T Bone Burnett Responds: “Musicians Deserve Better. The Audience Deserves Better.”

image from www.thisissomewhere.com Yesterday, T Bone Burnett was stuck on a plane for five hours and took a moment to respond to just about every single Hypebot reader that mocked him for the somewhat shocking advice that he offered to musicians at the FMC Policy Summit. If you don't recall, he basically said that the best counsel he could offer an up-and-coming artist in today's climate is to, "Stay completely away from the Internet." Don't bother uploading your music to MySpace, because the second that an artist does, they've instantly devalued it. I've taken the time to curate some of his best quotes and hope that I don't misrepresent his views by isolating some of his most interesting insights:

If you are a musician, I am on your side.  I am fighting for a fairer, more ethical future for musicians.  I have been doing this for a long time, and I have to say, in all honesty, that as larcenous as the record companies have been, the internet makes them look like Robin Hoods.  I am fully aware of the possibilities of putting together and managing a database on the Internet. 

The Internet is a powerful tool for sharing information- great for research.  It is, however, an indisputable fact that digital technology does not capture music as fully as analogue technology.  If one can't hear the difference between a tape recording and an mp3, he should not quit his day job.

Digital is not the end of technology.  In my view, for music, it is a detour.  There are better sounding, more stable, more robust technologies to store music available now, and there are many possibilities for the future…  If I were just starting out today, knowing what I know now, I would have nothing to do with the internet… I would not advertise myself… I would not market myself.  I would spend every minute of the day I could playing and listening to music.  Learning.  Getting better…

Musicians deserve better.  The audience deserves better.  If you are a musician, YOUR audience deserves better… The future of music is analogue.  Guitars are analogue.  Pianos are analogue.  Drums are analogue.  Music is analogue.  We are analogue.

I am fighting to make the world sound better. The quality of the sound of recorded music has fallen off close to a hundred percent in the last twenty years, and we all suffer from that reality. Though I would wish it to be so, I do not believe that the internet is ushering in a world of peace and harmony and community.

At the moment it looks most like an advertising platform. The internet, is at this moment, an amateur medium. I trust that someday, this internet, or another one, will turn into something strong and filled with beauty and truth. As things stand, though there are the occasional bright spots, it is fragile and filled with nonformation. We can see this by the defensiveness (and offensiveness) of many of its proponents.

At any rate, by any standards, it is a medium of extremely low quality, as exemplified by the unlistenable mp3 format.

I hope you're right. I hope this internet or another one works out. A lot of people are putting a lot of blind faith in it. For all the good that can come of connectivity in terms of community and shared information and research, there is as great or greater a potential for evil as we must see clearly by even the most cursory examination of the subject. So far… I would say that the internet has failed to deliver on its promise. I have high hopes that that will change. I'm just not counting on it. At any rate, I am not talking about going backward, I am talking about going forward.

I want to assure and reassure you that I am fully alive to all of this.


T Bone Burnett

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  1. As Internet entrepreneur that has been investing, working and writing to improve the “artist condition” for years, and as someone that is a paid observer of the music industry, I mostly agree with T Bone’s statements.
    Self-promotion is not where it’s at. Let your music and your fans do it for you (http://bit.ly/cJzJyl). Going forward, QUALITY is the only thing that is going to matter on the Internet.
    IMHO, anyone that raps on this guys is misinformed.
    T-Bone, if you are ever in Boston, I will buy the beer.

  2. T-Bone is a genius! He thinks above everyone.
    Tech industry is really not on the side of musicians and musicians need to wake up.

  3. I think we have all buried the lede in this story. This is what I want to hear more about:
    “Digital is not the end of technology. In my view, for music, it is a detour. There are better sounding, more stable, more robust technologies to store music available now, and there are many possibilities for the future.”
    Can anyone really say with a straight face that the mp3 is an advancement for sound quality? Instead of allowing Apple and other technology companies decide how music should sound, shouldn’t people who understand music take the lead? I am all ears (no pun intended) if someone can come up with a technology that makes music sound how it should sound as if it were played live right in my living room.
    I also have no quarrel with the point that the internet is an advertising platform. And I will tell you it is the best one ever built for music. But only if it is treated merely as a listening booth. Back in the day, when it was difficult to find and hear new music, one would listen to samples of music in the store before deciding to buy. That is where the internet has the record store whipped. The problem is thinking an mp3 is the end purchase. Something better would be nice. I guess I thought Lossless for all would be the advancement, but maybe it’s something else. Of course, the price and convenience does need to be reasonable.
    The one troubling thing Burnett said was that recordings themselves are going downhill. That is something that is irreversible. Maybe recordings should be made with a better sound quality future, and then it can have a separate master for the mp3, which apparently needs to be louder to make up for the sound gaps.
    Only beef I really have is I do like music with electronic instruments and digital technology used for sounds. Like say, Flying Lotus or Gorillaz or Caribou or LCD Soundsystem. I don’t see why it only has to be analogue instruments.

  4. I think T Bone does have a point when it comes to the internet, but I’m not sure avoiding it entirely is the answer. For one thing, other communication networks have broken down. Musicians can’t rely on newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, etc to the degree that they once could. Their audience is looking for information on the internet; not sharing it there are would be foolish.
    But as a more important take-away message, I think musicians should be using the internet to create their own spaces. A band’s website should be a rich experience where “truth and beauty” shine through. Too many musicians rely on social networks to do all the work for them, and these businesses may not be worse than the major labels but they’re still using our music to sell ad space. On the internet – like in the recording studio – you get what you pay for.
    There is as much art to a website as there is in creating music, stage shows, album art, or any other traditional aspect of the biz. A band’s web presence can and should reflect the music and the musician, which – if T Bone is right about practicing more – could mean consulting with someone who knows more (just like we do when creating publicity photos, cover art, tour posters…). A musician should approach the web as an extension of their art and business plan, not as the solution to their creative and financial problems.

  5. One way to stand out is to go against the grain. Burnett’s advice to stay off the Internet when everyone else is getting on is good advice. Imagine if you are a great musician and your fans start saying, “The only way you can hear him is either to go to a show or to listen to him on vinyl.”

  6. Agree entirely w/ @Brucewarila. And add that we will get nowhere good and useful with our technology if we insist that anyone who brings up doubts and concerns, based on his or her own hard-earned experience, is “old-fashioned” and must be “left behind.”

  7. I don’t disagree with Mr. Burnett’s claim that the quality of recorded sound has degraded. However, by all accounts, this is what the consumer has wanted.
    In particular, there has been a steady tradeoff for 60-100 years, where the customer has been willing to give up sound quality to gain portability and copy-ability. Think of the move from live music to shellac and vinyl discs, and later the move to cassettes in the Walkman era. The move to MP3 happened because it gave the customer even more power.
    People in the recorded music business may not like giving customers power, but I’m not thinking of a consumer product biz which has done well by taking power away from customers.
    Now the quality home audio market is nearly dead — have you shopped for a “stereo” (2-channel audio) at Best Buy recently? And surveys and anecdotal stories are indicating that kids, the next generation of consumers, prefer poor-sounding MP3s.
    I’m skeptical that the recorded-music biz has the clout to make users accept some new type of recording, especially in a time of steep economic downturn. Sony, the only remaining company with both tech and recorded music interests, crashed badly with the MiniDisc. SACD and DVD audio barely cling to market life.
    (And if Mr. Burnett returns to read this: I’ve followed your career since getting the first Alpha Band LP.)

  8. that’s absolutely impossible. your music, image, story, WILL be on the internet regardless, so artists must be proactive about their inevitable online presence.

  9. Response 1: …Then I would simply move on to the Next Great Musician. There are more Great Musicians than I have time to follow, these days.
    Response 2: If the musician is Truly Great, some enthusiastic fan is going to rip the vinyl into MP3 and put it up somewhere on the net. Or put up a YouTube concert video shot on a cellphone (*shudder*)

  10. per Buzz Marketing Groups March 2010 study:
    48% of teens discover new music through the Internet first
    87% download or stream a new song when it comes out vs. 13% buy a CD in a store
    Vinyl makes up 0.2% of total album sales according to Nielsen SoundScan
    Go where your audience is.

  11. Mr. T-Bone’s comments are hypocritical. How can someone who preaches for musicians/artists to practice and practice then turn around and say “well don’t put your music out there on the internet.”
    I think artists whose careers started in the era before internet shun it for not fully understanding the impact it has had on the industry. If you don’t understand something it is perfectly natural to fear it and fear inspires stupid comments. But T-Bone should know better. Words, even his, have an impact.

  12. Personally I’m not so hugely worried about digital audio quality. I have plenty of old vinyl albums that sound distorted due to heavy rotation but I could still listen to the music.
    However, what happened with Internet was that the natural filtering functions record companies provided — expenses in recording and releasing music — are now gone. Means so much music that should not have been released in the first place is flooding the market. Which has an impact on the consumers as they have to filter themselves the good music from the huge amount of junk music out there.

  13. I agree with Burnett – and many other comments made. Its a messed up digital world for the musician trying to get out there BUT more importantly the industry for musicians was messed with as soon as music became a commodity in Modern times in partnership with the great scheme of globalized consumerism. But then isn’t that the Great American Dream?
    The question now is – what are we going to do about it? Create more clever marketing strategies or stay true to your music in whatever form that maybe?

  14. It is easy to make sweeping generalizations on quality and changing the world when one has the budgets to make records using million dollar ssl boards and can hear them on 600 dollar headphones,for the rest of the planet however the reality is quite different. The headset is 12$ and few can afford the price of going into a studio anymore.
    Pro-tools or garage band it is then and for electronica acts, Logic or whatever platform is suited to their sound. No internet means no visibility, no facebook means no way to communicate with 500 million people. Local bars no longer have open music nights and 99% of all open venues are pay to play.
    This is far more than not giving up their daytime jobs, they need their daytime jobs to pay to play.
    Labels want talent they can monetize immediately and own them in 360 deals, meanwhile your local radio station is part of a consortium of thousands of stations all programmed from a single source according to “focus” group analysis which is bought and paid for.
    Let’s get real here.
    Quality is and should be foremost, but until we celebrate that quality with a biz model, the industry will continue to become a homogenized wasteland filled with loads of untapped “potential”, loser bands who make clever videos, get naked or do stunts to drive interest in their mediocre music and that sets the bar, no wonder no one’s buying.
    The solutions will come from those of us that are actually fighting the wars for our acts, not those that have no clue what its like out there and tout technology gimmicks as solutions. The problem is, it is hard for us to meet up and pool resources as the Midems and other networking events want nothing to do with us preferring to tout the same garbage every year and the superstars of our industry talk a lot but do nothing.

  15. It’s a perfectly legitimate angle to say you don’t want to bother with MP3s and with the Internet. If your fans want to go ahead and upload your music, fine.
    There have been musicians who have made it without MP3s and the Internet and there will still be those who will make it without them.

  16. But if you will move on the the next great musician because you couldn’t hear someone online, then you aren’t that core audience anyway.
    People are going after niches these days. Trying to reach the world online with your music isn’t the only way to go about it.
    I would much rather go to an intimate concert, taken there by a friend, to hear something special that only a few people have had the chance to experience than go to a big venue to hear someone who has been all over the Internet. By the time someone is famous enough to be playing anything bigger than a 1000-person venue, I’m not interested. I want to catch them when they are playing 50-person venues. And learning about this artist from a friend and going just based on that friend’s recommendation could be enough to get me there.
    I want something special. Not something mass marketed.

  17. At the risk of getting personal, I feel I have to defend my niche manhood 🙂 My principal interests are in traditional folk/world/roots music; most of the concerts I go to range in size from 30 people to 300, and most of the CDs I get appear to be editions of 1000-5000 and have to be imported from Europe. (Classical shows I go to are a bit bigger.)
    And I’m still buried in Great Musicians. If I can’t preview an artist’s work on the net, it’s on to the next wonderful, talented musician.

  18. I think there is a wealth of talent out there too. So I understand why you might want to move on to someone else if you can’t check them out first.
    But I also think there are musicians who can go the Burnett route and make it on word-of-mouth.
    And I think the focus on Internet marketing cries out for at least a few to go the opposite direction.
    There are exclusive clubs where access to them is essentially secret and you don’t get into them without a personal invitation. I think some musicians are going to go this route. Rather than going for ease of access, they are going to make access very hard to get.

  19. I think Mr. T-Bone understands the internet and it’s impact quite well, it’s just that he reached different conclusions than you. Also, not sure what you read at but I didn’t see any “stupid” comments either.

  20. T-Bone would have lambasted vinyl and then cassettes when they first appeared. How tired. They improved, then along came the CD, it improved, then the MP3, which has also improved and will continue to do so. Down the road, when it is no big deal to transfer a 24-bit/196Khz recording over the Internet, maybe people will do that. But I doubt it. Despite what T-Bone says, MP3s do not sound that different from AIFF files. Truly, burn a disc into iTunes using AIFF, then convert it to a 256 or 320Kbs MP3. Now, A/B them and ask yourself how big the difference. For fun, if you can still find a cassette, compare it to your MP3. No contest, the MP3 will crush it (unless you dig wow and flutter and hiss and dropouts).
    As for staying away from the ‘net, um, how are you supposed to hear new bands and ideas? Besides who has the time to spend his life in a club?

  21. Tbone is simply just ranting about the cons of technology in music today. He doesn’t give any SOLUTIONS or guidance for musicians today. Except that analog is the future….and then???
    Tangible/analog forms of music are not going to make a comeback. From a general consumers point of view do you think people would go back to shoe boxes full of tapes, books full of CD’s, and crates full of records for the sake of “better quality” music when you can carry it all in your pocket with an Iphone? Maybe a for a few audiophiles who are extremely anal about their sound.
    He just sounds like an old man complaining “well back in my day…” He just simply predicts that analogue is the future and advises musicians to concentrate on keeping analogue alive. How is that going to make people listen to your music?

  22. Is that what I sound like to you, Djchriscruz, because if so, you are the one falling behind.
    Do you have anything I could listen to? Curious as to what you are up to.
    If you are doing something better than my team and I are doing, or anything just about as good, I would be more than happy to help your music get heard in the best possible way.
    That is what I do. Now. Not in the good old days.

  23. You’re just not right about that, Jeff. Not any of it. Why are you so defensive? If you’ve got something so great, why are you so defensive about it?
    I checked out your link above. Listened to Demons and Saints and Love and Hate and Yo Yo. Good luck with that stuff.
    But I have to say, you have completely misunderstood me. I’d be happy go through this with you if you like. You could come by the studio, and we could do some listening- some A/B ing. In the meantime, you might consider being a little less dogmatic. You say you take your walks, you try to meditate and you talk in tongues. I hope you find some peace and whatever kind of success you seek.
    Technology has been changing every ten years, or so. The pace of change is speeding up. We have been using the most cutting edge technology for many years. Guitars are analogue. You are analogue. The future of music is analogue.
    (The link Suzanne Lainson posted below is semi funny. Did you watch it?)

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