How Music Works

David Byrne’s book on music is really interesting and covers alot of information. Beyond the anthropology and history of music which feels like the foundations for a thesis, I found this chapter the most interesting. It’s called “How To Build A Music Scene”. Here are his rules for how to build a music scene.


There must be a venue that is of appropriate size and location in which to present new material. CBGB was located in a cheap, rundown area, ignored by the yuppies and other commodifiers of culture. But it was also in New York City, where new cultural forms have a chance to be picked up and broadly disseminated. It was small enough that an unknown band could sell it out, which had important implications both financial and psychological.


The artists should be allowed to play their own material. Byrne credits the owners of CBGB with the counterintuitive decision to let unknown bands play their own material, which meant the club wasn't just one more place to hear crappy covers of Fleetwood Mac or Donnie and Marie, but rather a place where people went to be stretched, to discover, to participate.


Performing musicians must get in for free on their off nights (and maybe get free beer too). CBGB was where people wanted to be, not just where they wanted to play. And by building cohesion and a family culture it allowed for generative cross-pollination and a (sometimes begrudging) mutual appreciation and support. Bands didn't pay to hear each other play, but they heard each other and came to understand and respect each other, and ultimately rely on each other.

I think this idea is largely overlooked. It seems like it’s in the best interest for cultivating a community to not only have a physical space, but to be inclusive and prioritize artists. Letting artists into shows for free is such a low standard and should happen more.


There must be a sense of alienation from the prevailing music scene. Alienation has great power over us; by itself it isn't generative, but when it has a place, crazy cool stuff can happen.

Crazy cool stuff happening in places where alienated people get together is a nice idea.


Rent must be low--and it must stay low. Making a scene is costly--not solely in the financial sense, as CBGB clearly demonstrated. While major record labels were spending ridiculous amounts of money to pack arenas and establish the sound of the seventies, artists orbiting CBGB were cramming themselves into low-rent apartments so they could survive as they continued to practice their craft. CBGB artists sacrificed their comfort, their privacy, their financial security to do something different. In the process they reinvented pop music.

I understand this and it makes sense on the surface. Old school New Yorkers like David Byrne and Patti Smith have their own perspectives on how dead NYC is. When people hear the death knell of DIY in New York, I agree more with Todd P’s opinion on this.


Bands must be paid fairly. As Saint Paul once said, "Never muzzle an ox when it's treading out the grain." If that's too artsy fartsy for you, here's what he meant: "The worker deserves his wages." A scene is an ecosystem, and there has to be a common commitment to establish equilibrium and allow for the flourishing of the whole.


Social transparency must be encouraged. The line between performer and consumer must be porous if the movement is to gain traction. There's no special ordination or dispensation for those who are making the music; the audience has an equally important part to play in making the scene.

How high is the stage? To what extent is someone a celebrity vs a peer?


It must be possible to ignore the band when necessary. No scene survives if it is imposed on people. A scene is a social contract, a covenant of equal partners.

“A scene is a social contract, a covenant of equal partners.”