Pete Townshend: "Rock music is junk", iTunes Is A "Vampire" & "What’s next is already here."
The BBC invited The Who's Pete Townshend to give a lecture in honor of iconic UK broadcaster John Peel. During the wide ranging, smart and often amusing speech, Townsend professed his love of streaming music and called iTunes a vampire. But that was just the start...
Firstly, I’m honored to have been asked to do this first lecture in the name of John Peel. John and I were never close friends, and I know he was not always an unconditional Who fan, but through his long-time producer John Walters – who was a great friend to me and to Who drummer Keith Moon – I followed John Peel’s career with the sense of a family insider. I don’t want to kick off this series of annual lectures with any po-faced intellectualism. Nor do I want to talk about pop music as art – hard for me because music as art is my favorite subject. Neither do I wish to try to make this lecture amusing, or light-hearted or even ironic in the tradition of the sixties and post sixties pop era Peely and I shared. I don’t want to try to celebrate John Peel, nor make this into any kind of memorial. That’s all been done. So what do I want to do?
I have limited time. Looking at what John Peel did with his show on radio for many years is worth looking at. But I must assume that most listeners will know what he did. Annie Nightingale once told me that John was one of the few deejays at Radio 1 who would take home everything left in the in-tray cubbyholes at the end of each week. More than that, he listened to it all. Sometimes he played some records that no one else would ever have played, and that would never be played on radio again. But he listened, and he played a selection of records in the course of each week that his listeners knew – partly because the selection was sometimes so insane – proved he was genuinely engaged in his work as an almost unconditional conduit between creative musicians to the radio audience.
So he listened. And he took chances with what he played.
And he is gone.
Why was John Peel’s system important? Why is listening important? Why is being ready to give space to less polished music important? Will John Peelism survive the internet? Or is John Peelism thriving on the internet without many of us realizing it?
So we have John Peel. The BBC. And – for the purposes of this lecture – iTunes. All enormous icons in music.
Let me introduce you briefly to my inner artist, then I will put him back in his box.
I don’t give a shit about making money. I think rock music is junk. I am a genius. The Who were OK but without me they would have all ended up working in the flower market, or worse – in Led Zeppelin. John Peel played some records that were so bad that I thought he was taking the piss sometimes. The BBC only gave us Pop Radio 1 in the ‘60s, five years after the Pirates had proved there was an audience for it. Sadly, unlike the pirates, they didn’t accept payola.
I really should put this inner artist guy back in his box yes? Have we got our newspaper headlines yet?
This inner artist really doesn’t give a shit about any of this lecture. Just give him a piano and a guitar and some decent way to record the music, a pleasant room to work in, and a few free hours, and he is happy. When he’s done he hands me the end product and says – there, a work of genius, try and live off it for a while you philistine.
It seems to me that a conversation between my inner artist with the late Steve Jobs would have been impossible. I seem to remember that once in an interview I let my artist out of the box for a minute too long and he said he wanted to cut Job’s balls off. As I force my artist back in the box again, I hear him say that in fact he really likes his iPad and loves to noodle with GarageBand. My inner artist is a bit of an ageing Mod you see. He really thinks the late Steve Jobs was one of the coolest guys on the planet: loved his black outfits, cut his balls off, look at my red Vespa – irrational.
So there was Pirate Radio, then Radio 1, then a music shop. There were record companies and music publishers. Was it good, what the God of pop music had created?
Music publishing has always been a form of banking in many ways, but – in cooperation with record labels – active artists have always received from the music industry banking system more than banking. They’ve gotten: 1. editorial guidance; 2. financial support; 3. creative nurture; 4. manufacturing; 5. publishing; 6. marketing; 7. distribution; 8. payment of royalties – the banking.
Today, if we look solely at iTunes, we see a publishing model that offers only the last two items as a guarantee – distribution and banking – with some marketing thrown in sometimes at the whim of the folks at Apple. It’s a fantastic piece of software, I use it all the time and I was honored once to meet the woman who wrote the software. But iTunes is not like radio.
Radio is less driven by cash flow, a little more driven by secondary income streams – like advertising, subscriptions ,or in the case of the BBC, license fees – and thus needs its pop music to be cool, look hip, cover a wide array of bases and satisfy a broad market.
Let me quickly go over this list again. Now is there really any good reason why, just because iTunes exists in the Wild West Internet land of Facebook and Twitter, it can’t provide some aspect of these services to the artists whose work it bleeds like a digital vampire Northern Rock for its enormous commission?
Let’s talk it through.
Item 1. Editorial guidance. A&R. Employ 20 A&R people from the dying record business. Have them respond to tracks sent in from new artists. If they feel the artists are bad, or aren’t ready, say so. But have them tell the truth, kindly and constructively. Guide them to other helpful resources, don’t just send them to the wolves of Blogland where it seems to me a lot of the vilest bile comes from people who could be drunk, or just nuts. A fledgling musician at the start of a career is a delicate thing . Even a rapper – you’ll just have to take my word for that. Apple do already have back-room people assessing what’s hot, but they don’t have this kind of power. I’ll bet they’d love it. Twenty John Peels inside Apple – imagine it.
Item 2. Financial support. Subsequently provide free computers with music software to 500 artists a year who the 20 A&R people feel merit it. Provide some basic training.
Item 3. Creative nurture. Follow the work of these 500 artists very carefully. Help where you can. Keep out of the way if necessary.
Item 4. Manufacturing. This should be called “posting” today I suppose. Provide a place on iTunes where these artists can share their music. It should be a like a local radio station. Yes Apple, give artists some streaming bandwidth. It will sting, but do it. You will get even more aluminum solid state love for doing so.
Item 5. Publishing. Help artists protect their copyrights, don’t just exploit the loopholes of grand theft. This is a minefield today. The Internet is destroying copyright as we know it. So they will lose the battle, but guide them to hang on to what they can. Otherwise they might only ever make one album.
Item 6. Marketing. Select a number of the artists on the free shared space local radio station and sell their work on iTunes with some helpful advertising within the Apple software machine. Show that you get behind them.
Item 7. Distribution. Go further. License the best selling artists to other organizations – like record companies, bookshops and high street and mall-based retailers for example – who are willing to make packages, goods you can hold in your hands and give for birthdays, Christmas and Diwali. Share revenue with Amazon. I’m not sure why that notion is so repellent to the Aluminums.
Item 8. Payment. Stop insisting on aggregators to deal with small artists – because you can’t be bothered with the expense of accounting for the numerous small amounts of money you’ve collected on their behalf – and pay direct. Why should an artist pay even more commission to an aggregator merely to get paid? For the uninformed, an aggregator in the iTunes world is a company who stands between the artist and iTunes and thus prevents Apple having to deal with artists directly. Some of these aggregators provide some of the resources I’ve pleaded for above, but they are really just another form of punitive banking.
So what does my inner artist think of all that? Doesn’t he give a shit? I can tell you now, he thinks all that sounds really amazing. He wants to cry. If Apple do even one of the things on my wish-list he will offer to cut off his own balls –they’ve only ever been a distraction after all.
What creative people want is to know their music has been heard. They would prefer a response that was constructive than a positive or negative review. They would prefer expertise to opinion. They would like to know the public if they had a chance to hear the music, also had a chance to make up their own minds. They would prefer that in the long term the public were willing to pay for their music. But looking at the John Peel model, what is clear is that just knowing there was a chance the great man would listen, react and offer the music on air, for whatever reason, was enough for budding musicians and bands.
That is where we must be going. Musicians need to be heard, to be judged, if possible to be paid, but also allowed to believe they had more than a single chance to get a hit. Software systems that offer this model will survive and prevail – loved and embraced by musicians of every sort – whatever happens financially.
Whether the public listen or not, creative writers and musicians should get paid if their work generates money by virtue of its mere existence on radio, television, YouTube, Facebook or SoundCloud. It’s tricky to argue for the innate value of copyright from a position of good fortune – as I do. I once suggested on a forum that people who download my music without paying for it may as well come and steal my son’s bike while they’re at it. One woman was so incensed that she tried to argue that she was still supporting me as an artist by “sharing” – my parentheses – music with others who would eventually filter down some cash in some form or other to me, that would pay for my son’s bike – and she was not, in any sense, a thief or a criminal. I think she was in a kind of denial. Cutting the body to fit the cloth rather than the correct way around.
We now live in a digital world in which the only absolute is work by the hour. Lawyers, accountants, doctors, nurses, plumbers, painters, truck drivers, farmers, pilots, cleaners, actors, musicians – they all get paid for work done as a clock ticks.
Creative work is not like that. Any one of the people listed above could create a method that would help other people to do their job in their place. This could be digitized, and made available on the Internet. I have given away dozens of my trade secrets in this way, knowing that I could afford to do so, but also knowing that my trade secrets are also trademarks in a way – I have become known for a particular style of creativity that belongs to me, because I am its principle practitioner.
However, if someone pretends to be me, or pretends that something I have created should be available to them free – because creativity has less value than an hour’s work by me as a musician in a pub – I wonder what has gone wrong with human morality and social justice.
When we look at wars we often find ourselves reverting to simple epithets: why can’t people just get along? Vivre les differénces! So it would be better if music lovers treated music like food, and paid for every helping, rather than only when it suited them. Why can’t music lovers just pay for music rather than steal it?
Would a return to John Peelism be better? There must have been music lovers who recorded his shows to tape and shared copies with friends. But it was never that easy, and was very time-consuming. You had to be really passionate about some music to share it in this way. Yes I think it would be better if music lovers had to work a little harder to find what they like best, and it was not quite so easy to knock out a digital copy to one’s friends. The word “sharing” surely means giving away something you have earned, or made, or paid for? At least you should have searched for it, and not simply happened on it by chance – or apparent chance, the newly intelligent Internet is now capable of sending you things that you never thought you wanted. It would be better if these “sharers” had to set aside time to listen, and to work at listening, and thereby do honor to the creative work of musicians even if their final judgment was that the music they heard was not for them – not worth stealing, not worth sharing.
Now I’m being facetious, but some things are really worth stealing. 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.
Radio is not like Internet radio, or torrent sites. Radio pays musicians a fee when music is aired. Radio does not take the position that the public has a right to decide after hearing the music played whether to pay for it or not. Radio stations pay, and the public pay directly or indirectly in order to listen and make the judgment.
Suppose you asked a painter to paint your house on condition that if you didn’t like the color you had chosen, thinking it would work, you wouldn’t pay him?
Peel was not a musician. He was a listener, a patron of the arts, a broadcaster with almost no censorial mandate or agenda. He only played what he thought deserved to be played. I don’t think it always mattered that he himself liked it. In China in Chairman Mao’s day he might have been sent to prison if only for being the first to play Jesus and Mary Chain, the Undertones or the Proclaimers – all of them were a little bit political, but also radical and outspoken. When I first heard them on John’s show I thought they were a bit dangerous.
So if we assume that musicians want more than anything to be heard, and that there is now a massive audience wanting to hear new music every day, what is next?
What’s next is already here. The BBC will not be thankful to me for saying this but if you have a decent computer and some Internet bandwidth there are dozens of amazing Internet portals where you can hear new music, and see new videos. SoundCloud, HypeRadio, Cull.TV, Spotify and Last.fm all offer to take you on an extraordinary journey if you log in. Today, the era and scope of modern music stretches broadly over a range of music styles, nationalities and age-ranges that might threaten to obfuscate the artistic achievements of individual musicians. Sorry, I mentioned the art word. We might be overwhelmed by the amount of variation – especially without a John Peel to bring us up to speed every week. But a quick look at the way the Internet has enriched the investigation of any particular musician’s work can be proved by the expediency of searching – just to suggest a deliberately quirky example – “Bjork” in Last.FM or Spotify. Along with all of Bjork’s many bands and collaborations, we find the band Garbage, Tori Amos, mùm, Planning to Rock, Sigur Ros, Bat for Lashes and Fever Ray. They all line up to confuse and entice. Even iTunes might take you off on a strange, inspiring or disturbing journey if you search the appropriately left-field artist.
If you search my name you’re likely to be spoon-fed tracks by Dave Dee, Dozy, Mick & Tich. This is the cross that Dave Dee etc. has to bear, being compared with The Who on Internet search engines.
What the BBC has to rise to is the challenge of using some its resources to sidestep editorial censorship, and give the listeners the kind of license they got when they tuned into John Peel. That license is offered free or almost free on dozens of amazing music blogs, sharing websites and video sites. There is more music being made today, and made ready for broadcasting, webcasting, podcasting and sharing, than ever before. I mean by this, finished, well-produced, good sounding music. And if it doesn’t sound good you can be fairly sure it isn’t meant to. There is a lot of talk about live music, and it is great that it’s seen to be so important – but it’s never gone away. In fact The Who shared the bill with John Peel once or twice, he took his radio show on the road regularly in the Sixties and Seventies. If the BBC were to start a website like Spotify, one thing would be certain – the musicians who were featured would get paid.
Speaking of which: my £6 fee for this lecture is being passed to the Musicians Union Benevolent Fund.