Revealing How Music Works

Sampling How Music Works By David Byrne

Reading this engaging and informative overview of how music works by David Byrne of the band Talking Heads, I was struck by just how much our approach to and appreciation of music is conditioned.

My generation grew up with big name bands that sold millions of recordings around the world. Our engagement with music was ironically quite passive – hey we didn’t even dance properly. We went to concerts and bought records. Some of us were inspired to pick up a guitar but having measured ourselves against recording artists, we tended to put it down again.

American film editor and sound designer Walter Murk notes that in the past ‘music was the main poetic metaphor for that which could not be preserved’. Perhaps you would hear it in church, the concert hall or the ballroom. Or there might be a piano in the parlour or the pub. There’s a nice quote from TS Elliot: ‘you are the music while the music lasts’.

Mechanical Music

This started to change with the arrival of the phonograph in 1878. Murk says that over the years what was originally a simulation of performance became the thing itself; ‘the recording has supplanted the performance’.  Interestingly the famous Canadian pianist and Bach interpreter Glen Gould turned his back on the concert hall in favour of the studio and the control if offered.

In 1906 John Philip Sousa wrote a pamphlet – The Menace of Mechanical Music – bemoaning the fact that recorded music was ‘sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion’ and foresaw ‘a marked deterioration in American music’. For him ‘the prospect of recorded music was a thought as unhappy and incongruous as (eating) canned salmon by a trout brook’.

More recently the financial and technological barriers that protected the recording industry have come tumbling down and along with them the market for recordings as a product. Today, if the popularity and cost of concerts and festivals is anything to go by, the big money is to be made in the ‘trout brook’ as opposed to the cannery

And while we may have lost the old music industry we have regained the playing of music. You can go out every night in London and play or listen at an open mic session; fresh and authentic sounds, ranging from the highly professional to the rough and ready amateur. You can record a song on your phone and you can post and share it on Soundcloud.

For all those that get up and give it a go, Byrne includes a nice piece of encouragement from the filmmaker Fernando Trueba.  He suggests that ‘the ‘don’t give a shit’ attitude of the amateur is another precious commodity’ and says of his colleagues in the film industry that ‘the best films are the ones they didn’t care that much about’.

Venues and creation

The book starts by looking at the relationship between venues and music with Byrne suggesting that, ‘opportunity and availability are often the mother of invention’.  For Talking Heads, the boxy little club CBGBs in New York was the perfect venue to hear the band sound at its best.

Similarly drums work outdoors, organs sound good in churches, and orchestras were designed for palaces, hip hop works in cars, folk music in cafes, heavy metal in stadia, dance music in warehouses. This is what Byrne means when he writes of music being ‘perfectly suited to its context’.

Reading How Music Works encourages the reader to think outside the box. Where else can and should one be thinking of performing. One orchestra has taken performance out of the concert hall and put it into a multi-storey car park in Peckham Rye South London.

Or you can go virtual. With the advent of recorded music ‘the phonograph in the parlour became a new venue’. Today YouTube performs a similar function. Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers perform covers in their van and their version of the Hall & Oates’ classic‘I can’t go for that’ has approaching 2.8 million hits.

What a performance

Performance has changed and evolved over the years. For example, those jazz solos evolved because the band was hot, the dance floor was full and they needed to keep playing that popular section for the dancers. And I thought it was the musicians being self-indulgent!

There’s a nice piece where Byrne talks about band dynamics. He writes that ‘tight’ doesn’t actually mean everyone plays exactly to the beat; it means ‘everyone plays together’.  And later he notes that ‘the emotional centre is not the technical centre, that funky grooves are not square and what sounds like a simple beat can either be sensuous or simply a metronomic timekeeper’.

Technology has played a big part in the evolution of music and performance. Amplification distorted the guitar and it also sweetened the song! Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra were only able to croon thanks to the evolution of the microphone. This made it possible to sing soft and sweet without losing the necessary volume to be heard.

Of course technology also played a big part in composition. The limitations of the single and LP governed the running time of a piece of music. The advent of digital means that these restrictions no longer exist but the convention remains in our minds. And that means a single is usually under 3 minutes … but it doesn’t have to be!

Sound of silence

Byrne mentions that in 1969 the General Assembly of UNESCO published a resolution outlining the rights of man to silence. Silence is the canvas that music is painted on but as the musician and composer John Cage found out when he entered an anechoic chamber, silence is very hard to find, sound is everywhere.

This is the certainly the case for Matthew Whittaker who was born 23 weeks prematurely. Blind from birth he has an amazing musical ability and now plays 11 instruments. But it is his take on New York where he goes each week to play and study music that impresses: ‘New York is a circle of sounds, music everywhere … its musical dark and so beautiful’.

Byrne takes a quote from Marshall McLuhan, author of Understanding Media that really opens one’s ears: ‘In an acoustic universe one senses essence whereas in a visual universe one sees categories and hierarchies … by blocking your sight, a wall can erase the existence of a man shouting on the other side’.

So this book is as much about silence as it is about music, about listening as it is about performing. It contains chapters on how to record, how to write lyrics and how the business works. But the bits that really inspired me were the ones about the art and the existential aspects of music.

John Cage looking at an ashtray and recognising that it is a state of vibration. You could listen to it and ‘the object would become process … we would discover the meaning of nature through the music of objects’. Which seems a good place to stop this review of How Music Works.

Woolly Allen and Streatham Bingo Hall

Recorded in Vincent Burke’s kitchen in Streatham with me picking the tune on acoustic steel string, Dominic Read playing lead acoustic guitar, Vince playing percussion and Robert Tessler playing electric guitar. The building, a  successful theatre back in the day, is now home to Streatham Bingo Hall. Below you can see what it looked like back in 1954 – image of Frith & Co postcard kindly supplied by Arthur Lloyd who curates a wonderful website on the history of English music halls and theatres.

Streatham Playhouse in 1954 from a postcard by Frith & Co provided by Arthur Lloyd Music Hall and Theatre History site

Streatham Playhouse in 1954 from a postcard by Frith & Co provided by Arthur Lloyd Music Hall and Theatre History site

Notes on Making Music, Making Money


Making Music, Making Money was a panel session and live showcase at the Getty Images Gallery in London’s West End. All part of the Performing Rights Society centenary celebrations which included a special photography exhibition celebrating 100 years of great music.

Ruth Simmons, managing director of  independent music-synching consultancy The Sound Lounge, got proceedings underway with a presentation called ‘So you want to sell your music to advertisers’. This provided a snappy introduction to the art of ‘synch licensing’, technical slang for licensing music for advertising or other visual media.

First she asked members of the audience to raise a hand if they had purchased an album this year. Not many did! “And how much does a ticket to Reading cost … £200!” Then she highlighted some of reasons why it is so difficult to make money in music these days.

  • You don’t sell albums any more
  • Downloads are declining
  • Streaming is winning
  • ‘You will be 180 years old before you see any revenues from Spotify’
  • Playlists for free
  • Production for peanuts
  • Give publishing as a gift

And then she pointed out that why there are opportunities to make money from advertising. Brands want personality, values and principles and music can deliver this like no other media. She gave five good reasons to use music

  1. It grabs you like nothing else
  2. It’s a universal language
  3. Soundtrack of your life
  4. Engages your body
  5. Connects with the heart beat

She took a trip down memory lane, back to the 1970s when jingles were ‘the bottom end of the advertising world’ but still extremely powerful. Some of the big successes were Shake n Vac, Fairy Liquid, and Mars. Artist earned royalties on repeats and in the case of Mars, this was enough to retire on.

Everything changed in the 1980s with the success of the Levis 501 ad featuring a young man in a launderette undressing to the sound of ‘I heard it through the grapevine’. Not only did the ad sell jeans, it also took the song back to No.1 in the charts … and it wasn’t even the original version but a sound-alike.

This convinced many in the business that a new era, and associated revenue stream, had arrived. Other advertisers copied the approach but often failed to deliver the same kind of creative values.  They scrimped on budgets and the music licensing opportunities turned out to be far less lucrative.

It seems that music has always been the poor relation. A recent study by leading brand agency Millward Brown found that in a typical advert, impact was fairly evenly split between the visuals – 58% – and sound – 41%.  Sadly, relative parity did not carry over into productions budget: 84% for visuals and just 12% for sound.

Ruth thought this might be because advertising ‘creatives’ tend to have a visual background. Even so her message was that opportunities for music in advertising were growing but composers needed to learn the art of negotiation if they were to make the most of them. She provided five tips on a theme of ‘What’s in it for me?’

  1. Find out what is in the budget for music? Talk to your peers and then negotiate.
  2. Ask what else can the brand give if not money, what is guaranteed media and what happens if there is no PRS cheque?
  3. Ensure track title and artist are credited on the brand site and YouTube. Make sure the music is available for download and link back to your site. And get it in writing.
  4. If they can’t give you any of the above ask yourself if it is worth it. And if it is and you do go ahead, make sure you have enough time to optimise the association and align your marketing plans.
  5. And if none of these boxes are ticked, ask again, ‘What’s in it for me?’

Ruth provided an engaging and useful insight into this part of the business. At one point in her presentation she replayed the Levis ad without the music. More than anything else this demonstrated the magic that musicians bring to the world of advertising, and it is a magic that they need to sell more effectively.

Check out more from the The Sound Lounge on the blog and juke box. Also worth exploring is the Millward Brown website which has lots of industry research and intelligent stuff around branding and the music industry.

Panel session

The second session provided a mixed bag of top tips and anecdotes from a panel comprised of PRS experts, a music lawyer, manager, music label; half of them musicians in their own right.

  • James Endeacott – Manager & A&R
  • Pete Bott – Media Lawyer
  • Kat Kennedy – Manager & A&R
  • Alex Sharman – PRS for Music
  • Andy Ellis – PRS for Music

On the legal front, the top tip for early on was don’t let the legal stuff interrupt music but if it is a band sort out legal issues early on particularly share of profits and liabilities. Make sure you copyright the work. And it is may be worth getting in touch with a media lawyer for an exploratory. There’s a chance that he or she may provide some free advice on the basis that you may come back when there is some money in the bank.

When it comes to pitching your work to the business, how do you make your introductions? The advice from a former tour manager for the Strokes was don’t overdo it. “Make your work and you a bit mysterious and exciting.” The best he had received was a CD with one very good song and an email address. “It’s all about the tune!”

There was agreement that even in this day and age there was a still a good case to be made for a deal with a record label and having management. But musicians still need to do stuff themselves so they understand how the business works. “You can’t get away with just making a record”.

Typically musicians should be looking to build their online profile using facebook and other social media. And make the most of any opportunities to showcase your work. For example by submitting work to BBC Introducing which has broken a few artists in its time. There’s some additional thoughts and ideas on this in an earlier post called Rough Notes on Music and Social Media.

People and links

As well a formal presentations, there is much to be learnt from the people you meet at such events.

Folk musician Glen Hodge recommended the open mic at the Betsy Trotwood in Clerkenwell and explained how he has begun to make some money by organizing his own evenings.

Elliott Jett told how he had put his IT entrepreneurial ambitions on hold to explore the opportunities in his first great love, music. We got talking about the importance of the name and how the switch from Elliot G to Elliott Jett had eliminated some gangsta confusion.

Another who was working hard to bring a new brand to market, was SmithLDN. Great combination of the most common English surname with the abbreviation for London to create a brand name that looks like it could travel worldwide.

PRS Centenary Photography Exhibition at Getty Images Gallery in London

PRS Centenary Photography Exhibition at Getty Images Gallery in London