How Music Works – Elements of a Vibrant Music Scene



David Byrne’s book “How Music Works” contains an interesting list of 8 elements he considers important for a vibrant music scene (Hardcover edition p. 253-263). David Byrne’s book is fascinating, the highlight for me being his dissection of how performance spaces affected the composition and orchestration of classical music.

But on p. 253-263 he dissects in more detail the elements that encourage talent to thrive in a vibrant scene. I think this list is a well thought out dissection of the music scene he was part of, but by no means a dissection of the elements needed for “any” vibrant scene.

The elements he lays out might be more narrowly defined as a needed to create “a local insular music scene” in that the creators of the music are also residents of the local scene. A lot of what he lays out reminds me of when I worked as a musician in L.A in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The “hang” was a major part of the gig to make contacts. Everyone was hoping for that one connection that would get them signed. Our minds were far from “here are the analytics of our fan base” or “here are our current sales and projected numbers”. It was all about getting signed, playing (and paying) to get seen and hanging out hoping that this was the night the A&R Rep or Scout happened to be in the house.
Let’s look at the list:
1. There must be a venue that is of appropriate size and location in which to present material.
True. There is a local performance venue that features original folk music in a very small venue that has approached me to build a recording studio on the lot to produce artists with a new label. My big hesitation is that the venue is too small and intimate to house the kind of artists I would want to produce. (Seating is limited to about 30 people in a very small room). The “scene” developed here doesn’t really have the room to grow, and doesn’t appeal to louder volume music. The L.A. big hair scene in the 80’s was similar to the scene Byrne talkes about where most of the musicians lived somewhat within the area of the gigs. So yes, much truth to this.
2. The artists should be allowed to play their own material.
True. If the artist doesn’t play original material then they are a cover band. Cover bands are background music for drinking and hooking up. A cover band can get away with maybe one or two originals a night – but any more than that and they lose their audience. So yes: original music scene needs original music.
3. Performing musicians must get in for free on their off nights (and maybe get free beer too)
True, if you are talking about a “music scene.” Going back 20 years, any of the clubs that us musicians would hang out in on our off night always gave us free cover and usually drinks too. The bar made more money by us being there because patrons liked it (and patrons would buy us drinks – always). The band playing would have us sit in and the band liked the time off. All of this created the authentic “hang”. I experienced this most reguarly with rock and country clubs; each had it’s own hang for musicians on their off nights.
4. There must be a sense of alientation from the prevailing music scene
I’m split on this one. Are we talking about “julingemusik”, music of youth, that needs alienation? For country music I never see that group having an alienation, but yet they are very supportive of new music (granted, country music is all about dance steps so often the patrons could care less if the music is original or not as long as they can dance to it). With Metal Music and 80’s New Wave – yes, I definitely saw the alienation as a bonding factor to those groups.
5. Rent must be low – and it must stay low
Split. I guess this is where this delineation definitely skews toward a “local” vibrant scene. In that case, then yes low rents are part of the picture. But for instance I have a lot of theatre friends that do musical theatre song performances at small venues on their off-nights, but they take the subway in from other places – they don’t necessarily live in Manhattan. Granted, they are vocalists and don’t have gear to haul around. So for a band, I guess this actually would be true if they had gear to lug around – but again only for the “local” vibrant scene.
6. Bands must be paid fairly
True, with a caveat. In the late 80’s and early 90’s the “pay to play” scene was very active in Los Angeles. The problem was that most of the bands had day jobs and someone had money to back the lead singer (who usually sucked) so that they could afford to do the pay to play. So, I would say that the bands NOT being paid fairly made a very superficial and transitory scene. Once hair metal lost favor, many of these musicians went into the next latest trend. Can you imagine Metallica changing over to country music has metal music faded? No, because they are the real deal. And I think part of making a band the real deal is having outlets where they can actually make their rent. So I would say that a scene can live short term and ephemeral without fair pay, but any long term and authentic scene has to support it’s artists with liveable pay.
7. Social transparency must be encouraged
True. I’m surprised I’m saying true because this point seems so superficial. But when I think about music scenes that I have experienced, they all had that direct connection with the artists and fans. This also another parallel to the 80’s metal scene in L.A. where bands were notorious for partying with their fans. One of the “rules” I learned many years ago was this: “If a patron likes YOU, then they will like your music” and I guess the inverse also applies. Removing the barrier between artist and fan creates a real and unique connection that would connect fans more with the music. How many times have you heard someone say about a musician, “Oh I know them” with a sense of pride. That’s the artist and fan connection. Amazing I had never ever considered this social transparency as a “thing” before.
8. It must be possible to ignore the band when necessary
True. When I was playing clubs, I noticed that the clubs that were successful always had “nooks and crannies” – and I referred to it as the “nook and cranny law”. Nooks and crannys are where patrons do their thing, make their moves, make illicit transactions, etc. I think it’s interesting that Byrne refers to this as ignoring the band – but that’s really what it is. A patron sees a show but at some point their other needs take precadence and they need to be able to switch focus. Thinking this through further, when we see an artist perform it is not really about their performance, it’s about our individual experience of their performance. And part of our individual experience is that we can have our own experiences while listening to the music.
A couple of additions to this list could be:
A large enough core group of performers that they are able to watch each other’s performances and be elevated in their own performance. (Enough of a core group to create competition)
A central core value or artistic element for the genre. If patrons are alienated, then what is the core value or artistic element that has bonded them as a group in this time

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