Category Archives: News Features

Netflix’ll Be There For You

Last year I read an article in which Netflix paid $100 million in order to keep the show ‘Friends’ for another year. Apparently, this happened because both Hulu and WarnerMedia (who originally owned the show) wanted it back for exclusive streaming, and Netflix didn’t want to let it go. I’ve never considered myself a fan of Friends but recognize that airing over 10 Seasons and producing 236 episodes it was something a generational phenomenon.

Originally launching in September 1994 the show (for the one person who has never heard of it) focused on the lives of six friends in New York City. The different characters and commotions they encountered evidentially brought them closer as they moved from late 20s into mid 40s – and the actors portraying them became increasingly wealthy in the process. In fact, by the end of the shows final season, it was well documented each actor was receiving $1 million dollars per episode filmed.

So the value of $100 million to each actor across 18 episodes ($108 million) means the show has lost virtually none of its value in the previous two decades – which, in itself, is somewhat of an astonishing achievement. Even if the actors themselves claim to have made virtually nothing from the shows first three seasons, and that it wasn’t until the latter half the shows run that they were able to capitalize on their monetary worth and value.

But asides what makes this show so watchable, as every fan has no doubt watched Friends in its entirety about 20 times now (and I thought I was bad re-watching the entire Breaking Bad series four times and counting) there’s a real question of why we do this and what the point is. Well, we are creatures of comfort, and as humans we enjoy squeezing chance out of our lives. Consider, for a moment the stressful world in which we live, or at least which social media would have you believe the majority of the population live.

Within this world, we look for moments in which to rid ourselves of stress, whether that’s taking a night out with friends and getting inebriated, reading a book we love or watching a film we’ve seen a thousand times. Netflix is, in itself, a reliever of stress.

And as consumers of mass entertainment we’re unlikely – more often than not – to watch programs and films we’ve seen before. Either because we wish to “half watch” a program and pay little attention to it, in the case of tormented parents subjected to the 100th watch of ‘The Greatest Showman’ or ‘The Little Mermaid’ or because we really want to escape to a world where we know all the exits. The kind of person who spends more time checking their phone than watching the movie. Just the other day I visited a cinema where a patron stopped during a film to take a selfie in a darkened theatre, with the flash on, before continuing to watch the film.

No surprises and no shocks from the “real world” make life better. That, coupled with the nostalgia we experience from the familiar – and in this case, we’re literally talking about the cast of Friends – mean that we remember good memories of previously watching this show or interacting with the dated set pieces and situations these characters find themselves in. Particularly when we’ve little to no interest in new experiences or taking chances.

Consider the success of YouTube streaming services over the last decade. Someone will unbox the product, play the video game, reveal the ending, berate and review the movie or react to the trailer – all before you’ve had a chance to express your opinion. Between work and travel we are constantly looking for ways to squeeze the most out of those precious few hours luxury we have a week. I personally choose to write, and many would argue I should stop wasting my time, but I choose to take a chance and challenging myself to create something on a particular topic. Reading a review of an a book before I’ve read it or spoiling the end of a movie so I can validate it’s worth my time isn’t of interest. Because if the Internet does your thinking for you, what’s the point?

But what does this mean for Netflix and streaming services? Well, effectively, it means that Friends is a popular show. But it also means that just like the terrestrial stations of years gone by it is now streaming services who are encouraging people to subscribe to their services by offering long established product. Disney’s recent acquisition of Star Wars will ultimately mean that their offering of the entire franchise created by George Lucas gives another massive boost to their pre-existing animated catalog and makes Disney + an attractive proposition.

I’ve spoken on this site before about streaming services making more physical venues like HMV obsolete. The other day I saw a ‘Rick and Morty’ Season 3 Blu Ray newly released over the Christmas period for £19.99; and considered why someone might purchase content that restricted them to just one season where the entire show was available to view on Netflix, whose cheapest subscription is now just £5.99 a month within the UK. It made no sense to pay so much more for a physical copy, yet on the other hand I’ve done just that, paying over the odds prices on not only physical copies of films and albums but also purchasing obsolete formats on Vinyl and Cassette in favor of just using a streaming service on my phone.

2018 may be recorded as many things, but as we enter 2019, we’ll be looking at the second decade of this millennium truly coming into its own – entering its “roaring 20’s” and that this is an age of streaming and mass consumption based on a whim gives one reason to pause for thought. Social Media such as Facebook and Instagram, Music on Spotify, Film and TV on Netflix, streaming platforms on video games all essentially offering us an a la carte menu through which to consume whimsically and skip ahead to what we like. There’s no sense of achievement in taking that Friday night trip to the video store, browsing the shelves and choosing what you’d like, instead you select your choice (based on pre approved reviews that tell you to absolutely watch Birdbox now) and if you don’t like it you can discard it and move on quite quickly.

With that mountain of content growing, and more emphasis placed on older achievements and nostalgia (as we think about the countless prequels, reboots and comebacks Netflix alone has supported) it won’t be long before we simply stop taking chances – stop paying or investing in new product – stop doing anything but watching reruns of Friends and ironically fail to make our own Friends to grow, share and bond with.

Your mother told you there’d be days like this, but she didn’t tell you when the world has brought you down to your knees.

The End of HMV, Part 2

‘Despite the well publicised state of the UK retail environment, HMV remains profitable, demonstrating the success of the turnaround programme instituted five years ago,’ said Paul McGowan, executive chairman of HMV owner Hilco Capital (September 2018). 

As Nipper may be silenced from barking permanently, I felt that it would be a good idea to write down some thoughts on the closure of HMV, considering that it so forcefully impacts the world in which I reside. You probably didn’t know that the name of the dog in the HMV logo was Nipper. If truth be told I only found this out when I actually worked for the company. But I want to make clear that I’m not writing this article as some insider or some higher authority, since I spent a few months working for HMV in Edinburgh and a few weeks over one Christmas working for HMV in Newcastle, and that pales in comparison to the hard working people I met during that time who’d spent years – if not decades – working for the company.

In Newcastle, for example, I met a man named Keith. I always loved the phrase that he used when he said he wore the HMV shirt to work like a footballer strolled onto the pitch in his kit. There was a certain sense of passion I always encountered in HMV that was sorely lacking from other establishments. I first started visiting HMV Newcastle regularly in 2012 and the genuine knowledge of the staff stood out from a typical high street chain. I mean, granted, I’m not sure I’d ever strike up a conversation with someone about my Whopper in Burger King but I do think that stores like Game have never really employed staff with the kind of passion for their market I’d of expected.

In 2013 I watched on as, having already worked for HMV in Edinburgh during 2008, it looked as if HMV was closing down. Several stores paid staff redundancy, they cashed out their pensions and walked away, yet after two weeks they were getting phone calls asking them to come back. It’s funny now because I suppose in that situation you’d have to see anything as temporary. But as the years began to pass once more you couldn’t help but get comfortable. Yes, it was a new contract, but this was the job you’d held all those years previous. And lightning couldn’t strike twice, could it?

Vinyl is a great passion of mine, but there’s no doubting it’s expensive, with the average record costing anywhere from 20 to 30 pounds. Tesco sell Vinyl, and so do Sainsbury’s, but the selection in HMV is unrivaled. And unlike cassette – or even CD – it’s relatively difficult to just walk out the door with Vinyl records under your coat. I’m not saying they’re theft proof, I’m sure some have tried, but it would be a lot more challenging than your average Blu Ray. When HMV announced the administrators in 2013 several thousand flocked to stores in the space of days, purchasing goods that were discounted up to 80%, sales which ironically held a part in saving the company. But this time you have to imagine that HMV simply doesn’t own their stock, that so much of it is held on credit, agreements made that ensure closing the store would result in that stock being handed back to its legal owners.

I remember when HMV sold iPhone in 2009 and people were quick to blame expansion like this as the reason for its downfall. The “rebranding” in 2013 promised that they’d be reevaluating their position in the market. I know that in 2015 they were reporting financial profits and their Vinyl sales had an exceptional profit margin. You didn’t have to be a staff member to know this, an article dated from September 2018 explains that HMV had outsold Britain’s four biggest supermarkets combined, and was experiencing a 27% surge in sales. The same article also quotes HMV’s profits before tax at 8 million in 2017 compared to 10.7 in 2016.

https://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/markets/article-6222335/Now-thats-record-HMV-sells-Britains-vinyl-CDs.html

Reading this article you wouldn’t imagine it was only a few weeks ago. So what happens in just a few weeks that threaten the jobs of 2,200+ people and countless other distributors and marketing chains? If we do live in a world where Amazon is being told by the consumer that, while it has its place, they prefer the physical touch – why has HMV struggled to get through another Christmas?

The largest part of my belief is that credit can only be extended for so long, and that although certain elements have performed well, the sales of DVD and Blu Ray have massively fallen. When I visited my local store last night I considered purchasing Rick and Morty Season 3 (Pickle Rick!) but sadly reminded myself that I would be spending 20 pound for something already available as part of my Netflix package. There’s even an argument to be had that downloading illegal files is more time consuming then just powering up Netflix, Prime, Hulu or whatever you fancy and scrolling for something to watch.

On the same token, Spotify can be told what to play by Alexa, so why do we need to purchase a CD with limited capacity for playback or – god forbid – fill an MP3 player. Why spend money on an iTunes account when their streaming services will simply play you an unlimited amount of music, whatever your mood or your feelings, and you can toss away that music just as soon as you’ve found it. I could write another article on that alone. But the point is that it does impact the way we spend our money. A friend of mine has a car that he uses his CD player in, and if it wasn’t for this device and the fact he too used to work in a retail store, he tells me confidentially he’d never buy another album that wasn’t on Vinyl.

When it comes to the rows of Funko Pop vinyl and T Shirts, HMV is leading the charge, but the reality of what people will buy is far different. Regardless, I’m hoping my colleagues are able to begin this year with a sprinkle of hope and that even if the worst doesn’t happens they find themselves back on their feet as soon as possible.

Let Me Be Frank

I loved House of Cards. It was a powerful show, built from the memory of a BBC serial, it outgrew its predecessor rapidly as it focused on the political machinations of Chief Whip Frank Underwood and his wife Claire. Drawing comparison with Macbeth, Underwood is the classic politician loyal to the King, yet spurned by that King and driven by ambition he aspires to become the King himself. Setting the show in Washington DC, in the heartland of US politics led to all kinds of possibilities, as the series itself began to be mirrored in the real life political ambitions of one Donald J Trump.

And yet, as good as the show was, it’s main drawing power was actor Kevin Spacey. As Underwood, Spacey gave another phenomenal performance, proving that he is an extremely gifted actor with the skill for deception and the art of imitating life.

On Christmas Eve 2018, it was announced by the prosecutor that Spacey would be charged with a felony over his sexual assault allegations, a matter which had first arose in October 2017 when Spacey admitted his homosexuality publicly on Twitter and spoke about allegations made from fellow actor Anthony Rapp. This snowball effect created a public outcry against Spacey who made no further comments and retreated into a self imposed exile while a number of Spacey’s current projects where either delayed or entirely altered altogether. We’re used to seeing celebrities fall from grace, normally such allegations coming long after their prime has passed, those like Jimmy Saville posthumously or Gary Glitter. Rumors or allegations may surface but it is only once the individual is well past their prime. Not so with Spacey.

Although arguably some of his best work behind him, Kevin Spacey was still producing thought provoking and engaging drama, very present in public life and not likely to be retiring anytime soon. I had personally heard allegations from a family friend, who claimed Spacey had been auditioning for a play in Dublin in the late 90s, and had invited one of the younger cast members back to his room to discuss the role in private. It was always something that had stuck with me – even though I’d been told the story many years previously – but something I had assumed was such commonplace in certain Hollywood circles it was thought impossible to police.

When the felony charge was confirmed on Christmas Eve, it seemed like old news, considering there had been no new comment from Spacey for well over a year. In the interim the studio responsible for his House of Cards show had announced it would continue for a sixth season. It was explained that Underwood had been killed off screen, with his wife Claire now resolved to take her place in the Oval Office. The show lacked something for me, and although there were moments of sparkle, I regret to say that they were moments built on the back of Frank’s involvement. The show was legitimately the Kevin Spacey hour and without his presence it felt like Netflix had commissioned the series simply to make a point that didn’t hold much water. Without the show’s lead actor it had nowhere to move. A deeply unsatisfying end to the series came and went and we were promised a resolution but received none.

Suddenly, both Spacey’s fiction and reality were merged together, as he presented a short video from his official YouTube page. Entitled ‘Let Me Be Frank’ it showed a character, performed by Spacey, in the accent of Frank Underwood addressing the audience and asking what actually happened. The video has acquired several million hits in just a few days and that counter is far from slowing down, as many people have spent Christmas literally recording, editing and publishing their own reaction videos, analysis and feature commentary to this piece.

At the beginning of the video Spacey is seen washing his hands preparing a Christmas dinner. Dressed in a novelty apron, it would suggest that the video has either been created recently (owing to the fact it is Christmas Eve) or planned somewhat in advance. I personally believe the former, since Underwood’s character in House of Cards had grey hair and although Spacey may wish to give the impression Underwood is now living a secret life with colored hair, the lack of any grey hair is more significant I feel as a way of merging fiction and reality. Given the emphasis on Christmas, the washing of the hands is also slightly significant, considering that Jesus Christ (born on Christmas Day) was executed on the testimony of what is described as an angry mob. When attempting to deal with Jesus, and adjudicating his trial, Pontius Pilate is known to have washed his hands in gesture of relieving himself of the responsibility of this matter. My belief is that Spacey, who could have begun the video anywhere, chose to begin it at this point as he is washing his hands of previous issues and what is before him.

Spacey turns to the camera having wiped his hands, and affixes a stare, though his words are spoken with the distinctive Southern accent of Frank Underwood. He starts by berating his audience, telling them they trusted him when they shouldn’t, and how he shocked us by revealing his deepest, darkest secrets. It’s an interesting juxtaposition between life and art, immediately Spacey is creating a sense of confusion between Frank Underwood and his own personal abilities as an actor and what rumors might have been heard in his private life.

He takes a cup to drink, and does this twice in the video, which I believe in itself is significant. The cup definitely appears to be a regal – a royal design – and has a message in Italics on it. Of course, when Spacey continues and says “you and I are not done, despite what they say” it’s a chilling statement.

His defense counsel will likely argue this is Spacey in character, though prosecutors may see this as an attempt for Spacey to influence any trial, stating that he knows what the audience wants, that they were quick to judge him without evidence and that they haven’t heard the real story yet. Even the video’s title, “let me be frank” is both a play on Frank Underwood and a potential way for Spacey to address his accusers. It’s also a way for Spacey to influence any potential jurors or judge before the trial is even set. If such a thing was released during jury selection there would no doubt be uproar. Spacey has chosen an ideal time, when the Holiday’s prevent anyone from doing much of anything until the New Year.

Spacey is to be arraigned on January 7th, according to the Boston Globe, but he himself asks in the video “no, not you, you’re smarter than this…all this presumption led for such an unsatisfying ending” and this is easily believed to be a reference to the online disapproval of House of Cards Season 6. But it’s Spaceys next comment which I find the most significant in the video;

“If you and I have learned anything these past years, it’s that in life and art, nothing should be off the table”

This in itself is seen as a direct statement to anyone watching. Spacey goes on to say that if he (Frank, who knows at this point?) got away with the stuff he did do he sure as hell won’t be punished or what he didn’t. There’s a moment of pause after this statement, and you can’t deny the powerful nature of any monologue, which immediately makes you think about what is being said. Is Spacey blackmailing his accused, are we looking at the threat of further repercussions if they dare to challenge him. What does he know? Or is this just Frank talking. We are, after all, a world so heavily influenced by dialogue of fictional characters, people we’ve never met and reality television.

At the end of the segment Spacey points out that you never actually saw him die, and then puts on a ring, a ring which looks suspiciously like (but which I doubt is) the ring from House of Cards Season 6 that Frank Underwood was meant to have been buried wearing. Frank wore the ring for the entire show but it was most prominently featured in the final season in his absence. The ring itself was about as close as we got to having Underwood as a character in Season 6 and showed just how much presence an actor can have in legacy when they’re not even present on the camera.

Think about what Spacey is doing. He’s cooking a meal. He’s got his hunger back. He begins by washing his hands of the past, and he ends the video by assuming character, placing the ring off his finger and walking off screen. Those familiar with the very first season of House of Cards remember the pilot episode; Underwood eating ribs at Freddy’s the morning after Walker’s inauguration, and marking a page in the print with sauce to indicate the hunt had begun.

I believe Spacey, a clever man with a tactile mind, has just given us a very clear motive of what he intends to do. Many reporters comment that the video has backfired. I don’t believe it has at all. Just like I don’t believe he’s made a bad move here. As of last count there were 42,939 thumbs down on YouTube from 6.375 Million Views; and 138,461 thumbs up. Regardless of guilt or innocence, I believe the true winner here is entertainment and fiction.

A message seeking comment was left with Mr Spacey’s spokeswoman Laura Johnson.

As Spacey walks off screen, we remember that he is an incredibly gifted actor, and what we’ve seen is a performance we’re likely to see again. Though on whose stage?

Steelwork Steps for Former Brewery

The first steelwork has been laid in place as part of an exciting new Sunderland development. A plot of land, on the site of the former Faux Brewery, has begun construction on what will be a 60,000sq ft office complex – the land purchased by Sunderland City Council in 2011.

Irene Lucas CBE, chief executive of Sunderland City Council, said: Sunderland has taken huge leaps forward in attracting innovative, high-growth businesses to the city, as well as supporting start-ups to succeed – particularly in the knowledge economy, an area in which Sunderland has achieved the second fastest rate of growth outside London. 

“Office spaces like the new facility in Vaux will provide high quality accommodation to scores of businesses that want to be part of what will be an innovative and creative community at the heart of the city centre.  It’s hugely exciting to see the site taking shape.”

Work is being carried out by Carillion, part of the Siglion joint venture between Igloo Reconstruction and the Council to develop and transform five key sites across the city. Siglion itself is a development and regeneration company which found in April 2015. It manages over 700 tenancies and plans to develop Sunderland City at the Vaux site, Seaburn and Chapelgarth then Farringdon Row and Numbers Garth.

John Seager, chief executive of Siglion, said: “The Vaux site is such a focal point for Sunderland and its position as one of the main entrance points of the city centre is hugely important for those visiting.

“It’s fantastic to see the building begin to take shape and see this important location transformed into a development that reflects the modern and dynamic city that Sunderland is. The Vaux development, when it is completed, will be a space that will create new jobs, workplaces and original communities.  It’s a huge step forward and we hope that the second phase will follow soon after the first building.”

Designed by Architects Field Clegg Bradley Studios it is expected to stand five stories high, giving much needed office space to clients, as well as an open plan area accommodating a bar, café and restaurant with views overlooking River Wear and Wearmouth Bridge. It is expected that this site will be a flagship space in Sunderland’s current rejuvenation. The building is due to be completed in June 2018.

Eddie Tribe, Carillion’s project director said: “It’s great to start work on this iconic site. Our work will create jobs and opportunities for local businesses. We have agreed a target to achieve 60 per cent of spend with local suppliers and aim to employ 16 apprentices throughout the construction programme, with further opportunities within our supply chain for employment for local people.

Grave Formats

The other day I found myself in HMV while my parents visited in the run up to Christmas. As it was a festive occasion, my parents had suggested we purchase a gift, something they could enjoy wrapping and leaving under the tree for me before their return to France. Not being one to ever miss out on a present I gladly accepted and proceeded to rummage through a number of my mental ‘wish lists’ attempting to come up with something I’d like to physically obtain.

As I proceeded to leaf through the copious amount of Vinyl on offer I realised just how far HMV have evolved. December 2012 seems like a distant memory, but more tenured employees of HMV will remember the time well, as it spelt a certain end to the company. At the time, economists took great pride in appearing on news programs, telling us just how obsolete a store like HMV was in today’s marketplace. And yet, it remains. The store I was standing in, in Gateshead’s Metro Centre, had recently located to a more premier retail location and a new store, in Boston Lancashire, opens its doors in the very unit its predecessor was forced to close in March 2013.

In many respects, it’s hardly surprising that HMV has managed to remain, but commendable and worthy of praise all the same. It’s current business model meant that more high priced items like phones, electronics and games took a back seat; while shelves were recently filled with comics, collectables and even Vinyl. Having worked for the company briefly in 2009 and again in 2013, I defiantly experienced some of this change first hand. Vinyl itself presented something quite unique; as if we’d suddenly travelled back in time and embraced a format which should – by all rights – be extinct. Just as many analysts argue HMV should be.

Compact Disc has been a regular fixture in the marketplace since the late 80s, swiftly seeing off competition from Mini Disc, VHS and even Laserdisc; they even buried Vinyl considerably in an episode of Tomorrow’s World recorded around 1992. Whereas a lot of music fans have embraced the digital revolution a decade ago, retailers are limited in their selections, admitting that embracing MP3’s and Spotify subscriptions would leave them out of a job. So CD has found a bizarre and unchallenged equilibrium; until the return of Vinyl. Asides from their popularity with collectors, their physical appeal, their openness to customisation (who doesn’t love a good picture disc?) there’s also an exceptionally unique quality to Vinyl which makes it a more attractive proposition for retailers; it’s practically impossible to steal.

Consider for a moment walking into a store on a cold Christmas day and shoving a cassette tape into your pocket. Even a CD would fit snuggly into an inside pocket without much effort. Vinyl, on the other hand, presents twelve inches of self-resistance to petty theft; for both customers and staff alike, making it the perfect product. In 2017 HMV predicted its most successful year of Vinyl sales in almost 20, thanks in part to the efforts of mainstream artists like Ed Sheeran and Noel Gallagher embracing the format, with UK sales for that year topping four million.

In 2018 this trend continues, with the average purchase of Vinyl made by a consumer younger than those purchasing CDs, according to information from the website Kantar. According to their estimates, the overall value of the vinyl market in the UK for the latest quarter (in the 12 weeks to 1 July) was £25 million. 420,000 people bought a vinyl record in this period, up by 6.6% vs. Q1 (that is, the 12 weeks to 1 April). And this is despite the evident proof that not all collectors of Vinyl have the means to play them.

What might be even more remarkable is that this trend has led to a number of other ‘Grave Formats’ returning to the fold. Swedish band Ghost released their latest album ‘Prequelle’ as well as their live compilation ‘Ceremony and Devotion’ on Vinyl, but perhaps more surprising is their choice to release it on 8 Track Cassette. Although a limited release, initially available through the bands website and the result of Spotify giveaways, their operations are not unique to just cult bands – with Metallica remastering their classic ‘And Justice for All’ album and releasing a special cassette version; which is available to purchase through Amazon and was also stocked in HMV alongside a Nirvana cassette release earlier this year.

The introduction of the cassette tape by Philips in 1963 would lead to it becoming one of the most influential ways people consume music for over 30 years, and yet, it was somewhat ironically never intended never to rival the audio quality of the existing larger tape formats. Once Sony released a portable cassette player called the Walkman in 1979, such anti-taping arguments were more or less dismissed by the general public. Complete with portable headphones, the Walkman encouraged a generation of music fans to take their sounds with them wherever they went, and the advent of the boom box, which featured dual cassette decks, provided portability and seemingly encouraged music duplication through its design. By 1983 it was cassettes which outsold Vinyl.

And yet, as I made my selection that evening in HMV, my father looked on slightly baffled as to why – at 63 – it was his 33-year-old son who was purchasing albums on Vinyl, Cassette and 8 Track in 2018. Everything it would seem, has its place.