Trouble brewing and Ginsberg howls again

Art heists, ethics, and Beyonce in Aretha’s bad books

Treasure Trail

This week a “top 10” survey of paintings to steal has been published and £84m worth of Impressionist paintings have been stolen from a museum in Zurich. The robbery took under 3 minutes and was a low-tech affair: masked armed men strode into the museum, took the paintings off the wall, and drove off in a waiting vehicle. The robbery was the biggest one in Europe, with the thieves stealing works by Van Gogh, Cézanne, Degas and Monet. In the past this sort of swift low-tech heist has seen thieves make off with iconic paintings like Edward Munch’s Scream. Curators, however, can take heart at the thought that stolen need not mean gone: this week an $8m Basquiat which had been smuggled out of Brazil was discovered in a Manhattan warehouse. And sometimes low-tech robberies can be thwarted in low-tech ways: one would-be thief in Saanich, Canada, this week was trapped in flagrante delicto because he had jammed the door while breaking in.

A rare 270-year-old Giuseppe del Gesù violin has been bought for an undisclosed amount, “well in excess” of the $3.5m world auction record, by Russian violin collector Maxim Viktorov. Mr Viktorov has said that he will allow the violin to be played in public regularly – although maybe he won’t immediately be lending it to David Garrett, the violin virtuoso who this week broke his 290-year-old Stradivarius at a concert at the Barbican. Another aural treat has been uncovered for us this week: a previously-unknown tape has been found of Allen Ginsberg performing his visionary poem Howl in a student hostel on 14th February 1956. It is the first known recording of Ginsberg and will be posted here.

Rights and Wrongs

A new Professorship has been created at Holy Cross University, USA, which aims to integrate art and ethics. Outside of academe, Steven Spielberg has resigned as artistic advisor to the Beijing Olympics in protest of the Chinese government’s stance on Darfur and Sudan. There is speculation that more high-profile artists are also set to boycott Beijing 2008. Other brewing conflicts and controversies emerging this week are the Tolkien estate suing New Line studios over how the Lord of the Rings film trilogy profits have been shared; and Danish newspapers are set to re-print the infamous “Mohammed cartoons” from the 2005 controversy. The London Development Agency’s arts funding strategy has been called “incompetent rather than criminal” by a senior London Assembly figure, after an investigation and critical report into how its £70m of arts funding has been distributed. And legendary soul singer Aretha Franklin has expressed surprise that R&B entertainer Beyonce Knowles chose to introduce Tina Turner as the “Queen of Soul” at last weekend’s Grammy’s. While Tina Turner is often called the “Queen of Rock ‘n’Roll”, it is generally agreed that the “Queen of Soul” title is reserved for Aretha. Seems to be a lack of R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

New Developments

The Hollywood writers’ strike has ended, and hot on the heels of the launch of e-book Kindle , UK publishers have said they will be experimenting with online free books. Following Culture Secretary Andy Burnham’s comments on getting arts fans involved in arts Boards, the Department for Children, Schools and Families has announced plans to make culture an integral part of school curriculum, with at least 5 hours of cultural activities each week, and a “Find Your Talent” scheme. Perhaps this is the end of X-Factor.

Madrid has added to its rich arts scene with the opening this week of CaixaForum, a dramatic new gallery/event space and cultural centre just minutes from the Prado; the CaixaForum’s first major show will be on 21 Feb. And in Da Lat, Vietnam, an unusual private home developed by architect Dang Viet Nga has officially been recognised as a work of art due to its “extraordinary characteristics”. Viet Nga has indicated she may turn the distinctive and impressionistically-designed house into a hotel: Terence Conran, you have competition.

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times