On the day community leaders and city officials solemnized Fort Worth’s positive relationship with visitors and its future, music producer and songwriter Joseph Henry “T Bone” Burnett delivered Friday a dystopian vision for arts and culture in a speech at Visit Fort Worth’s annual meeting.
Burnett, the event’s keynote speaker, used the platform to take a swipe at technology and the influence of capitalism in music, calling it “anti-human” and a means to consolidate wealth and power that imprison artists.
“The very thing an artist does is figure out what he likes,” Burnett said. “The technocrats look down on artists. They made all these tools and they think we should be grateful, subservient even and use their flimsy new tools happily to make them ever more powerful. But we can make art with anything. We don’t need their tools. Music confounds the machines.”
Burnett, a Fort Worth native, noted people are projecting idealized versions of themselves through screens, which has triggered a decline in art’s capacity to attract and charm. The image or mask people hide themselves behind have slowly became their face, Burnett said.
Social media and technology companies took the full force of Burnett’s vocal retaliation. He blamed tech giants, like Facebook and YouTube, of taking over the music and art industries and “automating” it.
“Technology does only one thing – it tends towards efficiency. It has no aesthetics. It has no ethics. Its code is binary,” Burnett said. “But everything interesting in life, everything that makes life worth living happens between the binary. Mercy is not binary. Love is not binary. Music and art is not binary.”
According to the Recording Industry Association of America, online music streaming comprised more than 75% of the U.S. music industry revenue in 2018. Streaming platforms, like Spotify and Apple Music, have been recently criticized for taking large chunks out of the revenues from artists and record labels.
Because of the way the music industry functions currently, Burnett said, many artists are unwillingly doubling as advertisers of their talents.
“We live in a time in which artists are being stampeded from one bad deal to another bad deal,” Burnett said. “No one asks the artists. We are told to get good in marketing. I have to say, and I think I probably speak for every musician I know, that I didn’t start playing music because I sought or thought it would lead to a career in marketing.”
Burnett’s 15-minutes-long speech echoed – in theme and context – his keynote address at South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin in March 2019, where he similarly dissected the subjects of art degradation, politics, business and science.
The multiple Grammy award-winning musician has advocated for the creation of a sustainable digital economy for art and music even before the extensive rise of social media and streaming services.
“Our 21st century communication network, guarded by a certain adherence with a religious fervor has turned into a surveillance and advertisement mechanism,” Burnett said. “The World Wide Web has become just that – a web that stares everyone who uses it. Artists must not submit to the demands or the definitions of the technocrats.”
Burnett is a producer, musician and songwriter who grew up in Fort Worth. Before his remarks, Burnett attended a reception celebrating the honorary renaming of St. Louis Ave in his name. Burnett was born in St. Louis, and the street is now home to Record Town, a music store that inspired him in his youth.