Tony Visconti Talks Finding the Next David Bowie & The Future of Music at SXSW: 'It Can Only Get Better'
"I know I'm rambling now. I'll get to the point where I meet David Bowie," the late icon's longtime producer and collaborator Tony Visconti promised the audience at his South by Southwest keynote speech on Thursday morning (March 17) -- drawing appreciative laughs, since he was already more than 20 minutes into the talk.
Ultimately, however, Visconti spent very little time talking about Bowie during the nearly 80-minute address, instead taking a verbal journey through his genuinely fascinating and undeniably accomplished biography and then offering thoughts and visions for the future of the music industry. "Consider me the Ghost of Christmas Future from A Christmas Carol," Visconti said before reading a lengthy excerpt from a new novel he's written called The Universe, which is set in 2026, when record companies no longer sign artists, but instead commission songs via lottery and deciding their fates on a weekly basis -- much to the chagrin of Visconti's protagonist, an A&R man with a huge vinyl collection and a habit of bingeing on Jimi Hendrix.
"It could go this way. All the signs are there," Vinsconti warned. "I think we're living in a time when formulas are being repeated more than they've ever been repeated in the past. There's a great unbalance between trying to get that elusive teenage market to buy all these records being made … with a few notes, with loops. You listen to a pop/rock record today, and it's not a band, but you're actually listening to a computer and vocal that was doctored to however knows how much. Then you have people like Sun Kil Moon that wrench you. It tears your heart out. And my dear friend David Bowie turned me on to that album."
Visconti castigated the labels for focusing the majority of their resources on too few artists without reaping rewards from that strategy. "The world's population is nearly doubling. How come we can't sell more records?" Visconti noted. YouTube, he added, was not an answer. "Having 500 million people who write music and put their song out …You have all these people competing for a No. 1 spot out of 500 million. I call this phenomenon the clogging of the arteries. It's too much music that's not marketed. It's unfocused." Visconti said that too small a corps of mixers are being used to work on too many songs, stifling variety, and the sameness is serving to reduce the audience.
"The record labels nowadays are not giving you quality," he explained. "That's why you're disenchanted. That's why you don't buy records. Now we have a younger generation that's used to this spoon-feeding, but labels, you're losing a lot of sales." Visconti included TV competition shows in the mix as well, noting that, "From watching The Voice and watching America's Got Talent, people think it's all luck. Someone will give you a nice haircut and makeover and everything and it's all hunky-dory -- until next week."
With a laugh, Visconti acknowledged his seemingly pessimistic message. "I'm old-school here, a curmudgeon," he said. "I didn't want to come out saying this stuff and swinging two fists in the air -- and, by the way, happy St. Patrick's Day." And he did shift tones into cheerleading, predicting, "There are great people here. It's all around us. The next David Bowie lives somewhere in the world. The next Beatles, the next Bruce Springsteen. But they're not getting a shot. They're not being financed. They could contribute greatly to our world."
And Visconti urged powers that be to create opportunities for those artists. "People who own a record label, work at a record label, look at the freaks out there, the really weird ones," he said. "That's what the public wants to hear. They want to hear something different. We have to nurture the artists. We have to nurture the business. If you've got somebody who looks great and writes, don't send them to Hollywood and get those songwriters to write for them. Develop that person." But Visconti also told fledgling artists they were "complicit" in the situation too. "Don't sit down and write hundreds of crap songs hoping you'll get that one. It's a losing game," he said. "If you're a genius, show the world you're good. Show them your best stuff, not what you think they want. Don't get caught napping… I would recommend it cannot get any worse. It can only get better."
Visconti also spoke at some length about his life in music -- from being exposed at an early age via his family and his ethnically diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn to learning to play ukulele first and then going on to formal training in jazz and classical and his subsequent move into folk and rock. His music teacher, Visconti said, "stressed how important it was to read music. That's something I've never regretted… I'm in the music business for 50 years now, I think, because I can read music."
As for Bowie, Visconti recalled becoming fast friends after moving to London during the late '60s, bonding over shared tastes in music and movies. But Visconti passed on producing Bowie's "Space Oddity" -- "When I heard that song I was revolted," he recalled -- handing it over to friend Gus Dudgeon, who he acknowledged made "a superb record" of it with Bowie. "Then David comes back to me and says, 'Well, we got that out of the way. Let's get on with the album,'" Visconti said. "'What? You still want to work with me?' We went on and made that album [The Man Who Sold the World]. I still didn't quite know what I was doing, but it's considered a classic."