Here’s to David Byrne proving once again that funkiness can flourish where no funkiness should exist. Let’s also toast to how Byrne has managed to maintain total coolness throughout the course of decades, without a single gaffe or mishap. The guy has just been ineffably cool non-stop for years. He’s had the most remarkably consistent career of anyone I can think of. Not in the sense that his music has been consistently the same, or consistently popular. Not at all; his music has been wildly diverse in style and hasn’t always held out mass appeal. But it has been consistently, unfailingly, interesting and good. Not many people can claim a thirty-plus year career of producing nothing but interesting and good material. David Byrne has somehow never made himself look like a fool. Maybe it’s because he’s always flown more or less under the radar, without the pressure of making huge sales, or because he’s one of those people who want to do their own thing and nothing but their own thing. Then there’s the side projects, like art and bicycle activism – also consistently interesting and worthwhile.
Byrne recently published a book about the state of the music industry, in which he criticizes our current download culture. How, he asks, are people like him supposed to make a living in the age of piracy? That is a good point; it’s increasingly hard for musicians to make a profit just selling music. Even the biggest selling acts have to turn to other ways of earning. Many big name stars actually make the bulk of their income with non-musical things like endorsements. Byrne and others like him – musicians who are well known and respected but don’t sell all that many records – are losing out. Byrne makes a comfortable living, of course, but he isn’t extravagantly wealthy, and for him the loss of physical records sales to digital piracy is a serious threat to livelihood. I confess I haven’t yet read his book, but I plan to, and when I do I’ll get back to you on what, if anything, he proposes should be done about the whole situation. I doubt it’s about to change, and certainly not in favor of David Byrne’s bank account. One problem is that many musicians don’t actually own the rights to their work, and must survive on royalties that trickle down through their record companies. Crowd sourced funding and internet based distribution channels appear poised to render big record labels finally obsolete, and that sounds like good news for everyone. Frankly, I would feel better about purchasing music in a physical format if I knew that more of the money would go directly to the artist. As it works in the traditional model, the artist only gets a few cents out of a ten- to – twenty some dollar price tag, with rest going to the retailer and record label. No wonder so many of us turn to online piracy. If you want David Byrne and other artists to continue being able to pay their New York City rent, try buying music and merchandise directly from them – many run their own websites and sell cool shit that profits them directly. An increasing number of musicians are now using crowd-funding to make their records happen without pesky label involvement; try making some Kickstarter donations, if you have any discretionary funds to dispense with. Also, concerts. Go to lots of concerts. It’s fun for everybody and the artists get a much larger cut of tour profits than they do record sales.