He doesn’t look like any lecturer you had in college, but yesterday Iggy Pop turned teacher, delivering the annual John Peel Lecture for BBC Music. As befitting a visiting professor from the School of Punk Rock Hard Knocks, Pop eschewed traditional academic garb in favor of a shirt open to the navel – but he did don some suitably bookish spectacles for a portion of the hour-long talk at the Lowry theater in Salford, Manchester.
Speaking on the subject of “Free Music in a Capitalist Society,” Pop didn’t hold back as he addressed piracy, new digital music business models and some of his fellow artists.
Notably, he was critical of Apple and U2 over the giveaway of the band’s latest album, Songs of Innocence, as a free download for iTunes account holders. “The people who don’t want the free U2 download are trying to say, ‘Don’t try to force me,'” he said. “And they’ve got a point. Part of the process when you buy something from an artist, it’s kind of an anointing, you are giving people love. It’s your choice to give or withhold. You felt like they were robbed of that chance and they have a point.” Although he did concede that this “is not the only point – these are not bad guys.”
“Sure, BitTorrent is a pirate’s friend,” he said. “But all pirates want to go legit, just like I wanted to be respectable. So it’s good that Thom Yorke is encouraging a positive change.”
Broadcasting live on BBC 6 Music, the modern rock station where he’s now employed as a DJ, Pop praised early bootleggers for being “creative,” but warned modern piracy was a different game. “We are now talking about Megaupload, Kim Dotcom, big money, political power and varying definitions of theft that are legally way over my head. But I know a con man when I see one.”
Pop did not spare the traditional music industry its share of the blame for the business’ problems, but he did warn that the labels’ old exploitation of artists is being replaced by a different kind of con. “Now, everybody’s a bootlegger, but not as cute,” he said. “There are people out there just stealing stuff and saying, ‘Don’t try to force me to pay.’ That act of thieving will become a habit and that’s bad for everything.”
Nonetheless, Pop described prosecuting file-sharers as “a lot like sending somebody to Australia a couple of hundred years ago for poaching his lordship’s rabbit.”
Employing a range of amusing voices and often breaking into laughter at his own jokes, the Godfather of Punk admitted he was concerned about his shrinking royalty payments. His solution? “Diversifying my income,” including his notorious commercials for insurance firm Swiftcover. “If I want to make money, well how about selling car insurance?” he grinned. “At least I’m honest. It’s an ad, and that’s all it is. If I had to depend on what I actually get from sales, I’d be tending bars between sets.”
Pop did praise some people in and areas of the music business, including label owners such as Electra’s Jack Holzman and Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson; independent labels such as XL, Matador, Epitaph and Sub Pop; and John Peel, the late, legendary BBC DJ in whose memory the lecture is held. In contrast, he criticized YouTube for “trying to put the squeeze” on indie labels, claiming that, “As the commercial trade swings more into general showbiz, the indies will be the only place to go for new talent, outside of the Mickey Mouse Club.”
Reminiscing over his 50-plus years as a musician, he also recalled discussing the business with the late Johnny Ramone. “Johnny asked me one day, ‘Iggy, don’t you hate Offspring and the way they’re so popular with that crap they play? That should be us, they stole it from us.’ I told him, ‘Look, some guys are born to be the captain of the football team and some guys are just gonna be James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, and that’s the way it is. Not everybody is meant to be big. Not everybody big is any good.”
Pop, however, remains big enough to give others advice – and he ended his talk with some pointers for anybody getting into the business.
“Stay away from drugs…” he drawled, to laughter from the audience and, eventually, himself. “…And talent judges. I’d like you to do better than I did. Hang onto your hopes. You know what they are. Because that’s who you really are, and if you can hang around long enough, you should get paid. It’s the ending that counts, and the best things in life really are free.”