Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Who is the new John Peel? We all are!

It's a great shame that John Peel is no longer with us. When the downbeat DJ was alive and kicking he took it upon himself to listen to an awful lot of awful music, so that we didn't have to. If he was still here he could have performed the same filtering service on the inaugural John Peel memorial lecture, delivered by Pete Townshend, and just brought us the bits that were in tune.

However, in the absence of the venerable Peel, I'll attempt to do the job.

Pete Townshend 
Just what is the old Windmill Whoover on about? Well, if you've not heard or read Townshend's talk - or even if you have and still can't make head nor tail of it - here's the very short version: "Me, me, me, me, me, me! Pay me!"

Here's the even shorter version: Pete is worried. 

He's worried that good music isn't being heard, he's worried that musicians are being ripped off, he's worried that the music business model that made him a multi-millionaire has collapsed and that the thing that's replaced it is not up to the job. And he's worried that the hole left by John Peel's passing has also not been filled.

He wants Apple's iTunes to stop being just a massive store and become a record company. Not one of the greedy, short-termist, account-led record companies that so comprehensively screwed the golden goose from the post-Punk era onwards, but one of the enlightened, caring, nurturing record companies of yore which would actively seek out new talent and happily spend money to help them to blossom, investing in their talent in the long-term. 

Pete wants Apple-brand musicians to replace the marketplace open to all. This would be a great idea … if you happened to be one of the few musicians that this avuncular Apple label chose to support. If you weren't among that happy number then the sound of slamming doors would be more deafening than a Keith Moon drum solo.

Pete wants the BBC to become Spotify, and use the license fee to pay every musician in the world the kind of money you get for being played on the radio. That's a sum measured in pounds rather than the hundredths of a penny that Spotify deals out per play. And that's a good idea too … if you want to bankrupt the BBC in minutes flat. For instance, everytime Pete's 1966 hit Substitute is played on Radio 2, the BBC pays out something like £80 in PRS fees. Imagine applying that to the Spotify model, which streams thousands of songs a day. 

Oh, and Pete wants people to stop burning CD copies of his records for their friends, because their friends should bloody well buy their own copies! And, presumably, should you happen to play My Generation to a member of the young people of today, in an attempt to teach them what proper music sounds like, you should pop a cheque in the post to Pete, just to cover the copyright violation, OK?

John Peel
There, in rather more than a nutshell, is Pete's nutty lecture. There was some  even more wacky stuff about wanting to cut the balls off various people (including himself), but let's put that aside for now. Oh, and he also insulted Led Zeppelin! That's always good for a laugh.

Like a lot of older men (Pete Townshend is 66), Pete yearns for a golden age when everything was good, and fair and groovy; a magical time when he still had his hair and his hearing and, if he should choose to release a record, it would be played on the radio (and the radio people would pay him handsomely to do so) and then the public would realise exactly how groovy it all was, and go to a shop and bloody well buy it! You know … the good old days.

But today, thinks Pete, even if he could be arsed to release anything that wasn't the umpteenth repackaging of Tommy, no-one would play it on the radio.  And even if the public did hear it, they wouldn't buy it - they'd wait until one of their friends burned them a copy instead. Or they'd torrent it illegally. Or listen to it on Spotify, which pays in fractions of a button for every zillion plays. This makes Pete very angry indeed, and he starts looking for scissors and fly zips.

Once upon a time, when Jack was still Happy and the Bus was still Magic, only a select few people wrote and recorded songs. If the song was commercial pop then jolly old daytime Radio One would happily play it, and if the song was a bit more "challenging", arty or avante garde John Peel sifted out the real crap, played the rest, and we were expected to tune in at midnight, pay attention and make a note of which records we were to buy from the local record shop on the morrow. Happy days.

Making and distributing a record in the Sixties and Seventies was expensive, and the record industry jealously guarded the golden goose. Today, making and distributing music is so easy that every third person I know is in a band with a new album due out soon. 

iTunes: "A digital vampire"
Songs used to be released in their hundreds a week. Now they seem to be released in their hundreds of thousands. Anyone who has recorded their own music can sell it, easily, via iTunes. But Pete's not happy about that. He says Apple is "a digital vampire" bleeding the work of artists and extracting an "enormous" commission for doing very little.

He also compares iTunes to Northern Rock, for some reason. Northern Rock was the British bank that crashed and burned after buying deeply into the American junk mortgage market, and was the first to have to be bailed out by the Government when the junk hit the fan. Why does Pete thinks Apple and iTunes are anything like Northern Rock? I Can't Explain... Let's file it away alongside the bit about balls, eh?

Pete isn't dismissive of the internet, and he isn't ignorant of the multiplicity of easy-to-access platforms open to all. He names them, everyone from Soundcloud and YouTube to blogs like this one, from LastFM to podcasts like FolkCast. But, says Pete, none of them help him buy a new Fender to replace the one he's just smashed up, because either they don't pay to play music or they pay so little that it's not even worth counting it. He's tried to make another million from putting music on internet streaming services and - Hey! - he won't get fooled again…

Pete's angry, and he's confused. He yearns for the past when record companies ruled the world and decided who would be allowed to make and sell records. Well he would, wouldn't he? 

He was lucky enough to have a) the talent, b) the opportunities and c) the luck to be successful. Without all three of those elements you'd never have heard of Pete Townshend. The history of popular music is littered with the career corpses of people just as talented as Pete but who didn't get the breaks or on whom Lady Luck refused to smile. They just got the door slammed in their face.

How unfair! But the world isn't fair; never has been. However, at least now, thanks to the internet, the playing field is a little more level, and everyone can play. 

Yes, the talent is there and the opportunities are there, but luck is in just as short a supply as it ever was, and success - at least mega success like Pete's - just as hard to come by, and more transitory than ever. This year's Justin Bieber can easily becomes next year's Shayne Ward.

Fortunately, most musicians don't aim to be megastars like Pete. Away from the mainstream there's a very healthy music scene in all kinds of genres which sees all comers able to play their music at gigs, and easily distribute their records worldwide. They don't make fortunes, but they are able to make music, get it heard, and make a living - and that's almost entirely thanks to the internet, the "digital vampires" so bemoaned by Pete. Where the music business used to be about keeping doors shut tight, the Net hasn't just opened the doors but smashed them off their hinges!

The smartest artists know that, unlike an anonymous torrent, a burned CD copy of an album being passed from one fan to a friend is worth much more in the long run than the few quid they might (but probably wouldn't) otherwise have got. What's happening is that someone wants to share not only the music but also their love for it, and when they do the love is likely to increase, and create new fans who in time will pay not only for CDs or downloads but also for gig tickets. In the folk world, Show Of Hands positively encourage the CD shares. They can't count the number of their CDs that have been copied and passed around, but now they know how many it takes to fill the Albert Hall.

Is this you?
In among the nonsense, the nostalgia and the balls, Pete Townshend has a point. There are too many people who take advantage of the free availability of music of the internet and who never pay for anything. These are the real "digital vampires" - the sponges who neither create music or promote it but simply soak it up, refusing to acknowledge the value of the work of those who do create or promote.

Pete calls for a return to Peelism, but we no longer need a John Peel to give us access to exciting, interesting new music. All we need is a computer ... and time. Today we can all be John Peel, just with a click of a mouse.

Don't have the time? Don't worry. Just turn to the "digital vampire" - iTunes - and you'll find hundreds of specialists who do. These are the real John Peels of the 21st century: the podcasters. 

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