Belated review of Plug In, Tune Out with David Byrne, Mark Mulligan and Dave Haslam: Does music matter less in the current era? Royal Northern College Of Music, 25th October 2012.
David Byrne in discussion with Dave Haslam at the RNCM was a dry affair. Similar in tone to a university lecture, the dullness of the discussion was matched only by the sycophancy of the audience.
Byrne’s book How Music Works, which he was there to flog, was mentioned in passing but wasn’t discussed at length.
Instead, at Byrne’s request, the discussion concerned “changes in the consumption and production of music in the digital age”, a subject about which Byrne had nothing specially interesting or insightful to say… although he complained that he is not profiting from new models of on-line music distribution such as Spotify. Perhaps he was expecting some suggestions from the audience? Or sympathy?
Presumably well aware of the flaw in the evening’s format, but reluctant to trouble Mr Byrne about the matter, Dave Haslam had involved another speaker Mark Mulligan, who provided an overview of music sales trends. Sadly Mark’s venn diagrams didn’t liven up the debate much although his analysis was well presented.
David Byrne was most interesting when Dave Haslam steered him onto personal experiences mentioned in his book. (How Music Works must be somewhat autobiographical, although reviews suggest it isn’t a straight autobiograhy.)
For instance, Byrne was coaxed into describing the evolution of Psycho Killer, which apparently began life as a ballad. He mentioned his small-town up-bringing and explained that music had played a crucial role in broadening his horizons. He also briefly discussed his stage fright and the maniacal dictates of 70s recording engineers and producers.
There was an open Q&A session at the end of the evening, during which the audience put on one of the most obsequious displays I have ever witnessed; one woman’s question was “Which question would David Byrne most like to answer?” This didn’t deserve a sensible response, and she didn’t get one; an opportunity squandered in a failed attempt to ingratiate.
The crowd’s star-struck reaction would have been less embarrassing if there had been a musical element to the evening (as with Dave Haslam’s Nile Rodgers interview.) Music has the power to make hero-worship seem appropriate, while it can find no refuge in a factual discussion. Perhaps Byrne’s intention, in dictating the evening’s format, was to maintain an emotional distance by assuming the role of an actual talking head… Newsnight style.
And so it came to pass that one, whose otherness once enthralled, appeared prosaic amd rather dull in middle-age… across the table, so to speak… without the animating power of music.
We had paid to share the same space with David Byrne. His physical presence on the RNCM stage was more than enough to satisfy most ticket-holders; hearing him say something (anything) was a bonus. Across England’s north west and beyond, dinner party guests would be regaled with accounts of this event for months to come, creating waves of envy and disappointment in the hearts of those who had missed it. Manchester has rarely seemed so depressingly provincial.
As the evening wore on, David Byrne was understandably anxious to get away from us as quickly as possible. He exited the stage hastily amid rapturous applause, presumably in order to sprint to a waiting vehicle. Meanwhile Dave Haslam broke it to us gently that there would be no book-signing… but we had reason to be grateful: pre-signed copies of How Music Works would be available to purchase from Waterstones’ staff in the foyer.
What was the question again?
Does music matter less in the current era?
If David Byrne finds it simpler to profit from books and micro-managed personal appearances, than from music-making, then the answer must be ‘Yes’, I suppose. But then, he was one of the lucky few who thrived under the old system of recorded music distribution. The vast majority of musicians were not served well by the old system and for them, new distribution networks will surely be liberating.
But was it music which really mattered to us in the first place, or was it the stars themselves, their coded messages and what they appeared to signify?
From the mid-1950s onwards, through recording and broadcasting technology, pop music allowed ‘ordinary people’ to challenge the status quo in front of a mass audience. Pop stars often embodied or communicated provocative ideas, many of which were borrowed from sub-cultures, other cultures or intellectuals. In doing so, they regularly took the credit for the message (John Lennon’s Imagine for instance.)
It was a symbiotic relationship… radical ideas gave the pop stars intrigue or gravitas, while the pop stars’ messages could reach a wide receptive audience, by-passing the prejudices of older people, parents or the establishment.
In a rapidly expanding landscape of ideas, pop stars became crucially important figures, signposting the way forward for many young people.
But now, ideas about sexual freedom and individual choice, which used to be provocative, have gone mainstream, and so has black american music, which most pop music is based on. We’ve heard it all before.
If music matters less in the current era, perhaps it’s because musicians have nothing to communicate which we don’t already know… or so we think.