Pete Townshend – John Peel lecture

Pete Townshend gave the inaugural John Peel Lecture yesterday.

I was initially rather surprised by the choice of Townshend. Peel, it seems to me, stood for the fearless exploration of new music and the blurring of the received boundaries between “mainstream” and “alternative”. Townshend was an Angry Young Man once, but has been part of the cosy rock nobility since long before Peel played his last Blevin Blectum track.

I’m listening to the lecture in full, and now I’m REALLY surprised, and actually a bit horrified, by the choice of Townshend. This is utter bilge, for two reasons.

The crux of Townshend’s lecture seems to be that he doesn’t like Apple’s iTunes Store. He criticises it for not providing A&R functions or career guidance, for making a profit and for providing a product that consumers can copy and re-distribute illegally. He seems unaware that it’s a retail outlet, like HMV. I keep giggling every time I recall Steve Lawson’s tweet from last night…

Townsend seems to have a grudge against iTunes (a shop) for not being a label. Yeah, & I hate HMV for their lack of an in-store bakery.
Steve Lawson

… which perfectly illustrates Townshend’s stupidity. I’m not going to start quoting chunks (I’m tempted to do so in another blog post, time allowing) because I’ll be here all day. There’s SO much misinformation in the lecture, and to make it worse, Townshend spends too much time burbling incoherently, like the worst stereotype of the washed-up 60s acid victim.

He somehow also manages to blame Apple for causing people to discuss their downloaded music on blogs and Facebook, also damning those forms of social media in the process. Wow! Bitter about the older generation losing control of the mafia-style Old Music Industry, Pete? Later, he insists that Apple should be licensing content to bookshops and other retailers, who can create physical packages for sale. I mean… seriously… WTF?

Secondly, all this does nothing to commemorate or continue the work of John Peel. I don’t have a particular emotional tie to Peel, so I’m not going to be precious about “defiling his memory”. In my musically formative teens, I wasn’t interested in the music Peel played, so I rarely listened to his show (and then only much later). However, I have great admiration for what he did in the name of musical diversity, and Townshend seems to be reading from a very different hymn sheet. This has nothing to do with the chaotic, unpredictable punk spirit of so much of Peel’s music life… this is about re-establishing the old trickle-down record industry.

Townshend manages to conflate the various forms of artist/listener democratisation (facilitated by the internet) with illegal distribution and copyright infringement, crimes that have been around since the days of vinyl. He claims to want to support new, young artists, but then damns the new business models by which those artists can talk directly to their audiences and control their own creative and financial destinies. In short, he wants young artists to succeed on HIS terms… in an industry controlled by his generation, regaining their paternalistic (read: mafia-style) control of the music business from the anarchism of the internet.

Sorry Pete, you’re too late.

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5 Responses to Pete Townshend – John Peel lecture

  1. Scoop says:

    I agree wholeheartedly, Adrian. Poor choice of speaker who made a poor choice of subject and was as incoherent as Victor Meldrew articulating ideas by Rik from the Young Ones.

    He struck me as insincere; his concepts were outmoded, his arguments outdated; his grasp of the reality for young musicians was non-existant; but most of all he was just plain wrong and not just on the issue so eloquently highlighted by Steve Lawson.

    Very poor.

  2. Rob says:

    Well said. The Townsend sound bites have been churned by zombie media all day… it’s refreshing to read others who agree he was an embarrassment. Mark Mulligan also said something similar on R4 PM today but I fear 6 Music will just be chuffed they got a “big name” and repeat the gaffe next year.

  3. Andrew Wales says:

    Maybe Townsend could have stated his point with greater clarity, however… surely the point about iTunes is that it *cannot* be compared to any record shop that ever existed. The profit margins made by Tower, HMV, Virgin etc etc at their height were but a tiny fraction of the commission that iTunes makes on sales of downloads. Even more importantly of course is the fact that at no time in their history did any of these companies commanded the virtually monopolistic position that iTunes does i.e. a market share of some 75% . Of course more established artists can find other ways of distribution but they can do so because they have already established a fan base. However, it is important to note that Townsend was referring specifically to *new* artists and his point was that in the UK John Peel at least gave these artists that initial bit of exposure that would connect them with the wider public and thus allow them to rise and fall on their relative merits. Townsend is thus saying that given the way it is able to exploit it’s position and given it doesn’t actually make any music itself wouldn’t it be nice if Apple could use it’s position to take on a “John Peel type role” and at least provide musicians who are starting out with that vital bit of exposure something which will not only benefit the development of new music but in the long term maybe even benefit Apple itself. I speak as no great fan of Townsend but given he does mention at the beginning of his lecture the importance of listening I find no little irony in the fact that this is something you have blatantly failed to do (Although the poor man seem to carry a bit of a chip on his shoulder re: Led Zeppelin).

  4. adrian says:

    Hmm… not sure what I’m “blatantly” failing to listen to (is it possible to be in a blatant state of non-action?) but I’ve listened to the lecture three times and I’m still getting a washed up old fart yearning for the days when the entire marketing process (and practically all of the profit) was out of the artist’s hands.

    I don’t think Apple’s commission is relevant… they’re a download service, so they have a whole different set of overheads from Tower/HMV/etc, and their figures were agreed with the record labels (also not sure where you get the 75% from… their share is falling, and I’ve seen 25-26% overall, 66-70% for digital-only). Don’t get me wrong, I really dislike the iTunes Store, and there are much better ways of buying digital music out there. However, there are also much worse ways, and Townshend’s accusations just come across as outdated and caricatured.

  5. Tom Green says:

    Just a quick heads up on margins etc. I get about £3 per CD sold to my distributor, who then sells it to indie record shops (the few that are left) for about £5. Most of them now punt them out at £7.99 (to match iTunes) but they used to (and want to) sell them at £10-12. So the mark up on retail used to be about 100%. And, of course, if it didn’t sell they’d shove them back to the distributor, who shoved them back to me. There was no way the shops could lose.

    iTunes is different, and it has a different set of costs (PRS+PPL royalty payments on all those test plays, for starters, income that does go back to the artist), but as a proportion of the full retail price, their cut is significantly less than what the retailers used to get – though now retailers are forced to charge less. Not always, though – some indie retailers will still charge you a ‘specialist’ price of £12 for some obscure CD released by labels like mine.

    As for Pete …. well, I suppose iTunes could set up some kind of ‘exposure’ system, and in some ways that’s what Ping was supposed to do, if not by top down ‘listen to this’ suggestions from some gatekeeper, but by ‘likes’ etc- the opinion of the ‘public’ lifting good stuff to the top. But he forgets that the power of Peel came from his position- he was just about the ONLY place you could hear unknown, weirdo, and generally out there music, apart from your odd friend who never had a girlfriend’s turntable (or more likely copied cassette)

    Now you can hear it anywhere, and there’s a lot more of it, since all that music that used to stay on people’s four track cassette decks now gets ‘released’. There may or may not be more music being made than before, but it does seem as if ALL of it, good, bad, and sometimes utterly appalling, gets ‘released’ somewhere, and then ‘promoted’ using social media.

    So the issue is not only ‘how to we get paid?’ in a world which doesn’t have to, but mostly ‘how do we get HEARD ?’ in the first place.

    Even if iTunes did help expose those some committee thought were good (here we go, payola scams, anyone ?)- would it make any difference ? When was the last time you paid any attention to what you perceived as ad, on any page ?

    In the end, the only recommendations I pay attention to are those from the online equivalent of my 70s weirdo friends. And so does everyone else- and that, Pete, is how to shift product these days.

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