David Byrne: "Do you really think people are going to keep putting time and effort into this, if no one is making any money?"

The musical genius shares his songwriting secrets, opens up his finances and ponders the future of art and the Web

Published December 21, 2013 9:00PM (EST)

David Byrne      (AP/Evan Agostini)
David Byrne (AP/Evan Agostini)

The first things you see when walking into David Byrne's lower Manhattan office are his bicycle -- he really does ride to work -- and the Howard Finster original painting, which is almost identical to the one used on the cover of the Talking Heads album "Little Creatures."

Byrne, however, has had less use for nostalgia than perhaps any acclaimed musician of his generation this side of Elvis Costello. He's retained all the adjectives you'd hope for an artist -- restless, curious, collaborative, inventive, entrepreneurial, future-minded -- whether pushing his own music in ever-more-rhythmic directions, turning fans on to musicians from around the world with his Luaka Bop label, or writing a growing library of books about travel, urban design and the artist's life.

His latest book, "How Music Works" (just reissued in paperback), is as fascinating and sprawling as one might expect, at once memoir, manifesto and  music history. Byrne draws, but doesn't dwell, on his own experiences with Talking Heads to discuss how scenes come together, how his style developed and the very essence of songwriting and creativity. And he grounds the impressionistic stories with real numbers in another chapter, where he walks through every penny spent and then earned on his album "Grown Backwards."

Byrne's goal throughout the book seems to be to demystify the thornier business sides of music, while doing his best to articulate how mysterious yet constricted the creative side can be. And as the paperback arrived, Byrne also reignited debates about how income inequality has squeezed the creative class, and over what he sees as the dangers of the Internet and the unfairness of the small payments made to artists -- especially new bands -- by streaming services like Spotify. He even wonders if the streaming services are "evil."

Byrne's witty, deeply intelligent and engaging; even in the pauses when he doesn't want to answer a question, his eyes do a gleeful, mischeivious dance. We spoke last month; the transcript has been condensed and edited.

Lots of us believe that musicians, along with other artists, are struck by inspiration and have this emotion which they must express and share. But you argue in your book that it is actually the opposite -- that the idea of the songwriter pouring heart, soul and autobiography into his or her music is wrong-headed. "The accepted narrative," you write, "that the rock and roll singer is driven by desire and demons, and out bursts this amazing, perfectly shaped song that had to be three minutes and 12 seconds. This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to be, but I think the path of creation is almost 180 degrees from this model."

Yes. I can elaborate on that. I’m not saying that the artist doesn’t put their feelings into it, or any part of their biography, but that there’s a lot of constraints and considerations and templates that they work with – unconscious decisions or constraints put upon them that guide what they're going to do.

Otherwise, why didn’t people in the 14th century start writing full-blown operas with giant orchestras and whatever?” These things just weren’t available to them. Our imaginations are constrained by all these other things -- which is a good thing. There’s kind of a process of evolution that goes on where the creative part of you adapts to whatever circumstances are available to you. And if you decide you want to make pop songs, or whatever, there’s a format. You can push the boundaries pretty far, but it’s still a recognized thing. And if you’re going to do something at Lincoln Center, there’s a pretty prescribed set of things you are going to do. You can push that form, but kind of from inside the genre. So I guess I’m saying that a lot of creative decisions are kind of made for us, and the trick is then working creatively within those constraints.

And that genius appears when it is perfectly suited to its context.

To me, yeah – that’s where the skill lies. Making those adaptations and making that work, and not just standing up and saying, “I must have 1,000 tubas!”

You write about this as kind of a revelation -- but you also talk about your own history as a performer throughout this book, and certainly a band like Talking Heads always seemed very conscious of genre, style, presentation and performance. Was there a eureka moment for you when you realized you were approaching the idea of creativity differently, or a time when your sense of the relationship between creativity and artistic expression changed?

It didn’t all happen at once. I remember many, many years ago, probably early '80s, I think, I was kind of coming out of the club scene here and the kind of assumption, it was a given, that any kind of overt performance on stage that revealed itself as being a performance was going to be inauthentic. And that within kind of the genre that I was working in, you know, bands and stuff, if you wore clothes and things that were not just your ordinary street clothes, that was going to be inauthentic too. After a tour I was in Japan -- the tour might have ended there, so I stayed on, and went to a lot of Japanese theater. Some of it is very tedious, and some of it is really wonderful, but it’s very obviously theatrical. It doesn’t appear to be naturalistic in any way, shape or form. Then I went to Bali, and I haven’t been there since then, but it was wonderful because the religious rituals were also very stagey and theatrical and there’s a lot of music being played and dance. And I thought, “Wow, this kind of theatricality is part of what it means to be a musician, be a human, be a performer.”  I thought, “Now I have to think about how I can absorb, or not borrow from these cultures really. But how can I find my own way to do that in my own culture, in the genre that I work in and the world that I work in.”

That didn’t happen all at once, but little by little that kind of thing happened. I started to do shows and presentations where the visual element was more obvious.

You just mentioned the idea of authenticity, which is certainly a concept which permeates the discussion of music -- whether pop music is fake, whether roots music or non-electronic music is "more real," whether musicians have a right to use the sounds of certain cultures, etc. Is authenticity a useful way of thinking about music?

No, it’s completely bogus because every kind of music, after you start digging, has its roots in a number of other strains from other places. It’s a mixture of things; there’s nothing pure out there. It was interesting to find these examples, some of them really well known, like Leadbelly being dressed up like a prisoner because that’s what the New York audience – that’s what the audience wanted. That, to the audience, seemed authentic.

He had been a prisoner and everything, but they also adjusted his music so that he used to play pop songs. And they said, “Now you can’t be doing those pop songs -- that doesn’t fit the narrative we want to hear from you.” That happens all the time -- and not just by some promoter or record company guy. Musicians and performers do it to themselves. They self-mythologize. They create a narrative that they think, “This is the narrative that I want to put forward; this makes me an interesting person.” And it’s contrived and there’s nothing authentic about it at all.

And then as decades go by, those mythologies and narratives harden. Authenticity is always an argument about the past, so comparisons are made about how something modern does not hold up, but the very thing they're claiming as the definition of authentic is often completely specious. You write that, “We don’t make the music. It makes us.” But there's a lot of different narratives. There is the narrative we bring to a song as a listener, as a fan, and how it hits us and where it affects us and how it gets us emotionally, but there’s also that sort of top-down narrative of authenticity or hype, or what have you, that affects the way we respond to a song.

I think I was also thinking of my experience as a performer, and also as someone who listens to music. That as a performer, it’s not exactly like method acting. I don’t have to, like, work myself up. If I’m going to sing a song that’s, say, melancholy, I don’t have to work myself up to that state like a method actor might before I begin singing the song. The song, if it is well done, and listeners have the exact experience, it kind of reaches into you and grabs that kind of experience that you’ve had, that part of you, those kinds of emotions and pulls you to the surface and kind of recreates that experience every time you sing the song, more or less. So I thought, “Wow, yes -- it's pulling the stuff out of us." The music is as opposed to us putting it into the music. We make the thing that does that. As composers and musicians – we make the stuff, but then it acts back on us.

So how does having that understanding, and coming to that understanding over time affect the way you sit down and work on a song now?

Hmm. (long pause)

Because in a way you’re kind of de-mythologizing the entire idea of the "great man" theory or the "great artist," lonely and finding inspiration.

There’s still plenty of mystery. I don’t know how it affects my writing process. I’m sure in my writing process I’ve absorbed some kind of tricks of the trade, where I might go, “Oh, if a song gets to this point, and now if I do this, I’ll get this effect.” But if I do that too many times it loses its effect.

The chapters on lyric writing are especially interesting in that way. You'll sing gibberish over a melody until you strike on the right sounds for the music, because the way a word sounds and rings in a song carries its own emotional impact.

I think so!

The way the word sounds sometimes carries more feeling than what the word itself means.

I’m working on a song now, a collaboration with a group, and I’ve been asked to write a melody and lyrics. I almost got it and I think it needs some refining. Again, I’m starting off with singing this gibberish and if I refine it a little more it’s kind of like, “Yes that’s it.” If you can listen to it without letting your rational faculties say, “What is it about?” And if you just listen to it as kind of an emotional, verbal utterance, then I think a lot of the emotion is already in there. You just have to kind of not ruin it with the lyrics.

Technology is such a complicated topic, because in some ways the very technology that has brought the music business, as you write, to its knees also represents future models of distribution, and of reaching fans -- and new ways of recording.  It feels like on one hand, we have kind of techno-utopians who underestimate the damage technology has done, and then on the other side, romantics and nostalgics who pine for a past that wasn't quite as pure and good as they remember for artists. What do you see, first, as the positives of technology with regard to how artists do their work and make a living. In some ways, you can find your audience and self-distribute to them, and kind of take down those big barriers to entry.

Technology has allowed people to make records really cheap. You can make a record on a laptop. It doesn’t have to be an electronic record. It can be real instruments or not, and whether people will be aware of it is another thing, but you can make it available and get it out there. It used to be if you wanted to do it yourself you’d be pressing vinyl copies and selling it out of the back of your car, but yeah, you can get them out there. Whether people know it’s there, that’s another thing. If you’re ever going to be able to get any money for your work is another thing. But that is a huge thing. Musicians now don’t have to be beholden to a record company – or they can still work with record companies, but they might have more creative control over what they want to do, if they want it. It is there if they want it.

On the other hand, as you write in the book, the blockbuster artists of their day helped fund a lot of other bands. Every band Seymour Stein signed to Sire got to make their music and make a living off it, thanks to other things in the big Warner family. That noblesse oblige doesn't happen any longer.

Labels would, by giving advances and providing promotion for a band like Talking Heads, they would kind of help get the name out there.  Even though there was already some press, they would do that. And it kind of took the label to do that. Now in 90 percent of the cases it still takes the marketing and label to really get something happening. But there are exceptions. There’s bands out there, Arcade Fire or whoever, that work with Merge. I can probably think of a few others.

Maybe two or three labels like that -- Merge is rare.

It’s a handful. It’s not a lot. You can count them on one hand.

It’s like sometimes people use the rare success to argue that it’s a rule. It’s not quite a rule.

There’s a few other acts that slip my mind that didn’t seem to have a lot of money and marketing behind them that have managed to reach a sizable audience.

But you also wrote a piece in the Guardian recently that was very critical of Spotify and other streaming sites, in part because of their negative impact on young artists and new artists. "What's at stake is not so much the survival of artists like me, but that of emerging artists and those who have only a few records under their belts (such as St Vincent, my current touring partner, who is not exactly an unknown). Many musicians like her, who seem to be well established, well known and very talented, will eventually have to find employment elsewhere or change what they do to make more money. Without new artists coming up, our future as a musical culture looks grim. A culture of blockbusters is sad, and ultimately it's bad for business." 

I don’t pretend that I’m 100% correct, but I thought, “let’s talk about this.” Yeah, let’s walk it through and I’m certainly willing to be corrected and proved wrong. I will very happily be proved wrong.

I’ve heard there have been reactions. Some people are saying, “The era of anyone making money off recorded music is just over. Get over it.”

That’s a problematic argument.

It might be true, it might be true.

People are still making money off of it; it’s just always not the artists.

Someone’s still making money off of it.

Whoever owns Spotify.

Yes, if you don’t value this – then do you really think people are going to keep putting all the time and effort into doing this, if no one is making any money off it?

There are those who would say: “An artist will do his or her work, regardless of whether there's money to be made.”

Yes, yes, and I do think there is more of an emphasis on shows, live concerts, performances now than there used to be. That a lot of artists –

But it used to be that record sales drove how an artist would be paid and now –

It’s the other way around. Another reaction is that my criticism was and my figures were premature. That these services, they work when they reach a certain scale. If they’re 20 times as big as they are now, or have 20 times more subscribers, then the numbers start to add up and the musician – if the musicians can get paid in an equitable way, in a way that’s fair and transparent, which is a whole other question – if that could happen, people have argued to me, then this could actually work.

That’s a lot of ifs.

It’s a lot of ifs. Especially the getting paid and having a lot of transparency. That’s that last thing they want. I’ve spent two years trying to figure out my income on some of these services already; I can’t get the information.

I have friends who have published books on big publishers, and the two things I hear the most are “I’ve never gotten a royalty statement – or "I've never actually been able to understand what it says.”


Or "it always ends up that I owe them tens of thousands of dollars more for things that I never imagined" – the fancy dinners you mention in the book which you didn't realize you were paying for, the limo rides you thought were super-nice at the time – are all being charged back. You also talk in this book about moving to New York in the '70s and being able to pay cheap room and board to live in New York, and to have the opportunity to make mistakes in your art. Your living expenses were reasonable enough that you could afford to learn and try and explore. That's harder and harder to do these days.

I figure that people will start to value that again and they’ll seek it out. Right now there’s maybe an urge to, whatever you do, put it online, get it out there as quickly as possible. And I think there might be a feeling of maybe it’s better to keep it quiet. Be sequestered and let it gestate for a while. Learn how to perform, or learn how to do things without.

Is that why scenes sometimes emerge from unexpected places -- Athens, Ga., Olympia, Wash.…

Yeah, everybody doesn’t have their eyes on you or their ears on you. Not everybody is listening, so things can be muddled for a little while and take some dead ends.

I think it might be harder these days. You never know. You never know. I just got an email either last night or this morning from guy in Des Moines who said he’s opening an art center, or has opened an art center there that has a restaurant, and performance center and all kinds of this and that, and I thought who knows. I mean I didn’t recognize any of the acts or stuff that was going on there, but I thought, “Oh that kind of little bubble could happen, you know, things could happen there.”

In the book you have one chapter dedicated to how you can create a scene, on the things you need for something like CBGB to happen. One is that clubs ought to let musicians and artists in free when they’re not performing. Why is that important?

Well, to be more specific, artists who have played there on other nights, not just anybody who shows up. I have a guitar, let me in! It makes a community. The musicians take advantage of that, they hang out, and the audience sees the other musicians that they might have seen the other night. And the musicians talk amongst one another, which they don’t always do. They wouldn’t just call one another up and say, “Hey, what are you doing? Let’s go out and have a drink.” But if they both are at the same bar because they’re welcome there, then they’ll fall into conversation. Then a little kind of community starts to happen.

Which plays into another rule at the end of the chapter, which is that you’ve got to be able to talk and not always have the music as the focal point.

[Laughs]  Yes!

You have to be able to get away from the music and have that conversation amongst each other.

Music has to be sort of ignorable sometimes.

"How Music Works" is also a history of music. I wonder if as you went through the history of recorded music and technology, did you notice comparisons to things we’re talking about now? Like some of the debates were similar in ways that kind of make you feel like people have been talking about these issues for a long time, and even what seems like a crisis now will get sorted out...

Or not!

…because of the way it happened in 1941?

I was kind of shocked at how reoccurring the kind of format war, and the proprietary format thing, happens again and again. And let me see, Edison had a recording format and RCA had a recording format and they were completely incompatible. So if you bought an RCA disc you couldn’t play it on your Edison player, which is -- here comes beta and VHS, Zune or the iPod.

Or even the proprietary stuff, you know. You buy an e-book on one format and you can’t read it on the other thing. All this kind of stuff. That kind of instinct, the kind of business to do that, it seems never ending. It never ends well. It always ends with somebody completely in the dust where they might have survived before. It always ends up in this knockout fight, but where there might have been some kind of mutual thing worked out and sometimes the – sadly – best format doesn’t work out.

One of the stories I didn't know was the one of Jack Mullin and Bing Crosby. Would you tell that?

It goes way back to World War II where this soldier, Jack Mullin, who was a bit of an engineer heard some broadcast from Germany in the wee hours of the morning. It was a full orchestra, and it sounded great. And at that time you couldn’t record an orchestra and then play it back on the radio and have it sound great. Most radio broadcasts, whether it was Glenn Miller or orchestras or whatever, they were live in the studio, they were live in a ballroom, and the radio would then broadcast that.

So he thought, "Wait a minute -- Hitler doesn’t have orchestras playing at 2 o’clock in the morning to fill up this radio time. They’ve developed some sort of technology that allows their recordings to have a lot more fidelity" than what we did. And so after the war they kind of raided the German radio stations. They discovered the technology – they discovered how the tape recorders had been modified to allow this to happen. They took the gear apart and sent it back to Marin County to his mom’s house. Put it back together again and tried to make their own version of it, which was AMPEG, or AMPEX, one of those companies. It was only a few guys and they were trying to sell these tape recorder devices to the big radio and record companies in Los Angeles.

People came by their studios and it looked like a junk pile, apparently, but Bing Crosby took an interest. He had a radio show, and as I said, everything had to be done live. Evidently Bing  thought to himself, “I would love if there was some sort of technology where I could pre-record shows so I'd have more time to play golf." It was really about his golf game. And so he heard about this thing – this tape recorder that these guys developed. He took an interest, although the record companies and radio stations weren’t interested, he personally backed them and said, “make some of these things for me and I’m going to record my show and I can time shift my show and have a full day of golf." He did it and it kickstarted the whole recording industry. And not only did it allow somebody like him to do their show and broadcast the next day or the day after, it allowed editing – because you couldn’t edit discs or cylinders or anything. So if he flubbed a line, he could do it over and then cut the tape and fix it, which you couldn’t do with discs -- you’d have to do the whole thing over again. It also allowed the advent of things like laugh tracks.

So, a mixed bag!

Yeah, if you didn’t get a good reaction on a thing he could go, “Queue it up!  Put in the laugh from the other day.”

It’s interesting that you talk about how we’ve had these reocurring debates about proprietary format, but the other sort of reocurring debate is about sound quality. And kind of the constant balance of sound quality and convenience, like I want to listen to every song that I own on a device that can fit inside my pocket.  I mean, it’s kind of amazing that I can store everything that I own on my computer, but I play the music on the most terrible speakers ever. Here we are in 2013 with so many wonderful things and we’re going backwards.

My daughter, she’ll play stuff on her phone and just put the phone on the table, and you think "all the time and effort we put into recording and this is the way it ends up, on a phone speaker." And before I start grumbling about it, I realize that how I heard music, pop songs, in the beginning out of a little transistor –

How true: Casey Kasem under my covers so my parents wouldn’t hear it.

Under my pillow, close to my ear and it was the crappiest, crappiest sound, AM radio or whatever. But hearing those songs changed my world, so I thought, you know, it can have a huge personal, psychological, social impact even if the sound is really crappy, which doesn’t mean that it should be crappy. But it means that it doesn’t totally kill it.

But you form a relationship with music in that way, you know. Have we just all sort of niche-ified ourselves too much? Because one of the things that I get from reading this and the way that you have pulled things together and written rules and re-written rules -- is that it would be better as listeners, as fans, as the people in audiences if we opened ourselves up to other ways of sort of experiencing and thinking about music.

I certainly agree that putting everything into little genres is counterproductive. You’re not going to get too many surprises if you only focus on the stuff that fits inside the box that you know. That breaks down all by itself every once in a while. You were saying something else about the…

It was a big random wind-up of a question. But you write about how certain music lends itself to certain rooms and then as a result certain music gets made for those rooms. So are music fans too conservative in the way we think about music?

Wow. I don’t know. I don’t know. I was at a film festival recently and I was one of the jurors. It was a small film festival in Spain and a lot of the jurors didn’t want to know anything about any of the films they were about to see. They didn’t want to know who directed it, who was in it, was it the director’s first film. Which I thought, “That’s great.  You can just take it as an experience, whatever it is.” But I kept asking questions that maybe wouldn’t affect our judgment of the film, but it might. I think it was a French film and the lead actor was a huge comedian in France, but unknown outside of France, so that would be a completely different thing for me versus a French juror. That would be like if Louis C.K. were the star of a movie. People would perceive that movie in a different way than if it was just a complete unknown. They have expectations of not only him but the characters he often plays and all this kind of stuff. Depending on where it is, people do bring a lot of expectations to what they’re seeing and hearing. In some cases that history and that knowledge deepens the experience, but it can also really kill it.

And you talk in the book about when to play new material and when to play old material. You've experienced it as a fan and watched bands walk that tightrope, but if it is a festival crowd, that crowd is there to hear something that they expect.

You go to a festival, you know you’re not going to play all new material at a festival. The audience is not there for that. I’ve made that mistake, but you find out pretty quickly. That’s a balancing act.

I was talking to Peter Buck for an interview recently and asked whether he missed playing those R.E.M. songs at all. And it surprised me how vehement he was about not missing them. He was like, I played that song 2,000 times. Totally fine if I never have to play those again.

Some people will be very disappointed to hear that.

Yes, but it was interesting to hear that relationship that people have with catalog or career and how it changes and how it evolves. It’s this thing that you can reinvent but it’s also sort of an expectation that you lug around with you sometimes.

Oh yeah! [long pause]

There’s another line I wanted to ask about. You thought that the most subversive thing possible starting out with Talking Heads was to look totally normal. I would love to hear about the thought process behind that.

Well, I thought that if you look like you could be anybody, like somebody that looks like they work in an office, it’s totally disarming. I thought, at least in my mind, you’re not threatening to them, so if you do something kind of unusual they’ve already accepted you a little bit, so you have a little bit of wiggle room, you have a little bit to play with. You can challenge those expectations, challenge and throw something new out and -- by the fact that you appear so generic and normal -- you already have your foot in the door. I think I might have used the example like a screaming punk rocker, challenging and threatening and angry – nobody’s going to let you get your foot in the door. You’re only playing for people who are like-minded. You’re never going to reach other people. So I took that to its logical extreme and bought a cheap suit down near Wall Street. Those places have like $50 suits or whatever, and realized really quickly this is really hot on stage. And I threw it in the washer and it shrunk and became un-wearable and I realized this requires money for upkeep, this kind of outfit. There’s a reason this is not feasible!

You lay out the numbers in a chapter and really crack open what it takes to put out a record. You share the budget, the advance, what you spent every step of the way. So if they give you $225,000 for "Grown Backwards" and you’re paying musicians and engineers -- how much is left for you, how many copies do you need to sell? A simple but important question: Why is important for people to understand the economics of art? Because it does seem incredibly important for people to realize that the people who do this have to get paid -- and not just the people at the top, whose name is on the record, but all the people who are playing on it and working with it and publicizing it and producing it and engineering it. And if they’re not getting paid for it these things don’t get made. I think in some ways I’ve just answered the question that I’ve thrown out at you, but we live in sort of a time of free. Is that part of your thinking in laying out the economics of it? Showing people that free is dangerous?

I think when I was laying it out I wasn’t trying to make an argument against the “free” culture idea. I think I was really kind of doing it for myself and my fellow musicians. I was really just thinking: let me lay this out in a way – let me see if I can understand it. And let me see if I can lay it out so that my peers or emerging musicians might have a clue as to how these things affect their decision making. There’s implications if you do this; there’s a consequence if you do this; this is going to bite you in the ass down the line. All that kind of stuff.  And then I realized that even for people who are not musicians or in bands or whatever, who don’t deal with those exact same things, the idea that these kinds of considerations – the financial stuff – has consequences. And it affects what we hear and how we hear it, or whether or not we hear it. Secondly, you can apply that to anything in the world. The idea that if you break things down like that, that might explain a lot of why you’re getting what you’re getting, or what you’re hearing. All that sort of stuff. And so I thought if it’s not too tedious – some people might want to skip that stuff – if it’s not too tedious, even if people do not want to be musicians themselves, they might find something useful there.

How concerned are you about a culture of “free” that makes it harder and harder for people to –

I’m kind of concerned.

Or is the artistic impulse so strong that you think people will do it and it will be found? Or does a culture of "free" lead to less culture?

I think people will perform and create music because it’s fun. It’s a social thing. It might be something they only do on weekends or something like that. That’s certainly possible.

I agree with a lot of those people that the copyright laws have extended way to far and they’re crippling creativity. It’s just too much and it’s just too extensive. And it’s too controlling.

It’s not always about the artists. The companies grab that copyright  But on the other meaning of it, where there’s a feeling that no one should pay for anything that creative people make, well, go down that road and it means that people aren’t going to make things.

It's happening in the media as well: If all news is free, there are fewer jobs, and sometimes the information you get is less valuable. You end up with city halls or town meetings without any reporters there to keep an eye on people.

There’s no money fo research into pieces. All those kinds of things. Those kinds of things have changed the course of history, and they keep the government in check, they make a democracy work. And if you take that away then the scales have kind of tipped in a really bizarre way.

And that can happen in culture as well. It’s easy to imagine. It all happened very fast in the news industry. You can imagine it happening just as fast in the culture side. Although one of the things you also say is that this is a great time for pop music.

I think maybe it’s easier for people to make stuff, and to control it and kind of experiment on their own. There’s also things that seem to have some sort of popular success, or at least reach sizable numbers and I go, “Wow, how did that happen?” Years ago that would have been – Bon Iver or something – years ago this would have had like an audience of 5,000 people. The Decemberists. Yes, it would have been a totally fringe thing. Maybe they’re not like huge pop records, but they have garnered a sizable audience. Bigger than a lot of conventional bands. Which, you go “Wow!” That there can be that variety and surprise in the pop music world, that’s great. That’s incredible.

So does having written this and seeing that these arguments are kind of cyclical and reoccurring make you feel optimistic about the future of music and culture? Or do you think there’s an economic reality that has been added in the last ten years that has shifted things in a way that it is kind of harder?

I’m afraid I’m probably not the one to ask. Because I can go out and tour, even if I don’t sell too many records. But yeah, I think there's quite a number of artists who just accept that that’s the way things are and they’re only going to make a little bit of money or that it’s going to be tough for them and I thought, “Wow, I was either very lucky, or maybe we could do a rethink and make it easier on these people coming up.”

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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