David Byrne uses his own experiences to explain the record industry in How Music Works.
Photo: Catalina Kulczar
Written by Geeta Dayal
DAVID BYRNE’S IMPRESSIVE output over the past four decades reaches far beyond his work as a musician, most famously in Talking Heads and in numerous solo albums and collaborations. He is also a deep thinker on topics ranging from cities to bicycle advocacy to urban studies to art, neuroscience, architecture, and politics.
His recent books, such as Bicycle Diaries and Arboretum, a book of line drawings, have largely sidestepped the topic of music. But in his new wide-ranging tome, How Music Works, he finally tackles it head-on. Much of the new book, which came out earlier this month, focuses on the future, not the past — centering on Byrne’s insights on where he thinks the music business is heading. He is also radically transparent about his own business dealings in the book, detailing his own experiences in colorful pie charts and hard numbers.
“I want folks to see the fairly simple math that pushes us towards making certain musical and career decisions,” Byrne said in an e-mail interview with Wired. “The book is about how myriad external factors influence the music itself, and money is one of those factors.”
How Music Works is also a guide for others looking to understand Byrne’s model.
“I also thought that by being transparent and using my own experience as an example, I could let other musicians see what their options are — and how their decisions might pan out,” Byrne said. “It’s all very abstract and confusing until you bring it down to what exactly one makes on a record, or for a year’s worth of work. Then it hits home, and the reader can sense what it takes for a musician to survive.”
Byrne is remarkably forthcoming in his book about how much he gets paid over the course of making an album. In one example, he notes that he got paid an advance of $225,000 for making his 2004 solo effort Grown Backwards. After subtracting the considerable expenses involved in making the record, which he breaks down in detail, he notes that he took home $58,000. Not bad, he writes — it’s “what an elementary school teacher makes in New Jersey.” Few musicians at Byrne’s level have shared this financial information publicly.
“My business managers don’t love that part,” Byrne said. “But they also totally understand what I’m trying to do.”
Byrne also spends considerable time in his book discussing art and music movements outside of the U.S., folding in observations from Balinese gamelan music, Japanese theater, Brazilian pop, and more. He is a staunch advocate and fan of music from other countries, and has long felt that the term “world music” is absurd and reductive. In 1999, he wrote a forceful op-ed for The New York Times titled "I Hate World Music". He says he still hates the term “world music” today, and that our reception and perception of music outside the U.S. still needs work.
“I stand by my disdain for the term — it implies that there’s an ‘us’ and then there’s everybody else,” Byrne said. “Now, of course people in other countries feel the same way — in India you might find cassette kiosks in which 98 percent of the material consists of the latest Bollywood soundtracks and then there might be one little ‘international’ section which, back when I saw them, consisted of Madonna and George Michael. Our xenophobia carries a little more weight though.”
David Byrne shows off his fashion sense with performers during a recent concert.
Photo: Ann Billingsley
In Byrne’s eyes, things are evolving towards more cultural awareness, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
“Have things changed? A little. You might see Rolling Stone or maybe even Pitchfork review a new Caetano [Veloso] record, or one by Lenine or some other Brazilian artist, but given the amount of creativity that exists in the world, we’re pretty much locavores,” Byrne said. “The interweb allows us greater access to many of these artists, which of course is great in my book — I follow a lot of them and order their records online — but on the other hand, the web also allows us to stay exclusively within our little tribes more than ever.”
The book also includes tantalizing recollections of his work on his landmark 1981 collaboration with Brian Eno, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and abundant insights on his work in Talking Heads, in key records such as Remain in Light. In his music and in his writings, he has often explored how the world we live in impacts how we live.
“I always thought those two sides could co-exist — that you could write an accessible pop song that explored, in some entertaining way, questions beyond ‘I need you’ or ‘I hate you,'” Byrne said. “Why not? Lots of folks proved that was possible before I did; I took the possibility as a given. There’s a bit of song-lyric grammar and syntax that one has to acknowledge and adhere to, but there are vast unexplored areas too.
His insights on the Talking Heads include everything from thoughts on their guiding ethos to their choice of outfits. Byrne spends several pages in the book discussing fashion, and his opinions on men’s clothes are almost as strong as his opinions on music.
“Like many folks, I hope for something that’s vaguely flattering and yet practical,” he said. “But dressing up should also be fun, a means of expression, and not taken too seriously. Men are super conservative in how they dress. We’re given (or we choose) uniforms: suits and ties or sporty wear or flannel shirts and jeans — and we’re expected to wear what our jobs demand us to wear. It’s a missed opportunity for men.”
He is always nattily dressed, often appearing in a monochrome color — like white — from head to toe. There’s also the occasional jumpsuit.
“The designer Adam Kimmel did a really cool formal jumpsuit for me to wear to the Met Ball (my first time there) which was fun, I got to acknowledge the formal thing, but play with it at the same time,” Byrne said. “And I like a jumpsuit.”