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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Five Things Pete Townshend Got Wrong About iTunes and the Online Music Industry

Posted By on Tue, Nov 1, 2011 at 12:29 PM

Pete Townshend - PHYLLIS KEATING
  • Phyllis Keating
  • Pete Townshend

Last night, Who guitarist Pete Townshend made a rousing speech at a British radio festival, blasting Apple's iTunes store for its treatment of musicians "whose work it bleeds like a digital vampire." His speech even included a list of things Townshend believes Apple should do to encourage and support musical creativity.

While we're all for supporting musicians, Townshend's diatribe was sorely misguided and misinformed. In the interest of an honest conversation about the ailing music industry and what could be done about it, here are five of the things Townshend either didn't realize or got spectacularly wrong. You can read the full text of his lecture here.

1. Apple is a business -- a large, shrewd, brutally self-interested American corporation.

And it is solely concerned with its own growth and success. Certainly its products have had ancillary benefits to others, and to society at large -- including, ahem, musicians. But doing good for musicians is not what Apple is about. Unlike, say, the BBC, Apple is a for-profit entity that owes no inherent debt or responsibility to the American people (at least not legally, in the strict capitalist sense). So making a list of things the company should provide to musicians (out of the goodness of its $400-a-share heart?) seems not only naive, but idiotic.

2. If it weren't for Apple and iTunes, we would have more Internet piracy, not less.

It's surprising that in his tirade against iTunes, Townshend fails to acknowledge what most music industry folks see as obvious: That without a way to download music easily, cheaply, and reliably, the share of the public that grabs music for free off of sites like Megaupload and Rapidshare would be much larger. iTunes didn't stop piracy, of course, but it provided a good alternative it -- and you'd think that such a virulent copyright defender as Townshend would acknowledge that.

3. Labels get more money from iTunes downloads than artists or even iTunes do.

Townshend attacks iTunes' commissions from song downloads as "enormous." But are they? Apple typically gets about a 30 percent commission off the top of each download. Most of what's left goes to the label -- and the share that gets passed on to the artist depends on what kind of a deal they have with the label. Some artists have terrible deals and get 9 cents from a $.99 album download. Some probably get more. And independent artists, like Pomplamoose, function without a label and get to keep every cent that Apple (or their distributor) doesn't take. Although such an arrangement isn't for everybody, it has worked out pretty well for Pomplamoose. So laying the blame at the feet of iTunes' commission is overly simplistic, if not absurd.

4. Townshend's 20th Century conception of copyright is disintegrating in the real world.

Not legally, perhaps, but in practice, the old-school notion of a copyright protecting a creative product like a song is, today, a candle steadily burning at both ends. On the one hand, you have copyright holders wielding their levers of power and extending the protections for things like Disney movies or "Happy Birthday" long past their originally intended expiration. You also have the holders grasping so tightly onto their products that they're stifling future creativity (see the debates over sampling, remixing, etc.) On the other hand, you have widespread piracy of music, movies, games, and other "protected" products online, and a growing segment of the consumer base that's skeptical of protecting or paying for anything. This conflict isn't new; these shifts began at least around 2000. But instead of acknowledging this reality, Townsend bangs us over the head with an obsolete, outdated -- and self-interested -- perspective.

5. What if good music doesn't generate money?

Townshend says that "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." Which would be nice! But the problem with the business of recorded music isn't mainly that the wrong people are getting paid (although some of them are). It's that almost no one is getting paid enough. Artists do earn, sometimes handsomely, for radio and TV plays. Where they (and labels, publishers, etc.) suffer is when it comes to people downloading recorded music for free, or streaming it for fractions of a penny. Recorded music on its own, whether it's good or not, simply doesn't generate as much revenue as it used to. There are some gatekeepers sapping off the online trade -- Townshend calls out the middlemen that artists need to deal through iTunes -- but for the most part, the problem isn't misdirected money, it's lack of money.

And who's responsible for the lack of money in recorded music? Why, it's largely the record-buying (or non-record-buying) public, of course -- and the artists that encourage this behavior by giving music away for free. But giving away music is sensible and even shrewd for artists in many situations today! That's exactly the difficulty -- and why our reality is far more complex than Townshend's lecture suggests.

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