Studying and an urgent need to pick up dry-cleaning in time for Thanksgiving may have deterred many from attending this year’s Future of Music Policy Summit, held for the first time away from its birthplace of Washington D.C., in McGill’s own Schulich School of Music. However, no classes were important enough, nor pants dirty enough, to excuse one from missing Talking Heads frontman and nerd-rock icon David Byrne’s keynote address. The man could have been speaking on the socio-economic repercussions of the decrease in potholder sales or flipping through graphs forecasting the return of the turtleneck and dedicated fans would have still given up their firstborn just to be in his presence. Alright, time to check the fanboy fawning.
David Byrne’s presentation “Record Companies: Who Needs Them?” took place last Thursday afternoon in Pollack Hall. It addressed the emerging gap between artists and record labels in the digital music age. Lanky, timid and endearingly awkward, the bespectacled Byrne tore through an analysis of the relative benefits of the recording, marketing and distribution of music for big label record companies as well as for digitally-armed do-it-yourselfers. Drawing from his experience as a musician as well as a producer – he founded his own world music label christened Luaka Bop – Byrne stressed that due to the rise in digital home-recording as well as online music outlets such as iTunes, “things are changing really quickly and the record companies need to adapt.”
Byrne spoke with both authority and sincerity about the practical ramifications of digital music on the “traditional” industry structure, citing the fact that 1,200 record stores have closed in the past year alone. He lamented the loss of such friendly and intimate independently owned brick ‘n’ mortar record stores and expressed his hesitancy towards using iTunes to purchase albums; although he admitted to purchasing the latest Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake singles online. Though reluctant to immerse himself totally in the unfamiliar realm of digital music, Byrne nevertheless touted the benefits of digital recording and distribution for lesser-known artists who hold no ambitions of selling enough records to reach double platinum status. In the traditional structure, such artists would never reach their audience as record stores could not plausibly stock their albums. Now, Byrne stressed, underground bands can reach their niche audience via the Internet with relatively little costs.
Ever-pragmatic, Byrne also reminded the summit’s entranced crowd that higher incomes afford musicians more freedom with which to make creative choices not motivated purely by financial realities. While admitting, though not acquiescing, to the dissolution of more standardized and time-tested music industry models, Byrne appeared forward-thinking and quite refreshingly, for the man who penned “Once In A Lifetime,” optimistic.
“We don’t have to go down with a sinking ship,” Byrne quipped at the end of his presentation. Though perhaps not radically edifying for the music execs in the crowd (also known as “suits” or “The Man”), the presentation was certainly a fascinating hour for meagre music fans, whose interests tend to gluttonously gravitate more towards product than process. n