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David Byrne: "How Music Works"

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How Music Works by David Byrne

David Byrne is a modern-day Renaissance man. In addition to being a founding member of Talking Heads, a seminal 1970’s New Wave band that was inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, he has released successful solo albums, collaborated with other artists, produced the work of others, taken photographs, run a record label, written film scores, designed bicycle racks for his home city of New York and written books. The latest, “How Music Works,” is a fantastic compendium of anecdotes, advice, and admonishments for anyone approaching music from a place of creation, commerce or simply appreciation.

The book is formatted as a manual, with chapters touching on such contemporary topics as, “Technology Shapes Music (one chapter devoted to “Analog” and the next to “Digital”) and, “Business and Finances,” but before the reader gets too intimidated they will find lighter-hearted subjects. “My Life In Performance,” during which Byrne recounts how he went from childhood in a musically nurturing home to art school at the Rhode Island School of Design and seeing James Brown at the Providence Civic Center (“It was the best show I’d ever seen,” he remembers) to international acclaim with Talking Heads. Throughout the book the defining aspect to his narrative is a self-deprecating humility. Sure, his was amongst the first acts to appear regularly at the legendary New York City club, CBGB’s, but that doesn’t mean he’s above telling you what made that time and place so special, and equally illuminating, what it taught him.

One of the things it taught him was, “How To Make A Scene,” and he humorously prefaces this chapter with the admonition that he is, “Not referring to how best to insult your host at a dinner party” before giving a rough template for the factors that allowed the Lower East Side of NYC to flower with the likes of the Ramones, Blondie and Television during the 1970‘s. There are some uncontrollable elements, such as, “Rent must be low- and it must stay low,” but others will appeal to any working musician: “Performing artists must get in for free on their off nights (and maybe get free beer too).” As someone who has been fortunate enough to have spent the majority of his adult life around music I can personally attest that both these tips, as well as the others Byrne provides, are dead on.

Ultimately, “How Music Works” works for the music fan who wonders how the band gets paid and the band who wonders how they can get paid more. Throughout Byrne maintains an undeniable enthusiasm for music while honestly exploring the industry’s pitfalls and emerging challenges. His is a voice that is consistently generous and forthcoming with the rare ability to simultaneously educate and entertain. The fact that this same voice delivered such treasures as, “Once In A Lifetime” makes it even more impressive.

-Tom Kielty

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