David Byrne (2012) How Music Works Canongate, Edinburgh; 352 pp.; eISBN 978-0-85786-251-8
David Byrne is best known for his work with Talking Heads, his collaborations with various other artists and the diversity of the musical styles that he embraces. He is an enthusiastic amateur in the original sense of that word: a man in love with music. In recent years he has also taken to writing and it is hard not to be impressed by the keen interest he takes in the world around him. This is the first book in which he turns his attention to music: what it is, why it moves us, how it has been shaped by technology and its physical surroundings, and the way that modern capitalism turned it into a lucrative business. Well, lucrative for some.
He hypothesizes that music is made to fit the physical locations in which it is performed, and later looks at how technology has both shaped music and how music can be played and heard. There are plenty of examples, but there are also some things that contradict his argument. Mozart might have written music to suit the parlours of his patrons, but brash and bossy Wagner demanded that bigger halls be built to accommodate his musical ego. The technology of recording limited what could be played as well as the duration of songs, but people (including Byrne) were always pushing new technology to do more, experimenting with ways to subvert existing limits. What he shows in fact is that the physical constraints of venues and technology are in constant tension with music makers and performers, and it is this which propels innovation. His deterministic argument is therefore too one-sided. He covers this field well, but another chapter on instruments themselves would have rounded out his theme.
The chapter ‘My Life in Performance’ is largely autobiographical, but does look at how artistry and ritual have been incorporated into the way music is performed. Byrne stresses the ephemeral nature of live musical performance, something we tend to forget when we have recordings that we can access anytime. How a performance looks and feels, whether it moves us to get up and dance, or sing along, determines whether the memory remains with us. At its best, live musical performance is a social event, an opportunity for sharing joy.
Byrne is a firm believer that music making should be collaborative and social. He notes how modern recording technology has turned us from being music makers and singers into being passive consumers, most typically these days in a cocoon of our own headphones. Recording has made us believe that there is a single ‘ideal’ version of a song or piece of music, meaning that we underappreciate the diversity that live performance allows. Technology appears to have made us richer by making music ubiquitous, but in fact we are poorer because it has robbed us of creativity. When was the last time you and your family or friends sat around and sang, or played a rollicking tune?
There is quite a bit of detail in this book about the music business and why some artists make money while many do not. Byrne tries to map out six models for making money out of recorded music, but I found this aspect of the book rather limited in its vision. It may be that the long twentieth century was the exception in turning recorded music into gold. Before recording, money was made from performance. Modern technology allowed fortunes to be made in producing and selling recordings, but now digital technology might be the undoing of this parasitic industry.
People can not only produce and distribute their own music via their laptops, they can also download and share other people’s music without paying anyone. Some artists have already experimented with giving away music online, but most continue to charge. Companies like Apple are determined to reincarnate the old record industry in digital form, but it only takes one paid-for file to hit the web and then it can be everywhere. Recording company executives gag on their business lunches over this sort of thing, but it might be good for creativity if it means that digital versions of songs eventually become free advertisements and that money is again generated by live performance. The number of live shows would increase, as would the number of bands and singers, and artists unable to perform live would (mercifully) disappear. Creative control would revert to artists and small teams of tour managers rather than the big entrepreneurs. Byrne never quite gets to these consequences of technology, but the evidence he presents and the nature of the business models he lists underline how threatened the old recording industry now is.
There is some repetition in this book, and the odd weak chapter, such as the one on how to create a music ‘scene’ (almost wholly based on Byrne’s experiences at the CBGB club in New York). But there is much that will engross you and make you think about music more generally. Despite a life in recording, Byrne remains committed to live performance and encourages people to express their feelings through music and song. He is a firm believer in the inspirational value of music making, as well as stressing the discipline and patience it requires. Mastering an instrument, training your voice and crafting a good song are all skills that can make us better people, even if few of us will be geniuses at it. And when we create and perform together, there is a community and fellowship that allows emotion and pleasure to be shared.
You don’t have to be a diehard music fan to like this book. It is a thoughtful look at the role of art and creativity in our lives, as well as the mechanics and economics of music. In our modern, lonely world of ear buds and doof-doof cars, Byrne sees a great deal of alienation from the rich role that music can play in our lives. When I was a child, a local street sweeper used to walk around our neighbourhood singing at the top of his voice while he worked. We all thought he was nuts, but perhaps he was the one enjoying the real world after all.
Surfing the web, I was thinking about David Byrne’s interest in percussive music, and somewhere in the recesses of my mind, about the fate of paper books as e-books become more dominant. What to do with all those old books? Then I came across a video on YouTube that matched the two ideas perfectly: the book xylophone. Another Japanese marvel!