Pete Townshend’s ‘Digital Vampire’ Speech Should Have Attacked The BBC, Not iTunes

This blog originally appeared on Record Of The Day

When Pete Townshend delivered his BBC John Peel lecture this week in Salford, he accused Apple and iTunes of “bleeding” artists like a “digital vampire”. The comments were clearly designed to attract attention. But did they actually make any sense?

Townshend has many criticisms to make of Apple, but the main thrust of his argument seems to be that Apple ought to be doing much more than selling music. He argues that Apple should build a business where it spots, signs, finances and develops musical talent before distributing it back out to the wider world. In short, he argues that Apple should be taking on the roles traditionally associated with record companies and media.

Townshend has some pretty specific complaints to make of iTunes current business model. He dislikes the fact that Apple now prefers not to sign direct deals with individual artists or very small labels. However, he is wrong in arguing that this forces artists to go through an aggregator which takes a percentage of their income. There are many companies that can deliver to iTunes for a pretty reasonable flat fee, with no percentage taken.

Townshend is also wrong in suggesting that iTunes doesn’t play an important filtering role via its feature placements – which, crucially are wholly editorial and un-buyable, in stark contrast to the prominent store positioning in traditional record stores. As such, two core arguments which Townshend uses to vilify iTunes are just plain inaccurate.

The credibility of Townshend’s arguments was further undermined by the concluding line of his speech, where he said “If the BBC were to start a website like Spotify, one thing would be certain, the musicians who were featured would get paid.” Again, he takes a pop at a media-friendly target, whilst fundamentally misrepresenting the truth: artists featured on Spotify do getpaid.

Since we first read the speech, we’ve been trying to look beyond the attention-seeking language and inaccuracies and understand what Townshend was really driving at. It’s clear that he’s bemoaning the absence of John Peel’s influence from the modern landscape.

He’d like to see more people who commit themselves to listening-to, filtering and sharing music. He acknowledges that the internet has made so much more music available, much of it well-produced, that a single John Peel figure will no longer suffice. So far, so sensible. But we don’t get why he feels iTunes ought to be taking on this role?

We find it ironic that Townshend’s speech was actually an official BBC address. If there was any one target suitable for his frustrations, surely it should have been the BBC itself? Why should a digital retailer be stepping in to carry forward Peel’s influence into the modern world? Shouldn’t this be the job of a publicly-funded broadcaster with no clear commercial role?

Would Townshend not have been better examining the editorial influence of the BBC in the modern landscape and assessing what changes or improvements might be needed there? Should he not be criticising radio playlisting policies, examining the nature and influence of BBC specialist programming, bemoaning the lack of mainstream music programming on BBC TV, or analysing the BBC’s own websites and interactions with other online media brands?

It’s only at the very end of his speech that Townshend touches on this, saying “the BBC has to rise to 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.” Now, if only that had been the starting point of his address, there might have been a really interesting debate to be had.

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