Pete Townshend: iTunes is “Digital Vampire” Living On Musicians

Apple’s iTunes is nought but a “digital vampire” bleeding artists through enormous commissions without giving much back, according to rock legend Pete Townshend. Speaking as the inaugural John Peel lecturer at the 2011 Radio Festival in Salford, Mr. Townshend called on Apple to do more to support musicians and offer some of the services that record labels used to offer.

Pete Townshend Publicity Photo

Mr. Townshend, the leader of iconic rock ban The Who, argued that once upon a time, the music industry as a whole (including publishing and record labels) used to offer eight different forms of support to artists, including editorial guidance, financial support, creative nurture, manufacturing, publishing, marketing, distribution, and payment of royalties.

He said that if you look at artists who distribute through iTunes, they get only the last two forms of support, distribution and payment of royalties.

“Now is there really any good reason why,” he asked, “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 [UK bank] Northern Rock for its enormous commission?”

To correct this, Mr. Townshend said that Apple should employ A&R people (that it can hire from the shrinking labels) to offer critical guidance to artists.

“If they feel the artists are bad, or aren’t ready, say so,” he argued. “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.”

He would also like to see Apple choose 500 worthy artists a year and provide them with free Macs and the training to use them when creating music. Those artists could be identified by the above-mentioned A&R folks, who should then follow the progress of those artists throughout the year.

Apple should then provide those artists with a place on iTunes to stream their music to potential fans like a local radio station. “Yes Apple, give artists some streaming bandwidth,” he said. “It will sting, but do it. You will get even more aluminum solid state LURVE for doing so.”

He also thinks Apple has a role to play in helping to educate artists about protecting their copyrights, which he called a minefield. He added, “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.”

Apple should then pick some of those artists and actively market them within “the Apple software machine,” and to add to Apple’s role in distribution, he said that Apple should work to license this material out to third party companies, a role that record labels have traditionally fulfilled.

The biggest change that he advocated during his speech was that Apple stop requiring independent bands to go through third party aggregators to be in the iTunes Store. He believes Apple should pay these artists directly so that more of the money from their music downloads gets to them. He acknowledged that some of the third party aggregators offer some label-like services, but argued that most are just middlemen sitting between the artists and iTunes.

Lastly, Mr. Townshend told the audience that, “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.”

He also owned up to letting that his inner artist once say (in public) that he wanted to cut Mr. Jobs’s balls off (his words, not ours), but, “if Apple does even one of the things on my wish-list, I will offer to cut off my own balls.”

There is much, much more on the current state of the music industry in the full transcript, which was published by MusicWeek.

Full disclosure: Pete Townshend is a personal hero to this reporter. His favorite passage from the the speech was:

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?