I discovered the punk pioneer Iggy Pop in the least punk of ways: In the bargain bin of a suburban Virgin Megastore.
The cover and title of “Raw Power,” and the animalistic interplay between them, were irresistible. Coming of age in the 90s, my conception of punk rock was informed by Green Day, the Offspring, and Blink 182. But this clearly wasn’t the work of privileged pranksters or skateboard brats. This would truly tear me to shreds.
Now, 40 years after the release of that bruising masterpiece, Pop has mellowed a bit but his punk rock philosophy on music and capitalism is still intact. Last night, the Stooges lead singer delivered the fourth annual John Peel Lecture, named after the legendary BBC Radio DJ who passed away ten years ago this month, in Salford, UK. You can read the whole transcript here, and whether you’re a musician, somebody who works at a music startup, or just a fan who cares about the future of this industry, I recommend reading it in full.
To understand the new digital music economy, you can read sales and streaming reports or follow the stocks and venture rounds of music tech companies. But an equally if not more instructive way to wrap your head around how an industry could be cut in half in a single decade is to listen to the artists themselves — particularly artists like ex-Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin or electronic artist Tycho who spend a ton of time thinking about music as a business, not just an artform. And while Pop may still feel disdain toward the machinery of the music industry, he gets it better than most.
Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the talk:
The industry has always been a slog
“As I learned when I hit 30 +, and realized I was penniless, and almost unable to get my music released, music had become an industrial art and it was the people who excelled at the industry who got to make the art.”
But there’s still less money than ever to go around — and that hurts
“Now I’m older and I need all the dough I can get. So I too am concerned about losing those lovely royalties, now that they’ve finally arrived, in the maze of the Internet.”
Don’t be afraid to give music for free — there’s no glory in making money on free tech platforms
“If I wanna make money, well how about selling car insurance? At least I’m honest. It’s an ad and that’s all it is. Every free media platform I’ve ever known has been a front for advertising or propaganda or both.”
Don’t do what U2 and Apple did
“The people who don’t want the free U2 download are trying to say, don’t try to force me. And they’ve got a point. Part of the process when you buy something from an artist – it’s a kind of anointing. You are giving people love. It’s your choice to give or withhold. You are giving a lot of yourself, besides the money. But in this particular case, without the convention, maybe some people felt like they were robbed of that chance and they have a point.”
But there’s no shame in owning Apple stock
“I had the impression that Apple, the corporation, had successfully co-opted the good feelings that the average American felt about the culture of the Beatles, by kind of stealing the name of their company so I bought a little stock. Good move. 1992. Woo!”
“Bootlegging” has gone corporate
“‘I think that bootlegs keep the flame of the music alive by keeping it out of not only the industry’s conception of the artist, but also the artist’s conception of the artist.’ – that was Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith group, musician, critic and my friend. Wow!! Sounds heroic and vital!
“I wonder what these guys feel about all of this now, because things have changed, haven’t they? We are now talking about Megaupload, Kim DotCom, big money, political power, and varying definitions of theft that are legally way over my head”
Piracy, while creating a more communal way to consume music, leads to its own kind of capitalism
“That act of thieving will become a habit and that’s bad for everything. So we are exchanging the corporate rip off for the public one. Aided by power nerds. Kind of computer Putins. They just wanna get rich and powerful. And now the biggest bands are charging insane ticket prices or giving away music before it can flop, in an effort to stay huge. And there’s something in this huge thing that kind of sucks.”
But always keep your head up
“I’m also diversifying my income, because a stream will dry up. I’m not here to complain about that, I’m here to survive it.”