Required Reading: HOW MUSIC WORKS by David Byrne

By Dawn Frederick

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I’ve been a long-time fan of the Talking Heads and David Byrne’s individual work for many years. So much that I was ecstatic to finally have the opportunity to read HOW MUSIC WORKS (McSweeney’s, 2012) while stuck in an airport earlier this month.

My immediate reaction is that anyone who creates things (music, art, books, etc.) should read this book. Additionally anyone who works with creative people should read it too. David Byrne hits the figurative nail on the head when it comes to the ins & outs of art and the business of making and distributing it.

For anyone who was able to observe me while reading this book, there was lots of head nodding, post it notes (for myself), and smiling.  HOW MUSIC WORKS is that good.

Here are some crumbs to tempt you:

–          Byrne discussing music as an “expression of emotion rather than a generator of it” and authenticity: “I’m beginning to think of the artist as someone who is adept at making devices that tap into our shared psychological makeup and that trigger the deeply moving parts we have in common.  In that sense, the conventional idea of authorship is questionable. Not that I don’t want credit for the songs I’ve written, but what constitutes authorship is maybe not what we would like it to be.“

–          Byrne’s experience with success and how he defines it: “I’ve made money and I’ve been ripped off (well, I’ve signed lousy contracts). I’ve had creative freedom and I’ve been pressured to make hits. I have dealt with diva behavior from crazy musicians and I have seen genius records by wonderful artists get completely ignored. I love music. I always will. It saved my life, and I know I’m not the only one who can say that. If you think success in the world of music is determined by the number of records sold, or the size of your house or bank account, then I’m not the expert for you.  I am more interested in how people can manage a whole lifetime in music.”

How does this translate to a writing career? Does one create the book that expresses the emotions vs. creating a work that will only appease readers (i.e. writing to trends). Will this be a lifetime commitment, where it’s the sum total of a lifetime of writing that matters vs. the size of your bank account? And let’s talk about contracts and “crazy diva behavior” – who will be your support?  It’s good to plan one’s support crew in advance to hopefully avoid such a rollercoaster.

Other fascinating chapters that I bookmarked to re-read include Byrne’s discussion on the distribution models of music. For anyone who works in publishing, it’s an eye opener.

Last but not least Byrne delves into the evolution of creativity and community, as well as the benefit of the overall arts community ; how we need to support all artists, that fueling the creativity in a city benefits the entire city.  This means more businesses, more participation from citizens, and an almost magnetic effect in how the city’s population will grow as well.

“Funding future creativity is a worthy investment. The dead guys won’t write more symphonies. And the output of a creative generation doesn’t confine itself to concert houses; it permeates all aspects of a city’s life. Creativity is a renewable resource that businesses can and do tap into. By this I don’t mean that businesses are looking for painters and composers, but that the habit of creative problem solving translates to any activity we find ourselves engaged in. If the talent and skills are not there, if they’re not nurtured, then businesses will be forced look elsewhere. The arts are good for the economy, and their presence makes for more interesting living as well. . .”  

I dare say that this is one of the many reasons particular cities have thrived in the arts community. Minneapolis/St. Paul is a case in point; let alone many other cities across the nation and in other countries.

HOW MUSIC WORKS is one of my favorite books read in 2013. I hope that as we start 2014, you’ll take the time to read it too.