David Byrne

Even during the height of the first punk wave, David Byrne did not strike anyone as a particularly angry person. But Byrne is also someone with a certain level of influence who, if he wants one, can claim a large platform. And now he’s done just that. In the past week, Byrne has written two editorials for the British newspaper The Guardian, and they’re both about things that piss him off (or, more accurately, raise his concerns).

The first of those editorials, which originally ran in Creative Time Reports, concerns the escalating costs of living in New York City and the way those costs are pushing out creative people, draining the city of much of its vitality. Here’s Byrne:

Most of Manhattan and many parts of Brooklyn are virtual walled communities, pleasure domes for the rich (which, full disclosure, includes me), and aside from those of us who managed years ago to find our niche and some means of income, there is no room for fresh creative types. Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore, so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people. Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated.

Byrne puts much of the blame on the financial sector, and on the ways in which the city’s culture have validated that whole money-grubbing mentality. But he does end on a hopeful note:

Can New York change its trajectory a little bit, become more inclusive and financially egalitarian? Is that possible? I think it is… It really could be a model of how to make a large, economically sustainable and creatively energetic city. I want to live in that city.

The second editorial concerns Spotify and other streaming services, and those companies’ well-documented practice of paying artists very, very little for having their music streamed. Byrne writes that he’s tried to have as much of his music pulled from Spotify as possible, reasoning that a few companies are being paid vast sums of money but that the money isn’t bein equitably distributed: “It seems obvious that some people are making a lot of money on this deal, while the artists have been left with meagre scraps.”

But Byrne isn’t too concerned about his own money; he allows, as he does in the first editorial, that he’s already rich. He is, however, concerned that younger artists are going to find that they can’t make a living doing this anymore:

What’s at stake is not so much the survival of artists like me, but that of emerging artists and those who have only a few records under their belts (such as St Vincent, my current touring partner, who is not exactly an unknown). Many musicians like her, who seem to be well established, well known and very talented, will eventually have to find employment elsewhere or change what they do to make more money. Without new artists coming up, our future as a musical culture looks grim. A culture of blockbusters is sad, and ultimately it’s bad for business. That’s not the world that inspired me when I was younger. Many a fan (myself included) has said that “music saved my life”, so there must be some incentive to keep that lifesaver available for future generations.

Neither of the arguments that Byrne makes in these two editorials is particularly new. But both pieces are well-researched and incisively written, and it’s fun to imagine Byrne hunched over a laptop somewhere and bashing all this out.

Comments (5)
  1. Yes, NYC is hecka expensive, but I don’t believe that this dream of financial egalitarianism AND cultural vibrancy is going to happen. Why don’t we just rewind the clocks back 20 years and look at what West Brooklyn was like before the cost of living was absurdly high. Were there young, talented emerging artists living there with little money in hand? Absolutely. Where there as many respected musicians and artists living there as there are today? Absolutely not.

    The high cost of living in parts of NYC are directly related to the perceived benefits of the cultural milieu. Williamsburg has experienced such rapid gentrification in recent times not because of Wall Street fat cats looking into real estate, but because of successful musicians, actors, artists, and socialites moving into the community. The demand to be a part of the milieu is so high that you can really only live in it if you have the cash to swing it. The exclusivity is merely a product of NYC’s very limited space.

    This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, NYC is a commuter city. Plenty of young, less wealthy individuals live in satellite cities or other boroughs and can just use the nifty public transportation system the city has to spend time in these places that are valued so highly for cultural stimuli.

    Love you Byrne, but I find this argument out of sync with many Millennial’s take on the gentrifying hot spot of NYC. As someone who was raised in the suburbs of CT with parents who commute to Manhattan, I must also say that the massive drop in violent crimes traditionally associated with some of these neighborhoods has really made these areas more attractive for the cultural scenes. I don’t believe that these crimes rates would be so low if it weren’t for gentrification.

    I often fantasize about living in parts of Brooklyn, but these fantasies wouldn’t be as glamorous if it weren’t for how beautiful, clean, exciting, and fun a place like Williamsburg is. All of these things raise property values and make that life as expensive as it is. If simply anyone could live there it wouldn’t be as special as it is.

    • I agree with this. A lot of people talk about missing the good old days of NYC, hating on high rent and gentrification, but when I think of NY in the 80s, early 90s ( I know Byrne is talking about much earlier) I think of my mom getting mugged twice a year on the way home from work and my Grandmother not letting me ride my bike around the block. There is a price, unfortunately, and a lot of what Byrne says is very, very true. But NY is much better the way it is.

    • Many of the musicians who live in Williamsburg today (like David Byrne) are there because they are established and can afford it. Most of the rest grew up in New York or moved there in the 90s when it was somewhat affordable. Most young artists nowadays who are drawn to Brooklyn move to places like Bushwick, Fort Greene, etc because they can’t afford Williamsburg. Soon those neighborhoods will be full of established rich hipsters too and emerging artists won’t be able to live there either. The rising cost of living in Brooklyn is absolutely discouraging young artists from moving there.

      All the better for the places like Philly where a ton of young artists can and do thrive on a modest income and create exciting new music. Kurt Vile, the Walkmen, Dr. Dog, Man Man, the War on Drugs, Pissed Jeans. Yeah I’m biased but I could go on and on. Back in the late 90s/early 00s, these artists might have moved to Williamsburg. But why do that now when they would be struggling to survive while trying to get noticed?

    • Upon further reflection, I agree with your comment. Let Brooklyn become the beautiful upscale gentrified haven that it is becoming. Its the artists who led the revival in the first place. Williamsburg doesn’t need any more struggling art scene. It’s a great community as it stands.

      There are other places that could use the scene that Williamsburg once had where it’s possible to live comfortably as a ‘struggling artist’. As Wesley said, big cities in the south are prime for a revival. So are western cities like Denver and Albuquerque. So are parts of Philly and DC. In today’s social culture, where you’re from doesn’t matter as much. If you like where you’re from, you can stay there and gain traction as a musician, then move to Williamsburg when you’re sitting pretty on the festival circuit and can afford that loft.

  2. This is why I kind of like living in a big southern city. There’s a great niche art scene AND I can live in that part of town in a charmingly musky two bedroom 700 square foot apartment RIGHT BEHIND a liquor store, a taco bell, and down the street from two cool dive bars and a record store for 600 bucks a month. I mean that’s practically all you need to live.

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