John Legere: He’s uncarrier but is he uncaring?

In just seventeen months as T-Mobile CEO, John Legere has seen his “Uncarrier” strategy add 4.4 million subscribers.

Uncarrier is an awkward name for a carrier who does not behave like one.  So if you’re on T-Mobile, you won’t have a contract, you’ll have cheaper bills because there are no more built-in phone subsidies, upgrades are less restrictive and more affordable, they’ll unlock your phone with less hassle, and you’ll even get (quite slow) unlimited global roaming.  And if you’re not on T-Mo, then John will pay you to switch from another carrier.

It all sounds wonderful and I suppose it is. Before Legere, we were politely treated like schmucks by everybody.  Once T-Mo started giving customers more freedom, the other carriers reluctantly joined in.

But that’s well documented. And it’s not hard to document it because Mr Legere is an extremely active tweeter, frequently calling out his peer at AT&T Randall Stephenson and pulling off a PR masterstroke by getting thrown out of an AT&T party, gaining national headlines in the process. Legere loves to re-tweet T-Mobile love-ins from customers and admirers, as well as re-tweet his own employees who have been encouraged to take in-store photographs with happy customers who have dropped their wireless carrier to join the Magenta Revolution.

But like any good marketeer, Legere will deflect the not-so-good things.  For example, he was noticeably quiet last week about announced changes to the early-upgrade program, Jump!. He’s usually all over Twitter, kicking metaphorical sand in the faces of his lame competitors. But John knows it’s not as good a deal as it was so he knows when to keep schtum. You also won’t see him go head-to-head with the elephant in the room.

John hasn’t made friends with everybody though. T-Mobile have been doing their best to rid themselves of Blackberry for a while. It’s probably no surprise since interest in their phones have been waning for years now. But while other carriers still give their customers the choice of trying out and buying a Blackberry phone in-store if they wish, T-Mobile have taken deliberate steps to sideline the company’s product.

Speaking as someone who flips phones twice a year, I tend to jump (pun probably intended) between Android and Blackberry every year.  Over the last two and a half years I’ve gone from the first Galaxy Note to the Blackberry Bold 9900 to the Galaxy S3 to the Blackberry Z10 and to the Galaxy Note 3. I’ve even used Apple and Windows Phone. I’m fairly agnostic.

Since I’m on the Jump program – perfect for someone like me – I was all set to pick up the Blackberry Z30 T-Mo Upgradeas my next phone in April.  The problem?  T-Mobile don’t carry it. And they won’t carry it. The demand for the phone has led to a petition and a campaign directly addressed to John Legere.

But T-Mo even went further than sidelining and ignoring their Blackberry users – they started trolling them.

Now you can call Blackberry users sensitive if you like. But the bottom line is that these are Legere’s customers, they pay money for their phones and their service and they are all still waiting for T-Mo to issue a software update that even Verizon began rolling out. 

Legere’s response?  Well, promising actually.

But what did it amount to? Nothing. A wishy-washy, say-nothing cop-out that patronized Blackberry users by telling them they did not have to give up their devices. Bless them.

Legere is absolutely entitled to say we won’t sell any more Blackberry phones. But the problem is, he won’t say it. He won’t explain where the 10.2.1 update is, why he can’t find shelf space for Blackberry and he won’t clearly state “we will not carry the Z30 – please go to Verizon if you want it”.

People like Legere are a breath of fresh air but it doesn’t take much for someone who is so “out there” to fall out of favour.  The changes to Jump, this ridiculous press release and his alienating of a small but enthusiastic paying user base, may suggest that the honeymoon period is coming to a close.  For Legere perhaps he feels he is near the end anyway if Sprint end up buying T-Mo. I think that would be job done.

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Passing the American Entrance Exam

"Wibble"

Every time you enter America as a non-immigrant you have to make a series of declarations about your background and your physical and mental well-being so the state feel assured that you are an asset to them and not a mad man of some sort.

Now some of these questions make sense such as whether or not you have TB, or a mental or physical disorder that might endanger others (I presume that if you do then you’re not likely to be allowed in.  Sure, in some cases you might be able to disguise the condition but I suppose if you’re, say, Wolverine then you’d probably be busted once you accidentally claw the lippy immigration officer to death.).

But some of the questions they ask are just downright weird.

Have you, while serving as a government official, been responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom?

So we will tolerate mild, moderate or even severe violations of religious freedom.  But if they were particularly severe then we, as Americans, would take quite a dim view of that.

Have you attended a public elementary school on student (F) status or a public secondary school after November 30, 1996 without reimbursing the school?

What?  Isn’t that a bit specific?  No interest in whether or not I owe 50k on my Amex card or have failed to pay a mobile phone bill for a year.  No, we want to know if you reneged on paying school fees after that well-known ‘School Fee Amnesty’ of November 30th, 1996.  And does this include library dues?  Because I’m pretty sure I owe about £2.50 in late fees for an economics audio book read by Chris Farley?

Do you belong to a clan or a tribe?

Yes, I do. I live in a jungle, have no shoes, kill fish with spears, and can afford a transatlantic return flight to the United States.

Are you coming to the United States to engage in prostitution or unlawful commercialized vice or have you been engaged in prostitution or procuring prostitutes within the past 10 years?

I assume they are asking me whether or not I am a pimp or a prostitute – not whether I’ve spent fifty quid in De Wallen when trying to impress the lads on a stag weekend?  If that was the case then none of us would get in.

And if you did have nefarious plans up your sleeve you’d be a weak link in your terrorist cell if you answered “yes” to questions like “Do you seek to engage in terrorist activities” or “do you intend to provide financial support to terrorists”.

The right time for a-ha to say goodbye

Morten and PaulDepending on which re-written press release you read today you’ll learn that a-ha were formed anywhere from 25 to 27 years ago, split up in the nineties for anywhere from five to seven years and got back together in 1998 – or is that 1999?  No, it was 2000 apparently.

What you will unanimously learn and can safely take as fact is that the Norwegians have decided to retire as a band in 2010, marking the 25th anniversary of the release of their first album “Hunting High and Low”.

There are a significant number of people raising their eyebrows pondering how it is that the day they find out a-ha are still together is the day they find out that they’re splitting up.

But for many who stuck with a-ha through the last 25 years this announcement will have come as a shock.  Didn’t they always reason that the band would split when they stopped selling records and people stopped coming to see them?  Why would a band who have just claimed their highest charting UK album in over two decades, a succession of #1 albums in Europe and a stream of long-overdue critical acclaim from the media and – more importantly – their peers, pack it in?

Well those achievements are exactly why this is the right time to say goodbye.

In the brilliant rockumentary, “The Making of Pump“, Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford says of the recording process: “You can record with 48 tracks, 96 tracks, you can start tying tape machines together.  You got to know when to stop.”

The music industry is full of acts that didn’t know when to stop.  A-ha made that mistake before, rendered irrelevant by the grunge explosion of the early nineties just at the same time they were growing their hair and growing up.  They endured dwindling sales, smaller live venues and bruised egos, and went one album too far with 1993’s (admittedly excellent) “Memorial Beach” before splitting to work on solo projects.

Their 2000 return was a huge success in mainland Europe and they scored their first UK top ten hit single for 18 years in 2005 with “Analogue“.  Yes, they recorded a big hit album this year but that accomplishment almost seems incidental compared to the reaction they received.

Looking at their positive demeanour in interviews and on stage it seems that the genuine warmth they’ve experienced from the media, the public and the many acts of today who have publicly heralded their influence, has completed the circle for the band.

What else is there to achieve?  Where else can they go?  If respect and appreciation was measured in record sales then a-ha have just had their biggest hit in 25 years.  And shouldn’t everyone quit when they’re on top?

Personal addendum

I opened the Google News email alert for “a-ha” that arrived in my inbox and kind of squinted at it.

a-ha to split

It didn’t make any sense to me initially.  And even after I clicked on it my mind was calculating that somehow I had received some old news story from the mid 90s.  Although I’ve no time for overt obsession with something as relatively meaningless as a musical act, I felt my chest tighten as the news started to sink in.

I grew up with a-ha; the soundtrack of my formative years.  I’ve probably mentioned it somewhere on the site – and I’m sure there are hundreds of similar stories out there somewhere – but when you’re 12 and unsure of yourself, songs like “Here I Stand and Face the Rain” articulate what you’re feeling when you are too young to understand.

The Blue Sky“, from their debut record, resonated with this insecurity: “I find it hard to breathe as life just eats away…The lady at my table doesn’t want me here/I just want to talk to her/But would she laugh at my accent and make fun of me?…Though i’m older than my looks and older than my years/I’m too young to take on my deepest fears“.

So here we are almost 25 years later and I’m not sure that I would have the level of understanding and self-awareness that I do if it wasn’t for a-ha’s influence (alongside John Hughes movies and Nirvana).  I’m trying to avoid being mawkish in closing but the fact that their music has endured with such meaning for so many people, means that Morten, Magne and Paul can stand in the doorway of the darkened studio for the final time, look around, smile and say “our work is done here”.

Edit: Please see Karen’s blog on the same subject.  Some very personal memories from their mid 80s touring.

The fallacy of democracy

Undemocracy

News out of Ireland this week is that it is undemocratic to be given a vote on the future of your country.

Declan Ganley - whoever he is
Declan Ganley - whoever he is.

Declan Ganley, a millionaire businessman whose opposition to the Lisbon Treaty saw him become a TV star along the lines of X-Factor or something, said: “The Irish people had a vote on the Lisbon Treaty. They voted No. A higher percentage of the electorate voted no than voted for Barack Obama in the United States of America. No one’s suggesting he should run for re-election next month.”

Cute quote.

The argument is that once you vote on something, that’s it.  No more votes.  “No” means no.  Of course it hasn’t worked this way in the past as Deco and his fellow No to Lisbon-ites well know.

Divorce and Divorce II

In 1986, when Ireland was asked to vote on the existing prohibition of divorce, the country overwhelmingly rejected it by 63% to 36%; almost 2-to-1.  Rather “undemocratically” we were all asked to vote again on the same issue nine years later since the re-elected Fine Gale government of the time refused to accept the previous will of the Irish people.  That time the vote was carried by a margin of 9,000 votes or 0.5%.

I wonder how many people who were happy to be able to get a second chance to vote “yes” to divorce in 1995 are now crying foul over Lisbon II?

In 1983 the country enforced a constitutional ban on abortion that leaves Ireland in the company of the likes of Chile, El Salvador, Malta and Nicaragua as places with outright bans. Isn’t it about time we revisited that issue now? Or does “no” still mean no in this case?  I’m confused.

How about in a case where Northern Ireland has a referendum on the unification of the island of Ireland – if the answer was “no” would that be the final time we’d vote on that?  Would Sinn Féin (steadfast opponents of Lisbon II) concur to a second vote in that instance?

Unqualified voters

Divorce and abortion are social issues that everybody can relate to.  The Lisbon Treaty is a vague and complex document (seemingly open to no end of interpretations) of which a large number of people have – understandably – insufficient understanding.  It’s probably fair to say that a lot of people should be considered unqualified to vote on Lisbon given that lack of understanding.

Look how easy it is to manipulate those who are ignorant by scaring them with groundless pap such as that voting “no” will lead to a loss of jobs and isolation or that voting “yes” will lead to abortion, conscription to a European army (they’ve been wheeling that one out since 1973) and a minimum wage of €1.84 an hour.  How is that democratic?

Democracy in action

Ganley’s complaint that “no” means no is a nice catchphrase when the re-vote doesn’t suit your agenda.  It would be great if democracy was perfect but of course it isn’t.  It is tainted by one side or the other having more charismatic spokespeople, more funding, better media coverage, or just being superior at using the truth more economically.  It’s a bit imperfect, like the justice system I suppose – and that’s why we have retrials.

If we have a referendum every day and nobody is excluded from voting then this is democracy in action.  The result will always be the will of the people.  I have no problem with this.

I elected someone to vote for me

I’m all for a Constitution as it helps provide a country with a legal and moral framework.  But I don’t want to have to spend a Friday afternoon voting on a document that I will never truly understand.  I think the government should pass legislation like this without having to bother me about it.  It’s not like it fundamentally changes the core principles of the state such as neutrality, abortion or economic autonomy.  Right?

Or isn’t anyone sure yet?

Football Manager 2010 price drop at Zavvi

FM2010There’s the usual pre-Christmas buzz about Football Manager at the moment but – as I blogged before – I absolutely refuse to pay over the odds for it.

After a month or so of websites advertising price points of £25-30, Zavvi decided to test the mettle of the impatient buyers who already pre-ordered by selling it for £17.95 with free UK delivery.  How many who paid maybe £10 or £12 more will cancel and re-order with Zavvi?

In a time where piracy is rife, to me the logic is very simple.  Charge less for the product and increase your sales.  I have now gone from a position of not buying it to buying it.

Support the consumer!  Buy from Zavvi!

Championship Manager 2010 "does" a Radiohead

CM2010Championship Manager (CM) was the all-conquering football management game franchise until the original creators, Sports Interactive, left the fold.  They went on to regenerate the Football Manager brand and have topped the charts since 2004 while CM has floundered with a series of much-criticised releases.

CM skipped their 2008 release in order to concentrate on really putting a quality product out in 2009.  Last week they released their CM2010 demo (to a fair share of cricitism) and today made a startling announcement when series manager Roy Meredith revealed that the game would be available for as little as 1p.

You can now pre-order the game on http://www.champmanstore.com until midnight on September 10th choosing to pay as much or as little as you like with the addition of a £2.50 handling charge.  The game can then be downloaded from the site on release day.  After this time it will be available at the usual retail price of £25.

This is thought to be the first time that the game industry has seen such a move and it has taken many by surprise.  Game publishers Eidos are following the lead of rock band Radiohead’s decision to release their 2007 album “In Rainbows” on their website with the cost decided by the downloader.  There are differing views on whether or not it was a success but when the album was released on CD three months later it went to number one in the UK and US.

The potential difference between CM2010 and “In Rainbows” is that the latter received overwhelmingly strong reviews.  If the reaction to last week’s demo is anything to go by, CM may have a tougher time convincing the music-buying public that their product is worth paying full price for.

But if they do release a competent game (and after playing the demo for a short while I think they are closer than they’ve ever been in the last five years) then there’s no doubt that this move is great publicity for the brand.

I blogged last November about Football Manager 2009 and what was, in my view, a cynical increase of more than £5 on the usual price point of £18 or £19.  Here we were, already tasting recession and rather than keep the price low, they (retailers? publishers?) put it up.  Needless to say I found an alternative way to play the game and did so until I found a reasonable deal six weeks after release.

Football Manager 2009 receipt
Football Manager 2009 receipt

With Football Manager popping up at a pre-sale price-point of about £25-29 again this year, I certainly will not be buying until it drops below £20.  However, my interest is certainly piqued by the Championship Manager offer and with the option of paying as little as £2.51 for it – the cost of a coffee – it’s hard to see how one could turn that down.

How many others are there out there like me?

I assume that Eidos have done their maths here and this move is all about getting the game in to more hands and rebuilding the brand for future releases.  CM2010 may not make them any money but next year’s game may benefit.

A credibility issue

One hit wonders, apparently.
One hit wonders, apparently.

It must have seemed like déjà vu for Morten Harket and Magne Furuholmen, two-thirds of rock band a-ha, as they sat on the GMTV breakfast time couch in London on Friday morning.

The scene was set when presenter Emma Crosby – somewhat understandably given the universal reference point – started the interview with a “Take On Me” reference. She then proclaimed that the Norwegian “masterminds of pop” are back, introduced a video package which included the aforementioned 1985 hit single and three clips of the band performing newer hits on the very same breakfast show from 2000, 2002 and 2005.

“Does that bring back fond memories, looking at that?” she asked, as if it were an achievement for them to remember songs they recorded in the last decade.

The baffling statements continued. “I bet your fans are over the moon that you decided to come back together and do this album and the tour,” she said, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this was their fourth album and tour of the decade and as recently as 2006 had achieved a top ten UK single.

“Was it a question of digging out the guitars and drum kits or have you been performing?” was next out as Magne just about managed to keep a straight face.

“What kind of reaction have you had from your fans that you are getting back together?” was a step too far for Morten. “Well, we have been doing this for 25 years so, uh…,” he laughed.

After an awkward exchange about what songs are their “favourites” (a redundant question in any interview which is akin to asking parents which of their children they prefer), co-presenter Andrew Castle then returned the topic to “Take On Me” to which Magne cordially explained is a song they’ve now made their peace with and joked about starting a gig with it some time.

“Will you enjoy it more this time around?” Emma asked, which is like asking U2 or any other band on the planet if they will enjoy their 2009 tour any more than their 2006, 2002 or 1999 tour.

The interview mercifully came to an end and they turned their attention to an online webcast to answer some mainly sensible questions from fans (part 1 and part 2).  The difference in demeanour between the two “interviews” was noticeable.  Maybe fans should always write the questions for inane interviewers.

But herein lies the problem for a-ha, a band still wrestling to find credibility in spite of spending half their lives as professional musicians. Unlike many other artists of their era, a-ha have never been dropped from a record deal and they clearly still make money for their employers – they have sold almost forty million albums worldwide.

But record sales are distinct from peer group respect and it has become customary for interviews of the last four or five years to try and rubber stamp a-ha’s credibility by wheeling out the names of contemporary acts like Coldplay, Keane, U2, Bloc Party and Robbie Williams, all of whom have cited admiration for the Norwegians.

In a 2005 interview with Metro, Magne addressed this very issued:

“It’s always tough to gauge your own history but it’s a good thing when people you yourself have respect for give you credit for what you’ve done. It means a lot more than some idiot critic saying something condescending about the group based on them not knowing much about us.”

Four years later Magne had to make similar points again in Metro in an article entitled “A-Ha: We’re more than cheekbones”.

“That’s part of the vindication on our part that we get credited for the music that we left behind these days. That’s the inheritance you want to leave behind, not the frustration of being an awkward pop star or a misplaced poster boy.”

You feel he’ll be making the same points again in 2013. No matter what the band achieve they will for ever attempt to become bigger than “Take On Me”.

Like many maligned pop stars, a-ha have no such credibility issues in Germany with their latest album hitting number one and the title track being their highest charting single since “Take On Me”. They are comfortable there, safe in the knowledge that interviewers and critics take them seriously. They command prime TV slots and have no need to defend their legacy.

The Scotsman sat down with the band and conducted one of the most honest interviews I’ve ever read. Journalist Paul Lester describes the band as a “Joy Division for anxious, adolescent girls” and as “doyens of exquisitely dolorous synthpop, sung with soaring yearning by Harket”.

The band may have been all that but they were marketed as pin-ups. Guitarist and chief-songwriter Paul Waaktaar-Savoy describes how their vision of being The Doors-meets-Soft Cell evaporated very quickly.

“When my wife saw the first album and the poster it came with, she went, ‘Uh-oh’.”

Three years after that debut album a-ha were still making bad decisions. The 1988 hit single “You Are the One” owed nothing to The Doors or Soft Cell and the accompanying video (complete with sailor suits) can only be explained away by an early mid-life crisis.

Maybe that was the nadir because the band got moody, grew their hair and sported bandanas for their 1990 record “East of the Sun”. As their fan base lost interest, so too did a-ha, moving further from their roots in the search for credibility on the gloomy “Memorial Beach” in 1993.

About this period, Harket tells The Scotsman:

“We were at the peak of denouncing ourselves and what we had been. When you’re at war with yourself you will go under. I don’t think we were focused. We were fighting too many demons, and trying to avoid things.”

Over fifteen years later a-ha still find themselves trying to change perceptions but at least now they seem comfortable in their own skin.

Read my review of the new a-ha album here.