Over two years ago, my friend JT commented in a thread asking if I had read Byrne’s book “How Music Works.” Deeming it “fairly stunning.” I replied no, but was at least aware of it. I had a friend having an “event birthday” so I wanted to send him a gift. I went to the local bookstores and the used one had nothing vital, but Malaprops had the new printing of Byrne’s book on the shelf. I picked it up and sampled it. JT was right. I was immediately grabbed by what I had chanced upon. As I recalled, my friend had time for Byrne/TVLKING HEVDS but really, I could see anyone enjoying this book. Fan or not. I purchased the new edition and asked my wife if she had the book at her library. She did. So it came home with her fairly quickly.
The book was a bit of a chimera. By the title I thought it was going to be one of those books like Oliver Sack’s “Musicophilia.” Yes, in a few places, it did get into the mental and physiological effects of music on the human mind and body. But the book was really quite sprawling. The first chapter did go into the evolutionary and sociological reasons why certain forms and practices of music took hold. For example, did you know that Arena Rock evolved because bands were playing in large venues with lousy sound as rock got more popular. The lack of subtlety was an intention of the form itself for very practical acoustic reasons. This introductory chapter was a good précis for where this book would ultimately go. The second chapter was “My Life In Performance.” A succinct summarization of his career onstage from busking to solo tours. All made interesting by Byrne’s conversational, matter-of-fact tone. Byrne claims at one point to have mild Asberger’s Syndrome, and I would not dispute that, based on what I have read, but presumably this is what given him the clinical, somewhat distant point of view that he puts across here. He is by no means didactic. If he postulates a theorem, then he is quick to undercut it with a disputing fact or point of view in the next paragraph. I suppose we can read between the lines and view his thesis statements as his true feeling on any matters discussed here, no matter how disingenuous he tries to come across by including antithetical postulations afterward.
He gives a good history of recorded sound with chapter three dedicated to analog and chapter four dedicated to digital. It’s amazing to consider that digital recording has only been around for 40 years. Accordingly, the digital sound chapter is only half the length of the preceding one. Chapter five discusses the changes that The Recording Studio has gone through in its history. All of his personal experiences were drawn upon here as he has seen a lot of change on this topic and his opinions here have a lot of data to draw upon. Each of his album experiences get referenced as the book progresses, but there there was a treasure trove of discussion on the seminal “My Life in The Bush Of Ghosts” and “Remain In Light” albums. On the other hand, he also delved deeply into his completely- uninteresting-to-me “Rei Momo” album with equal gusto. That was when I wrote Byrne off for decades.
Chapter seven was to me, justification for the entire book. “Business And Finances” addresses “distribution and survival options for musical artists.” In the utterly transparent chapter [and at 48 pages, it’s the longest chapter by far in the book] Byrne detailed the various schema by which an artist could release music that they had created using six basic models ranging from a 360 deal where the label takes a bit of every potential dollar earned by the artist to the 100% d.i.y. methodology that is now possible with the lower cost of recording music. And all point in between. Throughout each section, Byrne relates his own financial debits and credits that were his lot as he explored the various ways to release an album.
Sometimes he wanted to achieve a certain sound and on 2004’s “Grown Backwards,” he spent a long period with many guest musicians [woah! Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, and John Linnell!] making the album. It cost almost his full $225,000 advance from Nonesuch. He ended up with $7,000 of that left. He reasoned [correctly, at the time] that this was the last gasp of Big Labels [even big boutique labels, like Nonesuch] giving quarter million dollar album advances, and that he may never get a chance to make such an elaborate recording again. He sold 140K copies of the album and netted $58K in profit. This contrasted with the album he made with Brian Eno in 2008, “Everything That Happens, Will Happen Today.” [see inset] In this case he and Eno owned the recording 100% and released it themselves. It cost a modest $49K to record [ but totaled $315K full expenses] and sold 160K copies, netting a profit of $649K to be split equally between Byrne and Eno. Byrne stated that his goal was to not go into the red on any project; as long as something at least broke even, he was satisfied with the outcome. One “Everything That Happens, Will Happen Today” goes a long way for balancing out a “Grown Backwards.” But by the same token, the $315K in that album’s expenses show that anyone who is not already a millionaire rock star really can’t afford to mount a self-owned project of similar scope. There are a lot of pie charts in this chapter! And let me just say for the record that the details that Byrne coughs up of the finances that drive the bus are utterly gripping reading!
As a music fan largely besotted with fringe-dwelling music, exactly how musicians I like can afford to make music is an endlessly fascinating topic for me. It’s exceedingly rare for someone on the inside to talk about this topic much using realistic numbers. It’s an eye opener that I had a lot of respect for. One shortfall of the book is that it was published in 2012, so CDs were being overtaken by downloads. Streaming didn’t enter into it. Byrne took time to complain about the 30% standard iTunes take for each DL sold. And I’m there with him. As the iTunes store’s reach expanded first with iPods, and then iPhones, I think they should have scaled their artist charges back as they expanded their coverage of the market. 30% seems like Apple is grasping to me as well. Byrne pointed out that manufacturing costs now are at zero but the artist sees the same amount of royalty from the label as when all of that plastic and PVC needed to be manufactured and shipped around the world. Someone’s getting rich and it’s not the artist. But that’s nothing compared to how the artist gets much more effectively screwed in the streaming hellverse that we now inhabit. I would have loved to have heard what Byrne would have made of Spotify. I’m guessing it would not be kind. I would love to see Byrne blow these 48 pages up into a discrete book that has even more detail.
The chapter on “How To Make A Scene” was a useful primer on how and why such “scenes” form. I recall that once Orlando got a “scene” there was music flowing copiously almost every night of the week that we went out to see. Hell, I might not be married now but for the “local scene” at the time, where I met my wife. The book wrapped up with a look at how the patterns and ratios of music are related to the physical constants of the universe. There were some pretty far out theories on deck, but the book was a ultimately a very engaging look at a multiplicity of viewpoints about music as it related to art, politics, society, evolution, and commerce; bringing his own experiences into the proceedings whenever he could. I have to admit that the 2017 printing of the book, as shown on this post, intrigues me since it has another new chapter added that the 2012 hardcover I read did not also sport. But it’s on digital curation, not streaming. I guess Byrne thought he’d already had his final word on Spotify in 2013, a year after the book was originally released, but that was then, and this is now. I’d like to see Byrne give us an update on that burning issue. But in the interim, this highly recommended book will inform and provoke with its insights and thoughts.
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