Is this The Conversation we should be having?

Here’s a barbecue topic for Australia Day: What is happening to the quality of public discourse? Over the holidays, I read The Conversation’s 2015 yearbook, “Politics, policy & the chance of change”. It’s a collection of individual articles from the past 12 months, grouped into broad themes, covering key issues of the day, at least among the academic and chattering classes. As a summary of the year in Australian political, economic, cultural and social reportage, it’s not a bad effort. With “news” increasingly bifurcated between a dominant commercial duopoly and a disintermediated social media maelstrom, The Conversation can offer a calm rational voice and an objective alternative.

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 6.43.50 PMThe title promises a new direction in political debate, and I went to the book’s Melbourne launch at the start of the summer, where Michelle Grattan, The Conversation’s Chief Political Correspondent held court in an audience Q&A. I was looking forward to the event, because part of The Conversation’s remit is to foster informed debate that is more than tabloid headlines, news soundbites and party room gossip. It has also positioned itself as a non-partisan, independent and authoritative source of news analysis.

I was hoping the Q&A would provide a considered discussion on some of the key policy issues facing the country – long-term tax reform, addressing climate change, updating Federation, dealing with the post-mining boom economy, improving the quality and efficiency of our education, health and infrastructure systems, etc.

Instead, the first three questions from the audience concerned Mal Brough, Ian Macfarlane and Tony Abbot. How demoralising. Haven’t we moved on from this cult of personality? Haven’t we learnt anything from the past 10 years or so? If the same event had been held during Julia Gillard’s term as PM, the names would have been different (Craig Thomson, Peter Slipper, Kevin Rudd?) – and for quite separate reasons, I hasten to add – but the context and implication would have been very similar: “Never mind policies, what’s the chance of (another) leadership spill? How are the numbers stacking up in Parliament? When’s the court case?”

Although I admire the aims of The Conversation, and I understand why it exists, I have some concerns about the type of discourse that The Conversation is actually fostering among its audience. As with many public institutions, I appreciate that it’s there (even though I am not a frequent reader), but like other news media, it risks confirming the bias and prejudices of its audience. It can also feel as if it is serving only the vested interests of its contributors, partners and sponsors.

So much of Australia’s recent political history has been dominated by self-delusional egos, nefarious party factions, insidious vested interests and character assassination (which I blame for giving us five prime ministers in as many years).

When it was my turn to ask a question, it concerned the recent bipartisan compromise between the Coalition and The Greens to publish the tax records of companies generating more than $200m in revenue (as a step towards tackling corporate tax avoidance). I asked, “Should we expect to see more of this seemingly new approach to politics?” Although Ms Grattan gave a detailed (and somewhat technical) explanation for this particular Parliamentary outcome and its likely implications, I felt that most of the audience were not interested. They would probably have preferred to be talking about the ins and outs of the party rooms. For me, this does not bode well for the level and quality of public debate we are having on (non-party) political issues that really matter.

I also have a few other niggles about The Conversation and the 2015 Yearbook:

  1. By only sourcing content from “recognised” academic experts and policy wonks, I think this overlooks contributions from commercial and industry experts which are just as valid. As long as such authors also declare any interests, it should ensure balanced commentary – but to exclude them from the debate just because they don’t have academic, public or research tenure is self-limiting.
  2. The site as a whole (and the book in particular) is rather thin on actual data references, and when research data is included in articles, there are rarely any charts, tables or infographics. I think this is a shame and a missed opportunity.
  3. The book hardly mentions the critical issue of tax reform (which barely merits half a dozen pages). Whereas, reform of the education system (including academic research funding) gets around 40 pages – which rather smacks of self-interest (and bias?) on the part of the academic authors

Finally, The Conversation provides a valuable (and from what I have seen, an impartial) service via its factcheck section, which in tandem with the ABC’s Fact Check is doing a sterling job of trying to keep our pollies honest (at least in Parliament…). More power to it.

Next week: David Bowie Was – “It’s a god-awful small affair”

 

Will streaming kill the music industry?

The resurgence in vinyl sales is certainly not enough to save the music business. But will streaming finally cook the goose that once laid Gold Discs?

statistic_id273308_music-album-sales-in-the-us-2007-2014

US album sales (in all formats) are in decline. (Source:  Statista)

What can we learn from the music industry based on the apparent rebound of vinyl sales in recent years? Is streaming doing enough to halt the decline in total music revenue? Will CD’s soon disappear altogether? What future for LPs in a world of “Album Equivalent Sales”, “Track Equivalent Albums” and “Streaming Equivalent Albums”?

Are there parallels here with other content, publishing or entertainment sectors?

Back to Black

Last month the 8th annual Record Store Day was launched with a fanfare of upbeat data for vinyl sales. It was a good news story in an otherwise depressing saga of declining album sales, stagnating revenues, and mixed messages about the impact of digital downloads and streaming services on the music industry.

Coming off a very low base (like, near-extinction levels), the extraordinary sales growth of vinyl (especially in Australia) can be attributed to a combination of factors, although it is difficult to see how any single trend is responsible for this growth:

  • The growing popularity of Record Store Day itself (although it’s not without its problems – see below)
  • Baby boomers buying their record collections all over again
  • Hipster interest in analogue technology
  • Record labels mining their back catalogues
  • Niche market interest among audiophiles, collectors and the cool kids
  • New approaches to packaging vinyl with downloads and other bonus content
  • DJ culture
  • Secondary markets via E-bay and Discogs
  • Retailing switching from megastores to specialist shops

Infographic: Vinyl Comes Back From Near-Extinction (Source: Statista)

Where Is The Money Coming From?

Latest industry data suggests that digital sales (downloads and streaming) are now on a par with physical sales (CD, vinyl and the rest). Overall revenue has stabilised, having fallen from a peak in 1999. And streaming services are enjoying huge growth.

But the true picture is harder to establish:

First, while the IFPI provides global aggregated data, each local industry body (RIAA, BPI, ARIA etc.) likes to tell a different story from its national perspective. So it’s difficult to compare like with like. (For example, while Taylor Swift is supposed to be a worldwide phenomenon, she does not figure at all in the BPI data for 2014…..) One brave soul has tried to compile data for the past 20 years.

Second, because of the changes in distribution and consumption, music sales have to be counted in different ways:

  • Wholesale revenue vs retail sales
  • Physical sales vs digital sales
  • Per unit download sales vs streaming equivalents
  • Product revenues (e.g., album sales) vs licensing revenues (e.g., soundtracks)
  • Subscription fees (e.g., Spotify) vs per download revenue (e.g., iTunes)
  • Advertising income from video streaming vs royalties from broadcasting and soundtracks

Third, when more and more music is accessed via video platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, and Vevo, streaming platforms like Spotify, Pandora and Omny, or apps such as Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Mixcloud and Shazam, “sales” data starts to become less and less relevant. (And some people are still hanging on to the ailing MySpace platform….).

The bottom line is that despite the growth in streaming services, digital sales (in whatever format or media) are not yet enough to compensate for the continued decline in album sales in particular, and music overall:

The peak era of CD sales is over. (Source: Talking New Media)

Record Store Day Woes

The success of Record Store Day has divided opinion as to whether it is actually a “good thing” for the industry. It started as a campaign by independent record labels, distributors and retailers to revive the habit of buying records in-store. Labels produce limited edition and often highly collectible items for the occasion, and there are rules as to how, when and where these releases can be made available to the public.

At first, it really was driven by the independent labels, many of whom brought out interesting product that otherwise wasn’t available, such as label samplers, unreleased material and one-off artist collaborations.

Now, the major labels have jumped on board, meaning the market is flooded with unnecessary re-releases (do we really need Bruce Springsteen‘s ’70s and ’80s albums reissued on vinyl?) drawn from their extensive back catalogues (no need to pay for recording costs or new artwork!).

This means that smaller labels who release new vinyl records on a regular basis (not just once a year) get bumped from the production line, as the major labels exert their purchasing power over the pressing plants.

In addition, some Record Store Day releases are so badly distributed that stores are unlikely to take delivery of the items in time for the event. Or bad decisions lead to over-supply of certain items, which end up in the bargain bins (major labels again especially guilty of this offence).

Some store owners appear reluctant to participate because they feel embarrassed about the prices they may have to charge for many of the limited releases, which get bought by speculative customers, rather than collectors, fans and enthusiasts – a fact borne out by the immediate listings and inflated prices on E-Bay and Discogs….

As one store owner I talked to commented: “Every day should be record store day…”

What Else Does The Data Reveal?

For all the new young pop stars that the industry keeps churning out, there’s nothing like longevity and back catalogue to prop up the sales numbers. For example, Barbara Streisand was in the Top 10 for US album sales (and with new material!), and the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis, Bob Marley and Oasis feature in the top-selling vinyl records. Will Record Store Day 2025 herald the vinyl release of Justin Bieber’s pre-pubescent “demos”?

The decline of album sales has been particularly steep in the genres of Hip-Hop and R&B, while rock and pop continue to dominate the market. Some industry commentators have suggested that music sales are merely “in transition” as consumers switch from buying CD’s and downloading music to subscribing to streaming services. Meanwhile, in the US, country music’s #4 position by overall consumption reflects substantial album sales, as streaming is still a small component for the genre.

And those vinyl sales numbers? They’re simply a blip on the chart and largely driven by avid fans willing to shell out for deluxe editions….

The future is streaming?

Apple and others certainly believe (or hope) that streaming will save the music industry. Having demolished the market for CDs, iTunes is in a battle for its own survival among competing streaming services, where Apple itself is about to lead the charge having acquired the Beats platform.

But others are not so sure, predicting that streaming is already in decline, along with download sales:

First, the streaming platforms are yet to make a profit. Part of this is due to the cost of content that has to be licensed from the record labels and artists. Part is also due to the cost of acquiring customers, even if this can be done via social media, because the decline in music buying has been so abrupt, so the industry may be permanently damaged that streaming cannot bring back paying customers.

Second, even though streaming may overtake downloads by next year, there’s still nothing certain that teen pop fans (the target audience) will pay $7.99 – $9.99 per month to listen to music via so-called “freemium” services. Evidence suggests that consumers are happy with the free services, even if they have to put up with ads.

Third, while I agree that the freemium model is a fixture in the digital economy, the problem with Spotify et al is that they are not growing the market for music, but simply cannibalising it by displacing existing platforms (commercial radio, digital downloads, physical sales), while being tied to third-party distribution channels (the internet) and devices (smart phones, tablets and computers).

Anyway, subscription-based music streaming is nothing new, and was first launched over 100 years ago (and thanks to Mark Brend’s “The Sound of Tomorrow”, I learned that Mark Twain was the first subscriber).

If the “old” record companies are charging streaming services too much to license their content, then the streaming services should just find other sources – there’s plenty out there – but then, just like the major record labels, they are not really interested in music, only in shifting product and promoting “artists” (even if they are still figuring out how to make digital pay). The record labels don’t help themselves with their reliance on back catalogue, and their archaic territorial licensing practices either – forcing customers to circumvent geo-blocking barriers (legally or otherwise…).

Unfortunately, file sharing, illegal downloads and “free” streaming have meant customers don’t feel compelled to pay for digital music content. Personally, I prefer to curate my own listening, and not let someone else dictate what I hear, even if the service “knows” my preferences…

And the moral of the story is…?

More distribution platforms, more formats and more content may not be enough to save ailing industries, whether it’s music or television, newspapers or movies. These businesses will have to learn to live with lower margins and/or smaller market shares. The quality of a home-made movie uploaded onto YouTube may not be anywhere near that of a Hollywood blockbuster, but if cat videos are what grab punters’ attention (and by default, pull in the advertisers), the studios may have to find alternative strategies. And if music fans prefer to use free streaming services, the industry has to do a better job of producing content that consumers may be willing to pay for.

Ironically, in publishing, one sector that has been written off ever since the arrival of CD-ROM’s and the internet, teen consumers are still happily buying and reading print editions, alongside e-books. More so than other content industries, publishing has rapidly adapted to the new user-defined model: aspiring authors find it easier to self-publish (e.g., via Tablo and dedicated crowdfunding platforms such as Pubslush and Unbound); they can easily connect with an audience (especially in the realm of fan fiction); and a platform like Wattpad allows writers to test material before they commit to formal publication, and lets readers vote for what they’d like to read more of.

Next week: Making connections between founders and investors

 

 

 

Taxing the Intangibles – coming soon to a screen near you!

No sooner had Netflix launched in Australia than Treasurer Joe Hockey announced the imposition of GST on “intangibles” purchased from overseas vendors. The Treasurer has also indicated that the GST-free threshold for on-line imports will be lowered from the current $1,000. Dubbed the “Netflix tax”, Australian consumers should now expect to pay more for their digital content such as video, music, software and e-books, even though on most evidence, we are already charged more for comparable products than in other markets.

Geo-blocking is already an obstacle for Australian consumers…

Backdrop

We all know why the Treasurer has proposed this scheme: the Government has to make up for declining tax receipts, and appease the States who are squabbling over the allocation of GST revenue between them. Plus the current Senate inquiry into corporate tax avoidance by companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft (who divert locally sourced income to offshore entities to reduce their income tax liability in Australia) is driving the public and political agenda on global tax minimization schemes (which are nothing new, of course).*

But it’s not as simple as slapping an extra 10% on the price of a movie download, even though GST is a relatively easy and cost-effective way of generating tax revenue. For one thing, there is little consistency in how vendors currently sell their digital products in Australia. Secondly, geo-blocking is already an obstacle for Australian consumers, leading to the sort of content piracy infringement that will now make local ISP’s and their subscribers more vulnerable to legal action, following the recent “Dallas Buyers Club” court ruling. Thirdly, local retailers who have long campaigned to have the GST-free threshold removed or lowered fail to acknowledge why customers prefer to shop from overseas vendors.

Goods & Services Tax

GST (similar to VAT in Europe) is a simple consumption tax. It applies to the sale or supply of most items (except things like fresh food and health services) at a flat rate of 10%.

Even better, the Government and the tax authorities rely on businesses to collect, report and remit GST receipts, making it relatively cheap to administer (when compared to other taxes) via the Business Activity Statement process managed by the Australian Taxation Office.

The GST is a key topic of the current review of the tax system – likely to result in a higher rate (or different rates), and/or broader application to items not currently included.

Vendor Inconsistency

In principle, I don’t have a problem in paying GST on digital items I buy from overseas vendors – but there is so much inconsistency that there is a risk of consumers having to pay two lots of sales tax.

For example, every iTunes receipt issued by Apple Pty Ltd (an Australian entity) states that the sale amount already includes GST – in which case, Apple should be remitting that component to the ATO, and no need for a price increase.

However, Adobe chooses to invoice me from Ireland, and as such no GST (or VAT) is applied, but I am charged forex fees, even though the invoice amount is expressed in Australian dollars, because my bank treats this as a foreign transaction.

Meanwhile, although some UK vendors I buy from direct do not apply GST/VAT on my orders (Amazon UK included), others do – meaning I risk having to pay both the GST and VAT. As a further sign of vendor inconsistency, Amazon’s US store does not appear to deduct US sales tax for foreign customers; neither the UK or US Amazon stores sell music downloads to Australian customers; and Amazon’s Australian store only sells e-books and apps.

Geo-blocking

The decision in the “Dallas Buyers Club” IP infringement case brought by Voltage Films, has again drawn attention to Australia’s poor reputation for copyright piracy as evidenced by the number and frequency of illegal downloads.

Some journalists have commented that distributors often delay the local release of imported content (for various reasons) although this was not seen as a justification for piracy (and quite rightly so).

While foreign films are frequently released later in Australia, it’s interesting that TV (even free to air channels) has woken up to this, and now broadcasters rush to fast-track imported shows to keep audiences happy.

It’s also interesting to note that the Productivity Commission, as part of its competition policy review of IP laws, has suggested that if local rights holders and distributors choose not to exercise their commercial rights, under a “use it or lose it” model, third-party distributors would be able to step in. This also has the potential to undermine the archaic industry practice of geo-blocking, whereby sales of music, film and TV content (physical and digital) are restricted by territory.

Local retailers and distributors need to lift their game

Does the absence of GST really encourage consumers to buy from offshore retailers? I would beg to differ.

Local rights holders often do not bother to make content and products available in Australia. And local retailers won’t usually stock products if they are not readily available from wholesalers or distributors.

I recently had to contact an overseas artist, the UK record label and its Australian distributor several times to make their music available online in Australia. The local distributor had not bothered to release the content, even though they had the rights, but geo-blocking prevented me from accessing it legally from overseas suppliers.

It’s the combination of inadequate local distribution, non-availability, higher prices and lacklustre service that encourages Australian consumers to buy from overseas, even if that means circumventing geo-blocking. In many cases, I doubt the addition of GST will be a serious deterrent to online overseas shopping.

In my own case, I once found that the local branches of a global retail brand chose not to stock the item I wanted, and their US parent geo-blocked me from ordering on-line. So I resorted to buying in the “grey” or parallel imports market, from an offshore vendor willing to ship direct to Australia. It was still cheaper, even after shipping costs, and even if GST had been added (I probably paid US sales tax on the transaction anyway), than if I had bought from a local retailer (assuming they bothered to stock the item).

Hopefully, this debate on GST and the Productivity Commission’s review of competition policy will finally give local retailers an incentive to do a better job of serving their customers.

* The debate on corporate tax minimization might want to look at where “value” is created, and where the revenue is booked, that gives rise to a tax on the resulting profits. For me, the retail value of intangibles such as digital products is created when someone pays to download them, at the point of sale – i.e., in the consumer’s geographic location.  Although the vendor may argue that the IP is owned by an offshore entity to whom they must pay royalties, the individual download itself does not have any standalone value, until it is accessed by the consumer. Even a high rate of royalty repatriation could not be more than the retail price, so logic might suggest that local profits should be taxed accordingly.

Next week: What can we learn from the music industry?

Personal vs Public: Rethinking Privacy

An incident I recently witnessed in my neighbourhood has caused to me to rethink how we should be defining “privacy”. Data protection is one thing, but when our privacy can be compromised via the direct connection between the digital and analog worlds, all the cyber security in the world doesn’t protect us against unwanted nuisance, intrusion or even invasion of our personal space.

Pressefotografen mit KamerasScenario

As I was walking along the street, I saw another pedestrian stop outside a house, and from the pavement, use her smart phone to take a photograph through the open bedroom window. Regardless of who was inside, and irrespective of what they were doing (assuming nothing illegal was occurring), I would consider this to be an invasion of privacy.

For example, it would be very easy to share the picture via social media, along with date and location data. From there, it could be possible to search land registries and other public records to ascertain the identity of the owners and/or occupants. And with a little more effort, you might have enough information to stalk or even cyber-bully them.

Privacy Law

Photographing people on private property (e.g., in their home) from public property (e.g., on the street outside) is not an offence, although photographers must not cause a nuisance nor interfere with the occupants’ right of quiet enjoyment. Our current privacy laws largely exclude this breach of privacy (unless it relates to disclosure of personal data by a regulated entity). Even rules about the use of drones are driven by safety rather than privacy concerns.

Since the late 1990’s, and the advent of spam and internet hacking, there have been court decisions that update the law of trespass to include what could be defined as “digital trespass”, although some judges have since tried to limit such actions to instances where actual harm or damage has been inflicted on the plaintiff. (Interestingly, in Australia, an act of trespass does not have to be “intentional”, merely “negligent”.)

Apart from economic and financial loss that can arise from internet fraud and identity theft, invasion of privacy via public disclosure of personal data could lead to personal embarrassment, damage to reputation or even ostracism. (In legal terms emotional stress falls within “pain and suffering”).

Data Protection Law

The Australian Privacy Principles contained within the 1988 Privacy Act apply to government agencies, private companies with annual turnover of $3m or more, and any organisations trading in personal data, dealing with credit information or providing health services. There are specific provisions relating to the use and misuse of government-derived identifiers such as medical records and tax file numbers.

The main purpose of the privacy legislation is to protect “sensitive” information, and to prevent such data being used unlawfully to identify specific individuals. At a minimum, this means keeping personal data such as dates of birth, financial records or hospital files in a secure format.

Some Practical Definitions

The following are not legal definitions, but hopefully offer a practical framework to understand how we might categorise such data, and manage our obligations towards it:

“Confidential”

Secret information that must not be disclosed to anyone unless there is a legal obligation or permission to do so. (There are also specific issues and exceptions relating to “classified information”, public interest matters, whistleblower protection and Freedom of Information requests.)

“Private”

Information which is not for public or general consumption, although the data itself may not be “confidential”. May still be subject to legal protection or rights, such as the right of adopted children to discover the identity of their birth parents, or the right of someone not to be identified as a lottery winner.

“Personal”

Data that relates to, or can specifically identify a particular individual. An increasing issue for Big Data, because data that otherwise resides in separate locations can now be re-connected using triangulation techniques – scrape enough websites and drill down into enough databases, and you could probably find my shoe size.

“Public”

Anything that has been published, or easily discoverable through open search or public database retrieval (but, for example, does not include my past transactions on eBay unless I have chosen to disclose them to other users). My date of birth may be a matter of record, but unless you have authorised access to the relevant database or registry, you won’t be able to discover it and you certainly shouldn’t disclose it without my permission.

Copyright Law

One further dimension to the debate is copyright law – the ownership and related rights associated with any creative works, including photographs. All original content is copyright (except those works deemed to be in the “public domain”), and nearly all copyright vests with the person who created the work (unless they have legally assigned their copyright, or the material was created in the course of their employment).

In the scenario described above, the photographer would hold copyright in the picture they took. However, if the photograph included the image of an artwork or even a framed letter hanging on the wall, they could not reproduce the photograph without the permission of the person who owned the copyright in those original works. In some (limited) situations, a photograph of a building may be subject to the architect’s copyright in the design.

Curiosity is not enough justification to share

My personal view on all this is that unless there is a compelling reason to make something public, protecting our personal privacy takes precedent over the need to post, share or upload pictures of other people in their private residence, especially any images taken without the occupants’ knowledge or permission.

Just to clarify, I’m not referring to surveillance and monitoring by the security services and law enforcement agencies, for which there are understandable motives (and appropriate safeguards).

I’m saying that if we showed a little more respect for each others’ personal space and privacy (particularly within our homes, not just in cyberspace) then we might show a little more consideration to our neighbours and fellow citizens.

Next week: It’s OK to say “I don’t know”