David Bowie’s record producer Tony Visconti painted an apocalyptic portrait of today’s music industry in his keynote speech at South by Southwest on Thursday.
“It can’t get any worse,” Visconti said after reading out a half-hour short story set 10 years in the future, in which there was only one worldwide record label which had entirely stopped signing artists as they were too expensive and troublesome. Instead, records were made by compliant, malleable pop stars and sold through the lottery.
In a rambling speech, Visconti said that today’s record labels were simply repeating the formulae of the past, with diminishing returns. He described mainstream pop, aimed at a teenage audience, as “a computer and a vocal that was doctored to goodness knows how much”. On the other hand, he said, there are songwriters like Sun Kil Moon, “who just wrenches you and will tear your heart out – that’s an album I can’t listen to without tears falling and my dear friend David Bowie turned me on to that album.”
The producer said that record labels need to reacquaint themselves with the notion that they are selling culture, and discover artists of the calibre of Jimi Hendrix or Joni Mitchell. Fans, he said, “used to put a vinyl record on a turntable” and play it hundreds of times. “None of that goes on today. There are great people all around us – the next David Bowie lives somewhere in the world, the next Beatles, the next Springsteen but they’re not getting a shot, they’re not being financed.”
Streams on Spotify, he added, don’t pay artists a living wage but rather the price of “a nice steak dinner”.
Visconti was sceptical about artists self-releasing their music, saying that the vast amount of music being uploaded on to YouTube, for instance, was “clogging the arteries” of the music business as it was unmediated and unfocused.
He said that the decline of record sales, while the world population climbs, was due to the poor quality of modern pop music. “Back in the 70s Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours sold between 14 and 16m. Since then the world’s population has nearly doubled to close to 8bn and last year Taylor Swift sold 12m. With the population doubling how come we can’t sell records? The record labels now are not giving you quality, that’s why you’re disenchanted, that’s why you don’t buy records.”
However, most commentators attribute the decline in record sales to the fact that music is so easily acquired for free on the internet.
In another familiar bugbear, Visconti also took aim at TV talent shows, saying that they gave the impression “that becoming a big star is just luck. They think get a great hairdo and makeup and everything’s going to be hunky dory – until next week.”
Visconti concluded that the music industry needed to be more adventurous when looking for new artists. “Look at those freaks out there, the really weird ones, because that’s what the public wants to hear,” he said. He added that labels need to spend time nurturing talent, citing the example of Kate Bush, who was developed over several years by EMI before she released her first single.
Visconti also shared his memories of the music scene of the 60s and 70s, including his early work with David Bowie. He remembered their first meeting, and being startled by Bowie’s eyes which appeared to be different coloured. “I wondered, which eye do I look in?”
The producer concluded that he had had a charmed life, “but I worked my butt off”.