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How Music Works: LA Library Aloud Series presents a Discussion with David Byrne and Trent Reznor @ Japanese American Cultural Center, 10/14/12

October 18, 2012

I think I had maybe been living in LA for two days when this event popped up. There’s no better validation for moving to LA than the sudden one-off opportunity to see your music hero (even though he is a big meanie and has put my favorite band on hiatus) for the first time in three years (and one month…and 3 days).

This event brought up a lot of questions…what exactly would they be talking about? We know that David Byrne was releasing a book, but why was Reznor paired with him? Where the hell is the Japanese American Cultural Center? And the most important one…would people actually revert to the NIN-style wait in line all night/day system, complete with faces that I hadn’t seen in 3 years (1 month, and 3 days)?

The answer to that last one came first, and it was a definitive “yes”.

It was like a reunion of sorts, with a lot of figures who, when I see them, they have screen names floating over their heads. It was cool to feel that dramatic tension that all of us completely self generate in the shadow of the existence of the dude that wrote a song called “Fist Fuck”. NIN will always be my favorite band, but I’m in such a different place now…I could never commit the time or the energy or the crazy to following a band around like that again.

That is, until the next tour is announced.

Doors open and I’m walking with my friends to our seats, recalling JT’s (NIN’s head of security…inside joke) “walk don’t run….the pit is not a comfortable place to be” speech and admiring the formal yet somewhat stuffy theater. We immediately spied instruments onstage, especially this harp-like piece that had strings sailing over the orchestra seating and up into the balcony. Soon (but not “Trent soon”) the players of those instruments walked onstage and treated the crowd of mostly industrial leaning gothy music nerds to something quite refined, cerebral, and organic. String Theory would be the final performance in a week where I found myself experiencing Deftones, Saint Vitus, Madonna, and Ghoul live…not to mention rehearsals for a major classic metal band; this has seriously been one of the more varied and exhilarating weeks in my journey.

I finally got to the Who Shot Rock & Roll exhibit right before this, and I was feeling particularly cultured. And then when the woman introducing the speakers started talking about Reznor and all of his accolades, I felt very discombobulated from my connection to his music and the formalization of his career’s achievements.

As the discussion began…well, I’ll be honest. At first, it didn’t begin. The moderator asked an extremely convoluted first question that took two minutes to ask and resulted in both musicians sitting there not knowing how to respond. Even though the rapport would improve, the awkwardness of flow of the conversation…not to mention the Q&A at the end, somewhat dominated the experience.

The discussion covered many hot topic areas…most of which have been discussed at length already. I wouldn’t say that anything major was answered, there were no “lightbulb” moments, but there were some eloquent points that added to the rhetoric of these ongoing debates. Below I break down those points very uneloquently:

-I’D RATHER GIVE IT TO YOU FOR FREE THAN YOU PAY ME NOTHING. “I think ‘pay what you want’ is insulting….if someone says they’ll pay you 5 cents…well, fuck you!” ~Trent Reznor, discussing early ‘pay what you want’ self release models.
-COOL MARKETING SHIT DOESN’T MATTER IF IT DOESN’T ENHANCE THE MUSIC EXPERIENCE. Reznor cited Peter Gabriel’s CD-Rom and Bjork’s multimedia experience as being good steps towards what should happen…but were ultimately ‘bad videogames’ (I’m paraphrasing). Then he talked about Year Zero and the ARG experience, along with the often mentioned unreleased narrative (TEASE!). Did the Year Zero marketing campaign enhance my experience of listening to the music? Yes.
-GETTING BACK TOGETHER WITH THE EX (MAJOR LABEL) IS OK BECAUSE THEY’VE, YOU KNOW, CHANGED AND STUFF. Many Reznor fans were left bewildered when he announced that he was going back to a label after being The Guy against labels. He explained it tonight, ultimately by saying that it was because he wants a worldwide presence. NIN “does better in America”, and while playing a show in Prague years ago, they noticed that Radiohead had all of this promotion for a concert 6 months from now when NIN didn’t even have a bin at the record shop. Oh NIN and Radiohead, how your industry stories intertwine. So, now a label makes sense because they run leaner and meaner, and “so far it’s been pleasantly….pleasant.”
-I/WE/YOU HAVE TOO MUCH SHIT TO LISTEN TO. When was the last time you got a record, listened to it, thought “meh”, and gave it another try? Probably not often because you didn’t pay for it…and it’s really easy to drag and drop into the trash. “The more I work on this problem, the more complicated it gets…What I’d like to hone in on is something that brings back the attention and the preciousness that I think music deserves, that has gotten wiped out and in my opinion run over by the iPods- as great a device as it is- that’s filled with stuff.”
-I MADE IT= I’M HEADLINING THE HOUSE OF BLUES or LET ME INTRODUCE YOU TO MY PORN STAR GIRLFRIEND. “When they’re daydreaming at night…what stage do they see themselves on?” Besides the daydreaming at night part…which I’ll admit to doing sometimes, this is an interview question I’ve often asked young bands. How do you define success as a musician these days? Why are there more people making music than ever when music doesn’t even sell? How many more times am I gonna have to feed/house my band friends who are signed to real labels because they are making no money?!
-WE LIVED THE LIFE, YOU SIT IN FRONT OF YOUR COMPUTER: My favorite thing David Byrne said all night was this: “In general, they’re (musicians) much more focused than the generation I came up in…the generation I came up in still had the idea that a musician is supposed to be irresponsible.” Today’s tortured artists are “tortured” because they don’t have x number of fans on Facebook (and can’t make in money..there’s that); not because they hitchhiked across the country with $5 in their pocket and took acid with Timothy Leary, or something like that. I think a lot of artists are so focused on what’s going on with the industry that they are losing that creative free spirit, risk-taking mentality, and, sometimes, just life experiences in general that informed a lot of the music we loved in the past.
-SOMEONE STOLE MY LUNCH MONEY: Byrne’s big recent hit in the EU ultimately rendered him $40 from Spotify. “That’s lunch for me and a friend….that model’s not gonna work for the industry.” Ouch. Streaming isn’t going to go away…but the payment system attached to it needs some attention.
-BOWIE WAS SUPERMAN, DUH: “I liked Bowie on stage, because I didn’t know if he was an alien….but I filled in the blanks and made him Superman.” The rock star is forever demystified….but in it’s place we got access and insight that’s really interesting in it’s own right.
-I WANNA EMAIL YOU LIKE AN ANIMAL! “Your real currency is to try to grow your database”. Reznor recommends that you grow your fan army, because it’s those interested parties that will carry you to success. As a researcher, I totally agree…knowing your consumer is smart. Just don’t let it affect your art (I rhymed! Yay me.)
-MY HEAD HURTS, WHEN DID THIS STOP BEING FUN? “When we make music, we say we’re playing music…it’s a form of play” ~David Byrne

Also, Reznor announced that he was working on a project with Beats By Dre. People seem kinda blasé about it; but I think with Reznor’s eye for innovation, this could be a good collaboration.

All in all, it was a good trip down NINory Lane, and I look forward to reading Byrne’s book. However, please don’t allow Q&As at anything NIN related, ever…


  1. The second event this month I find myself at that you were at too. It was an interesting night. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen or how it would go. I was afraid there would be some boring professor with a laser pointer telling me how downloading music has made musicians poor. Glad it wasn’t like that at all! haha I definitely came out wanting to give some of the albums and bands that I’ve dismissed after one listen another try. I used to be that kid that didn’t buy lunch at school so I could buy a CD on the weekend then spend the next few weeks dissecting it. I miss that about music. I found this even to be a bit of a spark plug. I don’t ever want to lose my connection with music. It’s gotten me through too much for me to not pay it respect.

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