As I was sitting around the edge of the group circle (what felt more like a bunch of adolescents gathered around a campfire sharing their deepest worries in the safety of the flame’s warmth and occasionally rewarding their bravery with a scrumptious s’more) I noticed myself becoming increasingly distracted from the conversation at hand. It wasn’t as if I was finding the discussion monotonous; Latham’s insight regarding the anxieties artists face was bringing out a certain confidence within the group that felt empowering and I was especially appreciative of how much information Latham was comfortable sharing on their own personal struggles as an artist situated in the ‘real’ world. Looking down at my hands, I became aware of how they were intuitively tapping out polyrhythms juxtaposed against the music being played seemingly unnoticed by all but a few of my peers. I had to stop myself more than once in fear of annoying those next to me, but if there is one thing that I can’t resist it’s going ham and improvising on a phat beat. When I entered the room, the first thing I noticed was the music in the background and the relaxing atmosphere that Latham was willing to create for us (teas were offered 4 times I believe). It was now this very music being used as a comforting mechanism that was causing my distraction and I would spend the next portion of the talk contemplating in solitude why this was relevant to the conversation being shared by the group.
What spurred my thought processes was the discussion concerning anxiety around finances, success and an artist’s identity, practice and relevance within the context of the ‘real’ world. When I told my parents that I wanted to be a musician after leaving high school I can still remember the look that they shared and the apprehension reflected within their eyes. That doubt motivated me to work hard. I still struggle to have a civilised conversation about money to anyone from their generation without it getting heated and turning into ‘when are you going to get a real job?’ or ‘oh, is there money in that now?’ So you can imagine the confusion when I informed them that I was going to pursue an MFA. Over the past 6 years I have established myself within the Wellington music scene as a gigging musician, composer and teacher. It was always my belief that I would like to make an income from my music and that as long as I was making money doing something that I loved I would be happy. I only recently discovered that this may be the case for some, but it nearly destroyed all love and enthusiasm I have for music. When you continuously perform for others as an entertainment act, no matter how much enjoyment you may receive in doing so, you begin to develop a sort of disassociation with yourself and the music you supposedly create, similar to Marx’s theory of Alienation. At least this was the case with me. Treating music as a source of income created resentment towards it as I was unable to separate the pure repetitiveness and mundanity of it from my own artistic visions and musical integrity. I felt trapped. One can only play ‘Superstition’ so many times before they start questioning their own existence.
I found that the solution to my problem, which actually came up in the group conversation, was to find a job that was somewhat related but could be separated from one’s creative work. For me this was teaching piano privately and in schools. It gave me the chance to reflect on my craft in greater detail and to understand methods of communicating ideas in succinct ways. I completely agree with Latham advocating having a separate job that can finance and support creative work as a primary focus. This brings me to perceptions of success and the sad truth that for most, this entails some kind of monetary security. To be successful in the music business (and it most definitely must be treated as a business if you are to survive) a certain amount of following and financial success is required. Your success is determined upon your audience, who in reality dictate what you are able to produce creatively, which in turn creates a continuous feedback loop with you literally selling your music as a product to the hungry public who graciously consume it. Music nowadays seems to be more about consuming to satisfy the individual and as a means to build a personal identity. What is ‘hip’ sells and in the age of an oversaturated music market where anyone and everyone can create from home, the next banger is only minutes away. Commercialism within music disgusts me and the very thought of catering my creative output to suit the happiness of an audience while sacrificing my own musical integrity makes me livid. Wow I need to chill. Maybe I will save this can of worms for another day when I feel like eating meat.
Returning back to the music that was distracting me during Latham’s talk. I noticed that the playlist, which I assume was being played from Spotify, repeated multiple times and I was able to revisit some songs that I found interesting. One track in particular had the dopest sounding hi-hat sample I had ever heard. Anyway, I started thinking about the role that this music was playing within the current situation. Obviously it was being used to calm us and provide a soothing backdrop to conversation by making sure there were no awkward lulls or silences. It seemed to be an amalgamation of down tempo melancholic beats with obvious trap influences and tinges of sultry soul vocals and neo-soul infused chord progressions. This helped to articulate certain points within the conversation; I remember it syncing very poetically with certain people’s inputs and nearly laughing out loud at how silly the ‘mickey mousing’ effect was. This music is functioning as Muzak. I’ve always been interested in this concept of specifically curated music that is intended to evoke particular emotions and feelings within customers at such places as supermarkets, malls and petrol stations. You will notice that most of modern Muzak is made up of heavily commercialised music and is what most of us are conditioned to hear when not at home. These songs are all designed to speak directly to us (sometimes too literally) and allow us to relate to them in whatever environment we may find ourselves in. Music has the ability to bypass our rational system and appeal directly to our emotional state. In some ways I see this as some form of cheating and the reason why so many people are able to make such seemingly ‘good’ music in the current musical age. Once you find a formula that works, why abandon it for something that might mean giving up security? Using music in this seemingly decorative yet somewhat weapon-like and manipulative fashion worries me and it is something I intend to explore in further depth this year.