A little feedback can be a dangerous thing sometimes.
As you may well be aware, the blog format that Yahoo! Music currently uses to publish my weekly chart commentaries means that people have the opportunity to directly comment on what I have written each week. Much of the time this is very welcome, providing a platform for heated debate when I have said something particularly disagreeable and a most useful way for me to be alerted to any particularly glaring errors in the text. The desire for readers to prove they know more than I do can work to everyone’s advantage here. I always feel I should extend thanks to everyone who takes the time out to respond.
The exceptions are the tiny minority of what I am sure I can be forgiven for regarding as the slightly obsessive and unhinged individuals who tend to dominate the quiet weeks with lunatic conspiracy theories about records that aren’t where they should be. For that reason I rarely ever look at the pages beyond the first couple of hours. Once I know nobody has flagged up any factual errors, the quality of discussion tends to head off in the direction of Venus and there are more interesting ways to pass the time.
This week was different, after a couple of friends wrote to me with amusement about the outbreak of fuckwittery that was dominating the comment pages. Chief protagonist was one resident loon who had in the past been laughed out of town after complaining the singles chart looked nothing like the one in his fantasies (or something) but now was particularly aggrieved about something or other and was convinced I was at fault and “playing God” with the comments – ones you will note, I don’t actually read.
What required me to intervene and read the riot act was one particular piece of invective where he insisted that I had been “told off by the [Official Charts Company] once for publishing information they didn’t like”. Abuse and disagreement is fine by me and fair game, however potentially quite libellous suggestions that I was somehow behaving in an unprofessional way towards the publishers of my source material was another thing altogether. When challenged, the poster came over all indignant and posted the following:
Again I simply found that you had been sent a CEASE & DESIST LETTER from the OCC on the **** website. It’s still there you can check it out on that site all you have to do is type your surname in the SEARCH and you should find loads of people bad mouthing you. Therefore it is the public domain that you had a run in with the OCC, if it be false you had better tell them on that website it is!
I’d never visited the site in question before. but a quick search of their forum threw up the truth. The discussion in question was one dating from 2006 (four years ago you will note) in which the moderators of the site were suppressing the wholesale posting of copyrighted charts data, citing as a cautionary tale an occasion in 1995 (FIFTEEN YEARS AGO) when… well, we’ll come to that in a moment.
After instructing Mr Loonspud that his contributions were no longer welcome and that any further comments from him would be deleted on sight (using “God” powers that I have but rarely have the energy to use) it did strike me that the full tale of the summer of 1995 is actually one I haven’t told online for some time. It used to be a part of the original “live CV” incarnation of this site about ten years ago, but no longer. What better opportunity then than to recount it all here and put things in their correct context?
<<<<< wavy lines indicating trip back in time >>>>>>
I’d begun writing weekly commentaries on the goings on in the UK Top 40 in October 1992, posting them initially to rec.music.misc on usenet, newsgroups being the primary means of publishing and distributing your work in those pre-browser days of the internet. By the start of the following year there was a mailing list as well, prompted by a request from one reader for a direct copy of the text following a network breakdown in the January which meant that one posting in particular took a full week to propagate its way around the world. Hard to believe now, but this was indeed an era when a message posted online would typically take several days to travel around the globe.
By late 1994 the thing was growing like Topsy. Internet connectivity had gone mainstream that year as the next big thing in personal communication and I was regularly being listed as one of the most interesting musical resources on the net. Over my little 28k dialup connection at home I was regularly sending copy out to over 1,000 different email addresses, as well as posting the copy up on usenet. By that time, again in response to reader requests, my semi-accurate words of wisdom were interspersed with the full Top 40 rundown to put each comment in its proper context.
Inevitably it was only a matter of time before someone in authority noted that I was merrily reproducing what was at the end of the day someone else’s copyrighted data. It wasn’t deliberate theft, just a fact of life that the net was all about the distribution of information across national boundaries. It was all done for the greater community good – but legally there really was no defence for it.
Hence it was no surprise that one day in late June 1995 I received a polite but sternly worded email from one of the two people who at that time ran the Chart Information Network, the publishers of the UK charts and the forerunner of today’s Official Charts Company. In it she noted that having just hooked up an internet connection it had been discovered I was reproducing the singles chart, and that given they owned the data would I be so kind to cease my activities immediately and to make sure it was all removed from view. After a day or so of soul searching I wrote back apologetically and assured them that no harm was meant and that I would be happy to do as they said. I also contacted the chap in Russia who was at the time hosting the latest column for me on some webspace he owned and asked him to take the page down. He was amused by the fuss, noting that where he lived people would stand on street corners with tables full of pirate software and music. International copyright wasn’t really something they bothered with and he was sure nobody would be able to do anything about his website. Nonetheless he complied and removed the page.
This then was the great “telling off” the lunatic commenter believed demonstrated the full extent of my personal misbehaviour. So relevant that there are singles being bought today by people who weren’t born when it all first happened.
Back to 1995 though, and the next stage was to tell my eager audience just why the flow of information had dried up so suddenly. I still have the original posting I made to the newsgroup a few days after the first email had arrived:
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (James Masterton)
Subject: CHART: No more chart analyses?
Date: 25 Jun 1995 00:00:00 GMT
You may have been puzzled by the lack of a Top 40 Analysis posting from me this week. Unfortunately I have to inform you that I am unable to write any further articles.
On Wednesday June 14th I received an email from Catharine Pusey
<email@example.com> who is the Chart Director of CIN Limited, the
organisation in charge of compiling and distributing the UK charts. In it,
she informed me that she had just joined the internet and had come across my article. She also informed me that my usage of CIN charts as a basis for that posting, without the appropriate licence was a breach of copyright and that I should cease to do so immediately. I have to confess a feeling of great disappointment to receive a directive of this nature, but under the circumstances I appear to have no option but to comply, paticularly as I have no wish to abuse the copyright of an organisation whose work I admire and respect.
In the first instance my disappointment stems from the fact that I am
clearly unable to continue to provide to both you and the net the service I have been trying to offer. I have been trying to promote to others is the
vibrancy and life that exists in the music scene in this country and to
enhance the reputation of British charts and British music in general. White I have been writing these articles I have been repeatedly and pleasantly surprised at the respect and admiration that exists worldwide for the music we have in this country, hence my disappointment that CIN should instruct me to discontinue this service.
The compilation and production of charts is a commercial enterprise but I had not thought there would be a problem using information which receives such wide publicity and in circumstances which do not involve money. I produce my articles at my own expense and have never required or received any remuneration for this.
I must also express disappointment at the way the net is clearly about to be deprived of one of its resources. I suspect I have been unfortunate in that I am probably the most prominent user of chart information on the net and so I am the first one they have noticed. Many others contribute information in a similar manner and I am certain that CIN face a long uphill struggle if they want to remove all unauthorised use of their material in every corner of the net, as appears to be their stated aim.
Sadly it appears there is little I can do. Over the many years I have tried
to share my enthusiasm for the British charts with you I have been pleased and flattered at the positive response I have received and I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to write to me with questions and comments, or even just those who have read with interest and I am sorry I have not had the time to reply to you all in as much detail as I would have liked. I hope this is not the last you will hear from me, I am keen to be able to continue the work I have been doing. I have asked CIN if it might be possible for me to legally continue the service but obtaining some form of authorisation. Whatever the outcome, I can promise that this will not be the last you will hear from me. I firmly believe that as the net is an interactive medium, in order to be a good citizen one must contribute as well as receive information and I shall be actively searching for my next opportunity to make that contribution.
Incidentally the blanking out of the email address did not exist in the original. Rather naughtily I chose to reveal the address of my admonisher (a lady who now, incidentally, is the General Manager of the National Trust) to the world at large, maybe in the back of my mind wondering how they would react when word spread of what some would regard as an outrageous act of censorship. You would not get away with it today naturally, but I worked on the basis that should they complain, I could have innocently explained that such things were commonplace online.
24 hours later after returning from work I fired up the modem and logged on to the net. Whereas typically I would have six or seven emails waiting for me to download, this time there were close to 300. Even more would arrive over the next few days. Each one said the same thing, expressing emotions ranging from disappointment to anger and even heartbreak. People were offering to donate legal advice, instigate letter-writing campaigns and to contact the authorities – anything to prevent me having to stop. It seems almost surreal looking back, but it was a level of response that was all at once extremely moving and incredibly humbling. As I suspected many people had indeed contacted the CIN email address directly and copied me in on the text. Amongst the more sensible ones there was a common theme – advising them that really they should be hiring me, not suppressing me.
Amongst that first batch of emails was a name that I recognised from in print. Steve Redmond, the then editor of Music Week saying he had become aware of my work, was impressed by it and wondered if I would give him a call. One quick conversation later, I had an appointment to visit him at their offices to discuss a new project they had coming up.
The magazine was at the time based in Ludgate House, affectionately referred to by Private Eye as “the grey Lubyaka” and perhaps better known as the Daily Express building. It sits on the bank of the Thames near Blackfriars Bridge in London, a building that is oddly enough just around the corner from where I work now.
The recent development of the station has changed the area nearby beyond recognition but before it happened I would often smile with nostalgia when I had cause to exit the station. I’d flash back to being 21 years old again, on my first ever trip to the big city. I’d walk past the sandwich shop on the corner, walk across the bridge and approach the towering grey block that to this day houses United Business Media, tracing the very footsteps I made on that hot July morning. On entering the building I was directed across the lobby and invited to use the special express lift that stopped exclusively at what at the time were the penthouse offices of Lord Hollick himself, and one floor below the offices of Music Week. After assuring the lift attendant that I wasn’t heading for his Lordship’s domain I stepped out into the busy offices of the music industry’s trade bible to be greeted by a smiling secretary who guided me to the editors office.
Steve Redmond and I had a long conversation where I waxed lyrical about the online world and how people viewed British music overseas. How people all over the world were fascinated by the UK charts and the unique way the market worked here. “Only in this country,” I explained, “could two actors from a TV series (Robson and Jerome) record a straightforward cover of a 40 year old song and wind up with one of the 10 biggest sellers of all time”. Trust me, back in 1995 that was a very big deal.
The offer Redmond made was simple. The next week they were launching a new website, bringing some official Music Week content to the online world for the first time. Crucially they were to be the first website to carry the official chart listings and he realised that my commentary would be the perfect complement to this. We agreed a fee (a professional rate for a professional job after all) and shook hands on it. In the space of one week I’d gone from internet pirate to freelance writer for one of the most well known trade magazines in the country. Before I left I was taken to say hello to the CIN team and so came face to face with the lady whose email had started the ball rolling. Very nice she was as well. The rest I guess is history.
So that is the story of my great “telling off” which is not only completely irrelevant as a piece of criticism of my present day work but which actually turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me in life and the makings of what I might laughably at times call a career.
Never mind, better ludicrous comments from the socially disturbed than no comments at all I guess. My next challenge is to work out what to make of this one that appeared at the bottom of the Yahoo! feed of the podcast last week:
I can’t wait to see how that one pans out.