Pre-emptive annual X-Factor blog post: Cowell can recycle the same crap year after year, so why can’t I?

Yes, it’s true, I’ve posted a version of the same blog post ever year for the last 5 years or so now, and yet it continues to be apt. So I might as well get in early and beat the rush. And yes, this piece will appear in print for the first time when The Changing Face of Consumerism is published as a physical edition by Clinicality Press in the coming weeks. And no, there won’ be any stands for it in retail outlets anywhere.

The Changing Face of Consumerism: X-Factor Christmas Number One Shocker

I suppose it was inevitable really. Despite the efforts of [INSERT SOMEONE WHO THINKS THEY’RE CLEVER HERE] to outmanoeuvre the hype machine with some tongue-in-cheek alternative hype, there weren’t really any other contenders for the supposedly coveted UK Christmas Number 1 slot. And so, And so, for the third / fourth / fifth / sixth / etc (delete as appropriate) year in succession, the winner of X factor, the ITV ‘talent’ content that runs for what seems like about 50 weeks of the year, has had the best selling single at Christmas.

Congratulations to [INSERT NAME OF X-FACTOR WINNER HERE]. No, really: I don’t have any real issues with him/her, other than that s/he was compelled to audition for such a credibility-free contest, and [INSERT NAME OF SOME SMUG GOBSHITE CELERITY] was backing him/her from the off (well s/he has to do something to keep themselves hip with the kids, right?). But I do have serious issues with the process.

I’m not saying that the whole audition / rehearsal / live performance / public voting / etc. process isn’t hard work or nerve-wracking for contestants, but really, when it comes down to it, what we’re watching is a glorified and overhyped karaoke competition. And the public fucking love it. They get to vote for their favourite, and the lucky winner, who’s already done all of the necessary marketing and promotion for the last few months on prime-time television, gets to put out a record that half the nation are going to buy because they voted for it. Yes, the public gets what the public wants. And once again, the public wants mediocre slop. I can cope with that: it was ever thus. But what’s the alternative?

Aye, there’s the rub: there is no alternative, at least not that’s readily available or easily accessible. And this is where I return to a point I’ve made on various occasions throughout the year on this (and other people’s) blogs: the marketplace is becoming less competitive, not more. Consumer choice is practically a myth. While the large corporations (in all industries, not just music) are so fixated on finding the Next Big Thing – and fast – the idea of the next medium-sized thing and the slow-burning long-term investment thing ceases to be of interest. They want success and they want it NOW! The shareholders want to see a return – NOW – and in order to achieve these things, there’s no scope for taking a gamble. If an executive makes one wrong decision, they’re out of a job (although probably given a substantial golden handshake for their royal fuck-up because that’s how it works these days. There are rewards for failure if you’re high enough up the corporate ladder. But I digress…)

Long-time readers of my blog may recall my bemoaning the closure of York’s last independent record store in the summer, and may also remember, more recently, my griping about the fact that neither of the remaining two stores, HMV and Zavvi (formerly Virgin) were stocking singles any more, on any format. Well, I dropped into HMV earlier this week to find that HMV were actually stocking singles again. That is to say, a single, and they had literally hundreds of it on special display stands around the store. Yup, [INSERT NAME OF X-FACTOR WINNER]’s single, [INSERT CORNY TITLE HERE]. At £3.99 a copy. Four fucking quid! So what if I wanted to buy a different single? Tough shit. If I wanted a single, it was ‘[INSERT CORNY TITLE HERE] or nowt. Suffice it to say I left with nowt.

My local Sainsbury’s is tiny and poorly stocked, but it’s within reasonable walking distance (quite important for someone who doesn’t drive). It doesn’t really stock many CDs – a few greatest hits and various artists compilations and perhaps the top ten chart albums. Again, this doesn’t exactly represent a great choice. But no matter. My local Sainsbury’s doesn’t stock singles. But wait, what’s this? I strolled in yesterday evening for a few groceries and was stunned to see, by the entrance, a huge display stand of black cardboard with a huge red X on top. The plague? Yes and no: row upon row of , [INSERT NAME OF X-FACTOR WINNER] singles. At £3.99 apiece. Four fucking quid! Etc, etc.

Like CCTV springing up on every street corner, within a matter of days there’s been a viral explosion of these CD displays. It’s remarkable how quickly they’ve managed to record it, get the artwork done, the CD pressed and distributed. Anyone would think the record company had known all along. Makes one wonder just how much of the million-pound recording contract that is the X Factor prize goes into subliminal messaging during the series… especially amid the outcry from fans of [INSERT CONTENDER HERE] who said they couldn’t get through (although I can’t say that bothers me too much, because [INSERT CONTENDER HERE] is a cock anyway and we all know these things are rigged).

So what’s my point? It’s hard to say any more. I’ve never been lethargic in seeking out the things I like, however underground, esoteric or unobtainable via the more obvious commercial channels. But I’m growing increasingly frustrated by the evermore obvious squeeze being placed on choice. Most people won’t go to the lengths I’m willing to, and the casual buyer simply won’t purchase something they can’t find. Put simply, artistic merit and even the idea of quality is being shunned in favour of a quick buck. I’m convinced it’s not sustainable, but right now I can’t see where it will end.

XFactor

Really, why do people let these smug cretins tell them what music they like (while being conned into believing they’re actually choosing their ‘winner’)?

 

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk.

The Changing Face of Consumerism: Public Opinion, Booze Culture and Bartering

The local newspaper recently ran a front-page headline about proposals to open three new pubs in York’s city centre. Two local breweries – The Leeds Brewery, formed as an offshoot of the York Brewery, and the Ossett Brewery, had submitted plans to take over vacant premises – one a former cafe, the others retail units, previously an estate agent and an army surplus store.

The objectors raised all of the concerns you’d expect them to. Predictably, there was concern about the city centre becoming a mecca for drinkers, that having such a concentration of licensed premises would send a message that York promoted the already endemic booze culture that is, we so often told, a leading problem in Britain that causes the taxpayer billions, and that the opening of these three new hostelries would encourage an even greater influx of stag and hen parties and cause violent, alcohol-fuelled crimes and other such sordid scenes to soar.

But these aren’t the kind of places rowdy stag and hen parties would frequent. we’re talking about traditional ale houses that would also serve traditional pub grub. The kind of places tourists – particularly those from America and Japan – flock to in their thousands in order to experience a slice of culture they simply do not have back home. As a historic city, visitors to York want to see and sample tradition. They also want refreshment.

Other critics argued that it was essential that the city preserve retail premises for retail when conditions improve. Will they ever? This is also the same council that approved another out of town retail park, which objectors – not least of all local business owners – have opposed on the grounds that by taking the retail trade away from the city centre, the place is slowly dying. It’s a complex argument, not least of all because the major chains and small independent stores serve different markets. Nevertheless, they can’t have it both ways, by encouraging more retailers to move out of town and then complain that there is an abundance of vacant premises once occupied by retailers, especially in the middle of a lengthy economic downturn. Remember the words ‘credit crunch’ and ‘recession’? For some reason, people seem to think things are improving just because the FTSE’s up and more houses have sold in the last 6 months – never mind the huge numbers of redundancies announced by large employers like Aviva, Co-op and HSBC.

There is of course another angle to this, namely, if everyone’s redundant, they’ll need nice pubs to sit in and while away the hours as they drink their redundancy pay-offs and dole cheques.

The same day I read the article, I was walking home through the city’s pub-packed centre when I ran into musician, poet, diarist and rambler Mark Wynn, a man who’s inspiring in his complete disregard for any kind of consumer trends or capitalist-led operating models of industry. As ever, he’d been travelling the length and breadth of the city, the county and the country, playing poorly-paid gigs in pubs of the very sort the Leeds and Ossett breweries run and giving away most of his CDs for nothing or in exchange for a beer. It’s something to be applauded. he’ll never be rich, but in sharing his art, he never goes thirsty. Moreover, his approach represents the epitome of the punk ethic: he’s out there doing it himself on zero budget and building a fanbase from a grass roots level. that’s what I call sticking it to the man!

We exchanged pamphlets: I had the very last copy of my Liberate Yourself! pamphlet folded in my bag (there are now 100 copies in circulation, and having been left on trains, in pubs, inside self-help books in WHS and who knows where, their whereabouts and readership I haven’t a clue) while he had a batch of a new A5 publication called Dirty Work containing some selected highlights of his spectacularly off the wall and very funny tour diaries and, stapled inside the back page, a PVC wallet containing his last album. Arguably, I was up on the deal, but these things always balance out over time (some weeks later, Dirty Work 3 would see the light of day, containing more rampant ramblings and a new CD EP by Mr Mark E Wynn with additional text by Sam Forrest of Nine Back Alps and The Sorry Kisses, and myself). The important thing was, we had traded our art with one another, we’d both received something we wanted and what’s more, the cash-free barter had taken place on the street. Retail outlets are just so last year.

 

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Shops? Who needs ‘em?

 

And if you’re loving my work, The Changing Face Of Consumerism – the book – will be out some time in June.

The Changing Face of Consumerism XII: Applied Economics and the Kindle Generation

Sometimes it’s better just to keep your mouth shut. I know this. I may be opinionated, but there’s a time and a place to express those opinions. More often than not, 9:05am in the office is neither the time nor the place. But sometimes I just can’t help myself.

It was just another day at the office, same as any other. I was trying to do something productive, because despite my abhorrence of ‘the system’ and working for ‘the man’, I appreciate that I’m being paid (albeit not nearly enough) not only for my time, but to use that time fruitfully (when IT permit) and besides, I’m one of those people who prefers to actually make busy rather than feign being busy. Perhaps I’d feel differently if I felt any affinity with the goons who occupy the desks within conversationable proximity to mine, but endless drivel about ‘Corro’ and ‘I’m a Celebrity’ fills me with a compulsion to burrow myself into a small dark corner, meaning that more often than not, I’ll bung a CD in the player or find an album on-line to stream, plug my phones in and create my own virtual cocoon in which to work. But sometimes I find it’s impossible to shut out the babble, and equally impossible to keep my trap shut.

Such was the scenario the other day. Three or four people seated behind me had been discussing books. Books I wasn’t bothered about. By which I mean, I’m not big on thrillers, and am wholly indifferent to the works of multi-million selling thriller author James Patterson. I was able to let the debate over whether or not his name was Patterson or Pattinson drift by, although I was pleased when one of the debaters thought to look him up on-line, and was also thus able to confirm the title of one of his books, courtesy of Amazon.

And so the subject moved to the topic of the Kindle.

“I love having my Kindle,” pronounced the middle-aged woman in the centre of the conversation, who’d been recounting how she’d hooked her husband on a certain author’s books by buying him one once. “But Kindle books are so expensive!”

“I know, I’d have thought they’d have been about a quid or something,” replied the colleague to her left, a tubby guy with a beard and spectacles in his mid to late twenties.

It’s a common complaint. If you read reader reviews of books on Amazon, there’ll invariably be a number harping on about the price of the Kindle edition – especially with new publications – to the extent that some titles attract dozens of one-star reviews without a single mention of the writing, the plot, the characters or any other aspect of thee contents of the book itself. Many of the reviewers aren’t even in a position to comment on the book, having posted their review in a fit of pique at the rip-off price being asked for the text with remarks like ‘I refused to buy it at that price’ and ‘I’ve ordered the paperback instead, but will have to wait several days for it to arrive in the post. And I’ve had to pay shipping on top!’

In today’s culture of immediacy and instant gratification, no-one wants to wait. And no-one wants clutter, either, hence the popularity of the Kindle. As the people behind me noted, it’s possible to store several hundred books, which would otherwise require many feet of shelves, on a single, portable device. But no-one seems to think it reasonable that they should pay for this convenience: they want it now, and they want it cheap, or better still, for free. But of course, that isn’t how capitalism works. Exploitation may be a significant feature of consumerism, with both consumer and producer being exploited for the benefit of the capitalists who hold the real power, but there has to be as degree of give and take, and if there’s no profit to be made from a end product, there’s simply no point in producing it, however useful it may be. But by the same token, the more useful or desirable a commodity, the higher its value in the marketplace. Whether that value is real or perceived is largely down to supply and demand, the market and marketing. It appears the perceived value of an e-book is comparatively low.

And so they whinged on in this fashion for a couple of minutes or so, bemoaning the fact that Kindle e-books are overpriced considering the fact there are no production costs involved.

As someone who has experience of publishing, both as an author and a publisher – albeit on a small scale – I felt qualified to wade in on this debate. Not that these individuals would have been aware of this: I tend to keep myself to myself, and not to talk about my writing or publishing activity in the workplace. Nevertheless, on this occasion, I found it impossible to let it go, and the fact my involvement in the publishing industry is on a small scale means it’s something that’s particularly close to my heart: it’s something that’s real and tangible, whereas with large-scale publishing – as with any large organisation – the realities become more abstracted as the process becomes increasingly distant. As with the music industry, Joe Public only conceives of the colossus: the multi-billion dollar international labels and the major-name chart acts. It’s understandable, of course, but the big names – and the big money associated with them – only account for a fraction of the whole. The common misconception is that everyone who has a book published is coining it in, because they hear about the immense earnings of the likes of J. K. Rowling and E. L. James. The majority of people don’t seem to realise that there are countless books that aren’t on the bestseller list, that aren’t published by Penguin or Bloomsbury. These are the people who buy one or two books a year, or possibly three when they raided a 3-for-2 offer at Waterstones or WHS or maybe their local supermarket. These are the people who, in the days before Kindle, would make sure the one, two or three books they purchased were at least 400 pages long because a 400-page book represents better value for money than a 250-page book that costs roughly the same. They’re the people who read series books because they know the characters and are comfortable with them, but are reluctant to try anything else because they don’t know what to expect: they might not like it. Better to play safe and go with what you know than risk disappointment and wasting money.

I don’t actually believe that all artists (by which I mean musicians writers, film-makers, dancers, whatever) should be able to make a living from what they do, even if such a scenario was feasible. There simply isn’t room for every artist, aspiring or otherwise, to achieve such widespread recognition as to sustain a living wage from their work, and there are many who simply aren’t worthy or, to be blunt, good enough. But I do believe that all artists should be fairly paid for what they do, just as any other form of labour should receive reasonable recompense.

If Kindle e-books really did all cost in the region of £1, you can guarantee that the ones who would see the biggest reduction in their cut of the profit (and there’s scant profit to be made on anything costing a pound) would be the writers. It hardly seems fair that the person responsible for the creation of the product should be paid less because some consumers choose to purchase a different format. The end product may be different, but the input itself remains the same. Would an office worker – the likes of the individuals idling away large portions of their working days debating the ways in which they spend their disposable income and leisure time – consider it acceptable to be paid less for dealing with emails instead of printed letters? Of course not: in fact, I suspect the opposite would be true, and that they would probably consider it reasonable to expect to be paid more, because the reduced overheads associated with e-comms over conventional paper and envelope snail-mail would logically enhance company profits – why shouldn’t they benefit? And this made for the starting point of my interjection into the conversation.

“The writers have still got to be paid,” I began. “On a paperback, they get pence in royalties…”

Naturally, the precise amount varies between books, publishers and authors, and the range is immense, and the actual royalty will depend on whether or not the book sells at its RRP or at a discounted price. But, for simplicity’s sake, it’s not unreasonable to work on the basis of the author’s royalty for a paperback being it’s around the 8% (although anywhere between 5% and 10% would be considered ‘average’), for hardback around 12%, and for e-books in the region of 20%. If a paperback retails at £7.99, you’re looking at 63p per copy going to the author (before tax). It takes a many multiples of 63p to equal a living wage. Given that it’s reported that 95% of all books published achieve sales of 100 or fewer, you can hardly consider writing a surefire route to riches, and when you also take into account the number of hours it takes to write a novel…

“Of course the writer’s have got to be paid,” agreed the woman, peering over her reading glasses. “But there’s no printing cost with a book on Kindle…”

I realised I needed to keep it brief and simple. And so I elected to pass on the details of the debate, hoping against hope that my sowing the seed may at least give them a prompt that would set these everyday consumers on a track of consideration.

I decided not to explain that obviously, the bigger the publisher, the more people are involved in the process. But against that, higher volumes of sales mean it’s easier to reduce unit costs… although it usually takes a bigger marketing budget to achieve those sales volumes. I also let pass the idea of there being a correspondence between market forces and cost in capitalist culture, namely that there’s a clear logic to charging the most people are willing to pay for a commodity. If a significant portion of any given target market are willing to pay, say, £10 for something, but consider £15 too expensive, why would anyone in the business of business, i.e. making a profit, charge only £5 for it?

The fact she’d already told her colleagues, “I buy loads more now I’ve got my Kindle. I keep finding stuff and thinking ‘What’s that?’” was evidence enough that however unreasonable she considers the price of e-books, the cost isn’t high enough to be prohibitive – and so the equation of balancing cost against demand and convenience works. This woman clearly isn’t alone, and as much as anything, I suspect the convenience is the real key here. The Kindle appeals to the demand everything, demand it yesterday if not sooner consumer society we live in and that the Internet has facilitated. Our needs haven’t changed all that radically, but our expectations have. Consequently, our demands have changed in line with those expectations. This then becomes a self-propagating cycle, and like a junky who experiences diminishing returns with every hit as their habit becomes more complete, so the consumer appetite grows evermore insatiable, needing more and faster. Yet each time the demand is met, so expectations grow, and as those expectations come to be met, so demand grows.

“That’s true,” I countered, “but the print cost actually only accounts for some of the actual cost of publishing a book. With an e-book, you’ve still got the bulk of the other costs involved in the publication process, like paying proof readers, like cover art, promotion… and you have to reformat a text for Kindle. Plus you’re paying for the convenience of the format, of having it instantly. Besides, given how little authors do earn on each book sold, if there is scope for paying a bit more, then that can only be a good thing.”

The woman looked at me boredly, then replied, “Yes, I know and understand all that, but I still would have thought they’d be cheaper. You know, like around a pound or so.”

 

Kindle

A Kindle. Publish a book formatted for this, charge over the odds and make a mint. It works for me! Pass the Bolly, will you?

The Changing Face of Consumerism XI: Back Down on the Street, or, Going for Bust

So a mere matter of days after my last piece on the struggling high street, I woke up this morning to more news of high street stores experiencing a drop in like-for-like sales in comparison to the same time last year, with HMV delivering particularly disappointing figures marked by sales being down 8.2% in December 2010. It is disappointing, too. Of the bigger chain music stores, I always preferred HMV (although Andy’s records had the edge for a while both in terms of pricing and range). First and foremost, they carried a broader selection with less mainstream releases sitting alongside the chart material. And, while a tad pricey, their range of back-catalogue titles was far superior to Overprice / Virgin.

But rather than work to their strengths and make a virtue of their difference, HMV followed the template of its competitors and having killed off the (albeit limited) vinyl section in favour of calendars and games, continued over a lengthy period of time to reduce the music stock – to make room for more games, DVDs and gadgetry. When the music occupies the smallest portion of a music retailer’s floor space, you have to ask questions. HMV’s struggling is an example of how diversification can be counterproductive, and rather than appealing to a broader customer base, can serve to alienate the one already established. How can a music retailer seriously expect to compete in other markets already dominated by specialists. More often than not, gamers will head to somewhere like Game for games, just as you’d probably go to a clothes shop for clothes, a bookstore for books, an electrical store for electrical goods – unless, of course, they go to the supermarket for the whole lot. After a while, I stopped asking questions and also stopped going in, because each time I did I found myself leaving empty-handed and frustrated because they never had the title I was after in stock. I’d invariably end up purchasing my music on-line because I couldn’t source it anywhere else.

I don’t for a second mean to suggest that I’m responsible for HMV’s declining sales (and I certainly played no part La Senza, the purveyors of slinky lingerie, being called into administration with a loss of 1,300 jobs, prompting headlines such as ‘Lingerie firm goes bust’ etc.), but while my musical tastes may be ‘minority’, there are many other minorities just like me, and collectively, they represent a substantial market.

As mentioned in passing in my previous piece, it’s not just music that I have problems tracking down, and it’s not always obscure items I struggle to find in shops either. As if to prove the point, only this week I decided I wanted to get a desk lamp. As my desk also happens to be the dining table and space is of a premium, I figured a desk lamp that clamps onto the shelves to the side of the table would be the best bet. But could I find one anywhere? Working out of time, my choices on a lunchtime were limited, but there is an Argos superstore and BHS Home Store (yes, British Home Stores Home Store) which specialises in goods for the, er, home, rather than home and clothing. A quarter of the store is given to a lighting department, but unless I wanted a lime-green desk-lamp with a regular base I was out of luck. That is, unless I wanted a ludicrously glitzy lamp shade with dangling glass bits all over it, which I most certainly didn’t. Argos carry a much more substantial range of desk lights, from bendy to angle-poise, but the only clamping ones are LED lamps, which just don’t give off enough light. I’d still need to put on the main ceiling light to see my screen, which defeats the purpose of a desk light I can angle in my corner without illuminating the whole room. Really, how hard can it be to find a simple item like a clamp-fitting desk lamp that takes a proper, regular bulb?

The answer is that it’s not hard at all. Five minutes on-line and I found I was spoiled for choice. Even so, on-line shopping is no substitute for real shopping as it’s often hard to get a sense of the precise dimensions or appearance of an item – you can’t ‘feel the quality’ from a description and photo, however detailed. Thankfully, it transpired that a local independent store I pass on my way through town after work had the best selection of all. Once again, hooray for the independents!

 

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A clip-on desk lamp, earlier today

 

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk

The Changing Face of Consumerism X: Down on the Street

Only just a few days into January and already the sales reports from the high street are beginning to filter through for the run-up to Christmas. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone will be surprised by the fact that broadly, sales have been rather poor and substantially weaker than hoped, and that as a percentage of retail sales, online transactions account for a larger proportion than ever before.

Sky News report, ‘There is one factor common to the trading statements from Next and John Lewis – an increase in online sales that has propped up the overall results.’

The on-line article continues, ‘In the case of Next, it’s [sic] Directory service recorded a 16% increase between 2010 and 2011 for like-for-like sales. Sky News has been told that online sales account for roughly 90% of this figure. With regards to John Lewis, online sales for the five weeks to December 31, 2011, were 27.9% up on last year.’

Apart from exemplifying the kind of statistically-dense reporting that’s likely to bamboozle the average reader and providing a practical demonstration in the kind of journalism that uses a proliferation of numbers in lieu of meaningful analysis, what we are supposed to extrapolate from this is that the figures speak for themselves. Of course, this is patently untrue, because the figures, bald and devoid of context are in themselves virtually meaningless. The scant analysis offered by the unnamed reporter does little to shed any real light on the implications of the figures when they ask ‘What can we learn from this? Well essentially that we, as shoppers, are inherently lazy and becoming increasingly more so,’ adding ‘There is nothing wrong with that. If we can shop without leaving our desk or home then we are choosing to do so.’ Really? There’s a lot wrong with being inherently lazy, on so many levels, but of more importance here is the fact that shopping from one’s desk (something many employers would surely disapprove of, and which could constitute misuse / abuse of company systems) or home does not necessarily equate to being lazy. I would contend that lethargy has nothing to do with it, and that the laziness of consumers is nothing in comparison to the laziness of the journalists proffering such poorly-considered evaluations of the ‘facts’.

For starters, the article fails to take into account the fundamental fact that high-street (or out of town) shopping – real-life shopping – is hell. Never mind, as was mentioned in the BBC’s TV report, that the opening hours of high-street retail outlets are both limited and limiting, and that on-line shopping affords the convenience of 24/7 open hours, which are handy for those who work sociable hours (I say this because those work work anti-social hours aren’t stuck in an office or other place of work between the hours 9am and 5pm, when shops are open, and if you’ve ever tried to do any serious shopping within the confines of a lunch hour Monday to Friday, you’ll appreciate that it’s not only nigh on impossible, but more hellish than Beelzebub’s oven).

Discounting the Sartrean hell that is other people momentarily, there’s the fact that comparing the prices different retailers charge for the same item is considerably more straightforward and less time-consuming on-line than on foot. And of course, time is money, supposedly. Undoubtedly, that time is the most precious commodity an individual can have is part and parcel of the hectic technology-driven lifestyles that facilitate both on-line shopping and global commerce. If workers do spent time at their desks shopping on-line, it could be that they’re time-wasting skivers, but could just as readily be because they’re too busy to take a proper lunch break in which to hit the shops, which have probably relocated to an out-of-town shopping precinct.

According to the Sky article, ‘The trick for retailers is how best to facilitate that and how they combine an online store with their high street shops whilst keeping both profitable.’ No kidding. By making your presence as a business prominent via the most channels available, with particular emphasis on those where the most customers are, then you’ll fare better than if you don’t. The adage ‘Location, Location, Location’ still has merit, and applies to the virtual world too. As for keeping outlets profitable, that’s surely how business works, period.

Sky’s report concludes with the observation that ‘Both Next and John Lewis know their customer base well and play to it with success’ (fine, except according to the figures, Next’s overall sales are only fractionally up, and its high street sales have dropped dramatically, a point that provided the focus of The Guardian’s reporting of the same information, with Zoe Wood writing, ‘Analysts estimated that like-for-like sales in Next stores fell more than 5% in the last two months of the year, resulting in a worse than expected 2.7% decline for the six months to 24 December. That weakness was offset by a strong performance at home shopping arm Directory, where sales jumped nearly 17%. Together the divisions delivered growth of 3.1% which was in line with guidance given to analysts in November’).

The reporter ends their piece by opining that ‘Retail is Darwinian, the survival of the fittest. Success and survival comes to those who change and adapt. The old adage is the true: the customer is always right.’ This is blatantly untrue, and blindly propagates the myth that markets are consumer driven. As I have bemoaned variously, I feel largely uncatered for as a consumer. It’s not even the obscure items, that I would expect having difficulty with, that present the biggest problems. If I want something unusual, there are niche stores – granted, usually on-line – that stock them. I’m talking about specific books, records, storage solutions, brand footwear at prices I’m willing to afford (£95 for a pair of DM Chelsea boots is obscene however you look at it) homebrewing equipment and other such items. But try finding something simple, like decent oven mitts, a ceiling-mounting light for the bathroom designed to work with a fitting that runs in conjunction with the wiring for an extractor fan, jam jars, etc., and you’ll probably struggle. I can’t be the only one seeking these items, and can therefore only conclude that others make do with whatever alternatives and close matches are readily available. How does this indicate a market tailored to the consumer?

Moreover, if I find myself making an increasing number of purchases on-line because I frequently return from town empty-handed, having been unable to find the specific item I was searching for, how is that an example of consumer lethargy? Again, by failing to cater for my needs, the high-street stores have failed their (potential) customers and driven them on-line. If retail is Darwinian, surely the survivors are the ones that stock the items that consumers actually want. After all, it’s only possible to convince people that they want what they get and that they don’t know what they want until they see it up to a point. If I need a new stylus for my turntable, it won’t do to tell me that vinyl’s outmoded and that I should get myself an iPod and docking station instead, and similarly, if the styli in stock aren’t compatible with my turntable, I won’t be buying one – or a new turntable for that matter, at least for as long as there are other stockists who carry compatible styli. It’s really not that hard.

High-street shopping is tiring and laborious. Some people love it and will spend days trailing round shops trying on shoes and clothes and all the rest. Yet even those than enjoy such shopping expeditions will often make their purchases on-line, not through lethargy but because of the price. No-one with half a brain is going to buy an item in one place they can purchase for a third less elsewhere, especially when they know it’s the item they want having already tried it on or out. On-line stores don’t have the overheads of physical stores: fact. They don’t have to pay out-front assistants, cleaners, heating, lighting, or, most significantly, rent on the floorspace. This is precisely why Amazon can undercut Waterstone’s and HMV so dramatically (and why HMV, with their Channel Islands based tax-loophole savvy on-line arm can undercut its own physical stores, a retail model also known as shooting oneself in the foot). Of course people are going to go and buy their goods on line for less. It’s simple economics.

Another piece of simple economics is that anything that isn’t growth is considered recession, but to expect endless growth is unrealistic. Sure, the world’s population may be continually expanding, but that doesn’t mean they all want to buy the same products. Certain markets have limited potential for expansion, even mainstream mass markets. Therefore, to declare ‘flat’ sales or lower than projected growth a complete disaster seems unreasonable. Yet many companies will lay off large numbers of their workforce in light of such ‘disappointing’ results, and blame the recession while contributing to it and exacerbating the problem further.

But perhaps the biggest major omission in these reports is that people aren’t spending because they simply don’t have the money. There’s a global financial crisis going on. The fact that the figures for Christmas 2011 correspond with those for 2008, only with the decreases in overall sales and the erring toward on-line sales more dramatic, reminds us that we’re still in a slump. The words ‘recession’ and ‘depression’ still hang over financial reports like a black cloud. Look at the most recent unemployment figures: they’re still on the up, not just in Britain, but in the US – and the US economy is the global economy.

Context counts, then, and against a backdrop of financial uncertainty, rising inflation, etc., etc., people are spending less money because they have less money. It’s interesting to note that these reports appear on the same day that homelessness charity Shelter made public the findings of a survey they had recently conducted, which revealed that one in seven Britons has turned to credit such as a payday loan or unauthorised overdraft to help cover their rent or mortgage in the last year. Surely this is all the evidence required to establish the reason behind reduced spending. I’ll say it again: people simply haven’t got the money. But then, perhaps they never did have the money. The difference now is that neither do the banks, and so they’re not lending it out. And if people can’t get credit, then they can’t spend the money they don’t have on things they don’t need. Better to spend the money they don’t have on the things they do need, like accommodation. It’s a slippery slope, of course, and where it ends is anyone’s guess. But then, that’s what economists do….

 

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The Changing Face of Consumerism IX – Real, Real, Real

Just as the nature of consumerism has changed dramatically during the course of the last decade – not to mention the last half-century – so the nature of industry has also metamorphasised. In so-called ‘developing’ countries (it’s a questionable term. Technological advances could be seen as development, but an exponential increase in fossil fuel consumption and an insatiable need for unsustainable resource is rather akin to ‘developing’ a 40-a-day smoking habit coupled with some heavy drinking), Industrialisation has caught on, dragging them into the global marketplace. By this, of course, it simply means that large corporations can circumvent domestic legislation in favour of giving workers rights and exploit an fiscally impoverished workforce even more ruthlessly. Driving costs down is good for business, as it increases profits, and the shareholders and the City love that.

As more manufacturing has been ‘outsourced’ to developing countries, the nature of employment in the ‘developed’ countries has moved toward tertiary service industries. Collar colours aside, the most fundamental difference between service and manufacturing industries is the tangibility or physicality of the product. The closest you’ll get to seeing or holding your insurance or shares, for example, is in the form of a certificate or other printed document. When you think about it, these objects which represent the thing in itself but are not in actuality the thing in itself – i.e. the signifier to the signified – you’re buying a concept more than an actual product. Of course, this is simply how money works: the ten-pound note in your wallet is not actual money, but a physical symbol of money. The balance in your bank, if you’re fortunate enough to be in the black, does not mean there’s really £500 that you own just sitting there. This is common knowledge, but it’s hard to separate the concept from the reality. You do not have any real money. No-one ever sees ‘the money’. Tom Cruise could yell till he’s blue in the face, he’s never going to be shown the actual money, just more printed paper that promises to pay the bearer a designated sum on demand. But try making that demand and all you’re likely to get another sign or representation.

We live in a virtual world. In his writing on ‘The Political Unconscious’, Frederic Jameson theorises that one feature of postmodernity is a reality that is infinitely deferred. This theory is now the reality as we exist in our virtual worlds projecting ersatz avatar versions of ourselves into the ether. It becomes impossible to distinguish the real from reflection, not only for others, but for ourselves. Do we become the identities we project, or do they become our real-life selves when the layers of the onion that is the multi-faceted personality are peeled back one by one?

On a personal level, my real-life self and virtual self are indeed separate but given to occasional and significant crossover. And so it is that we both like music and books with a passion, but struggle to get to grips with the modern trend for downloading. It’s ok: Deleuze and Guatarri convinced me I’m ok because a schizophrenic mindset is the only sane response to the postmodern, late-capitalist society I find myself in.

Stumbling around the house trying to avoid the partially organised and rather precarious stacks of CDs and books in the office and groaning each time I try to accommodate a new purchase onto the shelf or rack, I can completely understand why people would want to declutter, to reduce their lives. Yet try as I might, I find myself unable to separate the intangible – the music or the words – from the tangible, the physical – the record or CD or the book.

Nevertheless, I like my intangibles to present a physical form. The way I respond as a reader to words contained in the books I read is a complex process, which, while admittedly develop through conditioning and personal experience, is nevertheless intertwined with the act of reading. An audiobook may contain exactly the same words, but will not cause me to react in the same way. On a purely personal feel, the act of reading also entails the turning of the page, the look, feel and smell of the book. The quality of the paper, however poor, the print, the formatting, the cover, while peripheral, are all integral to varying degrees in combining to create the experience as a whole. Even the process of sourcing books is a part of the relationship I have with it: memories are made in the locating of a book in a little secondhand shop while on holiday just as much as they are of recalling where I was when I read the book, and how I was feeling at the time.

The same is true of music and many other objects – objects that now clutter my home, but collectively tell a version of the story of my life. This isn’t to suggest in any way that I am my possessions, or that my possessions own me and not vice versa. Nor would I really describe myself as a materialist in the conventional sense.

Perhaps it’s my age, but I want to feel as though I’m actually buying something when I part with my money. Yes, I know that in reality that it’s the production – the recording, the creative process – that is where the bulk of the cost actually lies. The physical object – the CD or the book – coat pence each to manufacture. A CD may cost in the region of 49 pence to produce, but paying the artist a wage of some descrption, that allows them to eat while they record the album, for which it’s necessary to hire (and pay for) a studio, engineer., etc., soon becomes a substantial expense, and one that must be recouped – usually before the artists gets paid, too. Then there are the designers, the PR people, and all the rest. So, the difference in production cost between a CD and an M3 version of an album comes down to the medium. However, this is only partly true: depending on the size of the manufacturing run, the cost of producing a CD is in fact negligible, and the same is true of a book. Yet as a consumer, I don’t really care about these matters: it feels like the difference is a yawning chasm that spans half the universe.

It’s not just the sound quality (I know the sound of Mp3 files has improved enormously in the last few years, but even if an MP3 isn’t compressed to fuck, it’s still inferior to the digital spectrum we were once sold as being the glory of the CD, which in turn lacked the vibrance and depth of vinyl. Forget clarity, that clinical crispness strips something from the recording that can’t be substituted or compensated, and the MP3 is the CD’s poor cousin, lacking the physical presence and lyric booklet in much the same way that a virtually turning page is not, however hard it might pretend to be, a fair substitute for an actual page.

I’m aware of the issues of storage, perhaps more than most. 1,500 or so LPs and 12” singles, 600 7” singles and in excess of 2,000 CDs are a real bastard to house in a two-bed terraced property, and to move when it comes to relocation. But at least I know where my money’s gone and what I need to insure. Picking up a storage device no bigger than an audiocassette knowing that it contains not only my entire music collection, but also music to the value of something in the region of £30,000 is almost inconceivable. The same is true of a virtual library. The fact that a fire tearing through the house would – or could – have the same effect regardless of my choice of ‘file’ type is really beside the point.

It’s curious to note how times have changed: time was when an extensive library of books and an expansive record collection were perceived as accomplishments. They inspired respect, even awe. Now, the owners of large volumes of material possessions are considered to be simply behind the times, information dinosaurs plodding a Luddite land of clutter that’s cumbersome and difficult to navigate. Why would anyone want a 10-volume encyclopaedia when mankind’s entire learnings can be obtained on-line via Wikipedia (or other sites if more specialist knowledge is required, but why would you want that, really, unless you’re a real nerd)? In fact, what’s the point of a space-hogging PC base unit and monitor when you can have everything you need on a tablet? A music collection and library that not only occupies considerable space, but cost a fortune and took a lifetime to accumulate seems entirely redundant beside a small, flat piece of digital kit that costs around £300 and can be transported anywhere. And I suppose if you’re happy or able to accept a life of precarity, instability, endless mobility, that’s fine, but it’s not for me.

In fact, for many, owning music seems superfluous when you can stream it all via Spotify. It frees up funds to purchasing other ephemeralities and experiences. Again, the idea of a life recorded on Facebook is one that doesn’t appeal to me. The public nature of the medium aside, I struggle with the concept of a reliance on something that may disappear at any time. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in our world of rapid development is that technology attains obsolescence at an evermore speedy rate. There was a time, believe it or not, when the 8-track, the cassette and the videotape were all cutting edge. Betamax, laserdisc and minidisc were all the future, yet despite the qualities these media offered, early adopters were left out of pocket and out of style, not to mention out of the technology loop. CD was supposed to supersede both vinyl and the audiocasette – yet strangely, the MP3 killed both CD and tape while vinyl hangs in there, with a whole new wave of audiophiles sustaining a market that previously didn’t exist. I digress: the point is that Facebook could be next year’s MySpace, and a life on line is only a transient representation of real life: it’s a history that can not only be easily misrepresented and misappropriated, but one that could even more easily be erased. Obviously, nothing’s forever, but the physical – especially if backed up, duplicated somehow – has a greater capacity to be futureproof than anything that relies purely on the intangible (but then I find the idea of playing a virtual guitar while playing at being in a virtual band equally abhorrent and not just a little strange Step away from the console, pick up a real instrument, learn to play and form a proper fucking band if you have any interest in Rock Stardom!).

I’m not doing technology down as such – at all, in fact – but can you imagine future generations, instead of looking through albums and biscuit tins of family photos and shoeboxes of postcards and correspondence, gluing themselves to a screen and reminiscing about the day that prompted that romantic email, the wonderful day out to the coast captured magnificently in 6 megapixel digital colour, or even the idea of returning to that book you so loved in college and forwarding your friend or child the Kindle download to read and share the wonder? In all of the streamlining, the decluttering, something has been lost. An on-line playlist is not a direct or equal substitute for a lovingly-compiled mix-tape with lovingly-written, hand-scribbled notes on a piece of paper torn from an exercise book and inserted, tightly-folded, into the plastic case. If, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, the medium is the message, what sort of message is a medium that’s so theoretical say about our times and its users?

The bottom line is that if I’m spending money on something, I want something to show for it. I’m not suggesting that it needs to be big to justify the expense, but in a world where so little is fixed, stable, reliable, there’s a lot to be said for keeping it real as a means of keeping it grounded, and as a way of keeping it accessible in the future.

 

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The Changing Face of Consumerism VIII: State of Independence, or, All’s Well at The Inkwell

The seven ‘Changing Face of Consumerism’ articles I ran on MySpace in 2008 and 2008 all shared a common theme, namely lamenting the sad decline of the real – both in media and commodity, with ‘reality’ television being a pisspoor ersatz approximation of any reality I’ve ever known, and ‘real’ shopping experiences being slowly subsumed by the virtual marketplace.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for progress, and have long been a big fan of on-line shopping, being one who doesn’t cope well with crowds or endless hours of pavement-pounding in search of goods, but by the same token, I’m a strong advocate of consumer choice. Despite what the global marketplace on-line tells us, we as consumers do not have infinite choice, not least of all because while some niche outlets fare well on-line, many have gone to the wall because the same kind of corporate giants that slowly erased all of the small independent stores from the high streets of each and every town have steamrollered the little on-line traders out.

As city centres everywhere become identikit clones of anywheresville, so our sense of location becomes diminished: the only thing to differentiate, say, Leeds from Lincoln, isn’t the choice of shops, but the size of each branch, and after a mooch round M&S, Boots, Game and HMV, stopping for a uniform coffee in a Starbucks or Costa before going on to… well, it doesn’t matter. I mean it really doesn’t matter where you are, the experience is pretty much the same. Fine, so you know what you’re going to get, but the experience of discovering a little specialist shop tucked away somewhere is radically different and appeals to a whole range of senses. However hard Amazon try to replicate the browsing experience of specialist independent book and record stores with features like ‘look inside’ and the song snippets you can listen to, in addition to the list of recommendations based on what you’re looking at and what other shoppers have also purchased or viewed that functions as a mimesis of the friendly and enthusiastic guy behind the counter who just loves his books or music and knows everything there is to know, like a living, walking encyclopedia, it just isn’t the same. There’s no substitute for browsing.

And so it was that I was practically skipping when The Inkwell opened in York a few weeks ago. A little shop stocking secondhand books, records (with a few selected new titles), CDs and cards, it’s the kind of shop you used to drop into, rummage around and find something wonderful you didn’t even know you wanted. The owner, Paul Lowman, is clearly an unashamed enthusiast first and a businessman second, and while such a venture is the kind that will never make him rich, and would make many lenders and entrepreneurs alike squirm in discomfort, it’s a shopper’s delight. Perhaps not surprisingly, The Inkwell is aimed at a niche market (by which I mean discerning shoppers: Paul’s philosophy is according to the website, “COOL STUFF FOR ALL!” Popular Culture is about democracy – inclusivity, not exclusivity) specialising as it does in books on music, film and pop culture, with sections on the Beat Generation, Art, Philosophy and a noteworthy – not to mention impressive – selection of pulp paperbacks, all in remarkably good condition (yet reasonably priced, with titles marked up at between six and ten quid).

The vinyl, too, is all in great nick, and the range, though limited, is all about quality and catering to a particular kind of discerning alt/hipster customer. There’s no mainstream pap to be found on the racks: instead, there are sections devoted to Garage, Psych, 90s Indie, Spoken Word / Comedy, and even Burlesque. Yes, if you want the kitsch sleaze of yesteryear, then the range of sexploitation titles in both audio and written media is exceptional.

It’s a tiny little place, made all the more cramped by there being a pair of school desks in the middle of the room, upon which a choice of books are casually laid. It’s all about the browsing experience (they serve coffee too), and an eclectic mix of music is spun – at high volume, and all on vinyl, naturally – on the turntable in the corner by the counter. Of course, it’s simply one’s man’s vision, one man’s obsession made manifest… but what’s wrong with that? But equally, why should a shop such as this succeed in a climate where major chains are going to the wall? The answer, I believe, is simple. In attempting to appeal to everyone, the major chains ultimately cater for no-one. In aiming to cover a vast market based on some kind of assumed generic average consumer and broad populism, the chains become Xerox copies of one another: reliable, perhaps, but ultimately forgettable and wholly impersonal. A shop like The Inkwell isn’t about conquering the world or trying to cater to all tastes: it knows its market and knows it well – because by being the shop its owner wants it to be, it’s catering for like-minded individuals (there’s that word again!). It’s unique in every way, and every item in stock is essentially a one-off. It has the personal touch and is memorable. And that’s why it has a better than average chance of success.

So, on the opening day I left with a brand new hardback copy of Brion Gysin: Dream Machine (a bargain at a tenner given that it retails at £25), a read but respectable copy of The Dark Stuff by Nick Kent (£3) and a vinyl LP – a copy of Fade Out by Loop, again in top condition (EX as Record Collector would have it), for a fiver.

I returned this week and was pleased to see some of the stock had gone and new stuff had taken its place, meaning I was able to add a copy of the original 1971 Olympia Press edition of S.C.U.M. Manifesto by Valerie Solanas to my library. The tenner asking price was more than fair, especially given the condition.

Does The Inkwell represent the vanguard of the counter-revolution in the world of retail? Perhaps not, but I’d like to think that other independent stores will begin to pop up, not just in York, but in every city, and soon. It’s unlikely that this is how the economic situation will be recovered, but being able to rifle some good books and records in a pleasant environment certainly makes these dark times a lot more bearable.

The Inkwell Online is cool – www.ink-well.co.uk – but not nearly as cool as being there.

 

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