Financial Engineers and The Prolonged Death Spiral

Great blog post by Allan Kelly on The Prolonged Death Spiral Business Model highlighting the sort of software companies you probably don’t want to work for,

What I never realised was that a prolonged death spiral could actually be a viable business model itself.

Quadratron was dying, it eked out its last few years collecting maintenance royalties from legacy customers – one customer in particular. In fact it was dying when I joined, they lured me in with a plan to spend a lot of the remaining cash on a new product. But things were worse than that.

Like so many companies Quadratron found that once you have survived the first few years, once you conquered the risk of developing a product and have an installed user base you can continue milking that base for a long time. Provided you don’t do anything silly like trying to develop a new product that is! Quadratron had been very successful, it had a lot of customers to milk.

He goes on to explain how these companies are run by “financial engineers” people know a lot about debt structures and taxation but nothing about software businesses. They’re not interested in investing or capturing new markets, but maintaining cash flow.

He concludes:

These companies are a success by some criteria: the people running them and the people who buy them stand to make lots of money. Financially they look good – except the debt. And customer continue to use the products they want to use. They exist, they employ people. By some criteria they are a success, we should not forget this.

They can be miserable places to work in because real engineering is not a consideration. And pity the poor customers who are being led up the garden path about future products.

It’s a longish piece, but it’s well worth the read.

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A Runway for the 1%?

Sometimes the arguments used in favour of something can be the best arguments against that thing. For an example, see this press release I received about the expansion of Heathrow Airport:

A significant amount of time, effort, and energy has been spent at arriving at the conclusions. Strong account has been taken with the need to meet EU air pollution limits, address noise pollution concerns and move most ground traffic from road to rail. What must happen is action by the politicians: further delay would significantly damage UK plc.

In context, the UK has not built a full-length runway in the South East since World War 2. Our neighbours in the EU have overtaken us – Frankfurt, Paris, and Amsterdam already have much more runway capacity. What this means is that we’re losing out in the global connectivity race: Paris already offers 50 per cent more flights to China than London, for example. This is significant, because by 2025 there will be 7,000 new $1bn companies globally, and nearly 7 in 10 will be in emerging economies. If we want to connect with these we have to act.

With the world’s biggest cities planning 50 new runways by 2036, allowing for 1bn new passenger journeys, we simply can’t afford any further political delay. Given that Dubai will soon have more capacity than all of London’s airports combined, it is clear that expansion of airport capacity in the South East is a must. The world is watching to see if London and the UK has the ambition to maintain its position as a Global trading hub – we’re losing ground to our competitors, and further political delay would be unacceptable.

I find this self-serving corporate-bureaucratic bullshit a lot more offensive than Anglo-Saxon terms for bodily functions used as expletives. Look at the way it glosses over the environmental impact with meaningless empty platitudes, and says nothing at all about how it might affect the lives of ordinary working people. It’s clearly not about the transport needs of the those who actually live and work in the south-east of England, let alone the rest of the country. It’s all about “competing as a global hub”. Who cares how many runways they have in bloody Dubai?

The whole thing speaks volumes about the worldview of big money. The only people that matter are the global elites who owe no loyalty to any nation or culture. The same people who are slowly and steadily turning London into a soulless corporate wasteland filled with luxury apartments that they occupy for a few weeks a year while ordinary Londoners are relentlessly priced out of their own city. The people who only see the rest of us through the tinted windows of the chauffeur-driven cars, except then they’re barking orders to the staff in expensive restaurants.

Screw these people. And if their needs are really the main thing  that’s driving the demand, screw their runway as well.

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RIP Chris Squire

The progressive rock genre is in shock with the news of the death of bassist Chris Squire, founder and only constant member of Yes. Tributes have been pouring in from across the progressive rock world and beyond. At The Robin 2 last night Magenta opened their set with a cover of “Cinema”, the instrumental from “90125″ as a tribute, which was a lovely touch.

Chris Squire was one of a handful of true giants in rock. The Rickenbacker that was his instrument of choice always has a distinctive and instantly recognisable sound, but Chris Squire’s playing was unique. He expanded the boundaries of what a rock bassist could be, making the bass guitar into a lead instrument while still driving the rhythm. Many of Yes’ best songs had his propulsive riffs at their heart. Listen to “Roundabout”, “Parallels” or that incredible opening of “Heart of the Sunrise”. He’s known as a virtuoso bassist, but he was also a good singer, evidenced by some of his harmonies with Jon Anderson.

My introduction to Yes was a secondhand copy of “Fragile” acquired during my first year as a student, probably discarded by someone who’d rejected progressive rock in favour of punk and new wave. It was their loss. For a while it took me a while to get my head round what they were doing; the complex music that was forever taking off in different directions was a world away from anything I’d heard before in the rock world. But I persevered and eventually it all made sense, and it still sounds vital 35 years later.

I only ever got to see them live the once, back in 2004 on what turned out to be the last tour of the classic Yes lineup with both Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman; even decades after their musical peak it was still an incredible and spectacular show. More recently, the music editor of The Guardian asked me to write a piece about Yes; my first ever paid piece of music writing.

Yes are still dismissed in some quarters as “that band who made Tales from Topographic Oceans, which was awful and punk had to come and save us”. Which is a shame. When a band like Muse are currently one of the biggest bands in Britain, anyone who loves Muse really ought to be able to find something to love about Yes. That Guardian article of mine highlighting ten of their best songs is a good place to start.

So farewell, Chris Squire, and thank you for all the life-changing music you made.

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Electrification Postponed: Echoes of 1963?

Midland Main Line 222 Meridian

So the government have postponed the Midland Main Line and Trans-Pennine electrification schemes amidst suggestions that the high-profile Great Western electrification is running seriously late and way over budget.

Given the Tories pre-election promises it’s looking like their equivalent of the Liberal Democrat’s tuition fees débâcle, at least on the surface. So much for the “Northern Powerhouse”. Though in this case, since it’s widely suggested that there were plenty of warning signs that the GW project was in trouble, but bad news was being deliberately suppressed prior to the election. Which means the charge against the Tories one of deliberate lying rather than broken promises.

There is horrible echo of the 1963 appointment of Dr Beeching in response to the cost overruns of the 1955 modernisation plan, though in a time where passenger numbers are rising year upon year we’re unlikely to see Beeching-style closures. The 1955 plan was a crash programme following years of under-investment on a network that had never really recovered from being run into the ground during World War 2. It involved a lot of new and untried technology, much of which wasn’t terribly successful, from manufacturers who seemed to be chosen as much because of politics than their expertise. A lot of money was misspent, both on unsuccessful locomotive designs and on vast freight marshalling yards which soon turned into massive white elephants. And let’s not mention the unspeakable horror that is Birmingham New Street station.

Likewise we’re now playing a heavy price for the lack of any large-scale electrification schemes since the late 1980s East Coast Main Line, a full generation ago. Paul Bigland describes it well: The Labour government from 1997 to 2010 believed there was no need for electrification because some magical new technology was just around the corner. So the British railway industry lost the skills base necessary for such large and complex engineering projects, which is one reason the Great Western scheme has run into such difficulties. It’s just the same as the stop-start-stop approach to rolling stock procurement has decimated Britain’s train manufacturing industry. We’re now importing locomotives and multiple units from America, Spain, Germany and even Japan because British works went out of business during lean years.

A more rational approach would have seen a slow but steady rolling programme of electrification over the past four decades; as one project finished the teams would move on to the next, and lessons learned in past projects applied to future ones. The Midland and Transpennine routes would have been electrified years ago, along with other trunk routes who’s electrification isn’t even on the horizon.

One final point. A lot of ill-informed commentators with political axes to grind are now claiming that the MML and TPE schemes are being scrapped in order to save HS2. Paul Bigland again skewers this argument as complete cobblers, emphasising the fundamental difference between upgrading existing lines and building brand new infrastructure. And yet again the anti-HS2 mob have no answer to the fundamental rationale behind HS2, the lack of capacity on existing routes heading north out of London.

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A thought. The Libertines are to indie what ELP are to prog. Loved by their fans but epitomising everything non-fans loathe about their entire genre.

Posted on by Tim Hall | Leave a comment

Dave Foster launches Kickstarter for 2nd Solo Album

Dave Foster, guitarist for Panic Room, Mr So and So & The Steve Rothery Band has launched a Kickstarter campaign for his second solo album, to be titled “Dreamless”.

His first solo album, 2012′s “Gravity” was excellent, largely instumental but also featuring a wonderful guest vocal contribution from Dinet Poortman. The new album is likewise going to be a mix of vocal and instrumental tracks, and Dave Foster is promising ‘an array of guest musicians’, the identities of whom are yet to be announced.

If you like the sound of that, go and pledge now!

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One Can Only Hope

I find it impossible to read this poster for the Bospop festival in The Netherlands and not think “If only Jools Holland was to invite a few of the bands he’s sharing a bill with on Sunday to appear on Later“.

One can only hope.

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Chantel McGregor at the 2014 Cambridge Rock FestivalChantel McGregor at the 2014 Cambridge Rock Festival, which prominently features female artists

The Guardian have run their fourth piece in as many weeks bemoaning the fact that the lineups of major festivals are too male-dominated.

Unfortunately while it does raise some valid points it ends with this awful paragraph that seems deliberately calculated to provoke a defensive reaction from male rock fans, especially when the proposed “solution” had been to add commercial pop acts like Taylor Swift or Katy Perry to the bill.

In a world where women are deconstructing pop music, club culture is booming with some of the most innovative sounds in years, and a new generation of hip-hop and rap stars are heralding a socio-political cultural revolution in America, the white, male rockist notion of what a music festival headliner should be begins to feel hopelessly archaic.

The use of the dated 1980s term “rockist” does rather imply the author didn’t actually like rock at all, and the whole thing smacked of Social Justice Warrior-style invasion of other people’s spaces. One of the authors did later clarify that that wasn’t what she meant and she did love rock after all, but by then the comments were swarmed with bellicose sexists. I even had to ask the moderators to remove one of my own comments that recommended and namechecked a female artist because I didn’t want her to become the subject of online harassment.

While there is undoubtably sexism across all levels in the music business, I still think one big problem is the way a very small number of gatekeepers get to filter all the music mainstream audiences get to hear. The problem is not just that those gatekeepers are disproportionately white and male but that so few people have a disproportionate amount of power.

Previous articles have spoken of “elite tastemakers” numbering as few as fifteen record label executives, radio programmers and magazine editors who get to decide almost everything Joe and Johanna public get to hear.

Commenter “Cathartic” writes of the influence of gatekeepers in metal, using the Download festival referenced in the piece as an example.

There are numerous metal bands with females in that are less commercially successful, which disproves the idea that women just like to watch, but its almost certain that if festivals gave newer acts (both male and female) more of a chance many would develop the fanbase needed to justify headline slots.

Its a Chicken/Egg situation largely. Download is extremely conservative about its line ups, most of the headliners and main stage acts are basically older American and British bands that have been around for decades, and they are not known for given the European bands a slot. The latest roadrunner signing will take preference over an established European band regardless of commercial appeal. 10 years later that band will have enough mid-afternoon slots that they would have to be really bad not to have turned that exposure into sales.

However elsewhere in Europe, Nightwish and Within Temptation are two examples of female fronted bands that will land headline slots in hard rock/metal festivals. Both would pull off a senior slot at download as well these days. Both those bands can pull off UK arena tours now, but it was Bloodstock that has pioneered these types of bands in the UK first. There is the audience out there.

There are plenty of female musicians – ratio is irrelevant – playing in smaller bands in genres which download claims to cater for. The question is why so few have been able to make the leap from small touring for petrol money to headliners. The reasons may be complex, but the reality is his festival (and other music industry big wigs) have acted as gatekeepers in the genre and adopted an extremely conservative booking policy that has meant download have never taken risks on helping the smaller bands reach a larger audience. His comments just portrayed an under ignorance of the genre he caters for. Reality is headliners may be the ones that sell tickets (and Nightwish and Within Temptation certainly could add ticket sales for download), but the mid-afternoon slots are far less risky to try something new and there are a whole host of bands with female musicians that get ignored. Many people at festivals find discovering new bands part of the reason for going to a festival anyway.

That hits the nail right on the head.

I do suspecr that one reason the grassroots progressive rock scene is more friendly towards female-led bands than the corporate indie-rock festival circuit is previsely because it isn’t so controlled by bean-counting gatekeepers.

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Thirty Years Ago Today

Today is the 30th anniversary of the 1985 Knebworth Fayre, headlined by Deep Purple. David Meadows shares his memories of the day.

It’s 1985. Thirty years ago today, as I write this. I’m a student in Sunderland and I’ve just passed my 20th birthday. And I have only recently been introduced to rock music by the people I’m living with. I grew up without much knowledge of contemporary music at all. I listened to my parents’ music. My sister bought all the pop records in the household, and I didn’t think much of most of them. I listened to classical music, some folk, some jazz, and mostly what these days they would call the “Great American Songbook”. So I’m only just starting to listen to rock music, and deciding that while a lot of it is rubbish, some of it might not be bad at all. The first rock LP I buy is something called Bat Out Of Hell, and I think it’s incredible. My friends go up to rock gigs in Newcastle every few weeks and come back telling me it was the best concert they’ve ever seen (which seems a silly thing to say; how can they always get better and better?) but I never want to go with them. It doesn’t seem like it would be my kind of thing.

So there’s suddenly this buzz about an old band called Deep Purple who have reformed and are going to be playing a big show in someplace I’ve never heard of called Knebworth. I’ve heard Deep Purple: a friend loaned me a compliation called Deepest Purple last summer, and some of it is not bad at all. More intriguingly, Meat Loaf, the Bat Out of Hell guy, will be on the bill.

The whole thing is well worth a read.

Almost every rock fan I know seems to have been at that gig. It was the hard rock equivalent of that much mythologised Sex Pistols gig in Manchester, except that everyone who claims to have been there actually was.

The thing we all remember the most is the rain. And Meatloaf being absolutely God-awful, And the rain. And Mountain missing out the good bit from “Nantucket Sleighridge”. And the sun coming out briefly during Blackfoot’s excellent set. And then the rain came back. And The Scorpions, at the peak of the powers, stealing the show from the headliners. But most of all, the rain.

The other thing that sticks in the memory is walking back from Kings Cross to Paddington, covered in mud, and having to cover two and three quarter miles in 45 minutes to catch the last train back to Slough at 1:40am. We made it with just seconds to spare.

I’ve seen Deep Purple a couple of times far more recently, but it’s still the only time I have ever seen Ritchie Blackmore live.

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Mantra Vega – Island

Mantra Vega, the new project from Heather Findlay and Dave Kerzner release the digital single “Island”, the lead track from the forthcoming album “The Illusion’s Reckoning“, available from Bandcamp, iTunes, Google Play and Amazon

The single release contains four tracls, including the songs “Mountain Spring” and “Every Corner”,and a radio edit of the lead track, and features guitars from Dave Kilminster & Chris Johnson and the rhythm section of Stuart Fletcher & Alex Cromarty.

There will also be a physical releasee of the single, which you can order from the Mantra Vega web site.

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