6th July 2008
RESPONSE TO AN ARTICLE BY SIMON JENKINS’ IN THE SUNDAY TIMES ABOUT LIVE PERFORMANCE'S SUPERIORITY OVER TECHNOLOGY / RECORDING
By: Pete Townshend
There is little point trying to respond to the obvious glee of journalists celebrating the fact that musical copyright has collapsed and that musicians must face working live to reach an audience. It would be hard to find a musician who would refute that there is magic in congregation. In my own work I have celebrated it endlessly. As for the record industry, I'm stunned at how many fools there are who don't see that it operated once just as literary publishing houses did - the pop hits were like the crime pot-boilers that paid for the poetry. Without the pop, the seriously adventurous composers would never have been recorded at all. Without a record company I would not have been able to survive awkward periods of my creative cycle, the simple ups and downs of life. I don't sack someone just because they have a baby or get sick or depressed. My record company allowed me the same license to fail to show up for work sometimes. They stood by me. iTunes simply doesn't have the heart, it is software attached to a bank, nothing more, nothing less. Brilliant, but heartless.
What writers like Simon Jenkins seem to miss is that there is much a composer can do that can only be realised by recording. To explain this as if to the caveman I would cite what happened to story telling and news after the Gutenberg presses began to roll. We happened upon a new kind of truth. One that could be examined repeatedly and reviewed age after age. We had created a new system of history, an archival device especially treasured by journalists. Recorded music, even back with the piano rolls of Franz Liszt, were the beginning of a musical archive that was just as important.
A recording is like a book in some ways, one can choose the moment and the surroundings in which to enjoy it; one's imagination can operate in free rise and fall without the distraction of one's fellow concertgoers. This isolated pathway between composer and listener was crucial to the evolution of the modern pop song and the blunt but effective therapy it offers. I sat in my lonely bedroom writing songs about being a disaffected youth, and you put on your earphones and listened alone, and probably disaffected, in your bedroom. My best work in this arena was probably QUADRROPHENIA, and much of that could never be properly reproduced live, not without the synthesizers and orchestras and many voices used on the record that critics are quick to describe as pretentious in the hands of a rock musician performing live. (See the concurrent ill-judged review of Lou Reed's BERLIN in today’s Independent. Check it out here.
Recording modern music after Stockhausen and Cage has become an art in itself. PET SOUNDS, SERGEANT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT and almost everything by Sigur Ros, Bjork and Flaming Lips stand as good reasons why I want to encourage musicians to spend time in their recording studios. Not all music can be recorded cheaply in a bedroom on a home computer. Space and sound go hand in hand with technology. All the world's great recording studios with fine acoustics are slowly disappearing. Rock and Pop musicians have been overpaid over the years - there is no doubt of that - but blame celebrity culture for that. For that very reason the failure of copyright in the 21st century doesn't affect many of the artists listed by Simon Jenkins in his piece.
We all have kids today who can play a little music or try to, some can write it. Imagine that one of your offspring join me in writing a successful pop song, it is downloaded by several million people. Only one of us can go out on tour and play live. Your darling would probably sit home, contemplating a time-filler job, while I earned millions in Las Vegas and China, my arthritic joints slowly seizing up while your healthy youngster tried consolation with repetitive strain injuries of a different kind.
The problem of file-sharing is with us. I thank my lucky stars I can both compose and perform live. Meanwhile your kids will probably hear my music for the first time on that plastic guitar and drum thing you'll be buying them this Christmas. It will cost you as much as your first car. You will still be making me rich, even though I feel as though we are still abusing the purity of my copyright. Established artists like me will survive. Your musically inclined kids? I pray for them.
I find performing to be a piece of cake. There is almost nothing I can do that I find so easy. I often do it for nothing. Writing a good piece of music is by comparison a tortuous, elongated, fraught process that requires emotional heart-searching, people-watching, understanding of current affairs, a finger on the pulse, a whole range of craftsmanship and skill, enormous patience and somehow costs a lot of money.
'Live is live'? How feeble an epigram for such a sharp writer as Simon Jenkins. Live is often a lie, especially when it comes to the unfolding news. All data must be processed, edited, packaged. That's what a recording represents. A complete story with beginning, middle and end. It is just as easy to fool the public, if that is our intention, at a live event as on a recording. We use the same techniques, the same computers, the same conjuring magic. Composition for a recorded release is finishing something, committing to its completion as a standing unalterable piece of art. We can choose to bring an audience right into our creative process if we wish, as I did with a Blog and comments forum recently. However, even that is subject to my will and control as an artist.
A live show is a chance to travel in the moment, and enjoy the company of others, including the performer who we assume will have had some role in the composition, that I accept and exalt, as does Simon Jenkins. But to listen to my original recording of Quadrophenia is to travel in a series of moments from 1972-1973 during which my band The Who and myself and my young family were entering a period of creative renaissance. I wasn't even thirty years old. Would you seriously prefer to see me, a thinning-haired old rocker in my sixties, singing songs I wrote when I was in my late twenties about experiences I observed in my audience when we were all in our late teens? Live is live? Live is absurd sometimes.
Suspend disbelief if you will, and remember me as I once was; I work with art of a poetic kind, not science or narrative drama. But I beseech you all to respect my work as a composer and a recording artist. For heaven's sake, you only have to pay once for a CD. You can play it twenty thousand times if you wish. If you refuse to pay I will regard you as an equal to the man who steals my son's bike or my trusty lawnmower. You're nothing but an opportunist, common thief.
Come and see me live, and I'll tell you to your face.
Read Simon Jenkin's article here: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article4276451.ece