A Talking Head talks about music

How Music Works by David Byrne

This book was the highlight of my splurge of non-fiction reading in December. David Byrne, founder and idiosyncratic front man of Talking Heads – one of the best punky/art-rock bands there has ever been, friend and collaborator with Brian Eno and Robert Fripp amongst others, could never be expected to write a conventional memoir or book about the music business.

He begins with an insight that is the complete opposite of our usual belief:

That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. … I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit pre-existing formats.

Thank goodness he goes on to elucidate… From talking about the small angular room at the club where they first played, to how African drumming doesn’t work inside echoey churches, to how Bach and Mozart composed chamber music for playing in chambers. (Wagner’s building of Bayreuth to fit his larger orchestra is an exception). The music also depends on its audience and in early jazz clubs they danced to it – but the written melodies were only so long. so the musicians started improvising, maintaining the groove but extending the melody. Instrument selection was also attuned to cut through chatter and bar noise – until amplification arrived. It’s a bold start to Byrne’s book.

In the second chapter, he turns to memoir. ‘My Life in Performance’ recounts exactly that, from the early club days of Talking Heads through the epic Stop Making Sense tour to solo work with bands and orchestras large and small – it’s all about music as a live experience.

The next sections look at how technology shapes music – first analog, and then digital systems. The advent of microphones and amplification was one thing but when the first tape recording machines became available it revolutionised radio, which no longer had to be live. Byrne tells a great anecdote about Bing Crosby:

Around this time, Bing Crosby, the singer who had mastered an innovative use of microphones, was getting tired of having to do his very successful radio show live every day. Bing wanted to spend more time playing golf, but because his shows had to be done live, his time on the links was limited. Crosby realized that by using these new machines to record his shows, he could conceivably tape a couple of shows in one day and they play golf while the shows were being broadcast. No one would know the shows weren’t live.

Crosby personally guaranteed the small chaotic factory where these machines were being built as ABC radio were dubious! So thank Bing for getting tape recording underway. The precision of digital technology meanwhile, has completely changed how music is composed, which is both good and bad – but always interesting to hear Byrne’s take composing by computer, which leads to looking at recording studios and the role of producers and sound engineers.

The next short chapter concerns Byrne’s love of collaborations. Although he says he is fairly picky, he is also open to work with unexpected people:

I’ll risk disaster because the creative rewards of a successful collaborations are great.

After this, Byrne turns his attention to the business side of the music business. How to make a living at it – and boy is it complicated: royalties, marketing, label costs, recording costs, pressing costs, distribution costs, touring costs, Musicians’ Union fees, paying the band and so on – the amount the performer and/or composer/lyricist gets is a tiny part of the picture. Of course, you may end up not even owning the rights to your own music. The internet is changing everything – again – you can do everything yourself if you want to – but without a label behind you, few will make a living.

Despite the financial difficulties facing the music industry and bedroom recording artist alike, Byrne is not defeatist. He has plenty of suggestions to help keep popular music alive and well, – not pricing fans out of the market, music contract models that are intrinsically fairer for all.

But, as he says, ‘Music is part of being human,’ and it has been part of our existence since the year dot in one form or another – and we should all be encouraged to make music. This book was enjoyable from the first page to the last, and I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the business of popular music. (10/10)


Source: Own copy

David Byrne, How Music Works (Canongate 2013). Oversized paperback, 376 pages.

Buy from Amazon UK – click here.

7 thoughts on “A Talking Head talks about music

  1. I remember reading this when it was first published and likiing it a great deal. It isn’t, to my mind perfect (nto quite up to the standards of Alex Ross and “The Rest is Noise”) but very interesting and very well worth a read.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I have the 2 Alex Ross book on my shelves – why I haven’t read them is a mystery as I know they are brilliant!

      I enjoyed Byrne’s comprehensive take on all the aspects of the popular music business – from writing to recording to performing to touring to financing – focusing on that sector, whereas the Ross books take a wider look at 20th century music (if I understand it right), don’t they?

  2. It sounds good but a little scattershot, is that fair? I get a slight impression that it’s all Byrne’s thoughts on music rather than a single coherent argument, but that Byrne’s thoughts on music are (unsurprisingly) really interesting so it works anyway.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It is both scattershot and focused! Each chapter examines a particular area of what it is to be a professional musician (plus one specifically about amateurs) It’s mostly recent decades, with an overview of ground-breaking moments from before, but he clearly shows how its all changing – through his own particular lens which was as you say unsurprisingly really interesting.

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