Sometime in 2016, I noticed that American recording artist Lady Gaga was receiving a publicity push for her forthcoming album Joanne in a manner that could arguably be described as unprecedented. The photo of her wearing that pink hat in profile seemed to be everywhere on the internet, even if you weren’t browsing music sites. Billboard writer Chris Willman called Joanne‘s PR blitz “the most culturally ubiquitous rollout since Taylor Swift’s 1989 two years ago.” People who had no opinion about Lady Gaga, or even music for that matter, had no choice but to already be familiar with the title and artwork of her new album before anyone even heard a note.
The rub was that, in 2016, Lady Gaga was one of the last recording artists who needed publicity. A mere Twitter announcement from her record label would have sealed the album’s fate as an international best-seller. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of musicians who toil in the pay-to-play world of low album sales and lucky-to-break-even tours receive laughably small royalty checks from Spotify. They certainly could have used a fraction of that publicity. Instead, an already-established superstar hogged it all for herself, perpetuating a myth that there’s only so much music publicity to go around. How did things get so lopsided?
I strongly believed, and still do, that the problem of inequality in the music profession is ripe for a scientific takedown. With so many musicians using social media nowadays, their fanbases are more cognizant than ever of the financial woes awaiting anyone seeking a profession in the arts and entertainment industry. Since streaming seems to be the preferred listening format for consumers these days, musicians have swallowed their pride by posting just how humiliatingly small their royalty checks are from such streaming services.
When the United Kingdom held a referendum to leave the European Union, the subsequent “Brexit” deal dealt a major blow to traveling musicians who rely on international touring for a living (and during times of COVID restrictions, it has become an extra obstacle for the shipments of CDs and vinyl). Going into a recording studio has become a money-losing proposition as many independent labels can’t pony up a recording budget. PledgeMusic, a crowdsourcing site popular among struggling musicians, went bankrupt in 2019, meaning they were off the hook for large sums of money they owed to dozens of artists.
If just a few minutes of Googling is enough to bring concerns such as these to the surface, imagine what a thoroughly-researched book could uncover. Imagine what it could do for musicians who work day after day only to see their savings dwindle and their livelihoods shrink.
Alas, Ian Brennan‘s Silenced by Sound is not that book. While the esteemed music producer is certainly concerned with inequity in the music world, he prefers to address it through a series of short, bitter screeds against anything popular while occasionally patting himself on the back for recording isolated musicians in far-flung territories like Afar, Ukerewe, and Abatwa.
Before the table of contents, the preface, the introduction, and prologue, he gives this parenthetical warning of sorts: “(This book is designed to potentially be read randomly, opened to any page and sampled. The content here is intended more to raise questions and stimulate reflection than provide any definitive answers.)” The first sentence holds true as Brennan strolls from one topic to the next with no connecting bridge. Between pages 13 and 18, he goes from recounting his daughter’s first word being a curse word (four letters, starts with an ‘F’) to proposing that Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen be stopped from writing and recording new material. That is about par for the course, both in terms of continuity and overall attitude, of Silenced by Sound.
Early on in my reading I decided that every time I came across something smug, insulting, or condescending in Brennan’s writing, that I would make a note of it. A third of the way into Silenced by Sound, I could tell that my notes were growing a little too thick to handle. “There is hope. Thanks to Ian Brennan for shining a light,” reads a blurb attributed to guitarist Bill Frisell on the back of the book. “Every page of Silenced by Sound is like listening to a fresh, bracing, previously unknown kind of music for the very first time,” gushed Kronos Quartet leader David Harrington on the front.
With all due respect to Frisell and Harrington, Silenced by Sound is a total slog, a $20 cover charge to hear someone moan about popular culture. When he’s not making you feel awful for liking something that’s popular, he’s either making you feel awful for not knowing more about Africa (“Name three artists from Jordan? (Can you name even one?)” goes the first question to a snooty quiz on page 38) or is doing some vague philosophizing. “Music acts as glue — a transparent connectivity tissue that binds people together emotionally, to time and each other.” [page 51]
Sure, that sounds nice, but Brennan has no problem pitting a profound “us” against a vapid “them” with busy sentences like “Stockpiling songs and sounds like weapons, the West’s arsenal symbolically annihilates the world and acts as an occupying force — invaders armed with guitars, laptops, and ‘rad’ haircuts.” [page 51] He recounts an excursion where he recorded the singing voices of women exiled from a Ghanan village on suspicions of witchcraft, and somehow felt the need to conclude the story with this sentence: “Nonetheless, in the end, indulged hipster bands from the West were easily outdone by a bunch of little old ladies with nothing to their name but voices.” [page 106]
“Music is within us all,” Brennan optimistically announces on page 17. But you only have to read ahead three pages to see that he believes in slapping it out of the hands of pop/rock music veterans who have paid their dues.”Can you hum one song by Bon Jovi from the past three decades? Or Paul McCartney? Sting or Roger Waters?” [page 21] Should you honestly answer one of these questions with a “Yes” (as I did), you’ll see that Silenced by Sound is not exactly “intended more to raise questions and stimulate reflection than provide any definitive answers,” as its author had hoped.
Indeed, his reactionary attitude to having well-known songwriters cease releasing new material says more about Brennan’s stubborn listening habits than it does to the quality of Bob Dylan‘s post-Blood on the Tracks output. “Does the world really need another Neil Young song? Did he really have more than one (or maybe two) to begin with?” [page 20] Yes, he did. That’s why he’s Neil Young.
Brennan tries to be clever while dissing Bono on page 57 and comes off as terribly ageist: “With aging and ailing artists, it’s not unlike snatching the cars keys away from ol’ Granddad and taking a difficult stand, ‘We’ve all got to face it, your reflexes just aren’t what they used to be. This is for the good of everyone. Especially the children.'” Hilarious, right?
Through the first half of Silenced by Sound, the reader has to reconcile some of Brennan’s irritating contradictions. He finds politically motivated music hackneyed, yet chastises artists who don’t pursue anything “true”. One moment he’s strongly disapproving of genre-blending (he is disturbingly hung up on purity), the next he’s congratulating Chuck Berry for blending the blues with “hillbilly music”.
Brennan’s tales of recording unknown musicians off the beaten path, mostly in Africa, offer to be the book’s saving grace. Alas, many of these stories are told with the same haughty tone that he uses to wag his finger at the West. In some instances he takes the amateurs-as-superior-musicians notion to extremes, as he does on page 105 when recounting a trip to Ghana: “We brought a famous local musician to record one day, but he struggled to keep pace with the villagers and find space musically. On a break between takes, a preteen sat down uninvited at the hotshot’s instrument and tried playing for the first time ever. The notes that flowed out of him with intuitive ease were mind-bendingly original. I felt a shudder as the novice toyed with chaos, but never quite succumbed. The master musician tensed, undeniably outmatched.”
Absurder still is a chapter named “Naturally Higher” on page 117: “My daughter wrote her first song today. Or, should I say, she improvised a recurring vocal melody while accompanying herself on guitar. Nineteen months old and with just four notes, she bettered anything I’ve ever done. It might be the best thing she will ever do, as well.”
The tide turns, slightly, at the book’s halfway point, where Brennan turns his crosshairs on capitalism and highlights the many ways it has been a disservice to us all. As you may have supposed, there is no panacea in sight as he reminds us that there’s too much good music being ignored thanks to the captains of industry always thinking of the bottom line. This proves to be too little too late.
Silenced by Sound moves on as before, playing the cynical card at nearly every turn. Sure, it might have been refreshing to read Brennan’s assessment of competition singing shows as “cage fights” 15 years ago, but he then goes on to criticize both Donald Trump and Beyoncé with equal venom within just two pages of one another.
I had to take numerous breaks while reading Silenced by Sound. Brennan’s self-righteous clairvoyance would just not stop beating me over the head. Frisell and Harrington’s praises of the book being “fresh, bracing” and “shining a light” did not ring true. Educating oneself in the area of obscure music or any obfuscated area of the arts is one thing. Being lectured to by someone who holds a blanket disgust for all things Western and pop culture is another thing entirely.
If you can’t tell the difference between the two, then perhaps Silenced by Sound is the book for you. Otherwise, continue to support whomever you please in the arts. If music is indeed a binding force, why read 283 pages from a guy who clearly wants battle lines drawn?