published: 27 /
In 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' Ben Howarth considers Pete Townshend's recent Radio 6 Music John Peel lecture in which he described Apple's iTunes as a digital vampire
Delivering the inaugural Radio 6 Music John Peel lecture, Pete Townshend did what the producers surely hoped he’d do – reach for the headlines.
During a lecture that rambled over a number of topics, Townshend attacked Apple’s iTunes operation, calling it a “digital vampire”.
The headline writers kindly didn’t put the full line in quotes. Townshend actually said, “Artists whose work it bleeds like a digital vampire Northern Rock for its enormous commission”. A silly metaphor – at the heart of that bank’s problems was not that they took too much from their customers but that they were being far too generous!
Unfortunately, too much of what Townshend proposed was clumsily expressed and ill thought out. 6 Music will, I’m sure, be pleased to have secured a big name. In future, you’d hope that they’d get a more carefully argued lecture
Townshend’s main idea was that Apple should recruit a dedicated team of A&R staff and use its platform to nurture and promote new talent.
(Interestingly, he also seems to call on the BBC to launch its own version of Spotify, paying artists at radio rates, though he doesn’t flesh this proposal out with any details).
On the surface that seems like a good idea. Why shouldn’t Apple put a little back into the music industry from which they have benefitted so much? Wouldn’t investing now in the long term health of the music industry be a good way for Apple to ensure sales of iPods well into the future?
But, if it were that simple, the music industry would have already combined itself into a one-stop-shop. HMV, I’m sure, would love to take both its existing commission for selling music and the commission/rights that currently go to record labels.
The problem is that, if Apple in effect became a record label, they would suddenly be in competition with their commercial partners, changing the dynamic. This seems too big a risk to take with what is currently a stable business model. Apple might even find record labels challenge call on the Competition Commission.
You can’t help but feel that what Townshend wants to recreate is the model that he enjoyed in the 1960s – big labels handing out long-term contracts that allowed most of his friends to turn rock music into a job-for-life.
There are two main threats to that – either that the unlicensed sharing of music becomes so rampant it is impossible even for popular musicians to make a living, or that music’s place in society becomes increasingly marginalised that its economic value becomes minimal.
The problem is that while the music industry regularly plays up the risk on unlicensed file sharing, it always plays down the notion that the music industry is in decline. Music from the UK accounted for 12% of the global music market in 2010, while the market in paid-for digital music increased by 25%. Townshend insists the record business is “dying”, but clearly that is an exaggeration.
Townshend acknowledged that there were lots of things out there doing some of what John Peel used to do (though without his gentle wit and homely patter). But he wants “experts” to take back control of what music we recommend to each other. He also wants artists to get paid more.
Of course, we shouldn’t forget that – even without all the torrent files and unlicensed streams – conditions for music fans are much better than they used to be. CD prices have come down, internet stores have become more efficient (both for download and mail-order) and we can sample new music on Spotify and we.7 without having to wait for it to come on the radio.
The reason John Peel is worth remembering is that he was a small glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape.
In happier times, while we’d still find room for John Peel himself, we don’t need Townshend’s team of Apple experts, deciding on our behalf what constitutes promising new music.