The Who’s Townshend is wrong – Apple execs aren’t digital vampires, they’re anoraks

“Oh Wow,” as the late, great Steve Jobs might have said. Apple a “digital vampire”, sucking the blood out of the music industry.

How so? The sound bite comes from Pete Townshend, The Who’s prolific songster, and inaugural John Peel lecturer at the Salford Radio Festival.

The chances are we would never have noted the festival if it hadn’t been for Townshend, and never noted Townshend if it hadn’t been for the emotive “vampire” epithet.

It’s an echo, almost certainly deliberate, of what was said about Goldman Sachs in Rolling Stone a couple of years ago:

The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.

Powerful stuff, that few outside the investment community – and perhaps not all of them – would seriously dispute. But is the parallel seriously applicable to Apple, which thanks to iTunes virtually reinvented the music industry about a decade ago?

The Townsend thesis, in a nutshell, is that Apple has abused its now dominant market position. Indeed, he makes direct reference to banking (mal)practice:

Music publishing has always been a form of banking in many ways, but – in cooperation with record labels – active artists have always received from the music industry banking system more than banking.

Not so, it seems, in the iTunes era. Apple, whose “fantastic piece of software” Townshend readily acknowledges, does no more than provide the minimal services of distribution and paying royalties, while bleeding artists dry with its “enormous commission”.

Excuse me, you may be saying by now, wasn’t it ever thus? Isn’t the old rocker (well, Mod, actually) looking at what we quaintly refer to as the record industry with rose-tinted spectacles? It may have served him and his cronies well, but thousands of other deserving artists ended up on the scrapheap.

In fact, Townshend’s critique of the music industry (which is well worth reading) is much more searching than the “vampire” headlines suggest. To make Apple the villain of the piece may be mediagenic, but somewhat misleading. iTunes is a symptom, not a cause, of the problems afflicting the music industry. And it has, in its way, created a financial solution to those problems which, fundamentally, stem from the internet’s copyright-averse “free download” culture. Arguably, without iTunes or something very likely, artists – including old rockers – would be very much worse off than they are today.

Nevertheless, Townshend is surely right to point out that the Apple tariff is too high, and that the company gives back relatively little in return. In his view this should include a great deal more help at the seedcorn level, whether in the form of incubator finance, marketing, creative nurture or advice on the protection of copyright.

The old music industry may have been a corrupt, exploitative, shambles that occasionally stumbled on talent, but at least it was filled with entrepreneurs with a passion for the business. Today, that business is dominated by anoraks.

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About Stuart Smith

Stuart Smith is one of the most incisive and knowledgeable commentators on global marketing. He was a long-time editor of Marketing Week during the period when it was the UK's leading marketing, media and advertising specialist publication. Visit Stuart Smith Blog.