How hard is music?

(January 10, 2008)

That’s a question worth asking. It’s also worth asking musicians with strong and clear views to contribute some answers. Not necessarily definitive answers but educated experienced-based answers.

Recently, I met with Tom Drinkwater and Helen Bell – together they are the duo Pillowfish – and I listened carefully to their views.

Tom states: “Music is hard! It’s one of the most difficult labours that humans can do, and yet it's one of the fields where hobbyists are most prevalent. Myself, if I had to hire an amateur, I'd rather hire a hobbyist plumber than a hobbyist musician, yet the reverse is common practise. Being a hobbyist plumber (lawyer, doctor, taxi-driver or gas fitter) is illegal. If you want good results you have to train and devote time. That means become a professional or vocational musician, just like any other demanding field. I prefer the word vocational to professional since plenty of amateurs get paid, and plenty of serious vocational musicians rely on benefits, other work, or a partner with a job to get by.  There are a few good amateurs of course, although the better ones have often devoted so much time to their art they are borderline vocational anyway.”

“Some may consider this elitist, but people rarely criticise other professions for trying to be good at what they do, so there's a double standard. The paradox is that having decided to become a vocational musician you spend a huge amount of time promoting it. The result is you have about as much time left to devote to the music as a keen hobbyist with a day job (and much less money). That can mean you don't get better as fast as you might like, or create as much output as you could. It also means you have less money to pay the industry to promote you.”

Of course interesting trends can emerge from a hobbyist tradition and often do, but it usually takes vocational musicians to turn that into something listenable and artistically coherent. So listening to the oral tradition is sociology or 'ethnomusicology' rather than art.

“Traditional (folk) music overcomes the time and effort limitations of making art, by taking the art out of the equation. By focusing on holding on to a tradition, rather than creating something new, the demands on the musician are much reduced, and acceptable results can be achieved by amateurs.”

Tom continues talking about the misunderstanding that artists are somehow ‘compelled’ to create: “Music is not something I'm compelled to do internally. I have to make an effort. I do it because I think it's important, or there's something I want to hear that doesn't exist. Or something I want to say that is not said enough. But there is no internal compulsion, unfortunately, or I would be more prolific. Not that compulsion would necessarily improve the quality of the output, just the quantity, which is already more than I can learn and record anyway.”

Helen also considers compulsion: “I don't know about compulsion because if I were compelled I'd probably do it a lot more. Writing music is not something I think about, it just happens sometimes when stuff condenses in my brain at seemingly random intervals. I usually have a small part or parts of a composition that come to me, and then sit down and consciously write a song or tune around it.”

As Pillowfish, both Tom and Helen have a clear view on the so-called ‘drive’ to write music: “Is plumbing something you’re internally compelled to do? Is there a compulsion to be a civil servant or a computer programmer?  Probably not. The idea of compulsion feeds the myth of the artist (musician, writer, poet, sculptor, whatever) as a tortured, different, special being.  Many artists like to use this myth. It could be argued that in some way it enhances sexual attractiveness, look what it’s done for many successful musicians. Consider those talented but undisciplined ‘stars’ that manage to ‘pull’ stunning beauties despite (or because of) the chaotic and drug fuelled aura of tortured artist mystique and self-destructiveness. Which, incidentally the media love to pump up into the cause of their talent rather than a hindrance to it. Perhaps that’s why so many artists like to use this myth as a promotional tool.”

The media loves to use this fable of compulsion to glamorise what is otherwise much hard work.  That’s why film biopics of musicians, writers and painters all focus on their love lives, because a film showing a writer sitting down writing from 10am until 4pm each day is incredibly boring.

Tom continues the theme: “Ideas are easy.  Turning raw ideas into a product that people want to listen to is hard. Being an artist is taking the idea, working on it, trying different choices, putting in the time and the work – and then promoting it and hanging on in there long enough to get noticed. And if you are a musician it also takes learning to play the song on the instrument after you’ve written it, then recording it as near perfectly as you can. “

Tom and Helen point out: “We spend easily 50 times as much time on editing, arranging, learning to play, and recording a song as it took to write the initial bones of the song (melody, chords or counterpoint, and lyric). Most people who listen to music and think about it will have will have a good idea every day or so.  But they don’t usually have the time, training, tools or techniques to develop it into a finished product.  We are all artists, if we take the time to work at it and the effort to learn the history (a nod here to the Tradition) and technique.  And it’s that latter part, taking the time, that makes the difference between professionals and amateurs, and that results in quality output. Many people have great inspirations, few follow them up with enough hard work to realise a worthwhile piece of art.”

Tom closes: “What is important to me is that music has content, something to say musically, socially and or conceptually. It should be a development on the past rather than a reiteration of it, and that it be well made. If we want to see music like that we need to give the people who do it a living, because it rarely happens like that when done as a hobby.”



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