets, VAT, and custom duties. All of these add costs to tours that are already a costly business, with many bands that toured Europe in 2019 being unable to afford to do the same in the future. For your big bands the process is a bit simpler, they’ll have teams of people whose job it is to book tours in multiple countries, many of which, like the USA, are outside the EU. For them touring Europe becomes a little bit more burdensome, but nothing they haven’t handled before, but with one big difference. If you want to tour 48 States of the USA you can, you simply apply for your visa, pay your fees, fly over and start your tour. It’s a little different for the EU as there are rules for driving through multiple countries, and not all countries have the same rules.

It’s important as well to understand both sides of the argument between the EU and the UK. Ireland is a special case due to the common travel arrangement it has with Northern Ireland. The UK proposal would have EU musicians able to come over as a short term business visitor. However, the problem with this is it’s designed for employers. It would mean that a band travelling by themselves would be unable to apply to travel under this scheme. There are other clauses that would come into effect as well. To get around the self employed nature of most musicians there is a class of independent professional, but these are limited to individuals with 6 years experience and a university degree. Hardly rock and roll. It also doesn’t resolve other issues such as carnets and duty on merchandise and there are limitations still on the length of time people can stay. The way the UK’s position has been laid out is one of limiting access and what visitors can and can’t do.

The EU offer on the other hand goes much further, and would allow artists to stay within the EU for 3 months at a time, so in theory allowing an artist to plan 2 EU tours a year with the only provision being that there had to be at least a 3 month gap between tours. For many musicians this actually mirrors how they plan European tours anyway, with a band doing a short European tour, followed by a UK tour, and then back to Europe for a few more shows before the end of the year. There aren’t many bands that would tour Europe for a longer period than 3 months, bands with touring schedules that busy are usually on a world tour, of which only part of the tour would be European based. The EU proposal didn’t just cover musicians either, it would also enable UK citizens to travel and work in the EU in a variety of industries without a visa, including bar work in tourist resorts and working as travel reps. It seems this is why the UK rejected the EU proposals, wanting to limit seasonal workers access to the UK. Given how much seasonal work is actually done by EU citizens in agriculture this seems like a win-win situation, both allowing seasonal workers access to UK and EU markets and allowing musicians to tour without the extra burden of visas. The EU proposal would also protect musicians from the cancellation of events. Many musicians will plan tours around a festival. Under the current rules if the festival cancels that removes the invitation requirement for the visa putting the entire tour at risk. It would disastrous to arrive in the country, play your first show and then be deported because the festival that your visa depends on cancels.

While there are still many issues to be overcome it’s clear that the EU’s starting point of allowing musicians to plan up to 3 months of tours is a much better starting point. It’s also clear that in order to say that we are “controlling our borders” the UK government has thrown musicians to the wolves. It’s a far cry from Boris’s original claim made the day after the Referendum that we would still be able to live and work in the EU. The idea that we would be able to still have the same rights as EU citizens while denying those same rights to EU citizens here in the UK was always going to go down like a Led Zeppelin.

It’s clear that any one of these issues would be seen as a crisis on its own. But to have all of them in play at the same time seems like a particularly cruel joke to play on some of our most important creative professionals. Not only is music a multi-billion pound industry it’s one that can be seen as essential for the emotional wellbeing of the nation. Music is necessary for our mental health, and live music especially is an emotional outlet like no other. We must support our musicians and find a way to ensure that once the world returns to normal musicians and live music venues ae allowed not just to survive, but to thrive. One hundred years ago the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 led to an explosion of creativity the likes of which had not been seen before. Within a few short years the world went from lockdown and entered the roaring 20’s with a newly prosperous youth discovering Jazz and dance. With the right support we could see a new roaring 20’s, but this time in the 2020’s. It will be sorely needed after the last year, but to see it happen will need support from both government and the public. It won’t happen if we lose grassroots venues and musicians quit the industry due to being unable to make a living wage from what as always been a financially unstable job.

Apocalypse missed, or how the Coronavirus could have been so much worse

One of the most defining points about the spread of Coronavirus has been how unprepared the world has been. And yet novel viruses and pandemics are hardly new, in the 21st century alone we have seen outbreaks of novel viruses time and time again. SARS (2003), MERS (2012), Ebola (2014), and the infamous H1N1 strain of swine flu (2009). That is just in the last 20 years. One thing they all have in common is that they were all transmitted from animals to humans. That is where the similarities stop. When looking at Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 we can clearly ignore Ebola, which is probably one of the scariest of the diseases out there right now. Transmitted by touch, and with a high mortality rate, it remains on the fringes, kept in check by the fact that it’s a fast killer meaning it spreads slowly. The rest on the other hand are a different matter.

The big question therefore is why has the world been so unprepared for a new novel Coronavirus? It’s not like there’s been no previous Coronavirus outbreaks, both MERS and SARS were Coronaviruses. Coronaviruses are not exactly rare either, although the types like MERS and SARS are a lot more dangerous than the most common Coronavirus family out there, the common cold. And H1N1 showed that novel influenza viruses could still pop up and cause concern. It has to be remembered that the most deadly viruses of the last few hundred years have been flu viruses, the last big one being the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919. More on Spanish Flu in a bit. So why has no one been warning us about the potential for a new deadlier Coronavirus?

Well actually they did. As a result of the H1N1 Swine Flu outbreak in 2009 the US government created a special department within the White House to deal with emerging pandemics. They were actually more concerned with another outbreak of influenza as a result of the intensive factory farming of animals in the USA, so research was into influenza strains, the fear being what would happen if a new virus with the mortality rate and infectiousness of the 1918 Swine Flu was to appear. Considering the 1918 outbreak killed an estimated 40 million people worldwide (some estimates go as high as 75 million). You can see why people might be scared. It’s also a good time to point out that while the 1918 outbreak was named Spanish Flu, it, like H1N1, actually originated in the USA. By 2016 they had run simulated outbreaks and came to the conclusion that the incoming Trump administration needed to prepare. The current shortfall in the National Stockpile was raised, as well as the need to have plans in place at a federal level in case the worst was to happen.

In May 2018 this was highlighted again at a conference to commemorate 100 years since the 1918 flu pandemic. As a result of that conference the head of the CDC’s flu division, Dr Daniel Jernigan, gave a presentation that warned that the USA was unprepared for another flu pandemic. By then it was too late, the pandemic response team had been fired and Donald Trump had drastically reduced the CDC’s budget resulting in the withdrawal from the Wuhan laboratory in China of their liaison. The CDC was left blind to what was happening in China, and everyone who could have put in place a plan of action was gone. The official line was that they didn’t need a federal response, it would be up to states to provide a response. But the individual states made it clear that it wasn’t a priority to them and anyway, they didn’t have the money for pandemic response planning.

As an engineer one of my jobs was risk analysis. As an IT manager one of my jobs is disaster mitigation. We have plans for a variety of scenarios. What to do in the event of a major power cut. What to do if a server dies. What to do if the entire building burns down. In any scenario I can turn to a document and there will be a list of things to do. Who do I call first? Who do I call next? How do we get back up and running in the shortest time possible. While pandemic response wasn’t in our planning the fact that we had plans meant we were able to adapt. For a multi-million pound company our pandemic response cost us about £20,000. When the call came to send people home we had laptops, VPN connections, and a server already setup. The plan was pretty much the same as for a loss of part of the building, what do we need to get back up and running as quickly as possible? Over 2 weeks we recognised what was coming, planned, and implemented. We beat the entire country rushing to buy laptops in order for their workers to work from home. How? We looked at what was happening in other countries and acted on what we saw. Partly this was down to the fact we have an office in China, but we recognised early on that it wasn’t going to be contained. This was the job of the White House pandemic response team. A section of the CDC, embedded within the White House itself, ready to tell the President what decisions he needs to make, and when. The problem was, businesses don’t plan for pandemics, and narcissists don’t listen to advice. This wasn’t just an American issue though, we had a similar situation over here in the United Kingdom, with political advisers ignoring the recommendations of actual experts in infectious diseases and, as with Donald Trump, making the mistake of believing this new Coronavirus was just the flu.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of similarities. Infection rates and transmission methods are very similar. As are many of the symptoms. But that’s where the similarities end. Had SARS-CoV-2 been just another flu virus, even with a 0.5% – 1% mortality rate, we wouldn’t be in the position we are in now. We would be reacting the same way that the USA did in 2009. We have a variety of treatments for influenza viruses, as well as vaccines, meaning we’d already be partway to a vaccine. And flu viruses have a very low hospitalisation rate in comparison, at least where ICU admissions are concerned. This is partly due to influenza viruses attacking the upper respiratory tract. SARS viruses attack the lungs. And the symptoms for COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, are much worse than the flu.

The real question though has to be why governments were so adamant that this disease was just a flu virus when even back in January it was becoming clear it was so much more. The CDC and WHO back then were warning that this was going to be a potential pandemic. And even back in January they were warning that it was a much bigger problem. Initial numbers from China and Korea were showing it to be much deadlier than expected. The clues were there already, but because there was no CDC oversight at the labs in China there was no one able to point out a very obvious, in hindsight, fact. The disease must be transmitted between humans. It was simply spreading too fast to be spread by animals. This was the initial mistake made by China back in December. They had assumed the disease was being spread from bats to humans, and that was the only method of transmission. This mistake meant it was able to spread rapidly through China and then, to neighbouring countries. By February the first death was recorded outside China. By the end of February it was clear that this was not flu, even though there was still much to learn. The virus had reached Italy and its true deadly potential suddenly became very clear, it’s ability to rapidly overwhelm a hospital’s Intensive Care Units. Before Italy the death rate had been assumed to be between 1% – 3.4%. Italy showed the world what would happen if they did nothing. With confirmed cases showing nearly 20% of people requiring hospitalisation, and a sizeable number of them requiring ventilators, the mortality rate in Italy soared. People weren’t just dying from COVID-19, they were dying from being unable to be treated because of the overwhelmed system. Ambulances instead of taking minutes, were taking hours to reach heart attack victims. With a wealth of evidence of what was at stake the narcissists still wouldn’t listen though. Even into mid-March Boris Johnson and Donald Trump were insisting it was no worse than flu. There was an insane conviction that the US and British healthcare systems could cope with everything the virus could throw at them. That if we could infect enough of the right people, we’d build up enough immunity to protect everyone else.

Back in March many people looked at Italy and realised what was needed. Somehow the spread of the virus needed to be slowed down. It became known as Flatten the Curve. A recognition that if you can’t stop the spread of infection, at least you can slow it down enough that at its peak demand for hospital beds and ICU beds can be kept below the capacity of the system. The problem was nobody had modelled the data, and without a model that showed what your capacity truly is it would simply be dismissed as alarmist. Imperial College London would change that. They created a real-time model that could predict how the virus would spread, and included social sciences in the data. Almost immediately the UK and USA governments did a U-turn in policy, recommending people to stay at home. France and Italy enforced their lockdowns. Boris Johnson asked nicely. Donald Trump contradicted himself almost as soon as he opened his mouth. Predictably the public decided it wasn’t really an issue, not understanding that it could take up to 2 weeks for the virus to show signs of infection, and that there was a lag of 2 to 3 weeks before someone died. Coupled with being told repeatedly over the previous weeks that it was no worse than flu, they did what you would expect. They went to the beach to enjoy the sun. To the credit of Boris Johnson he did the only sensible thing that he could, he shut everything and gave the police the authority to arrest anyone not complying with the new social distancing rules. Donald Trump carried on insisting it wasn’t an issue, and anyway it was all Obama’s fault, and nothing at all to do with him ignoring every expert that had been saying this was going to happen over the last 4 years.

By now we should be used to hearing politicians lie. But it’s especially bad when they are lying about people’s lives. Or to be more precise, their deaths. There are a lot of assumptions being made. And this may in part be down to politicians wanting to remain positive, and have hope for the future. But it doesn’t help when they underplay the severity of what the country is facing. The bad news first: the UK is saying we could see up to 20,000 people dying from COVID-19. They’ve also said we could see 70% of the population catch it. The problem with this number is that it is based on the crass assumption that only the young will catch it. There are 64M people living in the UK. 70% of 64M is 65M, give or take. 20,000 deaths would equate to only 0.04%. That’s less than half the mortality rate of seasonal flu. Other countries have seen mortality rates between 0.5% and 8%. But that 0.5% was in a country with a much younger demographic. The UK has an aging population, similar to Italy’s. Assuming we don’t overwhelm our hospitals then we could see close to 1%. Or 450,000 deaths. The USA has been a bit more realistic with their figures, estimating 200,000 deaths. But with 327M people living in the USA that means roughly 229M people could eventually become infected. Again, we’ll go with the lower end of the mortality rate and stick 1% in. That’s 2.29M deaths. And it’s looking likely that it’s here to stay.

Did I say that was the bad news? Well there is some good news. Several actually. Firstly the 2009 H1N1 outbreak was estimated to have infected 64M people in the USA. Remember there was little response to the outbreak apart from calls to stay away from everyone else. But being a flu virus it also spread slower. Flu is also seasonal, it peaks in winter and disappears in summer. By the time it reached 64M people a vaccine had been developed and was being administered. It’s too early to tell yet but there’s some hope that SARS-CoV-2 will also be seasonal. That was one reason the SARS outbreak in 2003 wasn’t as bad as it could have been, combined with a high mortality, it was slow to spread and had a seasonal component. Being slower to spread has meant that it has been relatively easy to contain with less than 9000 confirmed cases. And while it may be more difficult to develop a vaccine for Coronaviruses with the advent of AI technology it’s certainly not an impossibility. We just need to slow the spread down enough that we can cope until the vaccine is found, much like we did with H1N1. The work has already started and should be complete just in time for next year’s outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, assuming the world has gone back to normal before Christmas. That’s the big problem with seasonal viruses, they’re like relatives, they come to visit each Christmas.

Finally, it could have been so much worse. Experts have been warning of a pandemic for years, but they thought it was going to be another 1918 flu pandemic. In many ways this is much worse than 1918, the potential is there for a much higher death toll. But it’s when we look at our other big Coronavirus outbreak of the last 20 years that we have to realise that we have genuinely dodged the bullet. SARS-CoV-2 is a mutated bat Coronavirus. So is MERS. And MERS has a mortality rate estimated to be around 34%. Thankfully MERS has been limited to the Middle East, but the potential is there for a Coronavirus mutation with the infection rate of the common cold, and the mortality rate of the Black Death. That would see a potential 100M deaths in the USA alone. Let’s hope someone has funded the CDC’s pandemic response team by then.

Doctor Who: A Timeless Episode?

It’s another season finale for Doctor Who, and the fans are up in arms again.


Most fans appear to be upset at the fact that the season finale this year rewrites Timelord history. It’s not Bobby Ewing waking up in the shower bad, but for many it’s bad enough. Turns out the Doctor isn’t actually a Timelord. Or if she is, she’s actually the First Timelord. Or maybe the Timelords are actually only really half Timelords. Look, Doctor Who at the best of times can be a confusing mess, it’s what happens when you have stories that can result in history being changed. To butcher a Terry Pratchett quote, it doesn’t just take you up the other trouser leg in time, it’s often a completely different pair of trousers. Gallifrey has been lost, found, destroyed, found, and lost again more often than my glasses. The season finale doesn’t just destroy them, it runs over them with a steam roller and buries them in the foundations of your local football stadium.

First, and I’ll get this out of the way now, I enjoyed the final episode. It was glorious fun and adds a lot to the Doctor Who universe. It’s getting the fandom excited and talking about Doctor Who, which is good. You knew there was going to be a “but” here didn’t you? But…

The episode, and you could argue the entire series, is not without it’s issues. It’s the issues that the fandom are being so vocal about, but for me most of what the fandom dislike about this season I don’t mind. At least not to the point that I would stop watching. Yes, the season retcons the entire history of Gallifrey. The Master is reduced to the most petty minded villain in Doctor Who’s history, his motivation reduced to jealousy. I mean who hasn’t wanted to destroy their entire species out of jealousy? But these are just plot points to get the season moving, an excuse for the big finale on Gallifrey.

The main issues for myself seem to be born of what I can only assume to be lazy writing. And by that I mean someone has got it into their heads that every season must be BIGGER than the last. And what better way to be bigger than ever before than to make The Doctor the Timelord equivalent of the messiah? It solves so many problems, no longer is The Doctor constrained by the 12 regenerations of the mere Timelords, she can regenerate as many times as she likes. She is effectively immortal and can be played by anyone for an eternity. The Master’s jealousy now makes sense, The Doctor isn’t just another rival Timelord, she’s the original Timelord. To hell with canon, regenerations are no longer linked to the Tardis, they’re gene spliced from the saviour, the very source of the Timelord’s power.

There are obvious problems with this, not least of all the whole “begging the Timelords for more regenerations as the Doctor lays dying” at the end of Matt Smith’s reign. There’s also the whole Timelord Cybermen issue. If the Timelords were all dead, no regenerations left, then how was the Cyberman that The Master ordered shot able to regenerate? Are we led to believe that the Timelords were suspended in stasis mid regeneration? And if they were, then The Master took a risk, what if the Cyberman that was shot had already used their twelfth regeneration? There’s also the whole Timelord trait of having two hearts. Did the Timelords originally have one heart? Is the Timelord’s second heart a result of the gene splicing with The Timeless Child? Is the reason for this sudden change the fact that it allows them to play with regeneration in future episodes? Will we see a dozen Doctors in the next season? One for each episode?

The retcon of Timelord history also creates another problem. From previous canon we know that Rassilon, Omega, and The Other created Timelord society and the Tardises. These are Timelords that The Doctor knows the names of, and have even been linked to The Doctor in some media. Given Timelord history is well known, and given the Matrix contains the sum total of Timelord History it seems inconceivable that not only did they manage to hide the truth for so long, but that The Master was able to just stumble upon it.

Another issue is the Division. The idea of a special ops team of Timelords able to do what other Timelords cannot isn’t that farfetched. In fact it would be more surprising if it didn’t exist. What is surprising is that it would appear that there was a team of one, and that one was The Doctor. It again raises the issue of The Doctor being something more than just a Timelord with wanderlust. Now The Doctor is some sort of secret agent with thousands of lifetimes of experience. The scenes of Ireland become a metaphor for The Doctor’s transit from the Division into normal Timelord life. It’s not real. From The Master’s comments about the areas of The Doctor’s history missing from the Matrix though it could be argued that The Doctor’s time as an agent of the Division measures in the thousands of years. The Doctor’s age is indeterminant. How old was The Doctor when first discovered? How did the Timelords not only wipe The Doctor’s memory, but also regenerate as a child again, having to learn everything as if it was the very first time. As paradoxes go within Doctor Who this is, as they say, a doozy. Not least given the addition of a previously unknown Doctor that doesn’t fit into any of the timelines we’re aware of. If she’s Division era Doctor Who then why does she have a classic blue box Tardis? We know the Tardis got stuck in this shape when William Hartnell’s Doctor broke the chameleon circuit. As with so much it makes no sense. In fact she only seems to exist to play a final practical joke on The Doctor by landing her in prison for all eternity at the end of the episode. Now where have we seen that before? Maybe they’ll spin-off a series of Division specials, much like later Torchwood episodes.

My final issue with the season finale is probably my biggest issue with Doctor Who ever since the reboot with Christopher Ecclestone. As someone who grew up with Tom Baker I’m used to story arcs that don’t involve “the entire universe is at stake”. The season finale has become boring. It’s an endless stream of “The Doctor must save the last of humanity from utter destruction. Again.” For just once I’d like something different, no Cybermen, no Daleks, no Master. Just a regular “The Doctor must save themselves, maybe a few companions”, and at most a planet that isn’t Earth. I want something new that isn’t “BIGGER AND BETTER THAN BEFORE”. I just want Doctor Who written by someone who isn’t trying to stamp their mark on it by making it something it’s never been before.

The Death (Threat) Of Social Media

As long as there has been humanity there has been bullying. Bullies at school. Bullies at work. Bullies at home. With the internet came online gaming, and bullies in games. And now with social media we see bullying everywhere we have a presence. Online trolls on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Wherever you look you see bullies.

20 years ago I saw very little of the hatred I see today online. I did however see it in real life, with homophobia, racism, and sexism. While not overt, it was there in a casual way, a general acceptance for the comedy of Jethro, Chubby Brown, and Jim Davidson. 10 years ago I saw a mood shift in the public perception, and while the right railed against “political correctness gone mad” it seemed generally accepted that online abuse was abuse, and people were called out for being intolerant in public. Social media seemed a relatively safe haven and the trolls were reported and kicked off the platform. 10 years ago it looked like we were headed towards an age of tolerance. It was okay to be black, or gay, or disabled, or just simply female. Then 5 years ago things started going wrong. Across the globe the far right started gaining more traction. It suddenly became okay to be publicly bigoted, racism became politically viable. In the USA Donald Trump came to power with his call to “build the wall” and stop the “flood of immigrants from Mexico”. The UK voted for Brexit, and while it “wasn’t about racism” the majority who voted for it did so because they wanted “fewer brown people coming here”. And almost overnight the tolerance we had seen being exercised in public was gone. Tommy Robinson, Nigel Farage, Katie Hopkins, Boris Johnson. They all suddenly had a voice and everywhere you went you’d hear people saying “kick them out” towards people of the wrong skin colour. And no one stopped them, if anything it was positively encouraged as newspaper after newspaper churned more and more vitriol out. Anyone trying to point out lies or hatred was shot down as “fake news”.

Since then it hasn’t gotten any better. If anything it’s gotten worse. Emboldened by the rising rhetoric in public we have seen an exponential rise in hatred online. And that hatred is no longer being driven by the trolls and bullies, it’s being pushed by the very people in charge of running the country. The result is the bullies no longer fear saying anything they want. It’s no surprise that the racists are also bigoted in other ways. Attacks against the LGBT community have increased. Transphobia is rampant online, fueled by the ignorance of feminists like J K Rowling who promotes the voices of those who would eradicate Trans rights. Disabled rights are eroded, no surprise when you have governments that put in place laws that seem determined to remove the safety nets many disabled people require, and with it normalising abuse of the disabled. A partially sighted woman is mocked for using a phone while carrying a white cane. And with the trolls have come the bots. Any view that isn’t shared by the far right is seen as fair game. Arguments are filled with irrelevant comments designed to shift the narrative away from the original point, to get you arguing about anything else. A post about immigration is steered towards illegal asylum seekers, and with that the racists pile on demanding they all get sent back to where they came from. It overwhelms the story that is trying to be heard.

And with it all comes the rise of death threats, of threats of sexual assault, of rape. If you’re black your’re stupid, if you’re female you’re there to breed, regardless of your sexuality. If you think there should be gun control then you hate your family and you want them to be murdered, while also being threatened with murder for daring to suggest that someone should have their guns taken away from them. “Arm everyone and we’ll all be safe” is the cry, while forgetting that it’s the very ease that you can acquire guns in the USA that is fueling their school shooting epidemic. And god help you if you happen to own a gun if you’re black, where being unarmed is seen as enough to have the police shoot you in your own home. It’s okay to be a bigot in today’s world and the white supremacists are not only tolerated, they’re actively supported by those in power.

Some say that we should only allow verified accounts on social media. This sounds great until you realise how many use social media anonymously to escape from the very threats that are now overwhelming it. The trans kids that haven’t come out yet, the woman escaping an abusive partner. What we need to do is make it unacceptable to threaten people online, as it is in real life. And we need to return to the tolerant society that we were before the far right regained prominence.

Today, more than ever, we need people to stand up to the bigots. We need more than ever to say no to racism. No to homophobia. No to Transphobia. No to anti-semitism. No to Islamophobia. No to sexism. No to misogyny. No to ableism. No to fascism.

We need more than ever to ask our Trans kids “how can we make this world safer for you?” and to ask the disabled “what do we need to do to include you in society?” and we need to accept that how others identify does not affect our individual rights. Everyone has the right to be treated as a human being, regardless of race, religion, disability, sexuality, gender identity. We need to regain tolerance, and stop being tolerant of intolerance. When someone ask “what about my right to hate?” we need to stand up and say “you don’t have any”.

The Brexit Conundrum

Before I start with this article, first a brief declaration: I voted Remain. I very nearly didn’t vote at all, because surely no government would be foolhardy enough to leave the EU without a Deal and they would clearly get the best possible Deal from the EU. A Deal that protects our rights to live and work in the EU and our ability to trade freely with the EU. So why did I vote to Remain? Mainly because of the same reason that so many voted to Leave, a £350M bus. Looking carefully at the Leave campaign it was clear that we were being sold a black box, the campaign was all smoke and mirrors. Misdirection, outright lies, and unachievable promises. We were told we would be able to give £350M a week to the NHS, but we were being told the Gross figures, not the Net. They neglected to tell us how much we got back, in science funding, regional development funds, in subsidies. The numbers didn’t add up, so I voted with my head, and not my heart, as it were. I voted Remain.

The Remain campaign wasn’t totally innocent in this either, but by voting Remain you knew what you were voting for, the status quo. A continuation of a democratic system designed to bring the countries of Europe closer together. The grand project, that has evolved over the last 74 years, to ensure there could never be another war engulfing the whole of Europe ever again. At first it was simply an economic partnership, designed to alleviate many of the stresses of post-war Europe, a way to make Germany feel welcomed back into the fold after the defeat of fascism. With the rise of the former USSR steps were taken to increase the political power of the members of this trading club and the EU was created, acting as a bloc in order to counter the threat from the East. Remember, David Cameron did not say that leaving the EU would cause World War Three, that was Boris Johnson who responded to David Cameron’s warnings of increased instability and risks to world peace. David Cameron’s actual words were “Can we be so sure peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking? I would never be so rash to make that assumption.” Remember as well that this was said just 2 years after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsular by Russia, in an act of aggression against the Ukraine, a country within Europe, and one that is still fighting a civil war, a war in which Russia in an active participant.

Over the past few months our social media pages have been flooded with scare stories and myths. Many easily debunked. Others are wildly hyper-inflated, such as the claim that lorry drivers were planning on bringing the country to a standstill with rolling blockades that never actually happened. There was more disruption from traffic accidents than lorries, with a handful of protestors being arrested for inconsiderate driving. But no, the country was not brought to a standstill, and as with many claims that led to the Referendum result everything was blown out of proportion by the mainstream media.

The claim making the most traction, and again easily debunked if you were to simply check it, is the Lisbon Treaty. Most of the claims centre around clauses that are said to take effect in 2020, or in some claims 2022. These include the UK being forced to join an EU army, and the UK being forced to scrap the Pound and adopt the Euro. Firstly, the Lisbon Treaty does not take effect in either 2020, or in 2022. It is already in effect. And yet here we are with our soldiers still under Her Majesty’s leadership, and the Pound still struggling against the rest of the world’s currencies. The reason? As with many other countries in the EU who signed the Lisbon Treaty, we didn’t sign up to the whole treaty. We have exemptions, and vetoes. Yes, there is talk of an EU army, but it requires unanimous support from every member state. And given the current political climate with Russia, surely greater cooperation between EU member states for our mutual defence is a worthy goal? Remember we have seen 2 state sponsored assassinations by Russia committed on UK soil in the past few years, both reckless and brazen, putting the health of British citizens at risk. One using a radioactive isotope, the other a military nerve agent.

Another claim that has been spread far and wide, not helped by a handful of politicians, is that the public overwhelmingly wants to leave with No Deal. Further than that, that the country voted for No Deal. The problem with this claim is that without investigation it cannot be verified and allows those who want No Deal to justify their position. It enables them to be highly vocal advocates for a very dangerous and undemocratic hijacking of the Brexit negotiations. There is absolutely no evidence that No Deal is what the majority of people who voted Leave actually want. And it is certainly not what the majority of the public want, given that the majority actually voted to Remain or didn’t vote because a Deal that was promised to them or Remaining were basically a coin flip decision, they didn’t care which way it went. And yet we see people claiming that anyone who didn’t vote effectively voted for No Deal. Yes, people have claimed that because they didn’t vote their votes should be added to those who want No Deal, and that everyone else who voted to Leave should be seen as wanting No Deal. That’s where the majority claim comes from. The best we can do, unless someone was to poll the entire country, or we had another Referendum that actually asked the question everyone in Westminster has been ducking responsibility for, is to look at the recent petitions. I have always had a gut feeling, looking at how many of my friends have repeated this myth, that support for No Deal was around 10% and at the time of writing the petition to Leave the EU without a deal is sat on just under 600,000 signatures. The petition to revoke Article 50 is at just under 6 million. Ignoring the fact that the Revoke petition has been going for just a couple of weeks compared to the Leave petition’s 5 months and that does seem to agree with my 10% figure, that 10% of people who voted to Leave want No Deal. But the reverse of that means 90% of people who voted to Leave voted wanting a Deal.

So why has it been so difficult to get consensus on what the public wants from Brexit? This answer comes in 2 parts. Firstly, in the way the Referendum was conducted to start with, and a flaw in the way political campaigning is conducted. This is David Cameron’s fault, for calling a Referendum with a black box question, and for allowing the Leave campaign to perpetuate lies and myths as facts. When you ticked the box to Remain you knew what you were choosing. As stated above, the status quo, membership of an elite trading club, with special access to other members of that club. The collective bargaining power of every member state brought to bear in trade negotiations ensuring the best possible deal not for individual countries, but for the EU as a whole. When you ticked the box to Leave you voted for 17 million different interpretations of what you believed was inside that black box. The Leave campaign promised everything to everyone. You want to stay in the EEA? Done. Stay in the Common Market? Done. Leave, but trade on similar terms as Canada does? Done. No Deal, and trade as some sort of WTO superpower? Done. Give £350M a week to the NHS? Done. Everyone’s unicorn of a different size, shape and colour. Everyone voting Leave saw the Deal they wanted and voted under the belief that everyone else wanted the same Deal, because surely if I want to Leave for my reasons, everyone else who wants to Leave wants the same thing? And given that absolutely no one actually knew what exactly was being voted for, except a nebulous black box labelled Leave the EU, is it any wonder that nearly a third of voters felt unable to choose between the options? None of this was helped by the claims being made by the Leave campaign going largely unchallenged, even when clearly lying. What was needed was a clear plan before the Referendum detailing all the risks, both of Remaining and Leaving, independently fact checked, a vote that included a secondary ballot on what sort of Deal you would expect if we left. A Referendum that would have given the public the knowledge of what they were voting for, full consequences of that vote, and set a clear path for the government so they could achieve a Brexit acceptable to the majority of the public, including those who wished to Remain.

The second part is down to Theresa May. While the worst-case scenario is leaving with No Deal, the second worst scenario is leaving with Theresa May’s Deal. It was a Deal that was always doomed to fail, it kept just enough in to maintain basic trade relations, while forcing us to effectively remain with a toe in each of the EU’s institutions, but not actually being part of any. It was a Deal not designed with the country’s best interested at heart, but with her party’s interests. More specifically, aimed at bringing in line the hard-line Eurosceptics within the party. It was for this reason that all the different alternatives that would have been more palatable towards those who wished to Remain were removed from the table, her red lines in negotiating. Remain in the EEA? Red line. Remain in the Common Market? Red line. Right for travel to and from the EU? Red line. By setting red lines that only the hardliners would accept she created a Deal that the vast majority in government could not accept, and in trying to create a Deal the rest of Parliament could accept it was one that the hardliners couldn’t accept either. It was a Deal that was always going to fail because it fails for the same reason the Referendum failed. Only now instead of there being 17 million different Deals, there are 650 MPs each with their own different idea of what a Brexit Deal should be. This is why they have been unable to reach any consensus over what Parliament wants, and why the current Deal has been defeated now 3 times. The irony in all this is that Parliament, for possibly the first time in living memory, truly reflects the will of the people. The chaos, incompetence, stubbornness, and selfishness of our MPs in the way they are handling Brexit is a near perfect mirror for what the public wants.

Finally, I mentioned petitions earlier, and how they seem to be the only true marker of what the public wants at the moment. Another declaration, I signed one of the petitions mentioned. In case it wasn’t obvious I was one of the nearly 6 million who signed to Revoke Article 50, but possibly not for the reasons you might think. Another of the arguments I’ve seen repeated over and over again is that it would be undemocratic to hold another vote. Let that sink in, voting would not be democratic. This argument is increasingly being used by those who want No Deal, which as we’ve already ascertained is most certainly not what the majority wants. But apparently going against the wishes of the majority is seen as democratic, but only to those who are in the minority. What about the democratic rights of those who voted Remain who would now like a say in the sort of new arrangement we want with the EU? What about the democratic rights of those who didn’t vote because they believed it was a coin flip between staying or getting the best Deal possible? What about the democratic rights of those who have turned 18 in the near 3 years since the Referendum? You cannot state that your democratic rights are more important than another’s. When it comes to democracy we are all equal. But despite voting for Revoking Article 50 I also recognise that those who voted to Leave still have some valid reasons. This is why I firmly believe that there should be another Referendum, one that finally lets the whole country vote on what they now know, so that we can reaffirm if Leaving is truly what the public wants, but more importantly to confirm how we should Leave. In much the same way that our MPs have been trying to find consensus with indicative votes for a viable Brexit plan that the majority can support, I believe these options should be put to the public, along with a comprehensive, and independent, guide to what all those options actually mean. And it should be voted on as a ranked vote, so there is one clear outcome. In order, would you rather Remain, or Leave, with a Deal that keeps us in the EEA, or the Common Market, or a Deal like Canada has, or Norway, or Switzerland. Or even a combination. Yes, it’s messy, but the alternative is just another Black Box where no one knows what the public wants. What has this got to do with Revoking Article 50? Well if Article 50 remains in place, the default position is to Leave with No Deal, by April 16th. By Revoking Article 50 it gives the government the time needed to go back to the people and gain a mandate for a Deal that the public wants, and to show our MPs which Deal they should be pursuing. And given some control over what we want from Brexit who knows, maybe next time I might vote Leave, but I doubt it.

Is metal dead?

The last few weeks have been an interesting one in music. Over in the US one of the iconic bands of the 1980’s, the band that defined excess, announced that after their next tour they would be calling it quits. Hardly a shock, we’ve known about Mick Mars’ failing health for some time, but still quite a defining moment in heavy metal history. Dom Lawson turns his attention to the pretty boys of rock, arguing that the image created for a band is as important as the music (for working out which bands not to listen to). He has a point. So do Scott Rowley and Terry Bezer when arguing that metal bands are simply evolving and that the media are being too safe (respectively).

Firstly, as a music genre, metal has survived longer than any other recorded medium. That it has survived at all is a testament to it’s universal appeal. True that the father’s of metal do still exist in jazz and blues, both riding on a resurgence of popularity that has even seen Robbie Williams getting in on the act, but neither have existed as popular as ever through six decades. To go back to Scott Rowley metal is a continuously evolving beast, borrowing from every genre surrounding it. Look at some of the most popular songs in the last 60 years and you can find a metal god at it’s heart. One of the biggest selling country and western records of all time? Written by Alice Cooper. Don’t believe me? Look up the sales of “Only Women Bleed” to see the list of artists that have covered it. As a genre metal has borrowed from almost every style in existence. Aerosmith were doing nu metal while Linkin Park were still in school. Tarja Turunen was singing opera while performing with Nightwish and Courteny Love’s violinist, Emilie Autumn, plays classical violin when not acting out her role as a Victorian bad girl.

Alice Cooper dragged shock rock out of the 60’s, Black Sabbath dragged heavy metal out of the 70’s and Metallica dragged Thrash out of the 80’s. Today it’s the most vibrant and diverse genre on the planet. Even the sub genres have sub genres it’s evolved so much. For a true music fan there is something for everyone, be it the sanitised AOR of Nickelback, the heavy industrial power of Rammstein, or the soul crushing black metal of Darkthrone. From Gallic bagpipes, Scottish sea shanties, and sweeping orchestral fantasies. It has sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The fact that bands such as Metallica and Iron Maiden can still headline festivals is proof that it’s still very much alive as a genre. In 10 years time i expect to be hearing the same arguments that metal is becoming stale when Avenged Sevenfold and Bring Me The Horizon are headlining every other year. I also still expect to be hearing Black Veil Brides complaining about not having a number 1 album yet and being on the second stage, sorry but no one likes a dick head (even if the album isn’t actually all that bad).

Dom makes a good point about a band’s style in his post. While Scott argues that we should ignore what a band looks like and just listen, the look of a band is closely tied to their music. It’s a style generated to appeal to a particular audience and if I want to be honest that audience is not me in most cases. But I can look at a band and quickly make assumptions based on their look. Low necked t-shirts with tattoos on the neck? It’s a fair assumption that the vocals will be screamed into the microphone at such a high volume that I won’t be able to understand a word being sung. Face covered in white paint, upside down crucifixes and an abundance of black? Songs about death, Satan or Norse gods with guttural vocals that again I won’t have a clue about what is being sung. It’s a generalisation, but one that works in almost every case. By looking at the band you know what your ears are being let in for. However this is NOT new. In what way is this different to the bondage trousers and spiked hair of the punk era? Of the studs and leather of the NWOBHM? As a genre we have always tried to classify ourselves through our clothes and style and again it’s one that has continued to evolve. From Scandinavian metal to steampunk we define what we listen to through what we wear. Did fans of Slayer in the 1980’s suddenly stop listening to Iron Maiden? No, they didn’t. So go out on a limb and listen to all the different bands and use their look as a guide. But remember every guide is just a guide and not gospel.

Finally there is the argument that the media is playing it too safe. That because the media only wants squeaky clean the record companies are only promoting squeaky clean. That bands are too enmeshed in maintaining their image to take risks when metal is meant to be about risk and being the bad boys of music. I hate to say this but by definition that makes Justin Bieber the biggest metal act on the planet right now. While it’s always nostalgic to look back on the antics of Ozzy Osbourne, Slash and Nikki Sixx it should also be remembered that these very acts are the reason so many great musicians are no longer with us. Marc Bolan, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse. Who knows what music would have been produced had some of the greatest names in rock not died prematurely due to excess. It’s only due to incredibly good fortune that Nikki Sixx is still alive to announce the retirement of Motley Crue, by rights Girls, Girls, Girls should have been their final album. As a genre we shouldn’t celebrate the extreme, but celebrate the music created. After all, it’s the fusion of guitar, drums, bass and vocals that gets us hooked on a band, not how much alcohol and drugs the band can consume before going out on stage. As for complaining about the industry focusing too much on bands like Nickelback, Sleeping With Sirens and You Me At Six? They’re businesses, they’ll always promote what will sell, no different today than when Sigue Sigue Sputnik was created in the 1980’s. And yet despite decades of the media ignoring metal as a genre (with the rare exception of the occasional Radio 1 DJ) it’s still going as strong as ever and still has its bad boys. Just ask any owner of a Scandinavian wooden church.

Almost live.

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for quite a while but haven’t had the time until now to do so. There’s a disturbing trend amongst the music industry where bands are playing “almost live”. Fans of pop stars like Madonna may be aware that a lot of her concerts are performed to a prerecorded backing track. What is less known is that this trend is happening a lot more in rock and punk music too. When you go and see a band like Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath one of the joys of seeing them is knowing they’re playing live. Famously in Rush’s concert video from 1988, A Show Of Hands, you can see a change in the guitar used by Alex Lifeson part way through 2112. It wasn’t careful editing of 2 nights footage, despite the concert being recorded over 2 nights, it was the result of the fastest guitar change I have ever witnessed, live in front of me at the concert. Real music played live, with no gimmicks or tapes.

That’s not to say that some concerts shouldn’t have some prerecorded instruments. Emilie Autumn puts on a remarkable show where she blends recorded instruments with live music. As a classically trained violinist she certainly doesn’t need to use tapes for her own music but as a multi-instrumentalist it’s a bit difficult to play 2 instruments at once while also singing lead vocals. Another trick often used to good effect is loop taping, recording and playing back on the fly to layer music together. When used it can add a dimension to a live show where a single artist wants to expand on what otherwise would be just a single guitar and voice, allowing them to mix into their music a rhythm and bass line to an otherwise one dimensional lead guitar. These tricks all have valid uses in live music when done openly, without any subterfuge.

So it’s extremely disappointing as a fan of live music to hear increasingly of rock and pop punk bands resorting to tricks in order to preserve their “live performances”. At some festivals it has become almost impossible to tell if the band you are watching is actually playing live. The most common trick would appear to be to play along to an entirely recorded track, akin to an old Top Of The Pops appearance where the entire performance was mimed. Famously when asked to mime on a tv chat show the Red Hot Chilli Peppers swapped positions so none of the band members was actually playing their own instruments in protest at being asked to mime. In almost every case the bands will say they play live but “turn down” their instruments to half volume. That is not “live”. It was discovered that many of the bands on the Warped Tour favoured this method. Another trick that I have personally witnessed is that of the “session musician”, where one or more session artists are employed offstage to play the parts that the band should be playing. It’s even more disappointing that this trick was performed by Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz’s pet project All Time Low, where for an entire concert their lead guitarist failed to play a single note, seemingly able to mimic the rhythm guitarist’s guitar strumming style while playing and even succeeding in playing a twirling guitar solo without even touching the strings of his guitar. If you look carefully at videos of the band playing at 2011’s Sonisphere Festival you will see at the back of the stage to the far left a much older guitarist who is clearly not a member of the band playing the lead guitar part for the entire concert. It is this complete lack of respect for the fans of live music that I find appalling. Many of these bands will tell stories of how they’ve worked hard playing gigs in small venues and building up a fan base from playing live. If that was true then have the courtesy to trust that your fans will still be fans even if your live show contains the occasional off note or out of key vocal. Not one person has ever said “I wish Ozzy Osbourne had mimed at Download so Black Sabbath could sound as good as they do after months of mixing and production on their album”. When we see a band live we expect to see them as they are. The blistering guitar solo by Alice Cooper’s guitarist Orianthi, Neil Peart’s YYZ drum solo, Pete Townsend’s thumping bass riffs. To have them on stage miming would be a travesty and I know no one who would not feel cheated and let down to find their personal heroes had actually performed “almost live”.

Building a new PC part 2 – The minimum spec

So the first question to ask before building a new PC is, does my current PC meet the requirements with a few upgrades? I currently have an old 3 GHz P4 with 2Gb of RAM and using the onboard graphics. The minimum spec for Bioshock Infinite (my requirements model) is the following:

  • OS: Windows Vista Service Pack 2 32-bit
  • Processor: Intel Core 2 DUO 2.4 GHz / AMD Athlon X2 2.7 GHZ
  • RAM: 2 GB
  • Hard Drive: 20 GB free
  • Video Card: DirectX10 Compatible ATI Radeon 3870 / NVIDIA 8800 GT / Intel HD 3000 Integrated Graphics
  • Video Card Memory: 512 MB
  • Sound Card: DirectX Compatible

I’m running Win7 and I have 2Gb of RAM. The rest however is below spec. Due to the AGP graphics slot slapping a new graphics card in there is out of the question so I’m back to square one. I need to build a new PC.

As I’m not just using the PC for gaming I’m making the decision now to add more memory and go with 4Gb of RAM. This is due to a very extensive music library and a lot of photo editing (see previous post).

Next I’m looking at the CPU. The question here is whether to go for a combined graphics CPU with Intel HD graphics onboard to save money or go for a separate graphics card. Looking at the benchmarks for the graphics cards the integrated graphics fall so far behind the discrete cards that it becomes a no-brainer. For gaming discrete is always better, even at the bottom end. With that in mind it becomes a straight race between the AMD and Intel processors. And this is where I get my first surprise. My preferred supplier has stopped selling the Intel Core Duo. The next Intel processor in the benchmarks is the Pentium G630T (£56.69), almost twice the price of the Athlon II 340 (£28.28). Another surprise is the fact that these processors are now only available in 64bit. Effectively 32bit computing is dead. Despite the cost difference the Intel processor is still in the running however as we still have the motherboard to factor in.

So next up, the motherboard. With 2 processors to choose from that means 2 different motherboards to choose from. We’re not interested in how great the board is, just will the processor fit and is it cheap. First up is the AMD processor, which requires an Socket FM2 board. Straight away I’m looking at a selection of micro-ATX form factor boards. I also spot in the list at the same price point the board for the Intel processor, again in micro-ATX form factor. The 2 MSI boards are thrown out straight away for not being compatible with the processor (despite being the right socket type) which leaves me with a pair of Gigabyte motherboards. The Gigabyte F2A55M-DS2 at £39.74 for the AMD processor and the Gigabyte GA-H61M-DS2 at £37.25 for the Intel. Both boards take DDR3 memory with the AMD board allowing for the faster 1600 MHz memory over the Intel’s 1333 MHz memory, both 240 pin.  For graphics they’re both the same with PCIe 2×16 slots on both boards.

So back to memory. Now we know what to buy it’s a simple question of whether to buy the slower memory for both boards (£44.88 for a Lenovo 4Gb stick) or go for the faster memory for the AMD board. At exactly the same price it’s another no-brainer, the AMD board gets the faster memory.

This brings us handily to the graphics card. And another minefield of differing specs, manufacturers and compatibilities. With the onboard graphics already out of the running it’s a straight race between nVidia and Radeon. Straight away I have a problem. The only nVidea cards available that are a high enough spec are all PCIe3 and much more expensive starting at £89. While these are backwards compatible it does mean hobbling the graphics card slightly down to the PCIe2.0 specification. That leaves us with the Asus ATI Radeon 6670 with 1Gb of memory (twice the minimum needed) at £73.81.

Going back to the processors I find another problem. The heatsink. For the Intel build I have the Hyper 212 EVO Processor Cooler from Coolermaster at £25.88. But the AMD processor is socket FM2. Some mixed information online but from what I can tell the same heatsink and fan should also fit the FM2 socket processors so that’s added to the build on both machines.

Knowing cases and PSUs can also have issues I decide to look first at the case and then choose a PSU. Thanks to the micro-ATX motherboards we can go for the relatively tiny Coolermaster Elite 343 at £28.15.

Being quite a basic setup there’s no real power consumption here (not even once I add the DVD drive) so we can get away with the Coolermaster Elite Power 460W at £36.90.

Hard drives surprise me. The only compatible drives are not only huge capacity, but also exceptionally expensive. Luckily I have a few other vendors to choose from and I quickly find a WD 500Gb SATA II drive for £45.67.

And as stated, we’ll need a DVD drive to play all those games that still require physical media to install. Again I have to go with one of my other vendors and quickly find a LiteOn iHAS124 DVDRW for £12.99.

So now time for the maths. During this I’ve assumed that somewhere you have a copy of Windows 7 or 8 lying around. This is a purely hardware exercise.

So for the Intel machine this brings us up to £362.22 and which also brings us to this:

When it comes to building a minimum spec machine for gaming you may as well not bother. The PC being sold above is a much better machine for pretty much the same price as it would cost to build your minimum spec. In short you’d be wasting your money doing it yourself. You’ll notice I didn’t price up the AMD machine. At less than £30 between them and with such a huge difference between the AMD machine that can be built and the one that can be bought there’s no point. In fact the machine being sold Is so close to the recommended spec for Bioshock Infinite it makes building a recommended spec PC obsolete as well.

Building a new PC

I’ve decided the main PC I have at home is no longer up to the job. As I write my PC has been processing some photos for the last 4 hours and look like they still have another 3 hours to go. This is before I load them into photoshop to play with.

So I need a new PC. It’s been a few years since I last built a new PC so I need to research minimum specs for my requirements, etc. To help I’ve already decided it needs to be able to play the latest games. Bioshock Infinite has quite high specs for gameplay so I’ve decided to use that as my benchmark.

That’s enough concise writing, time to waffle on. For my purposes I’m not actually going to build my new PC just yet, rather I’m going to spec up 4 machines. The first will be BI’s minimum spec to run the game. The second will be the recommended spec. The third will be the spec required to run everything at it’s highest resolution and the final spec is what I would build given complete free reign over everything. The PC I actually build will be determined by my financial position in the new year since I know I won’t be able to afford any of the components until then.

So, with that in mind the research begins…

The truth about illegal logging

Today Cites delegates have made a bold move to protect endangered rainforests from deforestation. They’ve agreed greater protection for species of rosewood and ebony from South East Asia, South America and Madagascar. By protecting these rare habitats it also protects the many species of endangered animals that make these forests their home. However this doesn’t prevent illegal logging unless the international community acts on these restrictions. In the case of ebony and rosewood the primary market is China. For these restrictions to be effective the Chinese government must act to curb their growing black market in timber.

This is not as easy as you might think. An audit of Ikea’s timber usage revealed that 100% of the timber used for making furniture in China was illegal. On one side of the border in Siberia the trade in timber is controlled by the Russian Mafia, timber from illegal logging being added at all points from logging camps to export yards at the Chinese border. The practices of bribery and intimidation result in legal and illegal timber being indistiguishable from each other at the point of export. On the other side of the border in China the import yards are controlled by the Triad. Many factories cut their costs by buying their timber direct from the Triad, having it stolen from the import yards to order bypassing the import taxes paid by the legitimate timber merchants. In theory when you buy a new chair, wardrobe or table from any furniture supplier you should be able to trace it back using the bar code on the box. That barcode sits on a computer at the supplier’s main office and is tied to an invoice order at the assembly plant. The assembly plant can then tie that up with an order number at the timber importer which goes back to the timber exporter. This timber, usually in the form of cut wood, has a number that will be traced back to the log from which it was sawn, which can then be traced to the tree and the number on the tree can be traced back to the very stump that it was cut from using a GPS tag. But when a 30 foot tree suddenly becomes 300 feet of logs at the sawmill it quickly becomes clear that the wood being used is actually untraceable.

Other companies however have taken very stringent steps to ensure that their wood is legally sourced. From the point of tagging the tree to exporting the finished furniture they have put in place systems that ensure that the amount of wood used in their furniture matches the estimates from the initial felling of the tree. This is how the majority of our hardwood furniture is imported into Europe from Indonesia and Malaysia. By removing the ability for illegal loggers to sell their timber it protects the rainforests, but at the cost of higher prices in the shops in Europe. This is a system being deployed across the world but which is being perverted by one of the main supporters of the system. The US State Department. And the reason is very simple, money. As one of the major shareholders in opening up legal logging schemes in emerging markets the US State Department has actually made it easier to trade in illegal timber.

The prime purpose of the scheme deployed by the US State Department in partnership with the Liberian government is to collect tax. At every stage of the process from issuing logging licenses to export the timber is taxed. You pay a tax to buy the logging concession. You pay a tax to tag your trees with a GPS barcode. You pay a tax to convert the trees to felled lumber. You pay a tax to convert the lumber to logs. You pay a tax to sell the lumber to local markets and a further tax to sell the rest to the export market. At any point where the timber is converted from one form to another a tax is paid on that conversion, a proportion of which is paid back to the US State Department as shareholder. In theory this should prevent any illegal timber from entering the market at any point but for one thing. Under the rules of the scheme agreed between the US State Department and the Liberian government any logs or trees found by civilians in the forests of Liberia, rather than be destroyed, can be deemed legal if taken to the relevant point on the supply chain and taxed. The very fact of selling the timber to the logging yard and paying a fee back to the government has the timber declared legal. This has two effects. Firstly, it ensures that all timber exported from Liberia is legal, potentially the only country worldwide that can claim 100% of their exports are legally sourced. And secondly it creates a thriving black market that knows that all they have to do to sell illegal timber is pay a fee to the Liberian government.

In order to ensure that the planet’s forests are protected it takes a very simple and real step. The world must accept that there is only so much wood that can be harvested per year and accept the higher prices that come with it. Governments around the world must do more to protect natural forest, not just from illegal loggers, but from farmers using weak legislation to expand farmland and from emerging climate companies from converting rich biodiverse rainforest into palm oil plantations. You cannot protect this planet’s forests buy chopping them down. Schemes that can have a very real impact must be implemented with protection as the main goal, and not taxation.