On Sunday evening, music lovers gathered at the Aratani/Japan America Theater in Little Tokyo to hear two legendary musicians discuss the troubled music industry.
David Byrne, who is best known as the co-founder of the legendary avant-garde group Talking Heads, and Trent Reznor, the sole member of multi-platinum act Nine Inch Nails, joined USC’s very own Josh Kun, a professor in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, for an evening devoted to discussing the unique perspectives of the musicians about varied aspects of the music industry.
This conversation was just one of many put on by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles in their ALOUD Lecture Series, dedicated to bringing people at the forefront of arts and humanities, science and politics in a lecture series for L.A. residents. By the end of the evening, the audience had been presented with two unique musicians with very similar viewpoints. Both Byrne and Reznor confirmed the general sentiment one would expect from today’s musicians: Making music is hard, and musicians are not being paid what they deserve.
As each musician recounted their difficulties with record companies and the business facet of music, it became clear that there is still a disconnect between musicians and their fans. As their anecdotes illustrated, musicians are still trying to adapt to fan bases that are hesitant to pay money for music.
Reznor recounted his experiences releasing music online, and giving fans the choice of paying for downloads.
According to Reznor, “only 15 percent of the people that downloaded the album actually paid for it.”
The disappointment and frustration that came with trying to grapple with fans that aren’t willing to pay for music was apparent in Reznor’s voice, as he stated “People are now changing the way they consume music.”
David Byrne also recounted a story about how he tried to research the revenue that one of his singles, “Lazy,” generated on Spotify, an audio stream application.
“After dividing the money among the record company, royalties and the collaborating DJs on the track,” Byrne said, “I made around $40 — that’s enough for lunch for me and a friend.”
One of the biggest surprises of the evening was Reznor’s favorable views toward currently being signed with a record label, given Reznor’s well-known track record of criticizing record label practices.
“It’s nice having a team at Columbia that knows what they’re talking about,” Reznor said. “People that are focused on marketing bands are important because they know what they’re doing.”
David Byrne echoed the sentiment.
“There is a new generation of musicians that are still struggling to solidify their understanding of the music they want to make,” he said. “Musicians that are up and coming seem to prefer a team. It’s too much for a band still figuring out what their music is.”
If Reznor’s and Byrne’s views are indicative of the direction musicians and record labels are heading toward, it might be too early to predict the decline of record labels. Both musicians affirmed the appeal of having a record company behind a newly emerging band, and throughout the evening, it seemed as though Byrne and Reznor were advocating evolution for record companies instead of dissolution.
Toward the end of the discussion, the topic swung over to the personal relationships consumers formed with music, and changes that seemed to be occurring in these relationships. Josh Kun brought up a recent blog post — written by an NPR intern — that detailed the differences between digital music and older platforms, such as CDs. This prompted Reznor to bring up an anecdote about listening to Talking Heads when he was still a kid.
Reznor recalled how he bought an album that Talking Heads had released, and how on his first listen, he had hated it.
“However, since I had actually spent money on this record, I forced myself to listen to the album over and over again,” he said. “An iPod wouldn’t have done that. It would have been just another thing to consume. It would be passively sitting in my iTunes right now.”
Though Reznor admitted he still has trouble with the album, it was by forcing himself to listen to the music that he gained a deep appreciation for what the Talking Heads were creating.
“That album changed the way I now approach music and composition, and has profoundly affected my life,” Reznor said.
Reznor tied together the general mindset of the evening during a question and answer session from the audience. Responding to a question about whether Reznor had ever considered donating some proceeds from his albums to charities, Reznor responded: “The challenge is getting people to pay anything.”