Ever since winning The X Factor this time last year, James Arthur seems to have been on a one-man mission to showcase the dangers of refusing media training. He recently became embroiled in an ill-advised rap battle with an MC known as Micky Worthless, in which Arthur’s rhymes attracted ire for their homophobic content. This gained even more notoriety when it emerged one disgruntled former fan had emailed iTunes, asking for a refund on the James Arthur album she’d recently purchased due to the offence Arthur’s comments had caused her. One reply from a friendly Apple staff member later, and £7.99 was winging its way back into her account. In the email, the iTunes Store Advisor noted that the request was an “appropriate exception to the iTunes Store Terms and Conditions.” Great customer service no doubt, but have iTunes really thought this one through?
As someone who is twenty-sev… the right side of thirty, I, like thousands of other Brits the same age, own a copy of Thefakesoundofprogress, the debut album by Lostprophets. Recently, Lostprophets frontman Ian Watkins pleaded guilty to numerous sexual offences, including the attempted rape and sexual assault of a child under the age of 13. It’s extremely unlikely I’ll ever want to listen to this album again. You can see where this line of thought is going already, can’t you?
There’s a chance here that iTunes have set a very dangerous precedent. If one person being offended by homophobic comments is enough to warrant a refund, then surely other bad – or worse – events deserve similar recompense. I didn’t buy Thefakesoundofprogress on iTunes (it came out in 2000 for a start) but if I had, would iTunes grant me a refund? Lostprophets have sold 3.5 million albums worldwide, so thousands of those purchases must have come through iTunes – are all those people going to get refunds? If not, why not? How could iTunes give a refund for homophobia but not for Ian Watkins being a “determined and committed paedophile”?
The link (or lack thereof) between an artist and the art they create has been documented extensively elsewhere, and has resurfaced recently in the wake of the Watkins case. Last year, multiple copies of Chris Brown’s album, Fortune, were plastered with stickers advising potential customers not to buy the record as Brown, in the words of the sticker, “beats women”. While this was widely reported and people delighted in seeing Brown being given the metaphorical middle finger in such a way, the public reception wasn’t so welcoming when the same stickers started appearing on the solo albums of the Working Class Hero hitmaker, John Lennon. There’s the suspicion that we’re happy to take the moral high ground when it’s an artist whose music we don’t particularly care for, but when it’s someone whose work is part of the national fabric, it forces us into questions we’re not comfortable in asking ourselves.
Whilst this theory and apparent hypocrisy can be used to make a serious point, iTunes’ response to the Arthur brouhaha can also be pushed to the point of ridiculousness. What’s the maximum time allowed between a recording artist’s crimes and the work they create before a refund is no longer valid? HMV have announced they’ll stop selling Lostprophets albums in-store, yet you’re still free to pick up the Gary Glitter back catalogue in your local branch. Eric Clapton’s on-stage Rivers of Blood moment in 1976 doesn’t get much press these days (“I think Enoch [Powell]’s right. We should send them all back […] Keep Britain white!”), so if a teenage guitarist has recently bought Cream’s Disraeli Gears and then finds out about Slowhand’s less-than-pristine past, can they get their hard-earned dosh back too?
To take it even further back, iTunes is currently selling a compilation entitled The Best of Leadbelly. Leadbelly was a bluesman who died in the 1940s and is more known for performing Where Did You Sleep Last Night? (his version was covered by Nirvana on their MTV Unplugged in New York album) than he is for serving time in prison for murder. We’d all agree that murder is a heinous crime, and learning of such a thing would likely colour your opinion of someone, but does a murder committed nearly a hundred years ago ruin your enjoyment of that person’s music sufficiently that you’d expect iTunes to cough up?
So far, iTunes haven’t offered refunds for any other albums based on the actions of the artist in question, and it’s probably for the best lest they wish to open the floodgates. Offence is a very personal thing, and if iTunes were to incorporate such a policy into their actual Terms and Conditions, it would be ripe for abuse by people seeking a refund on albums and tracks that haven’t lived up to expectations. Personally, I was taken in by Johnny Borrell’s assertion in the mid-2000s that he was a better songwriter than Bob Dylan, and I subsequently bought the first Razorlight album under these false pretences. Borrell revealed himself to be little more than a prize clown; I’d been lied to, but I have to live with that – there’s no way I’ll be getting my £7.99 back.
Let’s hope we’re not heading towards a future where iTunes, HMV et al start ranking crimes in order of seriousness and deciding whether we’re allowed to hear music from certain artists. James Arthur is certainly guilty of some spectacularly bone-headed comments, but that shouldn’t lead to blanket censorship or only being able to buy records from people with squeaky clean reputations. There’s only so much Cliff Richard we can take, after all.