Legendary music producer Tony Visconti described a vision of the music industry's dystopian future at his SXSW keynote speech this morning, calling himself "The Ghost of Christmas Future" and reading an earnest, self-penned short story to make his point. After walking a roomful of attendees through his musical education and early work as a producer, Visconti made it clear that he believes the industry's in jeopardy.
"I think we're living in a time when formulas are being repeated more than they ever were in the past... I didn't want to come out here saying this stuff, swinging two fists in the air," said Visconti. "If this was really working, record sales would be going through the roof." It was an impassioned, frustrated plea for change from someone who's spent half a century navigating the business of music.
Visconti started getting choked up
The bulk of Visconti's warning was delivered through a short piece of fiction, one he spent about 20 minutes reading before wrapping up his speech. Taking place 10 years in the future, the story revolves around a senior A&R expert at the planet's only remaining major record label. (It's called The Universe.) Businesspeople around the world sync their schedules by taking drugs that block their circadian rhythms, letting them control their sleep schedules; the label releases just one single a week, recorded by the winner of a lottery and crafted by the label's employees. The A&R employee spends entire days listening to Jimi Hendrix records and dreaming of the good ol' days. When he begs his boss to sign a talented street musician, he's told signing artists based on talent is too risky. Distraught, the employee commits suicide by leaping from the balcony of his Sydney condo. Visconti started getting choked up as he read the story's final lines.
It sounds overwrought, but it was a genuinely moving scene. Visconti's passion for music is inarguable: he spent the speech's first half breaking down his childhood and musical training in impressive detail. He grew up in Brooklyn, the son of two musicians who sang and played instruments, and he learned to read music at an early age. ("I've been in the music business for 50 years now because I can read music," Visconti said.) His proximity to the media capital of New York afforded him some unique opportunities: he corresponded with Chet Atkins, watched Leonard Bernstein's symphony rehearse at Carnegie Hall, and stumbled onto Little Richard in a lavender convertible. "I had... incredible experiences you can only have when you're a kid in New York," said Visconti. "I was blessed with this kind of upbringing."
"We were kin. We were brothers."
He wasn't able to realize his own rock star ambitions, but his grasp of theory set his career into motion, and he quickly became the house record producer at a label off the strength of a few clean-sounding demos. That led to a working relationship with the British producer Denny Cordell, and then a trip to London. He met a teenage David Bowie a few weeks later, and their connection was immediate. "We were kin. We were brothers," said Visconti. "We kinda had a long date [the day we met]... It was supposed to be about making his new album and now here we were, watching Knife in the Water."
Visconti's genuine love for his life's work ended up softening some of his criticism of the industry, which tended toward the traditional and the strident. His devotion to rock 'n' roll ideals is resolute, and he has no interest in contemporary pop music; the idea of him listening to any of SXSW's many electronic acts is borderline laughable. (One artist he likes: Sun Kil Moon, to whom he was introduced by Bowie.) "The next David Bowie lives somewhere in the world, the next Beatles, the next Bruce Springsteen," said Visconti, "but they're not getting the shot. They're not being financed."
Given the narrowness with which Visconti seems to define both artistry and "success" in the music industry, it's possible "the next David Bowie" is already working and thriving somewhere outside of his field of view. Major labels and their beleaguered A&R representatives aren't the primary vehicles for musical discovery anymore, and young artists are just as likely to turn to SoundCloud or YouTube as they are musical institutions. (Someone like Chance the Rapper is doing just fine without big-league financing.) And while it's indisputable that there's less money in the music industry now than there was during Visconti's heyday, it's just as likely that he happened to reach his prime during a historically anomalous time for musicians. It's harder to make money when you can't rely on the crutch of physical scarcity.
Visconti's downcast vision of the future might have a few holes, but they don't compromise the impressiveness of his résumé. He opened for the Mamas & the Papas at Carnegie Hall; he made albums with Marc Bolan and Morrissey; he wrote string arrangements at a grand piano for Band on the Run alongside Paul McCartney. And if he couldn't keep his emotions in check while reading his humble speculative fiction, it's because he really, truly cares about music. "I would get butterflies in my stomach when I brought home a new album by The Beatles, or by Jimi Hendrix, or Led Zeppelin, or Joni Mitchell's Blue," said Visconti. "We have to nurture our artists."