Tony Visconti told a story at his South by Southwest Music Conference keynote address Thursday morning. It was no bedtime story, though. Rather, it was a bleak, cautionary tale about the future of the music industry.
Visconti, best known as a recording producer for David Bowie and an array of other artists (including T. Rex, Paul McCartney and Thin Lizzy), opened his address by taking his audience back to his childhood and recalling the people and events who most inspired him, starting with the very sounds of records.
“Something was happening” on those recordings he heard as a young boy, he said, sounds and effects that intrigued him and “I wondered, ‘Where did the echo come from?’”
Later, he fell under the spell of musicians like Chet Atkins, Les Paul and Mary Ford. He recalled as a 12-year-old writing a letter to Atkins, urging him to record a jazz album, and Atkins wrote back to him.
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Then Visconti fell in love with rock and roll, especially the sounds and styles of Fats Domino, Little Richard and Buddy Holly. By then, he was a musician himself, making more money than his carpenter father, making as much as $300 a week performing at weddings.
His love for the Beatles inspired Visconti to move from his native New York to London, where his career in production flourished. He would produce hundreds of albums, 14 of them by Bowie, including his final album, the experimental and ambitious “Blackstar.” He recalled turning down the opportunity to produce “Space Oddity,” one of Bowie’s greatest and most-beloved songs. They would become and remain close, lifelong friends.
“I lived in the best of times,” he said of the golden age of rock and roll. “I’m jaded now. I’ve seen how the sausage is made,” referring to technology like Pro Tools and Auto-Tune.
That was his segue into a nearly 30-minute Dystopian story about a culture where music has been reduced to a commodity ruled by reality shows like “The Voice” and stars are temporary and disposable. The story ends tragically, with a suicide, a denouement that so affected Visconti, he had to pause and catch himself to keep from crying.
His address then turned into a lecture: to labels, the artists and content providers like Spotify and YouTube, which, he said, is “clogging the arteries” of the music industry with its overflow of “unfocused” content.
Visconti compared to himself the “ghost of Christmas future,” and called himself a “curmudgeon swinging two fists in the air.” But he defended his forecast. “You don’t have to be a psychic to be a prophet.”
He chided labels for not nurturing artists. “Your product is culture,” he said. “The culture I want to see is quality.”
And he told artists to be bold, adventurous, experimental and aspire to be different instead of redundant. “Be courageous,” he said.
Visconti knows as much as anyone about artists taking chances and labels giving them the opportunity to do so. Bowie was a bold and chameleonic risk-taker, including “Blackstar,” his valediction about life and death.
Bowie was the product of a vastly different time and era, Visconti said, but there’s no reason this music culture, despite the tyranny of its new media, new technology and new channels of distribution, can’t produce more artists like him.