Music revenue jumped last year, thanks to paid streaming subscribers

The annual year end report from the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) has been released, revealing that paid subscriptions to on-demand streaming services jumped a whopping 25 percent over the past year. That’s especially noteworthy considering the report also says that streaming consumption increased incrementally in comparison, from 75 percent to 79 percent over the past year.

People clearly favor listening to music via streaming, which isn’t a surprise anymore as services like Apple Music, Spotify, and Amazon Music boast hundreds of millions of subscribers combined. Getting people to convert from free subscriptions to paid subscriptions has previously been a constant thorn in services’ sides, but they’ve added more robust offerings in recent years like podcasts, music videos, and lyrics to make the monthly fee more attractive.

Per comments by RIAA CEO and chairman Mitch Glazier, “paid streaming services added an average of more than 1 million new subscriptions per month, as the total number of paid subscribers in the US topped 60 million.” That jump in paid subscriptions accounted for 93 percent of streaming revenue growth in 2019, equating to about $1.4 billion in revenue.

Image: RIAA

As streaming revenue goes up, other sectors are predictably continuing a downward trend. Revenues from digitally downloaded music is down 18 percent, while revenues from physical products dropped 0.6 percent. That might seem like a negligible dip in the physical category, until the numbers are broken down. Sales of many physical products, like CDs and DVD audio, fell a great deal, but that’s offset by a 19 percent increase in vinyl sales. This marks 14 years of consistent growth for vinyl, although it still only represents 4.5 percent of the category’s total revenue.

In total, the American music industry’s 2019 retail revenue was about $11.1 billion, up from $9.8 billion in 2018 and $8.8 billion in 2017. Paid subscription conversions are the most significant contribution for this recent upswing, but the RIAA didn’t specify why it believes people are now buying in at a rapid rate. Glazier mentions some soft-pedal thoughts that credit “great music from amazing artists” and labels for diversifying partnerships. He’s much more barbed about existing criticisms, saying that creators are still not compensated fairly and that technology partners need to do more to prevent piracy.

While these are valid concerns, the report shows an overall hike that points to a healthy industry that continues to consume more music with every passing year. In 2019, Americans alone streamed 1.5 trillion songs. As Glazier says, music is past the point of transitioning to digital — “it is leading a digital-first business.”

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Google plans to invest $10 billion in US offices and data centers in 2020

Google has announced its 2020 expansion plans, which will build its footprint in 11 US states. The company has pledged to invest “more than $10 billion” in offices and data centers in California, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington.

Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai said in a blog post that “these investments will create thousands of jobs—including roles within Google, construction jobs in data center and renewable energy facilities, and opportunities in local businesses in surrounding towns and communities.”

The portfolio is not as ambitious as last year’s plan, in which Google pledged $13 billion and vowed to expand to rural areas in states like Nebraska, Nevada, and Oklahoma. This year, Google seems to be mostly focusing on projects it’s already started. Pichai notes that the company is expanding offices or continuing previous expansions in a number of regions, from data centers in Nebraska and Oklahoma to the Cloud Campus in Seattle.

Google plans to open its new Hudson Square Campus in New York City this year as well as a new operations center in Mississippi and a new data center in Iowa. The company will also open a “major development” in Kirkland, Washington, later this year, and its massive office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is still “under development.”

Sundar Pichai Stock Google Oct 2015 CEO

“Everywhere we invest, we strive to create meaningful opportunities for local communities,” Pichai wrote. “A powerful example is our data center in Pryor a town in Mayes County, Oklahoma…Google’s investments have helped provide local schools with the resources they need — including the latest textbooks and STEM courses — to offer a world-class education.”

Last summer, Google pledged to invest $1 billion in new housing in the Bay Area, work that it claims will accelerate in 2020.

Such a US-heavy investment plan is certainly a diplomatic move for Google, as the US manufacturing sector sheds jobs and concerns about outsourcing and automation grow. Still, there are several questions that the company doesn’t address in its announcement.

For example, Pichai thanks “partners and communities” at the end of his blog post, but there’s no mention of potential tax incentives — a source of the controversy that ultimately killed Amazon’s Long Island City campus. And development that hinges on a company’s cooperation can backfire, as the Mountain View City Council learned a few years ago when Google threatened to block a massive housing project if it wasn’t given 800,000 additional square feet of office space.

New jobs are well and good, but it’s important to remember that projects like these are investments, not philanthropy.

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Mercedes-Benz’s subscription service now includes high-performance AMG models

Mercedes-Benz’s subscription service just added a new tier consisting of the automaker’s high-performance AMG models. Subscribers to this tier will get access to 11 models, including sedans, coupes, roadsters, and SUVs “powered by AMG’s signature handcrafted V8 engines,” the company says. Of course, you’ll have to pay a significant amount more for these cars than the rest of Mercedes’ lineup.

The German carmaker first rolled out its Collection subscription service in Atlanta in 2018 with the goal of appealing to customers who want to have access to a fleet of fancy cars, but don’t necessarily want to own one. The service is only available in Atlanta and Nashville.

It consists of three tiers: Signature for $1,095 a month, Reserve for $1,595 a month, and Premiere for $2,995 a month. A one-time $495 joining fee is also required. Each plan includes insurance, roadside assistance, service, and maintenance as well as a “personal concierge” who will flip you from one vehicle to another.

Image: Mercedes-Benz

The AMG-exclusive tier will set you back $3,595 per month, but you’ll have access to nearly a dozen high-performance models. These include the G63 SUV, GTC Coupe, GT Roadster, GT63 4-Door Coupe, and E63 S Wagon. Each boasts plenty of horsepower thanks to the automaker’s signature 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 engines. However, this tier will only be available in Atlanta.

Car companies have been experimenting with Netflix-style subscription services for over a year as they seek to appeal directly to millennial consumers who are less inclined than previous generations to own or lease their own vehicle. Those efforts have run into interference from dealers who see subscriptions as undercutting their business model.

Many more automakers beyond Mercedes-Benz are trialing subscriptions, like BMW, Porsche, Audi, Volvo, Cadillac, Nissan, and Jaguar. Even the big car rental companies, Hertz and Enterprise, are getting in on the action. Most of these subscriptions are only available in specific cities and are still in the pilot phase.

Mercedes Collection will undoubtedly appeal to customers who are drawn to a simplified payment structure and the flexibility to swap to a newer car sooner than a traditional lease or finance plan, as well as access to a higher-quality vehicle than a daily rental from the airport.

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Pete Buttigieg is winning Gmail’s spam primary

He may be trailing Sen. Bernie Sanders in the delegate count, but former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg is leading Democrats in at least one category: email — specifically, Gmail. More campaign emails from Buttigieg’s campaign landed in the primary tab of Gmail’s inbox than other candidates, an analysis by The Markup found. Gmail’s primary tab is considered by many to be their main inbox.

Gmail has a huge chunk of market share among email users, ranging between 25 percent and 27 percent, with its 1.5 billion active email addresses. Reaching these users is crucial for any email campaign.

The Markup used a new, clean Gmail address anonymized with Tor to sign up for email lists of 16 presidential candidates and other groups, and it compared results over four months. Presidential campaign emails landed in the primary inbox only 6 percent of the time, the experiment found. Of the 43 emails the Buttigieg campaign sent during that time, 63 percent ended up in the primary inbox, 9 percent went to the “promotions” tab, and 28 percent went to spam.

Of the other Democratic candidates who are still in the race, all had significantly lower percentages of their campaign emails land in the primary Gmail inbox during The Markup’s survey: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had a 17 percent rate; the Sanders campaign was at 2 percent; Sen. Amy Klobuchar was at 1 percent; and the campaigns of former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and businessman Tom Steyer had a 0 percent primary inbox rate.

President Trump’s campaign sent zero emails, and former candidate Beto O’Rourke, whose inbox rate was also zero during the campaign, even had the email announcing the end of his candidacy cast into the spam folder.

Here’s how Gmail’s inbox tabs sorted campaign emails.
Image: The Markup

With political campaigns receiving a significant portion of their small-dollar donations from email solicitations, reaching donors is particularly important for Democrats in this election cycle. The Democratic National Committee required candidates to have 65,000 unique donors to qualify for the first two official DNC debates and 130,000 unique donors to qualify for the third and fourth debates. (The DNC scrapped the donors requirement before last week’s debate in Nevada.) Federal Election Commission figures showed candidates spent more than $6 million just through the first quarter of 2019 to rent or acquire email addresses and other contact information, according to watchdog site OpenSecrets.

The report points to a situation that may not be obvious to most Gmail (and other email client) users: your inbox is every bit as curated as your Twitter or Facebook feeds, and it’s based in part on your browsing history. When Gmail started sorting emails into distinct inbox tabs in 2013, marketers complained that the open rates on their email campaigns suffered, but users seemed to like the attempt to declutter their emails and to reserve the primary inbox for “the mail you really, really want.”

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An experimental treatment for the new coronavirus is being tested in the US

Researchers in the US are conducting a clinical trial of a treatment for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, the National Institutes of Health announced yesterday. There are currently over 80,000 confirmed cases of the disease around the world, and it has killed 2,770 people.

Two trials of the drug, an experimental antiviral called remdesivir, have already been up and running in China for a few weeks — and preliminary results appear promising. “There is only one drug right now that we think may have real efficacy and that’s remdesivir,” said Bruce Aylward, an assistant director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), at a press conference this week.

The US trial is centered at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The first patient enrolled was passenger repatriated to the US after being on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was quarantined off the coast of Japan and had an outbreak of the virus on board. It aims to enroll around 400 people with COVID-19 who are experiencing severe symptoms. Patients with a mild case of the disease who don’t need extra oxygen won’t be included. Participants will be randomly assigned to either receive the drug or a placebo. If the study starts to show that the drug works, the patients in the placebo group will also receive it.

“This is probably the most rapid trial initiation we’ve seen in American history, because the trial was just designed a few weeks ago at the NIH, and we were able to get started right away,” lead investigator Andre Kalil, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told The Wall Street Journal.

In lab experiments, remdesivir blocks the activity of the new coronavirus in cells. It’s also effective against MERS and SARS, which are also coronaviruses, in cells. It hasn’t yet been tested against those particular diseases in humans. It was first developed by the pharmaceutical company Gilead to treat Ebola.

The first patient in the US with a confirmed case of the virus was given the drug as part of his treatment, but that wasn’t as part of a clinical trial. He received an infusion under compassionate use, which allows doctors to give experimental drugs to patients when no other options are available. The treatment appeared to help (and it appeared to help individual patients in other countries), but it takes a clinical trial, like the ones that are underway, for experts to conclusively know if it works.

Results from the remdesivir trials in China may be available as soon as April. The US-run trial is scheduled to run through 2023, but there may be preliminary data within the year.


Experts discuss remdesivir during a conference in Wuhan.
Photo by Xinhua / Cheng Min via Getty Images

The remdesivir trials are just a few of the dozens of ongoing clinical trials testing treatments for COVID-19, targeting tens of thousands of patients. The scale and speed of the tests are remarkable — even more so given that, only a few years ago, the public health community was reluctant to use experimental treatments during active outbreaks.

Like with the new coronavirus, there were no proven treatments available for Ebola in 2014 when an epidemic broke out in West Africa. At the start, the WHO was concerned that experimental products would increase the already-high levels of mistrust in health workers, and experts worried that focusing on research studies would take resources away from providing active care to sick patients.

But the WHO quickly outlined recommendations for conducting research during the crisis, and trials on various treatment options started up. Scientists learned useful ways to structure trials and thought through some of the ethical issues involved.

Those approaches were refined in the still-ongoing epidemic of Ebola in Congo, which started in 2018. A study of four different drugs found that two were effective — and did so in the middle of the ongoing outbreak. “This is the first time that a randomized, controlled trial has shown quickly and successfully what the best drugs are in the middle of an ongoing outbreak,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, told The Verge at the time.

Researchers will hope to repeat that success now. The ongoing outbreak of the new coronavirus is different from the Ebola epidemics because it’s less deadly, but it’s affecting far more people in many more countries around the world. But the ongoing response benefits from those experiences, as will the response to any future public health crises.

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System that limits e-bike speeds will be tested on Dutch roads

Schiphol Airport, located just outside of Amsterdam, is preparing to test a new system that automatically slows the fastest electric bikes as they approach. The bikes, known as speed pedelecs, or s-pedelecs, are capable of going 45 km/h (28 mph) and would be slowed to the speed of regular bicycles as a matter of safety, reports Het Parool. The assurance of slower speeds could eventually allow s-pedelecs fitted with Intelligent Speed Assistants (ISAs) to join other bicyclists on the dedicated bike lanes found everywhere in the Netherlands.

Schiphol is trying to increase the number of its employees who cycle to work, with a focus on employees who live within 25 km (15.5 miles) from the airport. The adoption of s-pedelecs would certainly help make those longer commutes manageable while also reducing road congestion around the busy airport. Currently, riders of s-pedelecs must wear helmets and are forbidden to use bike paths because of the unsafe speed disparity they create. S-pedelecs are also expensive, but a new government-backed scheme introduced in January allows employees to lease one for less than the cost of a Netflix subscription. A €3,000 (about $3,260) e-bike, for example, could be leased through an employer for about €7 ($7.60) per month.

To help manage the influx of the speedy e-bikes, the bicycle lanes around Schiphol were recently mapped and photographed to include traffic signs. The maps, combined with GPS and speed limiters on the s-pedelecs’ electric drives, can automatically slow down the fast electric bikes. Consideration is also being given to controlling traffic signals such that riders hit only green lights along the route. Another use would be to alert riders of congestion by vibrating the handlebars, reports Het Parool.

At the moment, just 4,000 out of Schiphol’s 66,000 airport employees cycle to work. That’s low compared to Amsterdam, where roughly half of all commutes occur by bicycle. In September, Schiphol announced a plan to increase the number of commuters to 7,000 by the end of this year and 10,000 by the end of 2024. Schiphol and the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management are investing in cycling “superhighways” between the cities of Hoofddorp, Amsterdam, and Schiphol to make its goals a reality.

While new to e-bikes, ISAs are deployed as options by a number of car brands. The options are listed with names like “Speed Limit Pilot” for the E-Class Mercedes, Volvo’s “Automatic Speed Limiter,” or Ford’s “Intelligent Speed Limiter.”

An ISA like the one being tested on e-bikes at Schiphol could allow s-pedelec riders to rejoin the safety of bike lanes in city centers. They could ride as fast as they like on the outskirts of town before being slowed to rejoin the flow of cycling traffic in congested, multimodal cities like Amsterdam. Standard e-bikes capped at 25 km/h (15.5 mph) don’t require a helmet and can be ridden on bike paths.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the Schiphol system, which Het Parool says will begin testing soon. But first, the airport has to prove it can slow down the bikes. Later, it’ll have to ensure that all s-pedelecs have ISAs installed, something the European Transport Safety Council would likely support.

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USDA is holding back on rural broadband funding, senators say

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and eight other senators wrote to the US Department of Agriculture on Wednesday demanding that the agency extend more funding to rural communities for broadband deployment.

In 2018, Congress authorized the USDA’s ReConnect Program to provide rural communities with the funds necessary for deploying high-speed broadband (25 Mbps down) in sparsely populated areas. Internet providers can apply for loans and grants to fund their build-outs, but according to the lawmakers, the USDA has created its own restrictions on who is able to receive the funding.

As of right now, providers that have already received loans or grants to deploy satellite internet access from the Federal Communications Commission are now ineligible to receive funding for other services like fixed wireless or fiber through the ReConnect Program.

“This USDA-imposed restriction — which is not required by law — prevents rural communities across the country from receiving their share of over $500 million in federal funding for high-speed broadband,” the lawmakers wrote, “which is vital to reducing the digital divide and harnessing important opportunities in telemedicine and online education, and the high-paying jobs that come with them.”

The USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Satellite services like HughesNet and Windstream can connect communities without access to broadband, but connection can be spotty, depending on an area’s landscape or if a community is experiencing bad weather. The USDA’s self-imposed funding stipulation could bar local service providers from accessing funds to provide their small towns and communities with meaningful access to the internet.

Rural broadband has become a popular issue among 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Many candidates want to throw more money at the issue, proposing billions of dollars in grants to solve the rural connectivity problems. On top of funding, proposals from more progressive candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) would preempt state laws that bar communities from building out their own publicly owned networks.

Earlier this year, the FCC voted to approve its new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which creates a pot of more than $20 billion for cooperatives, satellite operators, and other telecoms to compete for in order to connect unserved areas across the country. But that plan hasn’t won over everyone. Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Starks wrote earlier this month that the program has similar rules limiting funding grants as the USDA’s program.

According to Starks, “any area that the Commission ‘know[s] to be awarded funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program or other similar federal or state broadband subsidy programs, or those subject to enforceable broadband deployment obligations.”

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Meet Bob Chapek, Disney’s new CEO and the Tim Cook to Iger’s Steve Jobs

Tuesday afternoon, longtime Disney CEO Bob Iger, announced suddenly that he was stepping down after 15 years, effective immediately. Iger will still serve as chairman, but his replacement, Bob Chapek, has gone from an insider figure to an abruptly prominent leading man. Previously chairman of Disney parks, experiences, and products, Chapek has been working toward this moment for a long time, even if most people outside the company have never heard his name.

The choice came as a shock to Wall Street analysts who assumed Kevin Mayer, head of Disney direct-to-consumer division, was a shoo-in. But while Mayer has become the face of Disney’s most important division, Chapek, who oversaw the launch of Disney’s new Galaxy’s Edge parks, checks all the boxes the Disney board wants in an executive who will oversee the entire company’s day-to-day operations.

“He’s going to commit with both feet and jump into the deep end,” one former Disney executive, who worked with Iger and Chapek and asked to remain anonymous, told The Verge.

Crucially, Iger will stay on as executive chairman, reporting directly and exclusively to the board of directors, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing. That means Iger is still Chapek’s boss; the only difference is that Iger won’t oversee the operational side of the business. With Chapek in as CEO, Iger told investors he will “spend as much time as possible with the creative side of Disney’s businesses, noting those areas will become “our biggest priority in 2021.” Iger will guide Chapek through the succession transition, getting him to a point where he can take over every aspect of the job when Iger steps down as executive chairman at the end of 2021.

Seen in that light, Chapek makes more sense as a successor. After years of high-risk bets, Disney is in a remarkably stable position, with little changing materially over the next few years. A caretaker executive like Chapek can carry out Iger’s vision for Disney in the years to come, while Iger continues to work with various heads in creative departments on the future of Disney’s content.

“If he’s sticking around, it could just be that he’s the trainer,” the former Disney executive said. “The Sith apprentice and Sith Lord. He’ll be holding Chapek’s hand. He’s going to take a position to still be deeply entwined with the company. It’s still Bob’s show.”

To understand why Chapek is the obvious choice to replace Iger, as former Disney executives told The Verge, it requires a little history lesson. In 2009, Chapek was named president of distribution for Walt Disney Studios, putting him in charge of distribution for Disney’s content theatrically, home entertainment, and other mediums like digital releases. During his time in the home entertainment division, Chapek was crucial in Disney’s distribution deals with digital platforms like Apple’s iTunes.

Iger was especially interested in those details because of the changing landscape of release windows (meaning when and where a movie can go after its theatrical release). The shift in technology made partnerships with companies like Apple and platforms like iTunes crucial to the company’s growth.

Those distribution deals were Disney’s early foray into the direct-to-consumer market — a sector Iger sees as the future. As then-chairman of Walt Disney Studios Rich Ross said in a 2009 press release, “Bob Chapek has been at the forefront of new technology for many years, and has the expertise and track record to guide and consolidate our future distribution efforts.”

Chapek excelled, helping to develop some of Disney’s most popular straight-to-video franchises, including the direct-to-video Airbud offshoot series, Buddies. One former executive told The Verge that Chapek wanted to continue Air Bud’s popularity, and “the Buddies franchise was developed to be a direct-to-DVD series.” The Buddies series was a low-budget, seemingly random slate of movies for Disney (although the company has a long history of making movies starring adorable pups), but it showcased an IP approach that now dominates Disney’s overall strategy.

Chapek continued to rise through Disney’s ranks. The next step in Chapek’s journey was taking over for Andy Mooney, the former chairman of consumer products at Disney, who stepped down in 2011. Tensions grew between Mooney and Iger, according to the executive, and Chapek was brought in to fix the consumer division. Under Iger’s guidance, Chapek started to reshape Disney into the company it’s known as today. He was directly responsible for developing a brand- and franchise-driven strategy for Disney’s consumer division — similar to what he did with home entertainment and distribution. Chapek’s leadership came at a time when Disney was moving rapidly into a franchise-first strategy.

“They bring in Bob Chapek to come and implement the Iger agenda,” the executive told The Verge. “Bob’s vision was putting the strategic interests of the company ahead of individual divisions. Consumer products would support the creative outlet of the studio even if the division took a hit because that benefited the Walt Disney Corporation. Chapek and Iger believed that executives are all company men and women, and they should support the entire company’s agendas and priorities.”

In essence, Chapek was cleaning house. Chapek “did what Bob wanted him to do,” the executive said, noting that Chapek proved he could “be loyal, be effective, and wasn’t afraid of making tough decisions.”

By the time Chapek was promoted to chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts in 2015, he was in Iger’s good graces. (He was made head of parks, experiences, and product division when the groups were combined in 2018.) It was a transitional moment for Disney, as the company moved to launch its most ambitious project yet: Shanghai Disney Resort. Disney was spending $5.5 billion on building the park in a country it saw as key in its quest for even bigger global expansion.

Iger told investors in 2018 that Disney was planning an expansion to meet the “strong and growing demand for high-quality themed entertainment.” At the head of it all was Chapek who was with Iger when Shanghai Disney launched. Iger said he formed a bond with Chapek while dealing with Shanghai launching and problems back in the United States.

“The bond you form in high-stress moments like this, when you’re sharing information that you can’t discuss with anyone else, is a powerful one,” Iger wrote in his book, The Ride of a Lifetime.

By 2020, Shanghai Disney became one of Disney’s most successful parks, generating $1 billion in revenue and approximately $50 million in operating profit annually for the company. It was a key moment for Iger and the company’s development in China, as Iger noted in his recent book. “I’d been CEO of the Walt Disney Company for eleven years at that point, and my plan was to open Shanghai and then retire,” Iger says in the opening of his book. “It has been a thrilling run, and the creation of this park was the biggest accomplishment of my career.”

Chapek’s track record on top of his work with the Shanghai park opening proved to be the most important criterion for taking over as CEO — his knowledge of every Disney division. “He’s deeply integrated in Disney longterm, and has the track record,” the executive said. “He has a wide breadth of experience. When you think about it on the creative side of things — home entertainment, every single movie and TV show, he understands it. Then he went over to consumer products to clean house on behalf of Bob Iger. When they needed someone tough to rein in the theme parks, Chapek was the guy chosen. He’s always been Iger’s guy.”

The one area where Chapek has less experience is the same area in which Iger sees as the future of Disney’s business: streaming. Disney’s streaming sector — referred to as direct-to-consumer, which houses ESPN Plus, Hulu, Disney Plus, and HotStar in India — is Disney’s flashiest sector. It’s arguably Disney’s most important in the ever-changing digital landscape. Investors ask about it all the time, attention is given to it at every event, and as the streaming wars heat up, all eyes are on Kevin Mayer.

“It feels absolutely vital for us to do this,” Iger told Bloomberg ahead of Disney Plus’ launch in November. “This is, no question about it, the future of media.”

Many industry insiders and employees at Disney thought Mayer was the obvious choice for CEO. Some were shocked when Chapek was announced, with one employee in the direct-to-consumer division telling The Verge they’d “immediately quit if Kevin Mayer leaves.” Mayer, who the former Disney executive credits as “the best person Disney’s ever had on the strategy side,” hasn’t commented publicly on Chapek’s promotion.

So why didn’t Iger pick Mayer as CEO? The simplest answer is that, while he’s an expert in Disney’s most high-profile sector, he doesn’t have much experience with the rest of the company. “Kevin just didn’t have the benefit or the time to get exposed access into those other businesses,” the executive said. “And that’s crucial when Disney is grooming the next CEO.”

Mayer still has one of the most important jobs in the company. Prior to heading up Disney’s direct-to-consumer and international (DTCI) division (which launched in 2018 after Disney acquired a majority stake in BAMTech and started its Hulu takeover), Mayer served as senior executive vice president and chief strategy officer. Mayer helped orchestrate four of Disney’s key acquisitions alongside Iger: Pixar, Marvel Entertainment, Lucasfilm, and BAMTech, and he was instrumental in the purchase of 21st Century Fox.

But while Disney’s streaming strategy has been wildly successful, it’s all the more reason to keep Mayer in the same role. As Iger told investors on the call yesterday afternoon, “with the asset base in place, and our strategy essentially deployed,” Mayer already has everything he needs to make Disney’s direct-to-consumer business shine. He’s arguably the only one who can do it. Putting him in charge of the whole company would just upset the balance.

The Disney empire that exists today simply couldn’t exist without Mayer and Iger working together to buy the studios and companies they did. The question remains: does Disney need a new Iger right now — when he’s still committed to developing content at the company for the next two years — or someone who can execute on his division, working alongside Mayer? As Iger told The New York Times after his announcement, “I’m not going to suddenly be working three days a week. My new role is a full-time job.”

“No one will ever replace Iger,” the former Disney executive told The Verge. “Think of the parallel between Steve Jobs and Tim Cook. Iger will probably be the most incredible IP person in history. Does Disney need a new IP person? Or does it need a person who can take those IP assets and then administer and manage them? That’s where Chapek comes in.”

Disney’s history with CEO transitions isn’t exactly tidy; Iger’s own promotion in 2005 was overshadowed by the drama that plagued former CEO Michael Eisner for years before he was ousted in 2004. The prior heir apparent to Iger, former chief operating officer Tom Staggs, left the company in 2016 after years of being groomed for the position after suddenly being told by Iger that the board didn’t have confidence in his abilities to lead the company.

But even by that standard, Iger’s announcement is strange. As former Amazon Studios strategist and analyst Matthew Ball tweeted, Iger is 14 months into a 36-month extension, the succession was immediate, the news dropped on a Tuesday afternoon, and it comes months after Iger’s press tour — a strange move for a CEO who’s planning to step down. The former Disney executive told The Verge that the announcement read as “very surprising, and more than a little suspicious.” People inside Disney are already questioning if there’s more news to come.

At the same time, the company has never been stronger. Disney had a record-breaking 2019, garnering more than $13 billion at the box office and producing eight of the 10 top-grossing films in the United States; Disney Plus is off to a rousing start with more than 28 million subscribers in just over three months; and its theme park division continues to generate profit.

With that success in place, Chapek and Iger start to look like a classic pairing of a creative personality with a traditional business type. That kind of match has a long history for Disney, starting with Walt and Roy Disney in the company’s beginnings and continuing with Eisner and former president and chief operating officer Frank Wells in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Chapek and Iger might be the third pair of executives to carry on that tradition.

Plus, don’t forget: Iger isn’t going anywhere. His story continues.

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LG’s new V60 ThinQ 5G has two screens and can record 8K video

As Microsoft’s Surface Duo slowly approaches for release later this year, LG is getting out in front with its third dual-screen smartphone. The trick to LG’s approach, if you’re unfamiliar, is the second display is part of a case that can be separated from the main phone whenever you don’t want the added weight or bulk.

My colleague Sam Byford was impressed by the multitasking powers of LG’s dual-screen G8x ThinQ, and now the company is back with its latest evolution on the idea. The V60 ThinQ 5G — I’ll not be mentioning “ThinQ” anymore beyond this point, thank you — upgrades the internals with Qualcomm’s latest processor, 5G data, an improved camera capable of 8K video, and more. And yes, it still includes the hi-fi headphone jack that’s become a hallmark of LG phones.

But for a mobile division that continues to struggle, the V60 feels a bit iterative — especially in the design department. It’s got a 6.8-inch FHD+ (2460 x 1080) OLED panel. No fancy high refresh rates to be found here — just plain old 60Hz. The screen has a small notch, but it’s surrounded by fairly sizable bezels. And around back, the camera bump has returned after LG managed to keep everything flush in last year’s flagships. There’s still a dedicated Google Assistant shortcut key on the V60 as well. Everything still looks and feels very much like a V-series phone, and I do quite like the “classy blue” and “classy white” finishes. A bolder third option would’ve been nice. LG has given the V60 chamfered aluminum edges with a matte finish, and the divide actually comes right across the USB-C port, which looks a bit peculiar but still feels fine in your hand.

Inside the phone is where the notable upgrades are. The V60 is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 chipset and supports 5G connectivity. On most carriers, it’s optimized for Sub-6 5G networks, but there’ll be a (more expensive) model that’s designed for ultra-fast millimeter-wave data speeds. You get 128GB of built-in storage with optional microSD expansion and 8GB of RAM. There’s also Wi-Fi 6 on board, and LG says the V60’s 5,000mAh battery lets it last 30 percent longer than the G8x did. That’s particularly important when you remember that this phone has to drive a secondary display; the Dual Screen case lacks its own battery.

Like before, that second screen is a perfect match for the primary one. It’s the same size and resolution. And yes, it still mimics the notch since LG is using the same panel part to save on costs. You can position its hinge however you want, turning the V60 into a mini laptop of sorts. Previously, only LG’s own apps could utilize both screens at the same time. But with the V60, LG has managed to get Google’s apps — Google Photos, Google Maps, YouTube, etc. — working in the “wide view” mode that spans both displays at once. When the phone is held vertically, this feels a bit silly since the apps literally just stretch across two displays with a big divide in the middle. But switching to landscape lets you use one display as a full-screen keyboard, which could help you jam out emails in Gmail a bit faster and with fewer typos.

By and large, though, the V60’s Dual Screen setup is still best suited for multitasking with different apps on each one. This remains the ultimate Uber / Lyft driver command center. You can watch videos on one screen while messaging or scrolling Instagram on the other. And when playing games, you can use the additional display as a gamepad and customize where all the buttons go. LG hasn’t managed to solve all of its Dual Screen quirks, though. The second screen still gets its own launcher and home screen, which can get annoying to manage on top of the ones on the regular phone. The Dual Screen case still has the small outer display that’ll show you the time and notifications.

But the star of any LG phone, no matter how many screens, is usually the camera. The company’s handsets have built a reputation as powerful content creation tools, offering more manual controls than Android competitors — especially when recording video. The V60 has dual rear cameras; that third lens on the rear is a time-of-flight depth sensor.

LG has given the phone a larger 1/1.7-inch sensor for the primary 64-megapixel f/1.8 camera, which is on par (in size, at least) with recent Huawei phones and Sony’s latest and not too far off from the Galaxy S20. In low light, the camera utilizes pixel binning to produce 16MP images to help combat noise. There’s still also a 13-megapixel ultrawide camera that provides a 117-degree field of view. LG isn’t doing any wild tricks with zoom in the same manner as Huawei and Samsung; the V60 still tops out at 10x.

The V60 has the best video chops of any LG phone yet, as it can capture 8K-resolution recordings. The phone includes four microphones (on the top, bottom, left, and back), allowing it to produce 3D audio alongside your video clips. There’s a new feature called “voice bokeh” that can adjust the audio as it’s being recorded to emphasize voices, and the fun ASMR mode from the G8x is back again. In manual video mode, you can set the V60 to record in HDR10+ for more vibrant colors.

LG hasn’t given up on providing its customers with top-notch audio. The 32-bit hi-fi DAC for wired headphones is still present, and the V60 has balanced stereo speakers, which is something that other flagships have lost as bezels get shaved away. To round out the specs list, there’s an in-display fingerprint sensor, Qualcomm Quick Charge 4.0 (with wireless charging), and the phone ships running Android 10.

The V60 ThinQ 5G has flagship specs in a somewhat uninspired design, but until Microsoft’s Surface Duo arrives this fall, there aren’t many phones that can give you this dual-screen trick. Foldables seem far more futuristic, but they’re also more fragile — and you can detach this second display whenever you want and stick to the traditional slab. Will there be more excitement around Microsoft’s device? Certainly. And I’m not sure the V60 really does anything to move the needle for LG. The company’s fans will still be very into this phone, but other consumers might not be swayed. LG has said it hopes to make its mobile business profitable by 2021 through “wow factor.” Is this supposed to be that? Or is the wow still to come from an eventual G9?

Pricing and availability for the V60 will be announced soon by wireless carriers.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge

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Bayonetta studio PlatinumGames goes it alone with new independent project

Bayonetta and Astral Chain developer PlatinumGames has revealed the first details of a new project that director Hideki Kamiya describes as a “giant step” for the studio. With a working title of “Project GG,” the game will be the first original property that Platinum develops, publishes, and ultimately owns itself.

A teaser video was just released, but it doesn’t show much of what Project GG actually is beyond describing it as “the powerful climax to the Hideki Kamiya superhero trilogy,” which hints at a possible connection to Viewtiful Joe and The Wonderful 101. There are elements like shadowy figures, possible kaiju, destroyed cityscapes, and a cute shiba inu, all of which could well add up to strong fodder for a solid Platinum-esque action title. In the announcement, however, the platforms, release date, and even the game’s genre are listed as TBD.

“As a creator, it’s hard not to think of my games as my children,” Kamiya says in a statement. “After all, it takes a lot of hard work to raise them up, and a lot of love, too. However, once they’re done, any choices about them are entirely out of my hands. So, for example, no matter how many times people tell me, ‘You should make a sequel to this game,’ or, ‘I’d love to see it on that console,’ there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Hideki Kamiya (left) and Atsushi Inaba (right) of PlatinumGames.
Photo by Sam Byford / The Verge

Project GG is different. Unlike any of the games we’ve made so far, it’s going to be a 100-percent PlatinumGames title. For everything from its setting and characters, to its game design and story, to how it’s promoted — PlatinumGames is in full control.”

Kamiya notes that this endeavor won’t be without risk, saying that “having full control over the Project GG IP gives us a ton of freedom, but also a ton of responsibility.” The company is close to achieving another early independent success, however, with its recent Kickstarter campaign for The Wonderful 101 Remastered, a resurrection of an underappreciated Wii U cult hit from 2013. The project has already raised close to 192 million yen ($1.74 million) in funding with nine days remaining, far beyond the initial goal of around $50,000.

Now, Platinum is announcing the release dates for The Wonderful 101 Remastered: it’ll come out on the Nintendo Switch, PS4, and PC on May 19th in North America, May 22nd in Europe, and June 11th in Japan. Given that the PS4 and PC versions were initially pitched as stretch goals, it’s even more obvious that the project was pretty much good to go no matter what happened with its campaign. But Platinum has at least been able to demonstrate the ability to mobilize a fan base, which augurs well for its other forays into self-publishing.

“Unfortunately, I can’t say [The Wonderful 101 on Wii U] was much of a success from a business standpoint,” Kamiya says. “But I’ve also never thought of it as a failure. I didn’t back then, and I don’t today. That’s because, to a game creator, a game is only a failure if it disappoints the gamers who play it. From the start, The Wonderful 101 didn’t quite reach a large enough audience for me to clearly call it either way. So regardless of how The Wonderful 101 fared in the marketplace the first time around, I’m considering this a chance to show it to the world again. I’m looking forward to seeing how it measures up.”

After The Wonderful 101 Remastered, Project GG is the second of four mystery projects that PlatinumGames plans to announce soon. Two of the studio’s most well-regarded titles, Vanquish and Bayonetta, were just released in remastered form for the PS4 and Xbox One with Sega as the publisher.

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