Last Monday, The Who guitarist Pete Towshend gave a speech at BBC 6 Music’s inaugural John Peel Lecture – an event named after the legendary DJ. Among the subjects he approached, the iconic six-stringer offered a few noteworthy words regarding the future of the music industry – more specifically, piracy and Apple’s iTunes.
First, he provided the usual, decade-old anti-piracy statement: “If someone pretends that something I have created should be available to them free, they may as well come and steal my son’s bike while they’re at it. I wonder what has gone wrong with human morality and social justice.”
Of course, this goes back to the well-proven argument that, in modern times, piracy can be good, and several artists would be unheard of if it weren’t for free music. An increasing number of fans only spend money on their favorite artists’ albums/tickets/merch because they ilegally downloaded the music first. Townshend half-admitted this (in a bit of a crude manner), by saying: “A creative person would prefer their music to be stolen and enjoyed than ignored. This is the dilemma for every creative soul: he or she would prefer to starve and be heard than to eat well and be ignored.” He even admitted his difficulty of speaking out on the subject, having been clearly benefited by the antiquated record label model: “It’s tricky to argue for the innate value of copyright from a position of good fortune, as I do. I’ve done all right.”
However, Townshend’s speech got really interesting when he touched on the subject of iTunes – footage of which can be seen below:
Pete said that Apple’s service “bleeds” the artist’s work “like a digital vampire, like a digital Northern Rock, for its enormous commission. It decides, ‘we shall take 30%.'” However, he went on to provide suggestions on how to improve iTunes, carrying over certain practices from the ever-shrinking record labels.
First off, he advises starting an “editorial guidance”, by employing 20 A&R people who would tell certain artists, “kindly and constructively”, the ways in which they suck. He adds that artists should be provided guidance towards other helpful resources, instead of sending them to “Blogland”, where a lot of the bad music criticism comes from “people who could just be drunk, or nuts”. [Ed- neither is the case here, at least not at the same time.] In addition, these 20 iTunes A&R employees would also select a group of 500 or so artists every year, which they felt “merited” of support. He suggests giving out computers containing music software to the artists, as well as educating them on how to use it. In addition to that, the A&R people would provide “creative nurturance”, helping whenever possible, and act inside online communities to give the artist notoriety.
Having a small group of professionals telling artists what they should and shouldn’t do is obviously tricky, because, first of all, people make mistakes. Even with all the “drunk bloggers” out there, the internet still provides an endless amount of opinions that can be worth just as much (or as little) as a single A&R professional’s. No amount of “expertise” should have too much influences on the artistic choices a musician makes. Besides all that, A&R people hired by Apple won’t necessarily be immune to external influences (such as bribing), so there’d always be the chance that shitty bands would be picked to get free assistance and Macbooks.
Perhaps most importantly, Townshend stated that Apple should give every artist the opportunity to share their music, with other people, for free, providing all listeners with a chance to “stream” the albums before buying them. But…wait, isn’t that precisely what torrent trackers have been doing for ten years now? Providing entire albums to people who may or may not want to purchase them after listening? Towshend even goes on to say that “bandwith is very expensive,” as the reason to why iTunes provides only a few seconds of preview for each song on its store – yet, he doesn’t mention that torrenting costs nothing to Apple. He adds that The Who’s rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia would likely never get any support if it weren’t for “renegade radio stations in America playing it, albeit in the middle of the night, all the way through.” Basically, he just said that free music as a way of gaining customers isn’t even a concept from this century.
Sure, everything indicates that music streaming services are the future (and are already diminishing piracy), so Towshend is definitely right in suggesting them. It’s only conflicting to hear it from the same guy who just lashed out the old, tired, inaccurate accusations that “piracy is theft”, when, in principle, it’s the same basic practice of sharing music that’s been helping people get to know new artists for decades now.