Summer creeps through the window, back lit blue. Tufted white clouds move delicately, gliding horizon bound. Clear skies once more. No signs of rain.
Stumbling from the house I valiantly head out into the burning sunlight, piercing my vision. Shafts of light push through the trees as the car canters through the waking countryside. I am seventy miles from deliverance with two hours to run, slowly coming out of my torpor.
The journey suddenly progresses to the railway station. Others join me in the morning platform shuffle. They stand at their self-allotted guard posts, attended daily with the same solemn shape. Hunched, resting, leaning, our eyes rove around the motley crew. We are the Commuter Brigade prepared for action, awaiting the rumble and hum of the machine that will take us to the front.
She glides in and, with our passage now assured, we cluster waiting for the siren signal to clamber aboard. A whine and shudder and we gracefully move away – London bound.
Steadily we draw closer. Stations pass in a grey blur. Some of us sit, slumped, eyes closed – sleeping ourselves awake. Others read, casting furrowed glances at translucent sheets – etched with the stories of success, failure, trauma and bliss. The distant echo of a half-heard tune resonates briefly around the carriage, absorbed and lost into listless ears.
Not long now. It’s but a rattled quick-step, jaded by memory, to our tomb settled beneath the streets – that cavernous hell where the dry air huddles us and clustered beads of sweat flutter down.
We hear the clatter and mutter of thousands of other poor souls, destined for the same fate. Other disparate groups gather with us as we descend deeper into the hollow expanse. The darkened arches, colours stained and running, softened corners of flaking posters offering holidays abroad.
We bow our heads at the platform edge.
And so the sermon begins.
‘We are gathered here today to commemorate one of life’s boundless calamities, to give recognition to the strife and suffering of those with us today, the Commuter Brigade.’
A rumble. Distant but ever closer.
Arrested some begin to scuffle to secure a place aboard the cattle train, awash with bodies and a silent acceptance that this is our plight.
‘Please stay behind the yellow line’
We clash, crook and reel, accommodating each other with the code of honour. We stand millimetres apart, wholly silent.
‘Please move right into the carriage’
We settle and pause.
‘Mind the doors please, stand clear of the doors.’
Standing so close, yet a world apart – strangers, lovers, liars, believers, cheaters and trusted companions.
We scuttle away and the worming tube takes its first victim. A knock throws a naive visitor into our midst. Whispered apologies, fumbling words. Silence returns.
I watch the perspiration appear like a wave upon the brow of a fellow sentry. He blinks, struggling to re-open his eyes. He keeps them closed, moving his head into the frantic breeze that eddies between the carriages. Brief rest bite from the already inevitable fate.
Torrid hopes and dreams, with no exit.
This day is like every other. The summer has yet to break – the rain has yet to thunder into the arteries of our great city, the cold has yet to crack the scorching tunnels. So we wait for that impending storm, that barrage of rain drenched bullets, to release us from our stupor.
Our aching jaws grip a hot parched tongue – accepting we search bleary eyed and deadened. We are the Commuter Brigade. In the flickering gloom below we watch and wait.
I remember it well. I was sitting in my student halls during my first year of University. It was early 2009. In typical student fashion my flatmate sold me Spotify with one word – ‘free’. At that time the service was in its infancy, with a limited selection of artists and features, but for a student the concept had great appeal. My reliance on iTunes was stifling my musicality and I’d always felt it lacked the required accessibility when sampling new songs. Spotify was streaming service that offered me order, whilst giving me the chance to explore – all this and it didn’t require a credit card. It was the path of least resistance, where convenience dictated its adoption. At least, that’s how it was for a penniless student. Five years on and 20 million songs later Spotify have a service that streams to 55 countries with a growing fan base of 24 million, and I’m still an avid supporter.
There is freedom to be found when you are given something for nothing and Spotify has become renowned for its ability to grow in the face of this apparent monetary barrier. With 1 in 5 paying for Premium subscriptions, Spotify has shown a willingness to invest in streaming services, allowing for a smooth transition between free and paid subscriptions – and all of this in a time of a global economic depression. The revenue stream from the Premium service alone is £575,424,000 yearly. It’s an impressive feat for any aspiring business, as I’m sure Spotify’s financial consultants will show in their annual reports. If you took the US based Pandora Internet Radio with its 150 million active users and applied it to the Spotify’s 1 in 5 that would be £3.6 billion from subs alone. Even with small profit margins Spotify have the volume to make it work. In essence, subscription fees can be big, big money.
We can see Spotify’s contribution to this revolutionary approach today. The recently released financials of Universal Music Group illustrate much of the 75% jump (from €257 million to €450 million in 2013) in streaming and subscription revenue was driven by the growth of Spotify. Significantly, major music companies like UMG, Sony Music and Warner Group have all invested minority equity stakes in subscription and streaming services, showing a presumption in the exponential growth in this marketplace. So the music industry is shifting its focus to regular lanes of revenue from consumers rather than intermittent single and album sales. This yields a regular flow of revenue whilst negating the risks often associated with traditional methods of sale.
So it would seem that Spotify is on an ever rising cloud of success with some commentators claiming it is ‘too big to fall’. Like Facebook, they could become a giant in its marketplace, a goliath in the revolution of music listening. But it could be tricky to keep all those plates spinning.
Indeed, it seems that Spotify has failed to capitalise on the potential of marketing their platform to consumers. The continual adjustment of ‘Freemium’ services in the past couple of years have left many people feeling that there is a concerted effort to force people away from the free streaming to Premium services. It is entirely understandable that Spotify are pushing this to their users, as it would provide a substantially more stable business model. But there is a need to give value for money and I don’t believe Spotify has grasped the nettle fully. Here’s why.
I’m a cautious when it comes to paying for a service when it doesn’t offer me something I don’t already have. I don’t own Spotify ‘Premium’. Spotify ‘Freemium’ gives me almost everything I need where music is concerned and it’s now available on all mobile devices, with a partial service. Frankly, why spend £119.88 yearly on a service you can only use through the Spotify platform and local file syncing. Uninterrupted listening and offline music is irrelevant in a world where the internet and wi-fi can be accessed anywhere, anytime – if Spotify lets me down I’ll be on Vevo, Soundcloud, Grooveshark or YouTube listening to music.
What frustrates me most about Spotify is its lack of connectivity. There are areas where the music is just not there for a specific genre and artists, and I understand there are label constraints that make acquisition difficult. But to highlight one – EDM is lacking and specialist branded digital content channels need to be explored further. Spotify’s ‘Electrospective’ App needed to be marketed in a vibrant and concise way – through TV, Radio and Print Media, as well as via the Internet. There are great ideas there, but as a user you have to root around for them and that is the problem which often leads people astray. Whilst mainstream music may have its revenue making benefits, it is part of a patchwork quilt of vibrant and talented artists. Spotify needs an advertising campaign that makes people stop and think. It needs to be a bang, not a whimper. But Spotify doesn’t seem to have much interest in running strong ad campaigns outside of platform promotion. It shouldn’t just be about the technology. It should be about their view of industry’s progression as a whole. All avenues need to be explored when developing a business model which currently relies heavily on ad’s PPC function via ‘Freemium’ users.
What would interest me would be the connection with consumers on the ground, not just via their phone or computer. Give Premium users the ability to develop their music tastes outside the internet ‘share’ or with their headphones on. Ron Pope, the American rock and pop singer-songwriter, recently posted an article in the Huffington Post championing the benefits of his partnership with Spotify:
Spotify allows fans to take in all of my music so that they can become a fan of me as an artist, rather than directing them to one particular single … With Spotify, it’s not about a single; the fans can pour over my entire catalogue and follow my journey from my first album all the way through to today.
He now has sell-out concerts months in advance, when before he would struggle to fill a venue. I think the point that needs to be made to Spotify is that it can draw upon his experiences amongst other artists. They could run a marketing strategy out across all media platforms to bring people together, in both sharing music online and with live events. If Spotify can propel Lorde from relative obscurity to stardom with one song in a single playlist there is surely a trick to be had. They have the tacit support of record labels and artists why not create a ‘Spotify Festival’s’ that could draw upon the community and data of regions for inspiration, and develop line ups to suit the consumer fan base. This would both silence the critics that claim Spotify is stifling young talent and support a lot of up and coming artists who would otherwise been overlooked. There needs to be an all-encompassing assessment of the music industry and its affiliations. Festival attendance is on the up, and younger generations are enjoying the ability to see their favourite artists in global arenas. Spotify has all the necessary elements to bringing the experience of new music streaming and put their name to live events.
This could allow for expansive scope in brand association and would potentially draw people into using the Premium service. Take the top two music festivals in the world – The Mawazine Festival in Morocco had attendance figures of 2.5 million in 2013 and Donauinselfest in Austria had 3.2 million. Spotify should be ambitious and aim high to bring their brand closer to the consumer. These festivals above aren’t particularly foreign friendly (Donauinselfest has an Austro-centric line-up), yet their success is symbolic of the devotion of fans and artists alike. If Spotify did produce a festival – give their Premium users discounted or early access. Propel people toward the benefits by funneling their focus. The Japanese music market (which surpassed the US as the world’s largest recorded music market in 2013) is another area which Spotify could approach. Other companies are struggling to compete with Spotify to provide global streaming services. Combine strong regional advertising campaigns with live events and festivals and Spotify could scoop in on the gap in the market between digital media and live performance. They need to think bigger, because, whilst the technical elements are in place, they are lacking a cohesive brand image that can attract people away from other preferred methods of online streaming.
Experiential marketing, the ability to engage with your customer, is vital in developing the highly socialised nature of online streaming today. It was even discussed during the Social Media Week presented by Spotify in New York this month. There is clearly an awareness of the benefits, but not a clear method to addressing the issue. Certainly, if you take the example of Red Bull or Monster, the profit of a close brand association is clear. Their ability to combine high-octane events with their brand image gives a clear indication as to the product they are promoting. Spotify is perfectly suited to shifting into this concept as part of a growing market model in the music streaming.
Elsewhere we are finding creative approaches to including mobile Apps like Spotify into everyday living. Ford has developed AppLinks that will be fitted as standard in vehicles (Ford Eco-sport at the Mobile World Congress) – allowing for brand engagement behind the wheel. The content provided can be tailored to the owner via biometrics and driving data. These are all significant advancements in digital technology that allows you to connect to anyone, anywhere. Spotify need to challenge themselves to strike whilst the iron is still hot and get ahead of the competition. Technology is limiting Spotify’s growth because it lacks the physical communication needed to learn and experience the world around you. There is only so much you can absorb from a device. So what I’m suggesting is a union between the old and the new. Everyone remembers their first live performance, the first time they stood, drenched in a sea of hands listening to the throbbing of muddy feet. Spotify can incorporate all these sensory experiences into building a better platform for music in the future.
Well Spotify, you have my attention, but it’s a cacophony out there, with clamouring voices all around… I just can’t quite make it out. You seem to be a head above the crowd… for now. But there is a need to look further ahead, to a time where the playground is flooded with marauding imitators. In this growing market Spotify need to continue to innovate to accumulate. After all, every great adventure starts with music – take the risk, step out and see where it leads you.
For the world over summer is the chance to jet away to foreign climes, to journey outside the office to parks, music festivals and sun soaked beaches. You can kick back, relax and take the opportunity to wear some suitable shades.
But there is a small group of people who clog the airwaves with requests from their trac’or cabs during the long summer days. Late at night you may hear a shout out to ‘Dan in his John Deere’ via Radio 1. They spend the cream of the summer working 90 hours a week, with very little sleep, no days off and hardly a moment to get to the pub for a beer. Usually weighing in at nearly thirty tonnes and bearing down on you at thirty miles per hour on single track roads, they are the harvest heroes coming at you large, the bane of the road user. Without them we would be deprived of a necessity of daily life – food.
Most people who live in our fabled cities of commerce will have little idea of this lifestyle. It is, frankly, not one to be attempted without a fair amount of insanity. When I embarked on my harvest journey I had little to no experience. I’d spent summers at University working on a hop farm not one hundred metres from my home. I’d played about on dinky little tractors, had a good laugh with other like minded students and went out clubbing. I even became fondly known as ‘The Captain’. It gave me two things integral to a student lifestyle: money and a tan. But this all came abruptly to an end when I was persuaded by an old friend to dive into a real harvest. Certainly there are benefits to the change. When most graduates are earning 18 to 20 thousand a year I managed to rake in £8500 in 4 months. With no other job prospects on the horizon it made absolute fiscal sense.
After a brief introduction to the Working Time Directive, which was quickly torn up, and a perfunctory Health and Safety meeting, I went to face the monolith that is harvest. My allocated tractor was the trusted workhorse, sadly not new enough to avoid insult by the older hands. I didn’t care – this was the beginning of a personal challenge. Do or die.
From day one your tractor becomes your sanctuary, your radio the link to the outside world. And when your great machine falls by the wayside in a cloud of smoke and engine parts you salute it for putting up with your daily thrashing. The bond of chocolate wrappers, sweat and dust that smears the interior brings you closer.
The pinnacle of corn carting is always the perfectly executed night barn reverse. As the darkness creeps into the yard you watch as the veteran palms his trailer through the entrance at speed, with inches to spare. And then it’s my turn. It is here I’d like to add a caveat. In farming, people like you to fail. If you fail it means you’ve also learnt for the next time. You are also told as little as possible. I was never going to pretend I was gifted at reversing a tractor and trailer. Fortunately I am better than a great many road users who tend to prefer a ski slalom approach of hedge to hedge, which you always watch with a wry smile. So when I attempted that first time barn reverse and finally managed to get it through the doors, it was greeted with whoops and cheers – for the fifth time lucky.
The characters you come across are the main reason why you manage so well. Beyond the initial suspicion of the ‘newbie’ in the ranks you are greeted with advice and support, not always universally agreed, but usually with good intention. There was an old boy who, in the spirit of a true veteran, never rushed, swore like a trooper, smoked like a chimney and always had the job done better than anyone else. You realise the significance of this when you discover he was regularly doing a twelve-hour day at nearly eighty years old…
Daily you contend with factors which quickly drift out of your control – the weather, horse riders, the general public, breakdowns, cars, panic, discomfort, exhaustion, and a lack of food. You begin to forget what day it is and when you last had a day off. It becomes unimportant, when set against the task in hand. As the sun sets on the horizon and the darkness swamps view you begin to enjoy the peace that nightfall brings. The roads become a racetrack free from harassing traffic. You ramp up the radio for the seven o’clock slot of Zane Lowe and his psychedelic grammatical dexterity, wondering when you will be working until tonight.
But as the weeks pass, the mounds of grain begin to pile up and when the finish line hoves into view you’re sad to see it arrive.
It is truly impossible to describe the sense of achievement at the end of harvest. Not only have you shifted several thousand tonnes of grain and driven a few thousand miles in a few months but you have also survived it in one piece. Stories of combusting tractors and the tragic consequences of heavy moving machinery always plague your mind after a fourteen hour day. During those months you’ve developed a basic if not complete understanding of all the processes that get that seed from field to plate. You become adept at speedy reversing down a single track road, a quick hitch up of a trailer and tipping into pitch black barns. You’ve also forgone a decent night’s sleep for weeks at a time. And when it’s all over, it’s time to look back on all those near misses whilst breathing a sigh of relief. Certainly those panicked moments reiterated to me why agriculture is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world.
Unfortunately, trying to explain the sheer breadth of experiences from four months’ work to a recruitment agent or prospective employer usually falls upon deaf ears. A glazed look of boredom spreads across their eyes as you get into detail about oil seed rape and the logistical nightmare that is harvest.
Regardless, I will always look back on those months and cherish the achievement. And to all those who sit office bound, toiling away behind a computer screen, think on this. There are men and women out there who do what I did for those four short months every day of every year because they love their job. There is nowhere better than agriculture for promoting hard graft, a great deal of respect for your colleagues and endurance. You love it and you hate it. But it becomes your life very quickly, and letting it go seems harder than you first might have thought.
So when you are sitting in that park, crashing that festival or on that flight to sunnier climbs, take a moment to think of those men and women who put the food on your plate.
Here’s to those harvest heroes who taught me the prestige of seeing it through.
I sit on the train and look around as I’m rattled and jarred out of London Euston. Head down, absorbed, I see a woman on her iPhone flicking through pictures of guys on Tinder, a teenager is on Facebook whilst the guy next to me is checking out his Twitter feed. The Guardian and Evening Standard lay untouched on the table, responding to the occasional shake of the carriage. Picked up with a nod, and quickly set aside.
The ‘cultural trend’ of social networking cannot be ignored, it is everywhere you go. It seems we can’t help ourselves, we love the fact that, at the touch of a fingertip, we can see what our celebrity idols are doing thousands of miles away or what our friends got up to the other night. You experience it but live in a different city, even a different country. It’s salacious, curious, instinctively, instant and feeds our need as humans to communicate and share.
But I’m uneasy about social networking. The original premise of online social interaction has been eschewed, slowly but surely it has been distorted and mutated from self-expression to self-promotion. People are becoming shameless in their need provoke a response. The mundane, day-to-day takes on a reality TV-like significance to users. I guess you could compare it to the front page of the Daily Mail. It’s there for one reason and one reason only, to feed your curiosity. Like dangling bait for a fish we can’t but help ourselves in trying to take a bite. Those at Facebook and Twitter quickly tapped into combining our incessant need to socialise on any level and combined it with the seamless real-time updates available to the internet. It is perfectly designed with one intention – addiction.
I began writing this believing that I could easily argue that social networking was an unhealthy phenomenon. I was certain it would be straight cut, simply analysed and provide an obvious conclusion. But the more I see of that original idea the more it becomes welcome. Twitter has been used to raise money for charity, to warn people of natural disasters, to share events with family. Our connections have never been so varied and insightful. Despite the mindless babble we still find articles, videos, music, films, jobs, and events that interest us. LinkedIn to Pinterest, Tumblr to Twitter, we have it all. Social networking has given us a wealth of information otherwise lost in the maelstrom of daily life. We can build images of people based on their likes, interests and discussions, forming what would have taken years of daily physical interaction. Temporal and spatial barriers have been removed to give us a global connectivity. We can apparently know everyone and anyone.
But this is where I start to struggle with the positivity of the slick CEO’s that eloquently encapsulate those concepts in their speeches and companies ideals. There is a significant downside to the apparently happy story of the social network. I believe that two other trends have accelerated the problem. Firstly, the commercialisation of the social network itself, and secondly, apathy caused by increasing exposure.
Where better to start with these ideas than Twitter. As of the 1st of January 2014 646 million users were registered on Twitter. Compare that to the 7.2 billion people who live in the world today. Of that 7.2 billion only 39% have the ability to use the internet. Working this down to the 2.8 billion that have access, 22% use Twitter. Now, crude as that calculation is that’s a ballpark of 1 in 5 people who have access use it. And even if you don’t use it, you will probably know someone who does. It truly is a tremendous number.
In turn this has affected business on a global scale – there has been a rush to convert and have your brand online and mobile. Where there is access to people, there is the potential to profit and companies cannot resist the trend to settle into a new era of manipulating social networking where the line between the ‘social’ and the ‘commercial’ becomes blurred. Twitter and Facebook have sold out to business, and what may have begun as a social network has turned into a commercial bear pit. Even the co-founder of Twitter Evan Williams freely admitted that:
Twitter actually changed from what we thought it was in the beginning, which we described as status updates and a social utility … but the insight we eventually came to was Twitter was really more of an information network than it is a social network.
Here is a man who has become a billionaire from Twitter’s floatation as a viable business. He took the idea and let the market reap the rewards. There is no ‘insight’ that was discovered deep inside the cavernous expanses of the Twitter offices, it was cold, hard cash. He described social networking as a ‘no brainer’ for ‘social animals’. More poignantly he also claims:
People like other people … so hearing from them, and being able to express yourself to people you care about in a really simple way, is fun, and it can be addictive.
He’s right, it becomes addictive. This word, along with obsessive, and compulsive is usually disorder related. And it’s shocking to think that he can be so candid about it. Like sex, drinking, and drugs the social network has its origins in our basic desires. It allows us to express ourselves and do so with like-minded people, or so we think. No, unlike being an alcoholic or drug addict social networking won’t kill you. What social networking does is far more nuanced, far more subtle. It takes your life, your essence as a person, and makes it into a product.
So at Twitter and Facebook what may have begun as an innocent idea of connecting people together quickly gathered speed and snowballed into the global phenomenon we have today. With that exposure and success also comes investment. In the world of the social network selling data has become just as relevant as human connectivity. And so, in the words of Evan Williams, they ‘follow[ed] a hunch, but never assume[d] where it w[ould] go’. What you essentially have is a business where the information you provide is sold back to you via commerce. You may think you are just innocently connecting to friends or celebrity idols, but what is actually occurring is your very opinions and interests are being analysed and absorbed for the consumer culture we live in today. It seems even the most mundane status has its price in gold for the marketers of the twenty-first century.
The worst part of all of this is that we have come to accept it as normal. We are happy to trade our right to personal privacy with the ability to connect with others. We have been saturated by it and as a result disregard it in favour of the addictive and easy nature of the social network.
It’s just too easy to say yes and not to think about it too hard. I’ve bought into it as much as the next person, because either I didn’t care or didn’t even know. After all, who clicks through the terms and conditions or thinks the social network is there to sell our information. We’ve got friends to tag, people to chat to and status’ to post, we trust it because it’s all we’ve known. That’s the beautiful catch – as people we like to trust, to feel close, to share. And that’s where the social network cashes you in.