Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Pete Townshend Lecture - Part 1

Current Pete Townshend image from Bobby Owsinski's Music 3.0 blogThe BBC recently invited The Who's Pete Townshend to give a lecture in honor of influential UK broadcaster John Peel, a DJ who's musical taste and integrity helped shape music as we know it.

There's been a lot written about this speech that makes for some good old fashioned negative headlines, but there's a lot more beneath the surface if you read the whole thing since you'll find that this lecture is particularly insightful about music as it is today, not how it was. This is not about the creation of music, but how an artist today relates to the music business.

The transcript of the lecture is a bit long so I've broken it up into two parts. Whether you like him or not, it's worth every minute of your time.

Pete Townsend:
"Firstly, I’m honored to have been asked to do this first lecture in the name of John Peel. John and I were never close friends, and I know he was not always an unconditional Who fan, but through his long-time producer John Walters – who was a great friend to me and to Who drummer Keith Moon – I followed John Peel’s career with the sense of a family insider. I don’t want to kick off this series of annual lectures with any po-faced intellectualism. Nor do I want to talk about pop music as art – hard for me because music as art is my favorite subject. Neither do I wish to try to make this lecture amusing, or light-hearted or even ironic in the tradition of the sixties and post sixties pop era Peely and I shared. I don’t want to try to celebrate John Peel, nor make this into any kind of memorial. That’s all been done. So what do I want to do?

I have limited time. Looking at what John Peel did with his show on radio for many years is worth looking at. But I must assume that most listeners will know what he did. Annie Nightingale once told me that John was one of the few deejays at Radio 1 who would take home everything left in the in-tray cubbyholes at the end of each week. More than that, he listened to it all. Sometimes he played some records that no one else would ever have played, and that would never be played on radio again. But he listened, and he played a selection of records in the course of each week that his listeners knew – partly because the selection was sometimes so insane – proved he was genuinely engaged in his work as an almost unconditional conduit between creative musicians to the radio audience.

So he listened. And he took chances with what he played.

And he is gone.

Why was John Peel’s system important? Why is listening important? Why is being ready to give space to less polished music important? Will John Peelism survive the internet? Or is John Peelism thriving on the internet without many of us realizing it?

So we have John Peel. The BBC. And – for the purposes of this lecture – iTunes. All enormous icons in music.

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?

This inner artist really doesn’t give a shit about any of this lecture. Just give him a piano and a guitar and some decent way to record the music, a pleasant room to work in, and a few free hours, and he is happy. When he’s done he hands me the end product and says – there, a work of genius, try and live off it for a while you philistine.

It seems to me that a conversation between my inner artist with the late Steve Jobs would have been impossible. I seem to remember that once in an interview I let my artist out of the box for a minute too long and he said he wanted to cut Job’s balls off. As I force my artist back in the box again, I hear him say that in fact he really likes his iPad and loves to noodle with GarageBand. 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, cut his balls off, look at my red Vespa – irrational.

So there was Pirate Radio, then Radio 1, then a music shop. There were record companies and music publishers. Was it good, what the God of pop music had created?

Music publishing has always been a form of banking in many ways, but – in cooperation with record labels – active artists have always received from the music industry banking system more than banking. They’ve gotten: 1. editorial guidance; 2. financial support; 3. creative nurture; 4. manufacturing; 5. publishing; 6. marketing; 7. distribution; 8. payment of royalties – the banking.

Today, if we look solely at iTunes, we see a publishing model that offers only the last two items as a guarantee – distribution and banking – with some marketing thrown in sometimes at the whim of the folks at Apple. It’s a fantastic piece of software, I use it all the time and I was honored once to meet the woman who wrote the software. But iTunes is not like radio.

Radio is less driven by cash flow, a little more driven by secondary income streams – like advertising, subscriptions, or in the case of the BBC, license fees – and thus needs its pop music to be cool, look hip, cover a wide array of bases and satisfy a broad market.

Let me quickly go over this list again. Now is there really any good reason why, 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 Northern Rock for its enormous commission?

Let’s talk it through.

Item 1. Editorial guidance. A&R. Employ 20 A&R people from the dying record business. Have them respond to tracks sent in from new artists. If they feel the artists are bad, or aren’t ready, say so. 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. A fledgling musician at the start of a career is a delicate thing . Even a rapper – you’ll just have to take my word for that. Apple do already have back-room people assessing what’s hot, but they don’t have this kind of power. I’ll bet they’d love it. Twenty John Peels inside Apple – imagine it.

Item 2. Financial support. Subsequently provide free computers with music software to 500 artists a year who the 20 A&R people feel merit it. Provide some basic training.

Item 3. Creative nurture. Follow the work of these 500 artists very carefully. Help where you can. Keep out of the way if necessary.

Item 4. Manufacturing. This should be called “posting” today I suppose. Provide a place on iTunes where these artists can share their music. It should be a like a local radio station. Yes Apple, give artists some streaming bandwidth. It will sting, but do it. You will get even more aluminum solid state love for doing so.

Item 5. Publishing. Help artists protect their copyrights, don’t just exploit the loopholes of grand theft. This is a minefield today. 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.

Item 6. Marketing. Select a number of the artists on the free shared space local radio station and sell their work on iTunes with some helpful advertising within the Apple software machine. Show that you get behind them.

Item 7. Distribution. Go further. License the best selling artists to other organizations – like record companies, bookshops and high street and mall-based retailers for example – who are willing to make packages, goods you can hold in your hands and give for birthdays, Christmas and Diwali. Share revenue with Amazon. I’m not sure why that notion is so repellent to the Aluminums.

Item 8. Payment. Stop insisting on aggregators to deal with small artists – because you can’t be bothered with the expense of accounting for the numerous small amounts of money you’ve collected on their behalf – and pay direct. Why should an artist pay even more commission to an aggregator merely to get paid? For the uninformed, an aggregator in the iTunes world is a company who stands between the artist and iTunes and thus prevents Apple having to deal with artists directly. Some of these aggregators provide some of the resources I’ve pleaded for above, but they are really just another form of punitive banking.

So what does my inner artist think of all that? Doesn’t he give a shit? I can tell you now, he thinks all that sounds really amazing. He wants to cry. If Apple do even one of the things on my wish-list he will offer to cut off his own balls –they’ve only ever been a distraction after all."

Tomorrow, Part 2.
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1 comment:

Tom Siler said...

It's funny. . .the music industry has crumbled exactly as i wished it would when I was a jealous angry young boy/musician growing up in the late 70's with Townshend's "Punk vs. Godfather" ethics. Now, older and wiser, I wish different. . .music (the music we hear in public space) definitely sucks! (i.e. it distracts and annoys, rather than invites and affirms). Quantity does not equal quality when it comes to digital options. . .thanks for posting this awesome interview! As always Mr. Pete's s-s-s-till s-s-s-s-s-peaking for "His Generation" (the one I've always wistfully identified with!).


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