Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning record producer who hears music die every day.
With 30 years in the music business, Brennan has seen the best and worst of what commercialization and digital distribution have done to music and its makers.
In his new book, How Music Dies (Or Lives): Field Recording and the Battle for Democracy in the Arts, Brennan explores inequity in the way music is disseminated and recognized, and how it’s directly related to inequality throughout society.
As Brennan points out, most music listeners encounter today is a pitifully small fraction of what’s being produced around the world, and that’s a problem. By systematically eliminating listening options from the mainstream, he argues, we are doing ourselves a great cultural disservice — not to mention neglecting what could be an effective peacemaking tool.
Brennan has written two books on anger and a third that he describes as a “literary fiction novella” partially about the aftermath of sexual assault. How Music Dies is his first full-length work about music.
While the book can be antagonistic, Brennan supports his theories with a combination of personal experience and fact. He doesn’t always succeed. But ultimately, he aims to bring attention to the act of cultural homogenization, which he considers an overlooked issue.
Ahead of his discussion with musician and ex-Fugazi bassist Joe Lally at Busboys & Poets in Brookland Saturday evening, Brennan talked to Bandwidth about the cultural blindness of the Grammys, how music promotes understanding and why he thinks it’s troubling when Vietnamese children begin rapping in English.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bandwidth: You focus on countries in Africa and Asia in some of your stories. Why did you choose those regions, as opposed to say, South America, the rural U.S. or elsewhere?
We’d been trying to focus on countries that are pretty noticeably underrepresented or under-heard on an international scale. South America’s pretty well covered. Spanish and English are the No. 2 and No. 3 most-spoken languages in the world, so they’re very dominant. The difference with English is that it’s so pervasive. It’s not just the English-speaking world that listens to English-speaking music. It’s now almost the whole world that does, because the distribution is like Coca-Cola, you know? It’s everywhere.
The countries in Africa and even mainland Europe — more than South America, and parts of Asia, particularly Southeast Asia — are radically underrepresented. Some of them are just virtually invisible. I mean there’s only been one pop Grammy nomination ever for far-east Asia.
Tibet. So it doesn’t count… I mean, it counts, but it’s probably the most commercial, mainstream, predictable of those nominations that there could be. And it was a good record and everything, not to take anything away from that. The Grammys just wanted Asia.
I mean, [the Grammys are] not the measure of everything because there are a lot of great records that never get recognized in that way. But there are many, many African countries still that have never received a Grammy nomination, the majority. And this year Ghana received its first Grammy nomination for reggae, and the Zomba Prison Project received the first ever for Malawi. So two African countries this year received their first nominations.
Why is that important? If we’re talking about this artificial machine of taste and being a part of this commercial tradition that’s dictating what does and doesn’t get heard, if the music is actually valuable in and of itself and from the place that it comes, why does it matter if it’s heard elsewhere?
I mean, I think it’s something to consider and it’s debatable whether it does, but [the Grammys] certainly give a big platform and promotion and make people aware of music that they otherwise would not be. I’m more using it as just a literal measurement of inequity.
But really, the bigger measurement is, how many pop records can you find from most countries around the world in the language or the mother tongue of that region? It’s almost always zero — you know, that are easily findable, that have been released in a way that they have been given a fair chance and consideration… it just rarely, rarely happens.
“People talk about foreign languages like it’s a barrier. But then the lie in that is that most people have no idea what their favorite pop songs are about.”
What do you mean by fair chance? Like a fair chance to make it big?
No, just to be treated like they aren’t some kind of oddity or trinket. That it’s valid, that it’s art, and that it should be given consideration. I mean, you can open up Rolling Stone, or most music platforms, sites, whatever, to this day and see these incredibly glowing reviews for what a lot of times are pretty rudimentary and ho-hum recapitulations of Western music. And then “world music” — whatever the heck that means — just gets slotted away into this little corner when there’s so much music out there and so many great artists.
I think that one of the big issues is that people talk about foreign languages like it’s a barrier, but then the lie in that is that most people have no idea what their favorite pop songs are about. They can’t sing the lyrics to their favorite pop song.
So you think it’s that listeners are missing out more than artists? Obviously artists are, too, because they’re not making money off the music in ways that others are. But in terms of talking about the art, you say this loss affects people who aren’t necessarily having access to a plethora of music.
Yes. Exactly. I think it’s really, really more the listeners that are losing out. I think the whole idea that music is commercialized and that people should make a living from it is absurd. Just a few generations back, the exceptional family member was the one who didn’t play music in most cultures. Now the exceptional family member is the one who does play music.
And neurologically, it’s bad for people to be listening to the same stuff over and over and over again. It’s unnatural. We’re talking not just about the same songs that are being handed down as folk songs or being transformed over time through a tradition. We’re talking about the exact repetition of a performance, usually that never happened — ‘cause it was multi-tracked so it wasn’t really a performance. It was staggered and constructed and people are hearing that hundreds, maybe thousands of times in their lives.
How do you rectify that as a producer?
I think recorded music is like everything — it’s a double-edged sword. It has a lot of beautiful things about it. The beautiful things are its portability and the fact that people can have private spiritual experiences by themselves, anytime anywhere that they have electricity or batteries, and the promise of it is that they can juxtapose these radically different things. Unfortunately, because of distribution and promotion, that isn’t what usually happens, and people are listening to this narrow sliver and prescribed corner of what music is.
So this idea that we’re living in a meritocracy — not just with music, but with other things — is a bit of myth, and the belief that the cream will rise to the crop, you know, it won’t.
And partially it won’t because there’s this construction of genius. On a planet of 7 billion people, how can there be somebody that’s so good that everything they do should be listened to for decades? Maybe a few people, but not many.
OK, switching gears a bit. I know that you’ve done and are doing a lot of work with violence prevention. How do you see music as a form of that?
I think that ultimately the only chance we have for peace is to listen to each other, whether that’s two individuals or in terms of cultures. And music is something that bypasses people’s psychological defense mechanisms, potentially. Music and humor are very powerful devices because they can basically be Trojan horses — before the person knows it, they’re deriving pleasure from it and it becomes something that is part of them in a positive way.
[For example] someone like James Brown or Michael Jackson or certain figures — Bob Marley, obviously — can dissolve so many barriers with just a single dance move, or just a single vocal note, or a song. And they have. No, [music] doesn’t stop the underlying structural problems in society that pit people against each other, and the history that’s unprocessed that causes certain horrific things to be repeated over and over again, but it does have impact.
“On a planet of 7 billion people, how can there be somebody that’s so good that everything they do should be listened to for decades? Maybe a few people, but not many.”
You seem to believe in the power of music. So tell me about your choice for the title, How Music Dies (Or Lives)… it seems pretty negative.
I think that the book — especially the original version — was pretty negative, and in fact I took out a lot of harsher stuff. There’s probably still some stuff in there that might rub people wrong, but I think some of the more extreme stuff, not a lot, but some of the stuff that kind of seemed to cross a line, I cut. I wanted to make the book not an attack on any one band or person — and also keep it evergreen — so I really tried to minimize references to people.
I guess it’s just that — I don’t know you, but I don’t really believe that you think [music] is dying. Are you more saying that it can and does [die], not necessarily that it is irrevocably in the process of dying?
Sure. I mean, I think music as a human impulse will never die. But certainly recorded music — because of its repetition, because it does create this cultural inertia… it is this newer form that fixes things in place… it does do harm.
I mean there’s good in it, and it does harm. I see it. I see it when I travel around and see the reggae influence eroding local forms, or the pop inflections, like American pop idol glissando vocal stuff permeating different places, or standard-tune guitars being used everywhere. We just did a record in Rwanda and Burundi, and the first three people recorded all played G-C-B chords on a standard-tuned guitar. It’s very disheartening. Fortunately it got a lot better with other people and it became quite incredible. But there was that initial moment of just feeling like, “My God, this is not gonna work.” I mean some of my favorite songs are G-C-B, but it’s very overdone and there’s not much left to express with it and when someone from a culture that’s unfamiliar to it is doing that, you know, that’s music dying. That’s options being reduced rather than multiplied.
But do you think, is that a way that people are trying to participate in a dialogue that seems somewhat universal, trying to respond to it by being a part of it in a way that maybe isn’t familiar to them — and is there some good to come of that, too?
Sure, I mean, potentially. I mean, I’m not concerned about ethnomusicology. I don’t think you need to preserve every musical form. My concern is just the best voices and the best songs and on a lot of the records we’ve had the good fortune of being able to record voices that don’t sound like anything else. Like the Malawi Mouse Boys. Those guys had never listened to recorded voices. It’s just not what they do. And yet one is classic soul belter… but he’s never listened to Otis Redding, he’s never listened to James Carr. He’s not dissimilar from them, but he is dissimilar from them, meaning, he doesn’t sound like them, he just sounds like he’s in their league. It comes from inside him.
[On the other hand], there’s a woman who runs an orphanage in Vietnam and we were talking about music and [she said] the kids there don’t play instruments anymore. If they do music at all, they rap. And when they rap, they rap in bad English. And yet they don’t really speak English, so I think that probably is an attempt to participate, but at the same time it’s a reduction of options rather than an increase in options. And really, I think, people are empowered by options. That’s one of the main antidotes to violence — to give people choices.
What are the key ideas readers should come away with after reading this book?
Nothing beyond the hope that, more than anything else, that people literally will open their ears. Make even a 5 percent investment in what they listen to, in what they consume — books and films and movies — that’s better for their health, and the health of culture. I think what it comes down to is listening to one song a day in a foreign language, and try to watch one movie a year that’s subtitled but not dubbed. If people would do that, it would have impact. You know, it’s not gonna change the world, but it would certainly make things better.
Ian Brennan reads and discusses his book Saturday, Feb. 20 at Busboys and Poets in Brookland. 6:30 p.m.