In the wake of Steve Jobs’ passing, there have been an awful lot of tributes to the genius who gave the world a staggering amount of technological gadgets that we didn’t know we needed until we had them.
But the Who guitarist Pete Townshend won’t be casting vote for Jobs’ sainthood; he recently declared iTunes “a digital vampire” that ultimately hurts musicians.
During a lecture at Britain’s 2011 Radio Festival earlier this week, Townshend threw out fighting words about a whole bevy of music industry-related issues, including iTunes, one of Jobs’ most influential creations. He referred to the music store as a “digital vampire,” gradually bleeding musicians dry by taking a cut of every download sold on the site.
His comments about Jobs seemed especially mixed; while he at one point referred to him as “one of the coolest guys on the planet,” he also admitted that he once “wanted to cut his balls off,” though that was all under the guise of Townshend’s “inner artist,” which made frequent appearances throughout the speech.
The central idea that concerns Townshend is a solid one — fundamentally, that artists should be compensated for their work no matter what the means of distribution are. “Whether the public listen or not, 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,” he explained. “If someone pretends to be me, or pretends that something I have created should be available to them free (because creativity has less value than an hour’s work by me as a musician in a pub) I wonder what has gone wrong with human morality and social justice.”
It’s a long speech and more than a little muddled, but Townshend’s bottom line is clear, and he does hint at a number of possible solutions to the problems he feels are the greatest. Musicians have always been the victims of monetary theft or skimming no matter who the middle man has been (it used to just be labels, but now it seems to come from all sides).
Solutions have never comes easily, and Townshend readily admits that it is difficult to make the arguments he’s making from his position of success. Ultimately, financial independence has worked well for artists like Prince, Radiohead, and Trent Reznor, though they had the benefit of already carrying a built-in audience by the time they shed their labels.
The question has always been: What about new bands? Townshend doesn’t have an answer, but it’s sometimes important to just keep asking the question.
What do you think of Townshend’s comments? Do bands get a fair shake when dealing with iTunes?