July 25, 2006

if i smile tell me some bad news

Lucian Freud, Interior in Paddington, 1951

* David Byrne on income from playing live:

THE BELIEVER: You’ve said, I think, that playing live now accounts for a good portion of your income, and of musicians like yourself. Is that really the case?

DAVID BYRNE: A good portion of my income, yes, but probably the lion’s share comes from publishing—the songwriting, which is distinct from record sales. But I have reached a place where I can tour and don’t need to have a new record out, which is great. People will simply come to see what I’m up to. Sometimes that uncoupled relationship is depressing, as when I do a show and then folks ask me, “Hey, when are you going to do a new record?” when one has been out for a few months. But I can’t complain. I see recording and touring as related, but as very separate skills and activities. Some people can do one but not the other. I feel that sometimes my performances in the past have not been up to some recordings, and sometimes the recordings are nowhere near as exciting as the live versions. Sometimes the recordings are tarted up too much, as they say over here.

Record companies have encouraged the quasi-myth that touring is what “supports” record sales—that it generates press, excitement, and a buzz that then carries over to the sales counter; so the story goes, anyway. Well, maybe in some cases it does work that way—the show has to be good, for starters—but I’ve done tours where I’ve played to a larger number of people than the number of new records sold. They are really two different experiences and only the songs and voice are necessarily the same.

This adherence to the carrot-and-stick, cause-and-effect myth forces musicians who just aren’t really very good at performing to spend ages getting a band and show together, then to tour for a long time—often thereby getting themselves more and more in debt to the record company, as the record company often picks up the slack and the losses. Presumably it’s done in order to kickstart the artist’s career, or so the theory goes.

I think it just isn’t true—or at least is only true a small percentage of the time. These particular musicians would be better served spending their time and money recording and writing more, if they are writers. Or figuring out another mode of performance. And vice versa: there are those who are great performers but don’t seem to make great records.

It’s funny how these economic factors in various ways influence and create what we see and hear. It can be a depressing subject, but not necessarily so. Working within restrictions and borders isn’t always a bad thing.

* Old print ads, with commentary.

* "To be a poet is a condition, not a profession." -Robert Frost


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