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

Categories: Tech

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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Big Mouth
Big Mouth

Well, good for you, Bill. For the hours and hours of pleasure and joy that the album has brought you, you flip Pete Townshend the bird and smugly tell him you'll never have to buy his record again! You've paid, what, $20-30 over the course of your LIFETIME to own this album?

Are you an artist, Bill? Because I am, and while the opportunities to "market myself" may be greater, the fact is the internet has done more to screw artists out of the opportunity to make a living than any other imaginable factor by making music even more disposable and of less value than you seem to think it is. 


I love Pete's music but he sounds like an old man just ranting "back in my day…". Let's face it the age of the vinyl record album is over. The business was going to change with or without Apple and iTunes. The whole business model has changed for not only music but the sale of all software. With the internet it's easier than ever for new artists to market themselves. They don't need a record label any more, just talent and ambition. Of course you still need to hook up with a distributor to get on iTunes, but that's not as big a deal as it was trying to sign with a label. Mr. Townshend needs to stop comparing the music business to the "good ol' days" and learn to adjust to the times.

By the way, back in the day I had to buy Quadrophenia twice. First on vinyl and then on CD. Now that I have it digitally I never have to buy it again. Sorry Pete.

Donald Quixote
Donald Quixote

The only valid point above is #5. 

To debunk the above (but not to defend Townshend entirely either): 1) Exactly the problem, not a misconception2) Correlation/causality fallacy.  What if there were a direct to consumer model from artists that came out instead of a vampire-like middle man like iTunes (see #1)3) There have always been labels involved.  That they are involved here does not disprove that Apple is having an effect on artists ability to make a living4) 1/2 points for this one.  While it is true that copyright is disintegrating, it still is the only thing that artists have to protect their work from being freely distributed. Dentists get paid directly for their surfaces 

Tim Peters
Tim Peters

The points in Part 1 are, I believe, part of his entire problem and not a misconception.


Exactly. Apple is selling artists' work and making more of a profit from it than the artist will ever see. This should be looked at as worse than piracy; the common pirate who copies media for his/her own use isn't making any money by riding on your back.

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