Rock Star Condemns Apple Over iTunes

Rock superstar Pete Townshend has described Apple’s as a “digital vampire” that is “bleeding” musical performers. But some of the facts behind his claims are shaky at best.

The Who guitarist made the comments at a lecture given in honor of British DJ John Peel, who was known for playing less-established and less-mainstream bands on his radio show.

After rambling on about how his inner artist would have wanted to “cut [Steve] Jobs’ balls off”, Townshend said record labels and music publishers have traditionally offered artists eight services:  editorial guidance; financial support; creative nurture; manufacturing;  publishing; marketing; distribution; payment of royalties.

He then complained that iTunes only offers the final two before asking:

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?

(Northern Rock is a British building society, similar to a savings & loans company, which received a large public bailout after collapsing in 2008.)

He then proposed that Apple should hire A&R experts to find new bands, then offer financial support including free computers and music software to 500 bands each year. He also suggested Apple should ” 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.”

Townshend also repeated a previous claim that “people who download my music without paying for it may as well come and steal my son’s bike while they’re at it”, which of course misses the point that an accurate analogy would be people magically cloning the bike, thus leaving the original safely in his son’s hands. He also claimed that “Radio is not like internet radio, or torrent sites. Radio pays musicians a fee when music is aired,” which will presumably come as a surprise to the likes of Pandora.

But while Townshend’s apparant confusion about how technology works (Facebook is far from the “Wild West”) and his apparent belief that Apple should behave like a record label are simply dubious opinions, he’s utterly wrong on a point of fact. Varying reports have Apple taking somewhere between 30% and 45% of the sales price of music sold on iTunes. That’s a great deal for Apple given the relatively small costs it has compared with a physical store, but hardly obscene for a retailer.

The real “enormous commission” lies with record labels and distributors that often pass on a small proportion of their iTunes revenue to bands – in some cases as little as a fifth, meaning just 12% of the sale price. Meanwhile a band that chooses to remain independent and/or use a cheaper digital distribution service can wind up getting as much as two-thirds of the iTunes sale price.

The difference between the two is where the real rip-off is taking place, and where the likes of Pete Townshend should be turning their attention. And speaking as somebody from the Internet age, I can assure him that distributors, record labels and other middle-men making more money than artists is not unique to my generation.

(Picture credit: Phyllis Keating)


13 Responses to Rock Star Condemns Apple Over iTunes

  1. "Townshend also repeated a previous claim that “people who download my music without paying for it may as well come and steal my son’s bike while they’re at it”, which of course misses the point that an accurate analogy would be people magically cloning the bike, thus leaving the original safely in his son’s hands."

    That's not an accurate analogy AT ALL. Perhaps if Pete's trying to sell the bike, and you clone it for free instead, leaving him with the original and no money… YOUR analogy makes out that there's no harm whatsoever done to an artist when people pirate music.

    I like my free music as much as a the next guy…. but at least I acknowledge that it's harmful (on a matter of scale) to others. Let's be fair here.

  2. Andrew: John isn't saying that this is a good thing, he's simply giving an example of a correct analogy… there's a huge difference.

  3. The problem with both analogies is comparing piracy and theft, when piracy isn't, and never was, theft. That's not why it's a crime. It's a crime because it's copyright infrigement.

  4. Andrew is correct. A true analogy might involve a person photocopying cinema tickets and using them to enter a theater in order to see a movie free of charge, at least if the theater remained mostly empty anyway.

  5. If you do not pay money for Pete Townshend’s music, that money cannot be used to buy his son a bike. Music =/= son’s bike. Money = son’s bike.

  6. pete really isnt the bike owner in this case, he's the bike manufacturer, and when you clone his bike, you are getting the benefit of the bike he created without paying for it.

  7. If you would never pay the money required to purchase the cloned bike, but would take advantage of a cloned version, and your advantage taking serves as promotion for said product and becomes vehicle for a certain bike company to increase its sales then who is the clone harming?

    This is a matter of greed. When the producers and manufacturers were making all the money and shafting the artist it was all part of the game, they provided the artist advertising and publicity and in return the artist could make his money touring. Now the artists can often make a living with sales and without the need for a label and they can still make money touring.

    Once the labels are gone there may never be another band like The Who, making a billion dollars, but there will be thousands of bands splitting up that billion that The Who made.

    • The average artist does. In the past there were these standout bands (Metallica, U2, Green Day, The Who, etc) who sold millions upon millions of records and made money with both sales and touring. If the album is selling 10 million copies and you're getting a percentage of that then you're doing great.

      What everyone fails to realize though is that was a handful of bands. The rest weren't making any money with sales anyway. You'll hear an interview with some mediocre unpopular artist and they complain that there isn't any money in sales anymore. For you, Mr. Mediocre, there never was. Wake up, you're not Metallica. As for Metallica, pirating isn't the only reason the cash isn't rolling in anymore, take a step back and look at the reality of your situation.

  8. The author sounds like an Apple fan, and the whole article seems a little defensive. Problem?

    But seriously, piracy is probably a bigger issue.

    Not with movies and video games though, their real enemy is resale – regardless of what they want to claim.

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