Archives for category: ofcom

We’re delighted to present another guest post from Tabitha Elwes of Prospero, an advisory firm that specialises in the media and sports industries. 

The global strength of UK independent production partially reflects the success of regulatory intervention in the form of the indie quotas and Terms of Trade. However, with the sale of All3 to Discovery and Liberty and the potential merger of Endemol, Shine and Core, is that intervention still fit for purpose? Prospero has undertaken a study to identify trends and implications for the sector.

Over the last five years the turnover of UK independent production has grown by 6% a year to £2.1bn in 20131. A rise in international and multi-channel spend has offset broadly flat UK PSB commissions.

Beneath the headline a more interesting story emerges. At a label level (i.e. before looking at consolidation into “mega-indies”) value is slowly but surely leaching away from smaller companies. In 2009 the top 50 indies accounted for 63% of sector revenue, by 2013 they accounted for 79%, with just 20 labels accounting for 54% of revenue.

Market Share of Major Labels

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It is the mid-tier labels that have seen the biggest growth, suggesting this may be the size that manages best to balance creative independence and scale synergies.

Average Annual Growth 2009-13

diag 2

The above analysis, however, understates the degree of change, notably the rise of the “mega-indie”. While stand-alone labels accounted for 67% of revenue in 2009, they now account for only 29%.

Share of Non-Consolidated Labels

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The acquisition of labels by international broadcasters means that (post the Endemol and All3 deals) indies accounting for nearly half the sector revenue will be non- qualifying. Only 44% will be UK-owned, while 47% will be owned by US players.

% Qualifying and UK-Owned

Diag 4

Five groups will account for over 50% of sector revenue and the top ten will control nearly 70%. Only three of these top ten are controlled by UK companies.

Share of Major Groups

Diag 5

Closer examination of these top five, shows how much the sector and players have changed since 2009.

Share of Major Groups

Diag 6

In summary, if the All3 and Endemol deals go through, only half of the indie sector will be “qualifying”, less than half will be UK- owned and ten groups will account for nearly 70% of revenues. Given this, are existing indie regulations still relevant and sustainable or has the intervention achieved its purpose? Specifically,

  • Can the BBC and ITV balance indie quotas with in-house production? The BBC in particular could see its qualifying hours decline significantly.
  • With 20% of UK commissioning now from commercial multi-channels with lower quotas, does the regulatory framework need to be rebalanced?
  • Is there risk to long-term investment if nearly 50% of the sector is US-owned?

Simon posted last month about the briefing event we ran at Ofcom just prior to the publication of our report on UGC. I’ve just found these photos I shot there, which I thought I would share.

Campbell Cowie, Director of Internet Policy at Ofcom, and commissioner of our report.


Sophie Walpole, of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

sophieRobbie Stamp, of H2G2,

robbie 2Our old friend Nick Reynolds, from the BBC.

nickThe panel in full.

panelOh, and Simon, of course.


One of the pleasures of putting together the Value of UGC paper for Ofcom earlier this year is the number of people who have been in touch through the blog with comments and queries. Nice to have an audience!

One thing emerged from a reader’s query recently that I thought deserved an airing here. Why were we down on the importance of mashups, which have been so widely cited everywhere as a great example of the kinds of creativity enabled by the advent of digital? Specifically, we said: “‘The mash-up is arguably an over-stated case, and probably more beloved by the digital media commentariat than by the general population.’”

Which, in the cold light of day, does look harsh! But here’s my response, which I hope clarifies the position:

… our contention isn’t so much based on evidence as on lack of evidence for the opposite view. That is to say, that while the digerati like to talk about mash-up culture at some length, I see little beyond anecdotal evidence that the mash-up is anything more than a minority activity within the overall community of practice. 
That’s not to say that I don’t think it’s important, and indeed at times thrilling. I’m a huge fan of collage-based art from the Dadaists, through Fluxus to John Zorn, Plunderphonics and Negativland. And yes, the occasional Internet meme (it dates me but my favourite remains the whole “Shreds” series pioneered by StSanders). It’s just that I think the mashup’s case has been somewhat overstated, because it makes for good copy and is easy for people to get their head round.

I hope that clarifies our position, but if anyone’s got any further thoughts on the matter, or just wants to get into an argument, please, get in touch!

And just to underline how much I personally do love collage-y stuff, I’ll leave you with this, courtesy of Got-Djent, just this morning. Not exactly a mashup, but not exactly a cover either, it’s Brazilian guitarist Michel Oliveira’s technical metal take on Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”. No, I’m not sure what its legal status is, but it rocks.


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Even occasional readers of this blog will know that earlier this year we delivered a hefty old report on the value of User-Generated Content to Ofcom, the UK communications regulator. Well, last month Ofcom published the report, but we were away at the time and failed to report it here! Anyhow, here’s what Ofcom had to say on the report’s publication:

Ofcom has today published a report, carried out by Turner Hopkins, into user-generated content (UGC) online. The report considers the value of UGC to the UK, the opportunities it presents and the resulting implications for policymakers, including Ofcom as the UKs communications regulator. The study is relevant to Ofcoms duty to promote the interests of citizens and consumers, and to a strategic purpose outlined in Ofcom’s Annual Plan 2013/14 to “promote opportunities to participate”.

We also held an internal event at Ofcom prior to publication, running through some of our headline findings and hosting a panel discussion with three of the paper’s interviewees: Robbie Stamp of H2G2, Sophie Walpole of the V&A and Nick Reynolds from the BBC Internet Blog, who’s had some things to say about the report on his own blog.

Many thanks to all the report’s contributors including those of you who got in touch via this blog. And special thanks to Campbell Cowie and Katie Lucas at Ofcom for all their support during the project. You can download the report here, and please – all feedback is welcome!


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As part of my Content Industries Specialist role with the Creative Industries KTN I have, over the last few months, been sitting on the Data Building Blocks sub group of the Copyright Hub. It’s a phenomenally clever bunch of people, with decades’ worth of experience in the area of rights/assets/data across several industries, including music, AV, broadcast and book publishing. As the group’s strategic input into the main project shapes up I’m sure I’ll be reporting on it, but in the meantime I simply want to draw your attention to the very first iteration of the Copyright Hub, which launched last Monday.

Funnily enough, only this weekend, the acerbic and generally spot-on US music and tech blogger Bob Lefsetz made this observation, in a lengthy post entitled Changes in Our Lifetime:

Music… Was something you listened to, now it’s something you use. You add it to YouTube clips, you integrate it with your projects, it’s all done very easily but copyright law has still not caught up with today’s uses, nor has the music industry.

Well, the Copyright Hub has come about in response to that very situation; specifically, its institution was recommended by the 2011 Hargreaves Review of Copyright, which asked for the implementation of an “industry-led solution to improve copyright licensing”. And again, it’s the “long tail” of the kind of mash ups and music re-use Lefsetz talks about above which the Hub is principally there to deal with. Remember: this is a very long and potentially very lucrative tail indeed. As we cited in our recently-published Ofcom report into UGC, at the height of the Harlem Shake meme, over 4000 different versions were being uploaded to YouTube daily.

Of course, the Copyright Hub is there to deal with all media, not simply music. And I should point out that the Hub team are very clear that this launch iteration (a handsome site built by Lime Digital) is highly experimental and early-stage at this point. Further iterations will respond to the ways in which the public takes to this version, amongst other research and thinking – a responsive approach of which we highly approve at TH, of course!

It’s going to be fascinating to watch the proposition develop.


Turner Hopkins HQ has moved to the West Country for a week or so. So, while in the area, we took the opportunity to visit an old colleague and friend, the (genuinely) legendary mastering engineer Simon Heyworth, at his studio, Super Audio Mastering, in the extraordinary setting of the Dartmoor National Park (which is probably enough superlatives for one sentence).

simonheyworthI was privileged to work with Simon back in the 90s, when I was at Virgin Records, following a quite schizophrenic career path: on one hand I was overseeing general “catalogue exploitation” (think reissues, box sets, mid price catalogue marketing campaigns and the like for artists such as Bryan Ferry and Genesis); on the other I was creating a series of compilations of new (mostly electronic) underground music and newly commissioned albums which went on to be something of a cult phenomenon and even has its own Wikipedia entry (which no, I didn’t write) under the heading “‪Virgin Ambient series‬”.

Simon was a key collaborator in both these areas of activity. He cut his teeth as a studio engineer and producer in the 70s. Actually, “cut his teeth” barely does it justice: Simon mixed Tubular Bells, thus playing a pivotal role in launching a legendary musical career and an even more legendary business empire. But by the time I was working with Simon he’d carved out a role as one of the three or four best known mastering engineers on the planet.

For those not in the know, mastering is effectively the last stage in the process of getting recorded music out into the world. Once music has been written, recorded, mixed and “produced” (a pretty nebulous term in all honesty) it needs one final little bit of attention, and that’s mastering, a process which will render the finished product something that can be cut to vinyl, CD, cassette and, yes, download file. There are two clichés about mastering: that it’s about sprinkling on “fairy dust” and that it’s a “dark art”. Most clichés are a bit shonky; these ones aren’t.

First the “fairy dust” cliché. A good recording isn’t going to make a woeful piece of music anything other than woeful; a great mix won’t fix a bad recording; and great mastering won’t rectify a bad mix. But my God, it can make the mediocre sound good, and make the good sound like something you’d lie down in front of a train to hear once.

As for the “dark arts” stuff, well… All I can say on that is that I used to attend pretty much every mastering session Simon did for me while I was at Virgin and I had absolutely no idea what he was doing with all that tech, and, more profoundly, had no idea how he was able to hear what he did. And yet, and yet… the transformation he wrought on the music he worked on was palpable. The irony is that after my own personal learning curve from Hell of coming to grips with composing, recording and mixing over the last four years, I’ve learned what all the component technical parts of mastering are – say, limiting, compressing, EQing – and yet as a result, the alchemical process of mastering remains more mysterious to me than ever. Really, it does.

(Over the last decade or so, Simon has also added mastering in 5.1 surround sound to his repertoire of dark arts skills; that might seem a detail at this point, but hang in there… )


Anyhow, the whole issue of mastering has been on my mind in two very different contexts recently: my own personal music making and our report into the value of User-Generated Content (UGC) for Ofcom. And the conversation we had with Simon (and after listening to King Crimson‘s Thrak in 5.1 – oh my) took in some themes that I think are relevant here. I’ll look at them – briefly (because in truth, there are three separate essays to be written here) under the headings of Quality, Attention and Business.


Firstly there’s the issue of quality. Specifically, sound quality, although I think this applies across the digital media industries in many ways. I’m going to leave aside the issue of whether sound quality took a step back with the advent of CD (seriously, I’m not going there; a discussion of the superiority of vinyl on the World Service* this evening had me shouting at the radio, and really, I’m 46 so need to think about my blood pressure). Broadly speaking, the history of phonography from the turn of last century until, let’s say, the turn of this one, was one of continual progress**.

The age of digital has arguably been wonderful for the music fan – of any genre – in terms of access. But access has come at a price: along with the bathwater of inconvenience and artificial scarcity we’ve unquestionably thrown out the bathwater of sonic quality. Here’s the thing about the kind of alchemical transformations I’m claiming on behalf of Simon Heyworth and his brethren: does it count for diddly in the age of the unquestionably convenient but thoroughly compromised MP3 (which I use as a stand in for all compressed digital files)? And what about when those files are played back on crappy earbuds or on “docking stations” or – God help us –  phone speakers?

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve been trumpeting the opportunities presented by the digital revolution for the avid music fan since 2001, as one of the participants of the DTI’s Digital Music Mission and as a co-author of the resultant report, Monetising Anarchy. At one stage I even began to ditch my CD collection as I ripped it. Thankfully I didn’t get far – a fried hard drive brought me to my senses – although, as I was perversely making my way backwards alphabetically I ditched CDs by, among others, Frank Zappa, John Zorn, Yo La Tengo, Yes and Xenakis. All replaced now, but really, what was I thinking?

I grant you that the epiphany I had – that is, this just doesn’t sound that good – is one which I would like to think will come to many of us. But, but… many people don’t have the opportunities to listen to music closely as “life takes over” (see Attention below) and, more to the point, a whole generation is growing up who frankly doesn’t know any better.

I remember to this day my first hi-fi experience: my grandfather’s stepson (it’s complicated) had just acquired a Japanese hi-fi and played me Blue Öyster Cult‘s Don’t Fear The Reaper. I was 9 or thereabouts, and had literally never heard anything like it. Not so much the song – although it is, to be clear, a hard rock masterpiece – but the sound. Like something to swim in, or drown in.

Wind forward a generation and half a lifetime: I’d just recently set up a decent mid-range Cambridge Audio CD player and amp and Audio Research speakers at home. Over dinner, with some music playing away quietly in the background, my teenage daughter Lily asked if that was surround sound. “No, Lily, that’s stereo.” I don’t mean this patronisingly; it sort of breaks my heart that her sonic horizons have been, well, so severely limited by her compressed digital upbringing.

I dearly hope something hasn’t been lost forever – that would be a tragedy.


So, back at Simon’s studio we’re listening to Crimson in surround and I begin to ponder: how many people in the world have a set up at home to appreciate this? The pragmatic answer to that is: enough to make this a viable business not only for Simon but for the repertoire owners and musicians (sometimes the same thing!) remixing their back catalogues in 5.1, and producers like Porcupine Tree’s brilliant Steven Wilson who are carving out careers as 5.1 remix engineers. But more broadly, I got to wondering: does anyone actually sit down and listen to music any more?

That could sound like the question of a middle-aged man, I realise. Your life gets busier and suddenly, where’s the time to listen to a whole album, let alone all three and a third sides of The Köln Concert ? (Although we all seem to find time to watch Masterchef or Game of Thrones, but that’s something for another time.)  But I don’t think it’s just that. I’ve watched my own three children, all music fans in their own way, grow up with music as seldom more than an accompaniment. There’s always something else going on. The acerbic and brilliant music business and tech commentator Bob Lefsetz has written often about how music no longer “drives the culture”. This is undoubtedly true, but why, exactly? Where I diverge from Lefsetz is that I certainly don’t believe it’s about the quality of the music being produced currently. Personally speaking, records made in the last decade by, among many others, Meshuggah, Richard Skelton, Rufus Wainright and Pat Metheny are in my metaphorical grab-from-the-burning-house scenario.

Rather, could it be that music is no longer a central part of the culture precisely because we simply don’t pay attention as closely as we once did? Is that why live is where the action is? Because the answer to the question “What is it that live music has that recoded doesn’t?” is, simply: your attention.


So here’s the final thing, and the one which relates to my personal music making and to our more general thesis about UGC. If mastering is a dark art, it’s because, like all dark arts,the principal component of its practice is experience. Remember my comment about what Simon Heyworth can hear? Well, I’m sure some of that is a gift, but I’m convinced that Simon’s ability simply comes from doing this for decades. Think about Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” and the 10,000 hours required to become really good at something. Simon’s almost certainly put in 5 times that. And then some.

That experience, of course, comes at a price.

So can Simon’s skills – the process of mastering – be acquired more cheaply? In terms of kit, well, almost. The kit in Simon’s studio is beyond the financial reach of most “bedroom” producers. But the plugins available for a relatively small amount of money are incredible – easily equivalent to “pro” studios from just a few years ago.

But can you buy those years of experience, those years of listening? I think you can answer that one.

We discussed this at a recent workshop with Ofcom, indeed, we had a bit of a testy discussion about it. The kit becomes ever more available, but the time? The experience? You can’t buy that.

The truth is, if you want your recordings to sound truly professional, to have that extra thing, you need it mastered by someone who can hear. But in a world where even Lady Gaga is allegedly making only coppers from her Spotify streams, then where do the rest of us raise the money from digital to pay for the kind of attention which might just make our efforts sound as good as records we grew up with? Well, as it it happens, Simon’s studio offers cut price deals for the growing hoards of “unsigned” artists like me. Personally, I’ll be taking up his offer.


*The context, for what it’s worth, was Record Store Day, of which, to be clear, I heartily approve. I’ll be off to Black Cat Records in Taunton tomorrow to see what they’re doing to commemorate.

** See Greg Milner’s masterful – and hugely entertaining – history of music and sound recording, Perfecting Sound Forever.

Here’s the final of our three posts looking at the potential value of user-generated content to the UK, taken from our research for Ofcom; we’ve looked at economic and social and political value, so now let’s take a look at its value in the arts and culture sectors.

Cultural value is always subjective, and nowhere more so than in the realm of UGC. For every tech Utopian espousing the creative/artistic/cultural importance of UGC there’s a naysayer. Andrew Keen is one the most prominent of these; he is, among other things, the author of The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube and the rest of today’s user-generated media are killing our culture and economy, a controversial jeremiad against user-generated culture (whose title rather gives away its position). We mention this here only to qualify any remarks we make about the value of UGC in the wider creative culture, that is to say, there are other angles on this. So instead of “taking sides”, instead we’ll look at some of the contributions UGC can make to roles and processes with the cultural industries. We’ll leave to one side whether the creative output is good or not.

Talent spotting

In 2012 a new orchestra performed at the Proms, the annual summer-long festival of classical music in London, widely held to be the world’s greatest classical music festival. They were the Aldeburgh World Orchestra, a 120-piece band conducted by the acclaimed Mark Elder. They played a notably difficult set of modern pieces by Stravinsky, Britten and Mahler as well as a new commission by Charlotte Bray. It was, by any standards, a remarkable concert, but what made it rather more so was that the orchestra comprised players from over 30 countries who had only come together for the first time just weeks before the Prom.

The project was run by Aldeburgh Music’s Britten-Pears young artist programme, who, over the course of 3 years auditioned musicians almost entirely through YouTube submissions. We are somewhere past skateboarding cats at this point. The whole project was undoubtedly a complex and expensive one, with both corporate and public sector partners, including the British Council. And when it came to some territories, traditional auditioning methods (that is, tapes) were resorted to; China was the most notable in this regard, home as it is to some of the most promising young classical players in the world – but without YouTube.

YouTube had in fact already been demonstrated as a classical music recruitment tool by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra project in 2011, but the Aldeburgh World Orchestra’s appearance at the Proms, at the heart of the high culture world, was a remarkable example of the power of UGC in talent spotting. It might be an outlier, but across the arts and media, adroit talent scouts are scouring blogs, fan fiction sites, and video- and audio-sharing services to source a new generation of artists and creatives.

Skills development

Skills development is the flip side of talent spotting – it’s how the talent gets developed in the first place. We’ve covered skills exchange and personal development at some length in the Drivers section, so won’t go over that territory again other than to reiterate our core observation here. Communities of interest around craft skills and creativity are providing an unprecedented level of access to information and experience for students in any creative pursuit. At the same time they supply a platform for demonstrating what a student has learned and a back channel for (often rather robust) feedback. It should hardly need saying that a hugely increased talent pool of creative practitioners is of inestimable value to the cultural industries, and to the very quality of creative practice itself.

Audience engagement

If the consumer-producer contract is changing as rapidly and as profoundly as this paper suggests, then so is the relationship between the cultural institution and its audiences. This applies as much to the commercial venue as it does to a funded one.

This has not necessarily come easily to cultural incumbents. For many institutions and companies, “digital” until very recently has been merely one wing of marketing; for some it remains that way. In this context it’s often hard to make a case for the encouragement of UGC. For instance, very few live arts venues host user reviews of their work. It’s not hard to see why; as one senior member of an opera company put it to us, “You try sitting down with a Diva and explaining why someone’s slagging her off on your site.”

Yet even caustic user reviews can drive sales of creative work. Amazon is the exemplar here. There’s no sense that the ecommerce company vets their user reviews editorially; public opinion is on display warts and all (just take a look at the user reviews of Andrew Keen’s book cited above). In traditional marketing terms this would be nonsensical; why list a product with negative reviews? What’s happening here, however, is a very different marketing paradigm, one in which we trust Amazon (whatever we think of it in other ways) as an honest broker. That it’s proved a successful strategy should hardly need pointing out. More orthodox cultural organisations have rather different operating models to Amazon, of course, but there is a great deal to be learned from the retail behemoth.

Beyond the user review/comment/post, cultural institutions are using the encouragement audio-visual UGC to build relationships with their audience, although once we’re into this realm the degree of guardianship can become onerous. Take the world of amateur film-making. Both the BBC and Channel 4 have, at different points, been involved in the showcasing of amateur shorts, the former notably with the BBC Film Network. Tellingly, the Channel 4 initiative lasted less than a year and the BBC’s has now been mothballed, that is, no submissions have been possible since 2012. The suspicion remains that these can be useful recruitment and talent spotting tools (see above) but are high-cost ways of engaging with the audience.

Yet other cultural organisations have taken arguably more radical approaches. The English National Opera’s highly ambitious Mini Operas project created a series of collaborative pieces on the basis of submission of written scripts, music (via SoundCloud) and video (via Vimeo) bringing together hopefuls in a series of different disciplines, and rewarding them with a year of mentoring. Of course, this kind of audience engagement programme takes money, and is certainly easier to justify within a publically-funded environment. Indeed, institutions such as the ENO receive finding partly on the basis of innovation in audience development. But Mini Operas points to new approaches even for this most conventional of art forms.

A final word: on participation vs consumption

We opened this section of cultural value by observing that any judgments in this area are highly subjective. So let’s end with a brief, highly subjective claim. Mass consumption of others’ creative work is a relatively new paradigm in the realm of creativity. Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the 15th century is widely cited as the beginning of the mass media, but it’s what historian Paul Starr terms “The Rising of Technological Networks” in the mid 19th Century which provided the tipping point; the subsequent inventions of radio, phonography and television only served to deepen the degree to which massive audiences could be reached and entertained.

A curious thing happened in the years immediately after WWII, at least in the West: a public with more spare time on its hands than at any time in human history found itself with the technological means to consume thousands of hours of others’ creative endeavours year in, year out. Let’s be clear about this: this is unprecedented. When our grandparents (perhaps great-grandparent) claimed, We had to make our own entertainment, they weren’t lying.

We would argue that the new UGC paradigm is in many ways a return to a time of making our own entertainment. Of course, it is on an unimaginably different scale, with entirely new opportunities to learn, collaborate, communicate, promote. Is this a world of unbridled brilliance? Hardly. But here’s the thing. When UGC detractors make their case they always hold up the cultural greats and argue that rather than writing a post on Blogger or sticking a snap on Flickr, we’d all be better off watching Kubrick or Mad Men or reading Nabokov or listening to Miles Davis or… you get the picture. And yet: is that what we’ve been doing for the last 50 years, really?

In truth, we would argue that lives are immeasurably enriched by participation over passive consumption. Indeed, that practice in any discipline deepens our very appreciation of it as a consumer. And in this, we feel, lies the true cultural value UGC.


Here’s the second of our posts looking at the potential value of UGC to the UK, drawn from our research and writing for Ofcom. Previously we thought about this economic terms. This time out we’ll think about some of UGC’s potential political and social value.

Political engagement and debate

The Arab Spring, the Obama election campaigns, the Occupy movement (and, just possibly, its obverse, the Tea Party movement); these are the poster children for the impact of social media and its role in political life. They are undoubtedly huge moments in the development of mass digital participation in politics and social change, but two questions stand out for this paper: to what degree has a more engaged kind of UGC begun to have a political impact? And to what degree has this happened in the UK?

It’s tempting to look to the power of the blog. Two highly influential blogs on the political right in the UK are Conservative Home and Guido Fawkes . The two blogs are as similar as they are different. Both would claim to uphold traditional Conservative Party values at a time of an arguable identity crisis for the party. On the other hand, Tim Montgomerie’s Conservative Home sees itself more as a voice for the Conservative grassroots, while Paul Staines’ Guido Fawkes “Blog of plots, rumours and conspiracy” takes a more satirical approach.

Both blogs have undoubtedly been influential, with both Montgomerie and Staines seen as go-to commentators by the mainstream media. But the question hangs over their status as UGC. Staines has founded MessageSpace, an advertising agency which advises political clients; meanwhile, as observed by Wikipedia: “In September 2009 Lord Ashcroft the Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party took a controlling stake of 57.5% in PoliticsHome, the company which owns and operates ConservativeHome .”

And yet, if we compare these sites, admittedly somewhat oddly, to musicians or film-makers who either consciously or unwittingly build a professional career from previous UGC activity, political voices moving from the user-generated margins to political centre stage in some ways only validate the importance of UGC. It’s not as though Montgomerie and Staines are unique. Across the political spectrum there’s a greater amount of opinion available than at any time since the age of pamphlet – and with almost certainly greater public access.

And the engagement needn’t be as deeply engaged as blogging. The BBC’s Question Time is a 34-year old television show which brings together politicians to answer questions from the public. As a format it has barely changed over the years, but BBC insiders say something very simple has reinvigorated the brand: the creation of the twitter hashtag #BBCQT. By using this hashtag – which is promoted on air – viewers can respond “in real time”. We’re using quote marks here as the programme is aired 24 hours after recording, which unfortunately stops panelists responding to comments on twitter. Nonetheless, even time-shifted as it is, the engagement feels real and massive. This doesn’t take place on the BBC’s servers and is therefore not moderated; the barriers to entry are low; and it feels part of “a bigger thing”. It is undoubtedly a new kind of political engagement, and if it sometime feels like a bear pit, well that’s the nature of the beast.

How all of this will play out in the long run remains to be seen. Conservative Home and Guido Fawkes have to different degrees been absorbed into the political mainstream. Users of “#BBCQT” rather rely on the presence of the show, and by extension the BBC to give any context to their work. But it seems reasonable to assume at this stage that the use of UGC to drive political engagement and even activism will only grow and grow. How the political and media establishments respond to this will be crucial.

Information & knowledge sharing

We have noted the rise of the specialist forum, message board or online community above, in the context of personal and social drivers. They create great value, too. Of course, Wikipedia rightly remains the pinnacle of information sharing (and we won’t rehearse our reasons for the claim) but the specialist forum can create vast amounts of valuable information in specialist areas of endeavour on a scale not previously conceived precisely because of the sheer number of people engaged and connected.

Previously, the mass communications paradigm served specialist communities poorly, at best offering niche broadcasting or publication, generally on a national scale at best. International communities of special interest, from model train hobbyists to amateur astronomers did exist, but they found it difficult to achieve critical mass and were generally hard to find in the first place. And apart from a very limited back channel (“a reader writes” and so on) they were resolutely one-way. That’s a weakness even in the mainstream, but amongst specialist communities it’s plain daft, and potentially suicidal; the whole point about specialism is that often the real insight lies beyond a coterie of paid up experts.

If this all sounds like a worldwide cohort of hobbyists then consider networks like Mumsnet and PatientsLikeMe . These communities offer extraordinary levels of information and support to people facing parenthood and illness – information and support from people in the same boat. The communication dynamic is the same as on forums discussing woodworking or digital photography, but few would argue that the value was somewhat greater. Moreover, where medical resources are stretched sufficiently that the one thing the medical professions find difficult to offer is time, and when patients expect to be more informed than ever before, then forums like these offer an invaluable and unprecedented service.

This comes with risk of course. Any community comes with its cranks; they can do rather more harm, however, when discussing how to treat or at least live with an illness than, say, how to string a double bass, but the great strength of large, diverse communities is that as often as not, these potentially dangerous voices are filtered out. Nonetheless, it’s something we will look at under challenges, later.

Increased quality/reach of education
This is something of an extension of the foregoing, but a little different, too. Formal education in the UK has already been affected at primary and secondary level and, in some cases, to a profound degree. Despite all the previous concerns about privacy and security, many schools have moved with both alacrity and great speed from the walled garden approach of the digital whiteboard ecosystem to a more “open” use of tablets and laptops. Furthermore, secondary schools have implicitly acknowledged the easy availability of information (and the ease of plagiarism) that comes with the digital age, in their pulling back from coursework contributions to GCSE grades. In some ways, the tertiary sector has been slower to respond, compelling Clay Shirky to compare universities to the record industry in the early 90s, that is, knowing something huge – possibly existential – is happening as a result of digital technology, but resolutely refusing to deal with it.
In fairness, many HFSE institutions have put material online – in some cases up to and including entire courses and live lectures – and the so-called MOOC, or massively open online course, the cause célèbre of educational progressives right now. Indeed, the recently launched Open University-led Futurelearn is an initiative specifically to help traditional academia exploit the advent of the MOOC – and arguably catch up with the lead established by such American schemes as Coursera .

And yet where is UGC in all of this? The model is still one-way, albeit one-to-a-lot-more-many than it was possible to achieve in a lecture theatre.

There are exceptions to this. Take Ed Cooke’s brilliant Memrise . Ed is both a British technology entrepreneur and one of the world’s very few Grand Masters of Memory; Memrise brings both of these things together and is a fine example of the potential for UGC in education. The website is all about speed learning and uses games to achieve its ends. It covers everything from languages to modern art, but what distinguishes it from some of its equivalents is that games – if you like, “courses” – can be posted by approved members of the community, crucially giving it the opportunity to scale with rather more ease than traditional education services. And of course it has the USP of user-generated content: it can draw on a much wider pool of “teaching” talent than its competitors.

Admittedly, at this stage Memrise is somewhat limited to learning facts or skills; the kind of rigorous analytical skills taught by the very best teachers and academics are beyond its purview. Nonetheless, despite the fact that a lot has to shake out at the meeting point of tech and formal education, Memrise offers a glimpse of the power of UGC in this environment.

Ko-Su and Quipper are 2 other UK-based startups using UGC to disrupt learning. Both provide platforms open to anyone who wants to teach and learn via mobile devices.

Localism & hyperlocalism
Nesta’s March 2012 report into hyperlocal media Here and Now, UK hyperlocal media today had this to say under the heading “Harnessing the Power of Communities”:

“Most successful hyperlocal sites don’t simply broadcast information, they engage in two-way dialogue with their readers. This means good community management is crucial for building a thriving hyperlocal service.

Communities specialist Richard Millington has recently identified the four key principles which community members seek from a sustained involvement:
• Power to effect change.
• Recognition and appreciation.
• Affiliation with friends.
• A sense of achievement.

These principles are not unique to the online world, and hyperlocal players have as much to
learn from the community development sector as they do from other media outlets…With such a close connection and overlap between the creators and consumers of hyperlocal content, engaging and involving the local community is critical to building a loyal audience. If handled correctly, this community engagement can play a key role in determining the success and longevity of a hyperlocal service [our italics]. An engaged network of participants can help solicit new content and funding, reduce volunteer churn, and lead to more and better content as loyal contributors stay involved and hone their skills.”

We would, of course, support these claims, and recognise in Millington’s “four key principles” some of the themes covered in our own personal and social drivers. However, as with the development of the MOOC discussed earlier, the sense here remains one of finding ways for traditional local media to engage with local communities at a more granular level, and in a more conversational way – but still in a media-audience relationship.

This is of course understandable: local media, most especially the print media, but also local radio and television, is under the gravest threat of its life. Using digital media smartly to fight for survival is a no brainer.

But there’s another story in here: that of micro-media services emerging on a local scale, UGC activity aggregated around locality instead of activity or pursuit (although of course it can be both). Blogs, Facebook groups, twitter feeds have all proven to be useful at a hyperlocal level. These services can cover local issues as diverse as environmentalism, crime control, care for the elderly, transport and parking and so on. In this regard alone, hyperlocal UGC offers vast potential for social good.

But they can facilitate business too. Thurso cinema is the UK’s most northerly cinema; its Facebook page has over a quarter of the town’s population of 9000 signed up and has become not only a marketing tool for the cinema but an aid in its programming policy and a hub of a lively, engaged community.

And there are other models emerging to monetise hyperlocal UGC. The brainchild of a former local journalist and football blogger, Rick Waghorn, Addiply is a platform which facilitates targetted advertising for local bloggers and publishers. Waghorn told the Guardian:

“We empower both the local/niche publisher and the local/niche advertiser to source and place perfectly-targetted, digital advertising themselves without third party intervention. It’s your very own do-it-yourself, self-service advertising kit. A simple, robust, transparent bolt-on.

“It offers the publisher the chance to set his own rates and model be it pay-per-click, cost-per-thousand and two, key alternatives for that local/niche advertising market that can be pay-per-week or pay-per-month, just as you would in the Post Office. Applicable to any local/niche blog the world over; plus any ‘old media’ niche/local publishing site. Can be run off your mobile phone.”

Of course one could argue that Google AdSense has been a tool for monetising blogs for some years now, but the fact that platforms are being developed specifically with hyperlocal – and pro-amateur – media in mind suggests that, while traditional local media may be in its death throes, something altogether more interesting might be emerging at local level.

Increased digital participation & diversity
On the surface, it seems unlikely that the opportunity to create UGC has driven citizens online in quite the same numbers as have the opportunities to consume content or indeed for transactional purposes. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that for the first half of its life, from its inception in the early 1990s through its mainstream take up at the turn of the century, the web was arguably driven by UGC – it was barely professional at all!

One demographic group are of particular interest here, and precisely because they are often overlooked when it comes to discussions about internet penetration: the 55+ group, whom we might generalise as Baby Boomers or retirees. This is an age group who largely came of age before the rise of the personal computer; some may have had to use PCs in the latter part of their careers, but many won’t have. Yet the advent of the smart phone and the tablet have been a boon to this generation, with new, far more intuitive user interface approaches replacing the desktop paradigm.

In terms of UGC, this is a group that has the one attribute possessed by no other (with the possible exception of teens): time. And of course they have a rich variety of experience. Certainly the take up of social media has been astounding in this group, with 55+ women being one of Facebook’s fastest growing demographics for some time now. Meanwhile, Saga a lifestyle portal for the over 50s (built on the existing company largely known for selling holidays and insurance) has for many years run Saga Zone , a massive community site with forums on everything from health and holidays to technology and relationships. Sadly, at the time of writing, apparent widespread racism and religious intolerance have led Saga Zone to close as of February 26, 2013.

While the recent lesson from Saga Zone might be a salutary one – one we’ll be thinking about at some length in writing our report for Ofcom –  there’s no doubt that for many among the older demographic, the opportunity to create, contribute and communicate have been at least as strong as the opportunity to consume in their reasons to go online.


We’re working towards our second draft on our report to Ofcom, and have done a lot of thinking about the “value” of UGC to the UK. Of course, value is both subjective and variously defined, so for our purposes, we’ve divided it into economic, social/political and cultural value, with “cultural” meant in the sense of the so-called “cultural industries”. We’ll look at each area in three separate posts. This first looks at economic value, and essentially looks at some of the potential economic opportunities UGC offers us.

There is no question that the advent of UGC and its rapid spread in the last five years has led to the creation of new businesses and jobs in the UK. The Centre for London counted 3,200 “digital economy” companies with over 48,000 employees in the Tech City area of East London in June 2012, a significant number of whom are creating services or technology for some part of the UGC value chain, including Unruly Media, Soundcloud,, We Are Social, Editd, Conversocial, Apps For Good and Makie Lab.

Of course some of these new companies and jobs have displaced “old economy” jobs at incumbent firms whose business models have been adversely affected by digital disruption, part of the process of creative destruction if you like, although it is very difficult to quantify this.

Below we discuss the main areas of UGC activity that derive economic value and identify some of the beneficiaries.


This is almost certainly the largest area of financial impact in UGC activity. The truth about the “long tail” is that to build a truly successful long tail company you need to own if not all of it then at the very least a good chunk of it. This is of course obvious in the case of the major content distributors: Amazon, iTunes, Netflix, Spotify… but it goes for UGC aggregators, too. There are thousands of bespoke UGC-hosting services, many of them highly innovative. And in aggregate those companies create significant economic value, but the tendency on the internet of one or two dominant players to emerge applies here.

The big hitters in the area are almost all US companies, of course: YouTube/Google, Foursquare, Vimeo, Facebook, Pinterest, twitter, tumblr and most of the major blogging platforms (WordPress, Typepad and so on). A significant exception here is SoundCloud, a German company headquartered in Berlin. It’s fair to say that while there is some great innovation happening in UGC aggregation in the UK (see our case study on MixCloud), no single UK UGC aggregator has yet emerged. However, the major players, including YouTube and SoundCloud recognise the UK as a major market (and for US companies a potential launchpad into Europe) and therefore maintain significant sales and marketing teams in the UK.

Furthermore, the London-headquartered famously sold for nearly $300 million to CBS in 2007 and remains based in London with over 50 employees and an annual turnover of £8 million. Although not a pure UGC play company, its core recommendations service is driven by the background “scrobbling” of music plays by users, it is home to a vibrant community and also allows the uploading of content by independent music makers. Nonetheless it’s worth remarking that Last’s sale and subsequent big expansion happened over six years ago, the service arguably remains a niche one, and it remains, no pun intended, the last significant UK player to emerge in the area.

Third party services

All UGC services by definition need to build an ecosystem – of technologies and users – to be meaningful. Furthermore, they tend to work best when they sit “inside” a larger ecosystem. Even an utterly dominant force like a Facebook or a twitter succeeds precisely because it is embedded everywhere (think of effectively ubiquitous Facebook “like” or “tweet this” buttons). The spread of these ecosystems has created a rich seam for third party services piggy-backing on the giants.

The UK poster child in this area was TweetDeck, originally a desktop-based client that later spawned mobile and tablet apps. Arguably, for many users, TweetDeck was the thing which first “made sense” of the twittersphere, or at any rate made it more navigable, and certainly more useful, with a multi-column functionality that allowed users to tweet from multiple accounts and sort the twitter “stream” into themes and groups. Additionally it allowed updating of Facebook statuses, thereby conjoining two massive elements of the social media ecosystem.

TweetDeck was founded by UK-based developer, Iain Dodsworth, in 2008. Initially a tool known only by the twitter hardcore, it was bought by twitter itself for a reputed £25 million in 2011. While this remains an edge case for UK developers, it’s hardly an outlier internationally, with the infamous sale of Instagram to Facebook for $1 billion unquestionably the most extreme example of a titan buying up a piggy-backer. Furthermore, even the most innovative large companies can become sclerotic at times, or at least “miss a trick”.

Finally, it’s worth highlighting those services that join up other services in some part of the UGC ecosystem. Bandcamp Scrobbler for instance, does “exactly what it says on the tin”, enabling users to “scrobble” plays from Bandcamp to their profile, significantly allowing user-generated or amateur music-makers to appear among their professional counterparts. This is, admittedly, just a question of smart development around published APIs, but it can be hugely valuable for both users and UGC practitioners. It can also drive development within the “host” service, too; both Spotify and Mixcloud only developed scrobbling functionality after third party developers had done so (and after a lot of lobbying on their message boards – as discussed elsewhere here).

There is, then, a huge economic opportunity for third party development across the UGC spectrum

Filtering, recommendation, navigation

We observe elsewhere in this paper that one of the negative consequences of the spread of UGC is a serious ramping up of “noise”. But there’s a real opportunity in here, too. Once again, as with the professional content arena, services which offer meaningful and reliable recommendation services around UGC, especially those which offer a degree of serendipity – hence ‘filtering out the noise’ – could prove to be really successful businesses. The most successful UGC aggregators of course offer targetted recommendations already, but these tend to use an existing array of methods based on a combination of algorithms, community/user base and some paid-for promotion (think YouTube or Vimeo).

It’s often noted that the UK has an arguably world-leading position in gate-keeping in the creative industries, through strong traditions in various kinds of cultural and political in a variety of media, especially print, radio and television. UGC has allowed new gatekeepers to come to the fore – most obviously with the advent the blog and later twitter – but it’s also created the need for yet more gate-keeping, albeit of a radically new kind. The harnessing of the UK’s vital critical tradition with the explosion of UGC activity surely offers a huge creative and financial opportunity.

Innovation and new business models

We discussed emerging business models at some length in the previous section, so won’t rehearse those arguments and observations here except to say there is no question that the advent of UGC is driving innovation in existing businesses, perhaps especially in the traditional content industries. Indeed, it may be that this innovation happens as businesses face massive disruption, even existential threat. In these extreme (but not necessarily rare) cases, innovation around UGC and its attendant business models may prove essential.


We’re driving towards the first draft of our report into UGC for Ofcom; here’s something I wrote earlier today. I’m not sure it’ll make the final cut – might be a tad too polemical. In any case, it’s pretty heartfelt and comes at the end of a couple of months of absorption in this stuff (a period in which I’ve “crossed the floor” several times about the whole topic). It’s also a period in which I’ve been finishing my own debut solo album, something which has been pretty traumatising, but has arguably made my thinking about pro-amateur creativity somewhat more acute. So like I say, heart on sleeve ‘n’ all…

We opened this section of cultural value by observing that any judgments in this area are highly subjective. So let’s end with a brief, highly subjective claim. Mass consumption of others’ creative work is a relatively new paradigm in the realm of creativity. Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the 15th century is widely cited as the beginning of the mass media, but it’s what historian Paul Starr terms “The Rising of Technological Networks” in the mid 19th Century which provided the tipping point; the subsequent inventions of radio, phonography and television only served to deepen the degree to which massive audiences could be reached and entertained.

A curious thing happened in the years immediately after WWII, at least in the West: a public with more spare time on its hands than at any time in human history found itself with the technological means to consume thousands of hours of others’ creative endeavours year in, year out. Let’s be clear about this: this is unprecedented. When our grandparents (perhaps great-grandparents) claimed, We had to make our own entertainment, they weren’t lying.

We would argue that the new UGC paradigm is in many ways a return to a time of making our own entertainment. Of course, it is on an unimaginably different scale, with entirely new opportunities to learn, collaborate, communicate, promote. Is this a world of unbridled brilliance? Hardly. But here’s the thing. When UGC detractors make their case they always hold up the cultural greats and argue that rather than writing a post on Blogger or sticking a snap on Flickr we’d all be better off watching Kubrick or Mad Men or reading Nabokov or listening to Miles Davis or… you get the picture. And yet: is that what we’ve been doing for the last 50 years, really?

In truth, we would argue that lives are immeasurably enriched by participation over passive consumption, indeed, that practice in any discipline deepens our very appreciation of it as a consumer. And in this, we feel, lies the true cultural value UGC.