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)