Redefining Our Terms: The John Peel Lecture

Pete Townshend - Peel Lecture

At the recent 2011 Radio Academy Radio Festival, Pete Townshend delivered the inaugural John Peel lecture, which was broadcast by BBC 6Music. It was entitled “Can John Peelism survive the Internet?” and it can be read at the Guardian and heard on the BBC iPlayer. In their introduction to the lecture, hosts Stuart Maconie and Mark Radcliffe, describe Peel as a “maverick” and a “pioneer.” I feel like Townshend only addresses how we can follow in Peel’s trailblazing footsteps for part of the lecture. Perhaps the confusion comes from the fact Townshend’s lecture seems to have two different strands of argumentation: (1) we need to find a way to help the music industry survive the Internet and its digital components, and (2) John Peelism, which Townshend defines as careful, considered listening and promotion of music, is essential for new, perhaps unpolished, music to thrive.

After opening his lecture without a real commitment as to whether the Internet is or is not threatening John Peelism, and without a clear thesis, Pete Townshend criticizes Apple’s iTunes, the iconic music e-retailer that has been arguably the most successful at selling music in the digital age. He argues that, while iTunes supplies artists with distribution and royalty payments, it doesn’t fulfill the other purposes that record labels traditionally did, including:

1. editorial guidance
2. financial support
3. creative nurture
4. manufacturing
5. publishing
6. marketing

He explores the ways in which iTunes could provide the services of one through six. However, his revised business model for iTunes still just looks a lot like the old record label days, except this model would become a monopoly if iTunes remained as powerful as it is now.

Now I don’t particularly want to defend or attack iTunes. Apple found a way to do what Amazon has also done: immediately providing everything all at once, easily searchable and easily obtainable. Like Amazon, iTunes has been very successful. It is this ease that seems to irk Townshend, and it crops again in the context of “sharing” music. He states: “The word ‘sharing’ surely means giving away something you have earned, or made, or paid for?…It would be better if these ‘sharers’ had to set aside time to listen, and to work at listening, and thereby do honour to the creative work of musicians even if their final judgement was that the music they heard was not for them – not worth stealing, not worth sharing.”

I agree with Townshend in as much as I, too, am quite tired of people not taking time to listen, or even to think or reflect on anything they obtain from the Internet. I’ve been guilty of the digital music gluttony of the last decade, storing up more music than I could ever feasibly listen to; I’ve had to curb this tendency for my own sanity. This sick feeling of what Nicholas Carr terms “the shallows” is what keeps me writing longer, in-depth reviews and features on blogs. Merely uploading tracks or supplying links to the things you like isn’t engaging with anything. A thumbs-up stamp of approval is frankly a lazy way of expressing yourself.

But like Townshend, I’m veering into the idea of John Peelism rather than sticking to the first premise. Instead of revamping the music industry model to fit within new media, I think the real issue is a need to reexamine the entire discourse of the music business (indeed, some are questioning the validity of capitalism itself).

Pete Townshend had his heyday during the decades in which music as an industry was in its ascendance. Many people, Townshend included, cannot get their heads around a new system because they are still thinking through the media they grew up with: a world shaped by literacy and print, which can be extrapolated into the industrial model of mass production lines of uniform products. There was a pre-print era in which artists didn’t even assign their names to their work; artists were merely tradespeople, not the romantic, individualistic genius concept that permeates our Westernized culture today. The market value of art is often a troubling notion, and this contentious idea is why outsider art, or art brut, is so intriguing; it’s literally art for art’s sake, usually completely outside of the capitalist market logic. This outsider attitude begs the question: should music be an “industry” at all?

I don’t think music and business are harmonious concepts — either you favour art for art’s sake, or you view art as a consumer product, which must be subject to the same capitalist system as the rest of business ventures. To me, you are lucky if your uncompromised art becomes a hit of mass appeal. If you want music to be an industry, you need to accept that you are at the mercy of the mass market. If you want music to be an art, you need to accept that you may not make a living from it. At the end of his lecture, Townshend points to the fact that there is also always the publically funded model to consider, but, at present, I think that it only stretches so far and is only supported in limited contexts. We also need to bear in mind that much of the music we think of as “legendary” and “well-known” now wasn’t necessarily successful or known to a large audience when it was actually created. We have to realize that even now the music we love and think is worthy of wide recognition is not undoubtedly being received as such; the target market of mp3 blogs and 6Music are not the mainstream public.

Now, to address Townshend’s second strand of the survival of John Peelism…

If anyone is embodying the spirit of Peel these days, it’s the bloggers. The Internet and mp3s have allowed all of us to have a shot at being Peel. The problem we run up against, though, is the fact culture, and perhaps the way time itself is experienced, has accelerated, paving the way for phenomena like Simon Reynolds’s “retromania” and the common complaint of “information overload.” The processes of organizing, curating, and filtering have become increasingly important, and there was a time when radio DJs fulfilled the role of curator and filter. I think that role is now filled by blog, podcast, and news feeds, in addition to blog aggregators and online recommendation systems.

John Peel has become a rightfully beloved relic of a different media landscape. He is as romantic a figure as music journalists like Lester Bangs and Nick Kent, or broadcaster-cum-record-label-creator, Tony Wilson. Within the last couple of decades, broadcast has become narrowcast. We can’t go back. We also can’t blame the Internet for restrictive playlists — the radio industry has always had the power to limit what was broadcasted. John Peel was notable because he was the exception to the rule of playlists. In fact, the Internet has opened up restrictions on playlists by allowing a choice of independent podcasts and online-only radio stations, which can allow pockets of freedom from heavy rotation.

In terms of the monetary value of music, I don’t think there’s an easy answer. At least not yet. The viability of music as art or business really comes down to the fans regardless of the Internet, or whatever the next big media shift will be. Or perhaps whatever the next big economic system shift will be. However, the question of whether John Peelism will survive the Internet is a different one, and it depends on how you define John Peelism. If you define it as keeping curiosity about new music alive, and promoting the music you love and listening to it with attentiveness and critical faculties, I think there will always be music fans who feel the need for John Peelism, but they may change the terms and methods over time. We have to be mindful that we don’t just follow, but become pioneers and mavericks, exploring new and different ways of discovering and engaging with music. I’m not sure if John Peel himself would want John Peelism to survive the Internet.

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