Was Pete Townshend’s inaugural John Peel lecture a misstep?

Listening to Pete Townshend’s John Peel lecture today I was torn over a number of things he says. At times I thought he was spot on with his analysis of the industry and how digital developments have provided publishers with the means to abandon their artists, yet at other points he sounded like someone trying to justify his nostalgic view of the past. 

Speaking about publishers, he highlighted the difference between iTunes and the publishers that fostered bands before the millennium. A good publisher had a vested interest in the band and so provided editorial guidance, financial support, an environment that developed the band’s creativity, as well as a marketing push, payment and distribution of their records. Even the smallest band on a publisher’s books would receive this support to a degree. Comparing this to iTunes he argues that Apple only distribute the music and pay the artists, providing none of the other support a band needs.

There’s a massive hole in Townshend’s argument that I’ll address first because once we’ve skirted it there’s something pretty useful to explore in this. iTunes aren’t a publisher in the way that Townshend seems to be claiming they should be. iTunes is closer to your local music store than it is to a record label. So arguing that they need to provide the same support doesn’t hold much water, it’s like saying HMV needs to nurture each and every band it stocks. However, he does raise the issue that when The Who were recording music your record couldn’t get into a shop until you were with a publisher, a publisher who would provide support. Now that you can distribute and sell your music without getting into the system a band can find itself very much alone and unaided despite having a record that can be bought. The digital marketplace that has emerged in the last decade has created a gulf between itself and the traditional music marketplace.

Though this isn’t really a problem that can be remedied. Townshend asks Apple to support the unsigned bands whose records it sells, yet if they were to agree to this they’d simply limit the number of unsigned bands it sells. Otherwise they’d need to invest millions in supporting its catalogue. Thus closing the door to many other artists and undermining what it is that a digital marketplace has created: a marketplace where a distributor isn’t afraid to stock bands that may not sell. A high street store makes a bet every time it stocks on album, the owner has to buy in the stock that they think will sell. They’re unlikely to take the risk on a new unknown band because they may not recoup the losses. Digital hasn’t got this problem as they have infinite stocks and only pay the artists when someone actually buys the music.If we are to continue this boom in new music we can’t introduce regulations on Apple to support the bands it distributes.

As it is, musicians are in a difficult spot. Although there’s a much larger chance of getting their record into a market place, they have to do it without the marketing clout of a publisher.

It was when Pete got to talking about piracy that he seemed at his most confused. He was trying to lay old piracy besides new piracy, the time of recording radio and making mix tapes against downloading and filesharing.

“There must have been music lovers who recorded [John Peel’s] 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. 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 difficulty of it is that he tries to justify his period’s methods with an argument of effort, that because the means of copying was more difficult than clicking a couple of links it proved the music sharers were more dedicated in their toil. It’s a rubbish argument, if piracy is wrong then it isn’t made okay because some guy works harder at it. It’s like saying that a bank robber who plans a meticulous heist over a year is less guilty than someone who walks in, punches a clerk, and demands all the money in the vault.

Similarly, his claim that because it was harder to find music – limited to a few radio stations and the occasional television program instead of Google – that to be a music lover you had to be more passionate. This sort of nostalgia driven reasoning is a very limiting way to view the world; yeah, it was harder to find music in the past, technology develops, get over it. Would he also argue that the music fans from the 16th century were more dedicated than him because they had no means of recording music? When people come into an argument saying that there was a level of accomplishment in the past that can’t be attained any more then they’ve have made a statement that can’t be argued with.

On the subject of searching out music, it hasn’t got easier, the difficulty has changed. In the 60s and 70s you were locked into a cycle of availability. The records that were available to you were those that were in the charts and dating back a few years, and they were only available whilst stocks last. When it stopped being played on the radio and when it stopped being stocked in shops, for all intents and purposes, that music was gone. For all the new music being produced there was older music that was dropping off the radar at the other end. If you were an active listener of a single genre you could feasibly listen to most the records released in the year, even with a genre as huge as rock music. Yet, in the last couple of decades we hit a point where music became permanent. As music was digitised and sold online there was no back end to the music cycle, everything released was, and will be, forever available. If you start listening to music now, even if you were to only listen to mainstream music, you’d have to deal with all the new music going forward as well as all the available music going back. Finding the music you want to listen to now is a different chore, whereas before you’d be fishing for a record in a stream, now your trawling for a track in an ocean.

Though, what Townshend touches on with his arguments is that our attitudes to music have shifted somewhat. At one point he says “It would be better if these ‘sharers’ had to set aside time to listen, and to work at listening, […] even if their final judgement was that the music they heard was not for them.” He points at the way people receive bulk packages of music which they won’t listen to straight away, it will sit on their hard drive possibly always unheard. But, again, I think Townshend has this slightly off. Those people aren’t sharers, they aren’t passing this music onto others unheard, they are the final link in the chain. They are receivers.And I don’t think this is a terrible thing. I’ve grown up in a house with thousands of books – I’m not exaggerating, every room has multiple bookshelves and our basement has another fifteen cases. Whenever I’ve wanted a book to read I’ve got an entire library to choose from, these aren’t my books, I don’t know what’s on these shelves because these books aren’t mine, they’re my parents. I can ask for their recommendation and they can share which ones they think are good, or I can just take a dive into the nearest shelf. What a massive digital music library means is that we have the chance to discover something entirely new by chance. My iTunes is similar to my house in that when my brother and I shared a computer we shared all our music. My iPod is loaded up with his music, much of which I’ve never heard. So often I’ll stick it on shuffle and never know what is going to come up. It’s how I’ve discovered many of my favourite bands.

So there is much to take away from this inaugural John Peel lecture, but I don’t know how much of it was intended.

7 thoughts on “Was Pete Townshend’s inaugural John Peel lecture a misstep?

  1. I agree iTunes shouldn’t be supporting bands but Pete Townsend is right, if you don’t have to make an effort for something it holds little or no value to you. Taping music off the radio is not like robbing a bank, the two things are very different your analogy is wrong.

    Musicians can only make money now from touring, but unless you are well known nobody will come and see you. There could be a big hole in 20 years time when all the oldies have packed up, there are not many around now that want to sustain a long career, most new artists use music as a way into movies and perfumes, as there is more money in it.

    Music has become a bi-product of advertising and it will only get worse. The Beatles wouldn’t get signed now as Ringo had a big nose..

    • Sorry not to have replied sooner, I’ve been up to my eyeballs in work.

      The problem with the way Pete approaches his talk of piracy is he combines two ideas and it makes it fairly difficult to pull apart.

      To the first point, I agree, working hard on something adds personal value to something. So for instance if I were to take the time to go through my record collection selecting out songs and taking the time to make you a mix tape it would mean more to both of us than if I’d just dragged and dropped them from my iTunes to a USB pen.

      However, it’s just as illegal. I’m still making an illegal copy of the music, the crime isn’t altered by the means of committing it.

      So in Pete’s lecture he combines piracy and effort in a way that seems to reduce the criminality of 60s piracy. So when I talk about the different types of bank robbery I’m trying to separate the ideas of criminality and effort. The robber who plans for a year may have a greater feeling of success but he is still as much a robber as the second more effortless robber.

  2. I really enjoyed your review, even though I’ve not heard (or seem) the lecture yet. I am now even more intrigued and will make time to catch it this week.

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