If you’re a surviving rock star, you may find yourself asked to write a book. And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?” You can’t escape it. They’ll ask you to do it, and you will comply. That’s right. Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Jay Z, even Daniel Lanois have all given us books in recent years. And they’ve all been interesting and worth reading. But none of them is as good as David Byrne’s book, which announces it will tell us How Music Works.
And he really does. From the inside looking out. You don’t have to be just the right age, as I am, to remember dancing to all those classic Talking Heads tunes at college parties. David Byrne always was an unlikely rock star. He was always singing interesting words that could have been written poetry as well as sung lyrics. Of course, his book has the obligatory original handwritten pages showing sketches of his most famous songs: “Home, is where I want to be … but I go the long way round.” Huh? Guess that’s the first draft. He conveys this inherent uneasiness beautifully in prose. You see the way his mind works on the pages, different colour pens, testing his thoughts.
One could say the book is a collection of 10 separate essays, all on different aspects of the whole sphere of popular music over the last 100 years. Yet the chapters do hold together, and it is far more than the story of Byrne’s atypical rise to global stardom. He is keenly interested in how music changes dependent on context: “In the sixties, the most successful pop music began to be performed in basketball arenas and stadiums, which tend to have terrible acoustics. … The groove got killed … the arenas were filled with white kids – and the music was usually Wagnerian.”
Byrne is a very reflective musician, working hard to place his own songs in context. What were the Talking Heads really about? “Psychological stuff. Inward-looking clumps of words combined with my slightly removed ‘anthropologist from Mars’ view of human relationships. The groove was always there, as a kind of physical body-oriented antidote to this nervous angsty flailing …” I wonder if he would have explained it all so clearly way back then, 30 years ago, during his height of popularity? I doubt it. Byrne has been prodigiously busy since then, combining his provocative musical ideas with films, art installations, world music journeys. He even has produced artworks in the form of powerpoint presentations! He has played entire buildings as if they were musical instruments. And he has now written a book that strives to understand the workings of music from ancient history on up to the now.
How Music Works tackles a wide range of edges of its subject, from the effects of recording technology on music to the possible reasons music evolved. Byrne has read widely; why, he even quotes me at one point (full disclosure?) He reads many scientists of music accurately and carefully, and while the research he cites might not be original, he weaves his account of the evolution of music from animals to humans and the history of changes in the way music studios work into the most accessible and unpretentious narrative of such a story that I have yet come across. And he gently weaves in his own original contributions to this history.
For example, Byrne and Brian Eno created the first successful album based on the sampling of exotic vocal clips and rhythms before the word “sampling” had been invented. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts took a lot of hard work back in 1981. “Without samples, we had to place the found vocals into our music by trial and error. We’d have two tape machines playing simultaneously, one containing our music track and the other vocal, and if the gods willed, there would be serendipity.” That record changed listeners’ view of what was possible using the cut-up techniques in recording pioneered by Glenn Gould and George Martin. And those vocal samples still resound in my head today: America is waiting for a message of some sort or another…
Many of the chapters give the best practical advice I’ve seen for today’s musicians. He tells us how to create a scene, even pointing out how the physical design of the early CBGBs club in downtown Manhattan was essential to its success, because the performers could never really hide from the audience in any kind of green room. They had to mingle with the crowd, and that’s how the crowd built up support for them. Not too many clubs are designed that way today.
The most important chapter of the book is the one with the most prosaic title, “Business and Finances.” Here Byrne reveals the crisis of the music business with one simple diagram which shows just how the sales of CDs rose to a massive peak in 1999 and have been precipitously declining ever since. What’s a musician to do? The industry says make money touring and selling “merch” like T-shirts and coffee mugs – you can unload them a lot faster than you can sell recorded music these days. But pop musicians still spend a lot of their creative composing time making recordings. How can we keep doing this if no one will buy our product?
Byrne explains very clearly how the business has changed into something completely new. Recording costs are now approaching zero. Musicians rarely get big advances. Labels may become irrelevant, as artists can have ever more control of their manufacturing, distribution and licensing of music for film and TV. But can this actually work as a business? He does a careful breakdown of the costs and sales of two of his recent records, one, Grown Backwards, that was put out by a record company, Nonesuch, while the second, Everything That Happens, was put out directly by Byrne, together with Brian Eno. He reveals very specifically what recording, production, distribution and marketing all cost, and we learn precisely where money was made and where it was lost. He then explains, very clearly, the various options musicians have, on a continuum from signing to a record label, licensing the music to a label, all the way to the DIY approach of doing all the work on your own. The economic advantages of each are cleanly laid out for all to ponder.
The book is published, very handsomely, by the independent publisher McSweeney’s, founded by Dave Eggers, whom I remember putting on his website exactly what he did with all the advance money he received from the paperback sale of his bestseller A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and perhaps he encouraged Byrne to adopt a similar open-book approach to his own story. In music, it is even more important, because this is information that all working musicians, however hard or easy their struggle might be, really want to know.
Do the numbers, and you’ll see that even if you’re David Byrne, making records is no sure way to make a lot of money. But he remains optimistic, because there are more ways today than ever before for the musician to define his or her own business terms: “This is exciting. Ultimately, all these scenarios have to satisfy the same human urges: What do we need music to do? How do we visit the land in our head and the place in our heart that music is so good at taking us to? Isn’t that what we really want to buy, sell, trade or download?”
It’s not the same as it ever was.
David Rothenberg, a recording artist on ECM Records, is the author of several books, including Why Birds Sing, Thousand Mile Song and, most recently, Survival of the Beautiful. His book Bug Music will be published next spring.