T Bone Burnett’s Remarks on Music and the American Story (with intro by Rosanne Cash)
Remarks on Music and the American Story
T Bone Burnett
May 11, 2016
The First Amendment gives us freedom of speech.
For most of us here, that’s at the very core of who we are — the freedom to speak, to sing, to create, to tell stories.
But the First Amendment does more than that — it says all Americans have the right to “petition their government for redress of grievances”.
That’s why we’re here today– from all over the country, from all kinds of music, from all walks of life.
Creators and artists petitioning our government.
Demanding change in a music economy that isn’t working.
Petitioning this Congress to step up and update the obsolete laws that have made such chaos of the business side of music.
Doing what we can to right wrongs that have plagued creators for decades — from the player piano dance halls to today’s infinite cyber jukeboxes.
Reminding the digital entrepreneurs- the iTopians- that they are partners in this brave new music ecosystem — not in charge of it.
The Captains of the Internet have been ordering our lives and declaring themselves above the rules for the last twenty years.
And they’ve made a hash of it — because they’re so occupied in publicizing what they have built that they fail to come to terms with how much they don’t know. Ethan Zuckerman, head of the MIT Media Lab has called the internet “a fiasco”. Tim Berners-Lee, the architect of the internet, said at Davos last year that the internet needs to be re-architected. The quality of the very sound we listen to has been decimated, literally. Yet the companies for whom we have made made so much money, fail to see how much we all have lost.
Life is not a binary system. The things that matter happen between the binary.
Mercy is not binary. Mercy cuts across the binary. The same goes for love and music and art and flowers and trees and rivers and all of the things that make life beautiful and worth living- that make life possible.
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.
We are not looking backward. We are looking forward to a better place.
As artists and creators we constantly use the technology that has brought us this anywhere / anytime / anything digital world.
But we insist on being recognized and respected for what we bring to the table as well.
This is not a one way street.
Drain the music out of cyberspace and you’ve got an emotional desert. And an economic one too.
Think about this — tech’s biggest event every year is a music festival.
Because they know in their hearts that music is what people really care about.
Congress knows what the issues are — and you do, too.
The Fair Play Fair Pay Act must pass.
The digital safe harbors must be fixed.
YouTube must come out into the sunlight and pay for the music — all the music — it uses to earn billions of dollars.
YouTube can afford to pay artists.
For YouTube or any of the digital companies to engage with artists worldwide is worth more than all the new models they can monetize, in parlance of the times, to quote Maude Lebowski.
There is a simple rule to make the music economy work again: Fair pay for all music on all platforms.
We fight for this principle because it is the right thing to do. To ensure that the next generation of artists and creators can afford to take risks and commit to their work. And to make sure everyone who cares about music does not have to wander through a digital desert with nothing but the sound of a virtual wind blowing.
And because it’s in our bones as artists and creators.
And in our souls as Americans.
We in this country have always defined ourselves through music.
From Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier during the Revolution to The Battle Hymn of the Republic in the Civil War, from the dust bowl songs of Woody Guthrie to the deep street poetry of Kendrick Lamar.
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 Appalachia. We both have an important history of thoughtful and careful stewardship of our cultures. There is no greater expression of the soul of this country than in our music.
Music has been our greatest ambassador to the world. We have never had a more important or effective ambassador that Louis Armstrong- no one has done more to spend our message of freedom and innovation.
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 the words of any president of the United States.”
I believe that is inarguable.
This is the story of the United States: a kid walks away from home with a song and nothing else, and conquers the world.
We could start with Elvis Presley, but we could add in names for hours- Nina Simone, 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, Beyonce, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and I’m going to stop there, and I’ve barely gotten started.
That is the American Character. That is Johnny Appleseed.
And we don’t have to look to history to know it.
This year, in close succession, we have lost Prince, Merle Haggard, Glen Frey, and David Bowie.
Artists who risked everything — in their songs, in their performances, in their lives.
We can see how much they mean to our culture by the way their deaths have pervaded the national conversation, even in the midst of a psychedelic political season.
And this will be happening at an even faster rate as the Golden Age of Music comes to an end.
In the end, that’s what’s at stake today.
A music economy that works.
That keeps the river of creation flowing.
That gives the kid who walks out the door with a guitar on her back a chance.
And gives all of us a chance to someday hear her play.
Join T Bone Burnett and tell Congress to stand up for fair pay for music creators.