The slippery slopes of privacy and data.

“If you haven’t done something wrong, then there’s nothing to worry about.”

We’ve all heard that right? When there’s a debate or a scandal happening about privacy or identity, like the emerging saga of the ‘Prism’ systems in the USA that have been harvesting our private data and allegedly been giving access to our intelligence services, thereby circumnavigating the legal process we have in this country for access to private data.

It seems like such a straightforward rebuke, a simple piece of logic. If you haven’t done anything wrong, or are not planning to do something wrong, then why should you be worried about the idea of the state accessing your private communications? At the end of the day, all they are going to find is that your ‘data’ is innocuous, innocent interactions about your daily life, of no consequence to national security.

The problem, for the unthinking who take this view, is that what we decided is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when it comes to the state, and whether we are subject to the authority of each and every law, is one of the oldest and most highly debated topics of philosophy, because it is one of the oldest and most highly debated issues that exists in humanity as we know it. Questions like, “why should we obey the state?”, “Who gave them authority over us (and when)?”, “When did I agree to these conditions and give my consent?” are as old as Plato and beyond.

And they are very important questions that lead to very interesting, if not clear, answers. In the example of ‘Prism’ and its fight against terrorism by harvesting our data, a few imaginary scenarios should start to highlight the problem.

The first one I will call ‘The Extreme Inheritor’ problem. Simply put, at some point at a future election, an extreme party manages to secure power. By extreme, I mean a party that has hard-line views. They may have only been voted in on one issue, but now they are in control of the whole state functions. And what do they inherit? An infrastructure that allows them to gather, filter and view all our correspondences on all our various online interactions. How will they use this data? Even if we believe the current administration to be a fair and just custodian of this information, only using it for the kind of threats we agree with, how can we be sure the new keepers will do the same? They may want to search out sympathisers who stand against their extreme view (which by matter of degree, given their position, is highly likely), and bring sanctions against them. They may have a very different concept of justice than you do, and what you thought was right and wrong before, has become inverted or has significantly shifted.

The next ramification could be a ‘Temptation Shift in the Custodians’. In this scenario, the existing administration discover, naturally, the new powers available to them, the scope and possibilities that it brings. Now that they can conceive of and examine the new options that arise from the powers granted to them, they are at least aware of the possibilities. To find a suitable analogy, suspend your beliefs, or lack of, and think of it as a ‘road to paradise’ that we discover, but we also find that it runs through all the temptations of hell. Do we trust the current leaders to not give into the temptations, now they travel so close to them and are in touching distance? How long can they travel down the long road with the whispering demons promising spoils and temptations in such close proximity? Would it not have been better to find a road that does not run this way at all, or if unavoidable, only runs past hell on the least occasions? Even if this road is shorter, is it worth the risk?

The third and final possibility is the ‘bribery, threats and collusion problem’. I have seen defenders of this invasion of privacy making comments like “If the government look into my online communications, they will probably knock on my door and tell me to get a life!”. Basically saying that the majority of us live such dull and uninteresting lives that there can be no value in any data gathered. Who would care that you were visiting your elderly relative that day? Or that you have a new partner? Or that you work for a cheese factory? On the face of it, this data may seem innocuous enough, supposing that you believe your life will forever not be of worth, that the world may never change around you, and that you will never be in a position to be bribed or threatened. Say however, something does change (heaven forbid), and you become aware of some corporate negligence that had led to the deaths of your colleagues, and you wish to report this. If there was an interested party who would prefer you not to, they now know your family arrangements, your loved ones who you hold dear, and the extent to which you would go to protect them. This is a small example, and you may think, not very likely. But as we don’t know the future, as terrible things happen naturally and by design, to think ‘it will never happen to me’ is just ignorance. It may never happen to you, but I warrant that anyone can be in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ regardless of how boring a life they aspire to lead.

The objections I imagine, will be made along the lines of ‘checks and balances’. Some agents, above moral corruption, will conceive and enforce measures in order to prevent the powers being abused. Yes, we may sail close to the rocks, but a ‘reliable navigator’ will make sure we never stray too far. This objection has at least two faults.

In the case of the ‘Extreme Inheritor’, remaining with the nautical theme, we would have to rely on the mutineers who have now taken over the ship, maintaining the ‘reliable navigator’. The likelihood of this is as unclear as the agenda of any group we can imagine taking power in the future. Most, if not all, administrations usually start their terms in power by making any constitutional shifts to the frameworks they operate within, usually in order to favour themselves and their causes. Often these changes, concerning as they do a host of specific and convoluted legal and bureaucratic decree’s, go unnoticed by the general electorate, and like most decisions, are not passed by referendum. It is easy to imagine the extreme inheritor blatantly or subtlety removing the checks and balances that were designed to prevent them abusing powers.

The second objection to the ‘reliable navigator’ in the case of the ‘Temptation shift of the custodians’ practically runs along the same lines as the first, though may be less dynamic and as a result more subtle as the temptation shifts towards the new position. I would argue that this is the most likely and most worrying scenario, as unlike the ‘extreme inheritor’, a shift of this sort would necessarily be made gradually and secretly, so as to maintain custody of the powers without protest. The aim would be to almost imperceptibly degrade or transform the role of the ‘reliable navigator’ over time, until it is now only reliably navigating us down a route we didn’t originally want to follow.

A further objection would be the case of ‘statutory underpinning’ or something similar, that aims to ensure that no succeeding government can tinker or change the operations and positions of the ‘reliable navigator’. To make them ‘locked out’ like black-box technology, a kind of immovable and unchangeable moral foundation to wit all future humanity must adhere to. To this I would say that we are over-reaching our temporal influence. To imagine we can set dictates now for the future of humanity, that will last as truth beyond such a time as our own generations have long since perished, is an absurd notion. To put in motion a boulder down a mountain because we live at the top and our villages are well clear of it, when we have no knowledge of the life in the slopes below, is irresponsible, presuming you have any concern for the future of our race.

To briefly bring this back to the real world examples, we also have questions of security versus commercial interests. The material gathered about our lives will undoubtedly be of great commercial value to private enterprise. You may not be concerned about receiving tailor made adverts to your desktop based on your browsing habits (as happens already), but even so, what if this data sheds enough light on our group habits as to allow price-fixing models and the distortion of the market beyond what we already endure now? This is more a case for political science that philosophy, but it is worth mentioning here as another example of unforeseen consequences.

I hope here to have shown the folly of adopting the ‘greater security means less liberty’ argument by highlighting what high risks such a statement, at least in this case, could lead to – namely a reduction both in security and liberty. It has too great a capacity to be ultimately self-defeating and we should not set such a risky precedent. If it has already began, as it seems to have been, it should be reversed immediately before these risks can be manifest.

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Of the Benefits of Crisis

There is an important question that should cross the mind of anyone who makes a departure from a particular career after a significant amount of your life has been given to it: Have I just avoided a mid-life crisis, or am I heading towards one? I had this thought last night, a bit drunk, while smoking and looking at the stars as usual. I should request here that those who say that 31 is hardly ‘mid-life’ to put semantics aside for the purposes of this article… you get my meaning.

A few months ago I finally left employment at the bank I had worked at for about ten years. It was a job that I had originally taken as an agency worker in my very early twenties after dramatically leaving my job at a pub due to differences in opinion (I thought the landlady was a nosy drunk, she didn’t). Before working at the pub I had been placed in several factory/warehouse jobs by agencies, so this time I wanted to try something that a) required greater use of my brain, and b) had somewhere to sit. So I decided to try and get a job in an office. At the time I had no inkling that I could turn my skills as a musician into a paying enterprise, and writing was still just an occasional hobby. I just wanted some money so that I could live for a bit and see what happened. The agency took some persuading, usually when I asked for office work they would nod, stare blankly, tell me that they would have a look, and then send me to a factory in the meantime. But eventually I got in at Britannia Building Society in Leek and was able to don my old school black trousers and shoes (literally, that’s not a fashion comment), pull on an ill-fitting work shirt (having fluctuated in weight by two stones since I had last bought any) and head to my new office job where they had computers and everything.

For the first two months I was put in a documents store room and spent all day on my feet filing miscellaneous paperwork into mortgage deeds. We had one chair between three of us, no windows and no supervision. It was just like being at a factory again, but eventually, after what seemed to be some kind of sadistic trial period, they let me upstairs to hit keys on computers and move paper around. They soon found, as did I, that I’m quite good at hitting keys on computers and moving bits of paper around. I was also quite good at telling other people what keys to hit and where the paper needed to be moved to, so I moved relatively quickly into a job where I helped to figure out what keys needed pressing, and even designed some of the bits of paper that got moved around.

I can’t say I enjoyed it, in fact, I pretty much hated it. I even grew to miss the honesty of putting cups in boxes, because it was a clear and distinct task that had some merit and needed doing. Most of the work at the bank, especially when I got involved in projects, was reactionary and unnecessary. It could have been done by the computers if they would just spend the time and money. But apart from that, it was just so damn false and I quickly learned how much emphasis was put on advertising and internal propaganda. They wanted us to whistle while we worked (not literally), to be ‘on-board’ and ‘with the programme’ – we were quite often told that if we didn’t agree with the bank’s ‘values’ we should leave (all very well and good coming from an exec who pockets over a million pounds each year… it’s easy to hold values with that kind of incentive). But I persevered, I panicked but did nothing, I threw my efforts outside of work into a relationship which eventually broke down, and then I had my first quarter life crisis.

I say a quarter life crisis because I must have been 25 at the time, so although it’s unlikely I will see 100, again, you get the meaning. As I found myself moving back home, a shadow of a possible life left behind me, I laid a lot of blame at the feet of my job. I had thrown myself into work, going for interviews, moving up the ladder slightly, bringing home the pay and bonuses. I had convinced myself that was what was required when I moved in with my girlfriend. I had a household to support etc… all that protestant work ethic crap which was somehow engrained in me (and still is to an extent – it’s that feeling of guilt you get when not being productive). But it made me unhappy, creatively starved and frustrated. That probably wasn’t the reason the relationship ended, but my retrospection found it the easiest thing to target as something I could do something about. I couldn’t do anything about the failed relationship, that was over, and I was determined not to slide into self-pity and destruction (I had done that before and it wasn’t pretty for a while). So I took the big, bold step of… going part-time. It doesn’t sound like much, but I was determined to carve out some space to figure out what I wanted to do. As quite often happens when you come out of a situation, I rediscovered a lot of my friends were still there, waiting to be supportive (I’m very lucky in that respect), and things started to happen. I moved to Leek with a friend and we set up a music production business, I got involved in organising events, I restarted my education with the open university and started to write, I lived by myself for a year (everyone should try it), I got engaged, I joined a band, I moved in with my fiancé, and then, last of all, after ten years of waiting for the right moment, I gave up the day job.

That was three months ago now. February 2013. Throughout all the changes I had continued to work for the bank, partly because I still didn’t have the confidence to give it up, but mainly because for the last three years there was the possibility of redundancy and walking away with a reasonable sum of money (due to the take-over by wool-clad wolf, the Co-op – see https://garryabbott.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/ethical-alternative-my-guide-to-the-coop/). Eventually that possibility, though still hanging in the air as a remote distant chance, was denied to me. While others around me were losing jobs they wanted to keep, I couldn’t get rid of mine. I tried my best to argue the senselessness of this to the powers that be, even ending up face to face with my ‘big boss’ and telling him what I thought of the way they did things, but it didn’t make a difference. Perhaps I had showed my cards too often, threatened to leave just one too many times, because they wouldn’t cut me loose. Why would you give me money to go when I quite obviously wanted to leave anyway? That’s the corporate way. Despite all the work and energy I had given them for ten years, despite the moving of the ground from beneath our feet as one lot of corporate clowns took over the running of our lives from another bunch, that path was not open.

And so, after a few sleepless nights and the flaring up of every ailment in my mind and bodies repertoire of stress-induced warning signs, I gave it up. It was not very dramatic in the end. I told them I was going to leave, they did the paperwork, and within a couple of weeks (thanks to stored up holidays), I walked out of the building for the last time, with the sun and the chatter of open-office politics behind me. I was overwhelmed for a minute or two as I drove away, laughing tears, and then I was back to normal. I waited a few weeks for the reality to kick in, but it already had. All I had now was what I made of it, all I have now is what I make of it.

So the point of this blog is, have I just gone avoided a mid-life crisis or am I walking straight into one? And I hope to make this appraisal global enough for this blog to be of value to anyone else reading who has or might be thinking the same thing, otherwise I’d just be sharing with you chapters from my life, which is not my intention.

One of my nightmares as a teenager was ending up like ‘Ernold Same’, the eponymous character from the Blur song over which Ken Livingstone drones this monologue:

Ernold Same awoke from the same dream
In the same bed at the same time
Looked in the same mirror
Made the same frown
And felt the same way he did every day,
Then Ernold Same caught the same train
At the same station, sat in the same seat
With the same nasty stain
Next to him the same old what’s his name
On his way to the same place to do the same thing
Again and again, poor old Ernold Same.

– ‘Ernold Same’, Blur.(The Great Escape, 1995)

                So if turning away from a day job at a bank, in which I sat in the same chair, next to the same people, doing the same things, again and again, the same drive to work, the same canteen, the same coffee machine, the same pot plants, the same meetings, the same screens, the same problems and the same solutions, the same frustrations, the same politics, the same building, has made me a little less like Ernold Same, and a crisis that is, then a crisis is certainly a good thing and I would urge anyone considering having one to go for it.

If on the other hand, the crisis is forthcoming, and this is a temporary stop-gap where everyday my work is what I make it, be it writing music for high-street companies, writing stories, writing scripts, writing scores for original films, writing blogs, or whatever else I choose to do, then what a crisis the next one will be! Is it possible that one crisis will cancel out another and I could end up back at a desk in an office? Not if I have anything to do with it, not unless the work that takes place in that office is  creative and/or for the benefit of those who need it (the moral-void of bank work is a strong motivator to express yourself and help others). So now, as a fledgling self-employed person, with all the uncertainty that brings, not knowing if the last paid job was literally my last paid job, having to try and pick my opportunities from everything I am capable of and convince others of that capability, a crisis would surely be a good development. I mean, the last two crises I’ve had started my desire to educate myself further and produce original work, and have given me the opportunity to do so. What will be next? So far, I’ve had only net gain from crises, the only thing that was ever holding me back was not instigating one in the first place.

I say, if you are heading towards a crisis, at whatever stage in your life, bring it on! It is a creative act and we are creative creatures. It is decision and action, and those are attributes we are blessed with. Aristotle said that our capacity for reason was the objective of human-life, and that only aiming for mere survival like plants and beasts is to not fulfil our humanity. So let’s not be plants, not just now, maybe another life-time if you believe in that kind of thing, but not now. Let’s greet crisis with open arms, because it means something is about to change, and change is the only way we can create (there was only ever one truly creative act in this Universe, and no one really knows how that came about, we just work with what we’ve got).

So in answer to my own question, I think I have both gone through a crisis, and am heading towards my next one, and I hope that is always the case.  For others, and I do not mean to undermine the choices people make, some people genuinely do want to work for a bank or other such industries and that’s fine (though I wager most people don’t), but if you are becoming a bit ‘samey’ and you wonder where that feeling of wasted time and senselessness is coming from and what, if anything, you can do about it, instigate a crisis of your own. So far, the evidence tells me, they can be very good things, if you have control (which of course we all do, though it may not seem that way). There is a fundamental truth in here somewhere, even if the crisis comes to you and seems negative, there is nothing you can do about the past, there is only how we choose to appraise and move on from it to the future by choosing the present moment by moment. That is not a wishy-washy, motivational sound-bite, it is just a statement of fact. I certainly don’t feel that I have ‘made it’ yet, and the anxiety of self-employment is a formidable foe (this article is just one round in the fight against it), but I’m definitely on the right ladder now, which is a start.

We have such faith in you that we want your money.

Last week my band ‘Gravity Dave’ was approached by yet another ‘Artist Development’ company through our Facebook page. Up popped a message from ‘Sweet Home’* music in our inbox telling us that:

“I listened to your tunes and I really like them! What are your plans this year? – Bob.*”

At last! Thought we. This seems like a music company taking interest in what we do after all the hard work we put into writing, rehearsing and performing our original songs, at our own expense, regardless of the overwhelming odds against us. So with excited fingers, we thank the mysterious yet tantalising admirer, and tell them that naturally (being a band and all) our plan is to record and have more gigs, you know that kind of thing, the thing that bands do. He replies (ever so quickly and efficiently):

“We might be able to help you with that guys, you should come up for a chat.”

A chat! A chat! With a real life music company! A chat? Us? Why, dreams really do come true. We knew it was only a matter of time, and faithfully, time has delivered to us the prize we sought.

But hang on, we say, steadying ourselves and desperately trying to suppress the bubbling excitement that has us wide eyed and gripped with anticipation; maybe we should just check, and be sure, as we don’t really know who these guys are yet. It’s just a precaution of course, sure it won’t make a difference. They’ve already told us how much they like our tunes and that they want to ‘chat’, but just in case…

“Can you let us know what you can offer us?” we ask cautiously, not wanting to put our heads so far down this gift horse’s mouth that they may be bitten off. But it was ok (phew!), Bob was obviously keen not to let us wander down the path of uncertainty, and obligingly and quickly answered our query:

“We can help you match up to industry expectations! Every band wants better gigs and more exposure, but there is a way of doing it…”

He’s right you know! This guy must know his stuff. Every band does want better gigs and a wider audience. Damn those industry expectations, even though he thinks we are good, we obviously mustn’t be the right kind of ‘good’ for the industry. Thank the God of Rock that these people got to us in time to tell us this. Only one more little question to ask and then we can start down the path to enlightenment, leaving fear and uncertainty behind.

“Will it cost us anything?” we ask, almost jokingly, because by this point we’ve checked out the website, and the ‘artist development’ spiel doesn’t mention costs or services, it is a selective process that only the acts they want to work with are offered. They solicit acts to ‘send in’ mp3s for consideration. But in our case (cos we’re special) – they’ve come to us. A Brucey bonus of epic scale. We eagerly await Bob’s reply, a mere formality of prudence we are sure, but still. And then he tells us, with dream shattering clarity:

“Ha ha ha! Lol. We’re not a charity for musicians! But we make bands what they need to be at an affordable rate.”

At this point, I will drop the sarcastic appraisal of this conversation. We never really expected anything different, having had our time wasted by a similar company in the past who ‘liked our tunes’ and ‘wanted to chat about being on their exclusive development label’. We wasted a whole afternoon travelling to their studio and being told that they could produce our music, from the bottom up, reworking our songs, adding production, making them ‘fit’ the industry and then promoting them to all the ‘right’ people and radio stations (BBC Nottingham no less! How could we refuse?). They paid us vague compliments which didn’t specify any particular tune they liked or anything about it. They looked and sounded like they were making this speech for the hundredth time that week. In short, they finished their pitch, and at the end, when they asked us if we had any questions, we asked the same thing… “Will it cost us anything?”.

Guess what? It would have. I can’t quite remember now, but it was around £1000. That included the recording of three songs (with massively intrusive production methods to re-work them and add ‘strings’ and ‘horns’) and then some vague talk of promotion, of which only BBC Nottingham Radio was actually mentioned. As we drove back, having thanked them for their time and promising to let them know what we thought of the ‘deal’, it dawned on us that they weren’t really a well-known promotion/recording company. That they didn’t really like (or probably even listen) to our tunes… they were just after our money! The charlatans! They were basically just a recording studio trying to find ways of getting clients!

You might find this hard to believe, but we found that day, as we did again last week, that there are people in the music-business who will basically lie and deceive to get your money from you! Who would have thought it? In such a happy and creative industry! So when Bob from ‘Sweet Home’ music was giving us the same pitch and tried to laugh off our genuine question regarding costs… Something inside me flipped. (this is my response verbatim…)

                “Why does your website not make it clear when asking acts to contact you with their tunes for consideration that they will end up paying? It’s not really ‘consideration’ when you are charging bands… It is just basically a recording studio under a different name trying to make out that they are offering an ‘exclusive’ service, rather than presenting costs up front. We’ve had this before from other such studios that tried to convince us they heard something ‘special’ in our music and then wanted £500-£1000 to develop it. It’s a shame that this sector of the industry is turning in on itself for revenue, rather than looking to audiences. We are okay thanks. If you really felt we were worth it, you would take some risk with the costs and negotiate a share of the resulting revenue. If you want to not seem like you are fleecing people, maybe mention the costs in the first approach rather than wasting time calling meetings and making it out like the acts has been chosen, when really it is just another potential customer. Good luck, but I don’t think your business model will be the one that cuts it in the new digital age.”

He didn’t like that. This is an interpretation of his response:

“Thanks but your attitude is wrong. Everyone needs to put food on the table.”

Food on the table? Food on the table?! He wants to dupe us into using his companies recording studio under the guise of some vague promotional activities, as if it was exclusive, and he thinks that putting ‘food on the table’ is a valid excuse? These guys own a recording studio. We know that if we want to record in such a facility it will costs us money. That is a service. A service is a service, end of. It is not an exclusive offer or opportunity. It is money changing hands for an agreed itemised service. Why all the cloak and dagger, vague compliments, offer of chats, no mention of money on the website?!! I retort:

“Just be up front with the fact that you charge people and it wouldn’t be an issue. It’s like someone saying ‘You’re a really good guitarist and I’m a talent scout – all you need to do is pay me £500 and I’ll make you even better!” – it doesn’t make sense. It’s a pitch. And as a pitch, I think it’s a bit of a sneaky one. – I’m a self-employed composer and writer outside of this band, so I know about ‘having to eat’ but I still have to go after genuine projects and am constantly dodging people who want money from you to achieve ‘success’ so I believe my attitude is one of logical self-preservation and I will be advising everyone I can not to get wound up in these dubious schemes. Golden rule – if someone is asking you for money while promising success, it is they who have the wrong attitude. Been the same for time immemorial. You’re not the first to make almost exactly the same pitch to us so we’ve already been burned by the ‘come along for a chat – we think you’re good and we want you on our label’ – and then finding out they also want £1000 for it! Appalling. Watchdog beckons, say hello to Anne Robinson for me.”

He liked this even less. His response, again interpreted, was:

How dare you accuse us of not running a legitimate business? We are selective with our clients but we earn enough to live on and are very good at what we do.”

That alas was where I terminated the conversation for the sake of my own sanity and constraint (the next things I said would not have been the prettiest of words). Apparently the people who ‘need to put food on the table’ were actually earning a good living. They are, they say, selective with their clients. But why would you be? If you believe that you know what the industry wants, why wouldn’t you produce the hell out of anything that comes your way if you are getting paid for it?

My regret is that I did not calm my rage and string Bob along for a while, but I was overcome by the same feeling you get when a cold-caller rings you up and starts asking you questions about your life before telling you who they are, what they are selling, and how much it costs. To summarise the thorny:

  • If you liked our tunes so much, why do you think we need ‘re-shaping’ into something the industry wants?
  • Why would we want to be ‘re-shaped’ into something the industry wants? The industry is in flux. We are the industry if we choose to be. There’s this thing called the internet, look it up.
  • Even as a pitch it is lazy. Just adding the name of one of our songs to the opening gambit may have helped. Let alone some qualification as to why they ‘liked our tunes’.
  • The website of said company is sparse, makes no mention of costs and gives a strong impression of exclusive deals being brokered if you are chosen. This is just plain misleading, if not criminally so. (I’ve emailed the OFT about the general status of these companies – if they reply, no doubt that will be another blog).
  • It’s  just a really, really shitty way to do business. They may not have known that the average age of my band is around 38, but for young bands, they really would have felt that surge of excitement and joy with an approach such as this. They would have gone to the meeting and been easy targets. Their parents would have picked up the bill and at the end of it, they would be just another band, with a handful of recordings and songs that have been ripped apart and rebuilt by some meddling middle men who think they know what the world wants to hear. The only difference is that they (or their parents) would be several hundred, if not thousands, pounds lighter and tensions would be high.

I researched this phenomenon a little and found that as the music industry has contracted over the last decade or so (due to the internet), the first to go were often the ‘A&R’ men. A lot of these A&R men set up recording studios with the added dimension of an attached ‘promotions company’ that could draw on their experience of the industry. The general warning is to avoid at all costs. These are the people who were first out when the traditional industry collapsed… why would you pay them to try and shape you into something that they are no longer part of? These were the bull-shitters, and they now reside in small recording studios up and down the land, ready to exploit as many musicians as possible. They’re not after success for their acts, why would they when they have no incentive? They are paid upfront for their services that are limited and temporary. They aren’t willing to risk anything on anyone, they just want your money, our money, the money from the musicians who don’t have any to start with.

And I’m sure that there are those companies out there (this may have been one) that if you pay them enough, will accordingly promote you as much as they can and may even help you to move a notch or two up the ladder of notoriety. But this is a service, and one that other companies legitimately advertise as so. If the opening message had been something along the lines of:

“Hey guys! I am from a music promotion company. We can offer you a competitive package to record and promote your music. We have listened to some of your music (I especially like the driving hooks of ‘Here we are’ and ‘Clearly Wrong’ by the way!) and think that what we offer is something that can really help just polish it up to the standard that some parts of the industry want to hear. For a full list of our services and basic costs, please visit our website or feel free to ask me anything you want. Good luck with the band, we hope you would like to work with us as we would like to work with you.”

… then at least we could have had the courtesy of saying ‘no thanks’ with full knowledge of just what the hell they were talking about. And even so, this kind of practice is attempting to re-align a failing industry to one that makes its money primarily from the artists, rather than the audience. It is negative practice, and I am aware of bands out there who have ‘paid their way’ to success of sorts, literally having hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on them to get onto TV and radio, and still aren’t that well known. It is the death throes of a dying practice that needs to disappear. So I would urge you if you are in a band yourself, or know others who are, and come across this kind of offer, to walk away with two fingers held firmly and defiantly aloft. If you must spend money, spend it on yourselves or use those companies that don’t present as one thing when they are really another. If you want to spend money on promotion, there are plenty of people lined up to take your money without pretending that you are ‘special’ and that it is ‘exclusive’ – they will simply take your money and do what they do, without the confidence tricks to get your business.

Anyway, there is surprisingly little out there on the net about such companies, and obviously I’m not going to cite the one’s mentioned, so here is a little to go on (below). Thanks for reading and please share your experiences of this with me (if you have them) in the comments below!

A good blog on some red-flags to look out for:

http://campbeit.com/blog/how-to-avoid-music-business-scams/

Another blog, read the ‘Artist Development’ section. It also does a lot to define what is and isn’t a ‘scam’, which legally, can be quite important! (I’m not saying that these companies are scammers – they are just unethical and treading a blurry line between scam and legit)

http://www.idnmusic.com/education/indie_alert_are_these_people_really_scammers.html

Of course, my band was mentioned so…

www.facebook.com/gravitydave

* The company name and contact have been changed. If there is a real company called this with a ‘Bob’ working for them, that is a coincidence and quite accidental!

Beware the peddlers of success & knowledge.

I’ve found a funny thing happens when you join the world of blogging. As with all social network sites, you start to get (quite quickly) a number of other users marking your post as a ‘favourite’ or ‘following’ your profile. This is, for the most part, quite a nice thing, especially when you get the friendly little email pop up in your inbox to say:

“Chaos Monkey thinks your blog is great! Why not check them out too?”

And so, I click on the profile, happy to reciprocate the interest that Mr Chaos Monkey has shown in my work with a quick look at his profile and latest article. Now, a lot of the time, the blogs I’m greeted with seem to be the usual content of social/political commentary, reviews, opinions, life-style tips and so on. But every now and again I will get something like:

“Chaos Monkey – How to be a success, time and time again… 3 easy steps!”

Often these articles will give advice on how to ‘optimise’ your blog, using ‘SEO’ techniques, foster good ‘time-management’ and how to spot and capitalise on ‘trends’… that kind of guff. They may even add advice on monetizing your blog with advertising partners, or by writing articles for certain websites on a range of popular subjects.

The thought struck me that these people who purport to offer the key to success by writing blogs, and only write blogs about success, must in themselves, either have been successful at something else in the past, or just be liars. To highlight this we can place the conversation in a real-world setting – say a motorway service station pre-internet days. I am casually walking from my car through the bleak concrete park towards the oblong tomb of over-priced sustenance, when a man with slick, gelled-back hair, wearing a ‘trust-me’ suit approaches…

Peddler:               Hey you!

Me:                        Me?!

Peddler:               Yes you! Do you want to know the secret to success?

Me:                        Who wouldn’t want to know the secret of success?

Peddler:               Exactly! Well, I can tell you the secret of success…

Me:                        How did you come by such knowledge?

Peddler:               Because I’m successful!

Me:                        What at?

Peddler:               Telling people  how to be successful.

Me:                        Is that it?

Peddler:               Erm… yes.

Me:                        Go away.

At least that is how I imagine it would run in the real world if indeed the success peddler was trading off the pyramid scheme of ‘selling success’. We’ve all heard it before I’m sure – there used to be (and probably still is) a postal scam, which digitized to e-bay eventually, whereby you blind ‘buy’ a package that tells you how to earn £x thousands of pounds, and when it arrives, it simply tells you to advertise and sell a package that will earn you £x thousands of pounds to other people. And thus the circle of bullshit is complete, and we can all go to the farm and smell like the animals.

But this new blog version of the scheme works slightly differently. It is costing me nothing but time when I stumble upon their ‘secrets to success’, but they are getting revenue from various other sources. My click, my precious click, is paying for them to fill the worlds servers with pointless articles. The world’s supply of bullet points, *asterisks* and CAPITAL LETTERS – not to mention EXCLAMATION MARKS!!! – is being depleted by such scammy scamsters.

And they are just one ingredient of this bitter word-soup that sloshes around our ankles in the digital bowl and is quickly rising. The other is the likes of the ‘e-how’ article. I hope for your sake, dear reader, you have never found yourself in the throes of some important research, trying desperately to find out some important info about your chosen profession, and all you can find is 200-500 word articles written by people who have no idea about the subject, clogging up your search engine like claggy gump oil. They do this for a living. There are numerous adverts that can be found that go something along the lines of:

“Do you know jack-shit about anything? Can you just about send the signals from your brain to your fingers to make them move over a keyboard and construct basic sentences? Can you read other websites and produce inferior copies of the information they contain? Then this is the job for you! For up to 0.0000015p a word you can make your living today writing for http://www.pointlesswebsitethatjustclogsuptheinternet.com!” (hint – Don’t try and follow that link… I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist. Though it really should!)

Back at the pre-internet motorway service station again, I notice a man by the dead grey steps on my way out, he has a sign with the legend… “Ask me anything!”. I am intrigued. I approach, clutching my obscenely over-priced toasty and sucking on an Amber roll-up…

Me:                        Anything?

Peddler2:            Absolutely!

Me:                        I want to know a good average word count for different age group categories in children’s literature…

Peddler2:            Certainly! One moment!

The peddler dashes into the service station, he heads straight for WH Smiths. He comes back with a children’s book about a dragon who is sad or something… He spends the next twenty minutes counting the words…

Peddler2:            Approximately 2000 words!

Me:                        But that’s just one book. I could have done that myself.

Peddler2:            That will be £50 please.

Me:                        Go away. Actually, don’t worry about it. I’ll go away. This is a weird service station.

And so, that’s what great swathes of the internet are, a soulless service station full of weirdo’s who don’t really know much about anything, but are willing to stand there pretending they do, on the off-chance that they will catch you unawares. Of course, no money needs change hands, that is provided now by the advertisers on our behalf. It is as if the internet is constructed on top of some dark and mysterious catacombs that contain a terrible word-hungry beast who demands that 10% of all content sacrifices any meaning or substance. In return for this sacrifice, the peddlers are allowed to live, but they must leave their soul as a deposit, and in their endeavours, they must gather small bits of our life-force with every pointless ‘life tip’ and ‘how to’ article that we stumble blindly onto…

Beware the peddlers of success and knowledge, for they have neither, but they will feed on yours.