Editors Note: T Bone Burnett is a Grammy-winning producer whose O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack helped ignite an American roots music insurgence over the past 15 years. He's worked with countless Nashville artists — from Roy Orbison to Gillian Welch — is a songwriter in his own right, and once played guitar in Bob Dylan's band.
As an influential musician in Nashville, his missive on the state of the music industry holds particular weight. This is a transcript of the keynote speech Burnett delivered to the 2016 conference of the Americana Music Association.
I have come here today first to bring you love. I have come here to express my deep gratitude to you for your love of music and of each other. And, I have come here to talk about the value of the artist, and the value of art.
When Michaelangelo was painting the great fresco The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, he came under intense criticism from various members of the church, particularly the Pope's Master of Ceremonies — a man named Cesena — who accused him of obscenity. Michaelangelo’s response was to paint Cesena into the fresco in the lowest circle of hell with donkey ears and a serpent coiled around him devouring, and covering, his nether regions, so to speak.
Cesena was incensed and went to the Pope demanding he censor Michaelangelo for this outrage, and the Pope said, “Well, let’s go have a look at it. ”So, they went down to the chapel, and when the Pope stood in front of the fresco, he said to Cesena, “You know, that doesn’t look like you at all.”
See, the Pope didn’t want to jack around with Michaelangelo. Michaelangelo was making things that were going to last for hundreds of years. His stuff was going to outlive the Pope’s ability to do anything about it, so the Pope bowed to the inevitable. The Pope was afraid of a painter.
The painter could create another dimension between Heaven and Earth. Flat ceilings seemed to come down into the room in three dimensions. He painted rooms where priests and the church could sit and be transported to — and engulfed in — a higher realm, learning ancient stories — thoughts kept alive over centuries. And he did it by mixing together things he found laying around on the ground — sand and clay and plants. He was a fearsome alchemist.
Art is not a market to be conquered or to bow before.
Art is a holy pursuit.
Beneath the subatomic particle level, there are fibers that vibrate at different intensities. Different frequencies. Like violin strings. The physicists say that the particles we are able to see are the notes of the strings vibrating beneath them. If string theory is correct, then music is not only the way our brains work, as the neuroscientists have shown, but also, it is what we are made of, what everything is made of. These are the stakes musicians are playing for.
I want to recommend a book to you — The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul.
John Wilkinson, the translator, in his 1964 introduction, describes the book this way: “The Technological Society is a description of the way in which an autonomous technology is in the process of taking over the traditional values of every society without exception, subverting and surpassing those values to produce at last a monolithic world culture in which all technological difference and variety is mere appearance.” This is the core of the dead serious challenge we face.
The first nuclear weapon was detonated on the morning of July 16, 1945, at 5:29 and 45 seconds.
At that moment, technocrats took control of our culture.
Trinity was the code name of that explosion. It was an unholy trinity.
Technology does only one thing — it tends toward efficiency. It has no aesthetics. It has no ethics. Its code is binary.
But everything interesting in life — everything that makes life worth living — happens between the binary. Mercy is not binary. Love is not binary. Music and art are not binary. You and I are not binary.
Parenthetically, we have to remember that all this technology we use has been developed by the war machine — Turing was breaking codes for the spies, Oppenheimer was theorizing and realizing weapons. Many of the tools we use in the studio for recording — microphones and limiters and equalizers and all that — were developed for the military. It is our privilege to beat those swords into plowshares.
We live in a time in which artists are being stampeded from one bad deal to another worse deal. No one asks the artists. We are told to get good at marketing. I have to say — and I think I probably speak for every musician here — that I didn’t start playing music because I sought, or thought it would lead to, a career in marketing.
And, as we are being told that, our work is being commoditized — the price of music is being driven down to zero.
I am working with a group called C3, the Content Creators Coalition run by Roseanne Cash and Jeffrey Boxer to develop an Artists Bill of Rights. Jeffrey is here today to meet afterward with anyone who wants to get into this. The first right artists have is the right to determine what medium they work in. The second is the right to set the price of their work.
Every person worthy of the name artist, from Rembrandt to Paul Cezanne to Picasso to Jackson Pollack.
From William Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams to James Baldwin and Jack Kerouac.
From Bach to Stravinsky to Mahler to John Adams.
Every one of those artists made art that to be understood, the world had to change.
They did not adapt to the world, the world had to adapt to them.
The technocrats suggest we crowdsource.
I suggest we not.
The very thing an artist does is figure out what he likes.
The technocrats — the digital tycoons, the iTopians — look down on artists. They have made all these tools and they think we should be grateful — subservient even — and use their flimsy new tools happily to make them ever more powerful. But we can make art with any thing. We don’t need their tools. Music confounds the machines.
So the iTopians have controlled the medium and the message for a generation now. And they are making a complete hash of things. The clearest and most pervasive proof of this is the psychedelic political season we are in, which we can see playing out in every election around the world.
Before the atom bomb, we had begun to project idealized versions of people up on screens, while the people whose images were projected would hide behind the screens, knowing they could never measure up.
After the atom bomb, we have automated that process. On Facebook, everybody is a star. The idealistic, lysergic promise of the 1960s has been mechanized, allowing us to become ever more facile counterfeiters.
The mask has become the face.
Malcolm Muggeridge said that the kingdom Satan offers a man is to the kingdom of God as a travel poster to the place it depicts.
This internet technology that has been so wildly promoted as being the key, the final solution, to our freedom, has become our prison. What the false prophets of the internet said would replace governments and nation states and commerce, and create a free world of community and sharing, has led instead to a consolidation of wealth and power that makes the monopolies of the early 2oth century — Morgan and Rockefeller and Carnegie — look weak and ineffective.
Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the MIT Media Lab, has apologized for his part in creating what he calls a "fiasco." Tim Berners-Lee, who diagrammed the schematic for our current internet on a napkin, said at Davos last year that the internet needs to be re-architected.
Our 21st century communication network, regarded by its early adherents with a religious fervor, has been turned into a surveillance and advertising mechanism. The World Wide Web is just that — a web that ensnares everyone who uses it.
Artists must not submit to the demands, or the definitions of, the iTopians.
Lastly, I am here to speak specifically about American music.
This country has been led by artists from Thoreau and Emerson through Walt Whitman to Woody Guthrie, through Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, to Presley and Dylan to The Last Poets and Kendrick Lamar. The arts have always led the sciences. Einstein said that Picasso preceded him by 20 years. Jules Verne put a man on the moon 100 years before a rocket scientist did. Medieval stained-glass windows are examples of how nanotechnology was used in the pre-modern era. Those artists were high technologists, and many other things — they were aestheticians, ethicists, conjurers and philosophers, to name a few.
They took risks, risks a technocrat could never take. Artists risk everything in everything they do. Risk is what separates the artist from the artisan. Art is not a career, it is a vocation, an inclination, a response to a summons.
We, in this country, have defined ourselves through music from the beginning — from "Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier" in the Revolutionary War, to "The Star Spangled Banner" in the War of 1812, to "John Brown’s Body" and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" in the Civil War, to the incredible explosion of music of the last century that was called Jazz, or Folk Music, or Rock & Roll, or Country Music — because although our music has taken many different paths, it is all of a piece and a most important part of our national identity, of us.
Music is to the United States as wine is to France. We have spread our culture all over the world with the soft power of American music. We both have regions — France has Champagne, we have the Mississippi Delta. France has Bordeaux, we have the Appalachian Mountains. France has Epernay, we have Nashville. Recorded music has been our best goodwill ambassador. The actual reason the Iron Curtain fell is because the Russian kids wanted Beatles records. Louis Armstrong did more to spread our message of freedom and innovation than any single person in the last hundred years.
Our history, our language, and our soul are recorded in our music. There is no deeper expression of the soul of this country than the profound archive of music we have recorded over the last century.
This is the story of the United States: A kid walks out of his home with a song and nothing else, and conquers the world. We have replicated that phenomenon over and over. We could start with Elvis Presley, but we could add in names for hours — Jimmie Rodgers, Rosetta Tharpe, Johnny Cash, Howlin' Wolf, Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Loretta Lynn, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, Aretha Franklin, Jack White, Dr. Dre. That is the American Character. That is Johnny Appleseed.
At last year’s MusicCares tribute to Bob Dylan, Jimmy Carter said, "There’s no doubt that his words of peace and human rights are much more incisive and much more powerful and much more permanent than any president of the United States." I believe that is undeniable.
That’s who the artists are. We can’t forget that.
So, in conclusion, there is this sense that the technocrats are saying, "Look, we’re just going to go ahead and do this, and we’ll sort it all out later." As they did with the atom bomb.
As artists, it is our responsibility to sort it out now.
Barnett Newman said, "Time passes over the tip of the pyramid." By that he meant that there is a lot of room at the bottom of the pyramid to put things, but that as time passes, gravity washes them down into the sand. But if you put something right on the tip of the pyramid, it stays there.
We aspire to put things on the tip of the pyramid. That is our preference — our preferred medium.
Digital is not an archival medium.
Technology is turning over every ten years. Their technologies don’t and won’t last.
Our art — if we do it right — will.