Where Have all the John Coltrane’s and the Nick Drake’s Gone?: Fruit for Thought for the Aspiring Musician
I can remember heading to a meeting that the Musician’s Union had set up some time in early November, around Covent Garden. It was a meet and greet encouraging members to get to know one another and I had gone in search of a keys player. The turnout was pretty small but what little turnout there was consisted of the usual crowd one might expect should they attend your average open mic, talent showcase or music meet & greet from the past ten years. The air was stuffy with oxygen hogging, eager bar spitting to invisible beats and unnecessarily lilting altos as though Christina Aguilera had taught a cat to die dramatically. There were of course the baby Martin acoustic guitar wielders all of which threw what I can only describe as a contemptible look my way once they saw the (normal sized) electric guitar case. Almost as though it was some abhorrent relic from a strange time that was viewed with great suspicion. Anyway, I didn’t mind. Like I said, this was a scenario I was becoming pretty used to.
I found myself at the bar (as I often do) chatting to a few of the older chaps that had attended. Classy lads, session players for years and both pianists. One of the chaps, Simon, knew Dan Federici’s replacement in Bruce Springsteen’s the E Street Band something that for me, as a huge Springsteen fan, was pretty much me settled for the night as I heard stories of the fabled magnanimity of the man himself. We talked about a great many thing and a great many artist and got pretty damn tipsy. Simon and I, eventually finding ourselves increasingly the last remaining souls of the party, lost in the beer drone world we’d built on the wooden top bar, where only good conversation and cold, crisp lager are king, found ourselves in our own enviable little party that everyone else around us just didn’t seem to understand on the surface. Which was their downfall. It wasn’t a surface based type of party we were having.
After a few laughs, anecdotes and a few discussions of our favourite artists, Simon said “…but what really concerns me is the state of the music industry now. Where it’s going. I recognise it less and less each day. It’s hurtling past me. It’s passing me by…”. I, of course, had an answer straight away. It was the type of answer one gives if they haven’t really heard what had previously been said. It was the type of answer that seemed rehearsed and learned from another source of knowledge besides real experience.
I had been on this ‘Independent Musician’ hype (still am) for quite some time prior to this conversation. A student of the likes of these YouTube and Instagram gurus who promote the strategies with which one can “do it yourself”. You know, without a label and all that. This DIY approach to a music career, that is largely built on the internet and the revolution of social media, has certainly been able to offer creatives such as myself the chance to take their destinies into their own hands somewhat that much I won’t deny. You basically treat yourself as a start up company before the big labels do it for you and take all the cash.
So with all of this fresh in my mind, quick as a shot, I blurted it out to Simon;
“Well I think what we’ll start to see is a lot more ‘music entrepreneurs’, people who are really branding their own art by themselves, for themselves and using the internet to get out, get ahead, with full control over their product and no need or use for a label”. I felt pretty good about myself. I must have sounded like creative yuppie numero uno, putting even Patrick Bateman to shame. But his response soon shattered the well rehearsed spiel. Because, in and amongst all the social media algorithms and trends, the marketing strategies, the videography and production, all the full university courses one has to become at least an amateur with in order to try to build something like an independent music career, I had forgotten the core of something very simple and very obvious.
“Yeah, but I don’t want to hear the music of someone like that. I want to hear a John Coltrane, a Jimi Hendrix, a Nick Drake. I don’t want to hear the music of a social media influencer, a businessman, an entrepreneur. I want to hear the music of someone who has sat, alone, in their room, for hours and hours on end, toiling away at an instrument so that they might, some day, find the sounds with which to describe their experience on this earth, their view of life without the primitiveness of words. I want to hear the music of someone who has wrestled with life, with themselves, with that instrument. I want to hear the music of someone who holds up something they have shed blood, sweat and tears for knowing that influencers, marketing executives and advertisers won’t understand the first thing about it because it wasn’t made for them and the artist was happy and consolidated in the fact that fame, riches and adoration did not lay before them because that is not why they made the piece to begin with.”
He had a point of course. As soon as those initial words came out of his mouth I knew I wasn’t going to argue with him. Afterwards he stared off into space for a short moment. As did I. And then we went right back to anecdotes and the artists we loved.
After we stumbled out of the building together with only the remaining reps from The Musician’s Union who needed to lock up, we shook hands, took each others details and parted ways.
He left me with something that day. I’ve toiled over it ever since and as I’ve toiled with it it produced more and more questions in my mind.
What happens to Art when we surrender it to trends, fads and popular opinions? What happens when it’s just churned, constantly and consistently, through the machine? When it requires a panel of judges, themselves has-beens, burnouts and/or businessmen, to decide whether it’s worth peoples time? What happens to it when people only give it the time of day if it’s on television? What happens when we hand it over to become second rate imitations and remakes of cultural captains as though it were being assembly lined onto the market through some kind of Culture Industry (Adorno/Horkheimer)? Packaging it and passing it off as something authentic, original, creative instead of what could otherwise be pure, unique, unspoilt, unfiltered - if it were only given the chance?
Or am I just wasting my time contemplating any of this? Are we all just apathetic to it like we are everything else? Do people really want to be awakened and affirmed by Art instead of just numbed by it? Has it always been this way and are we just the next generation to add to the slow and continual enslavement of Culture and Art to the cold metrics of business?
Well if you take anything from this rambling take this; business should serve Art, not the other way around.
The rationality of the world of business, the idea of crafting a product that serves some objective purpose, solves a problem or cures an ill makes for what I’ve found to be an uneasy relationship partner with the emotivity, the seeming nonsense, the seemingly un-obvious necessitation to our survival and the (dare I say) spirituality of Art. Some people seem to be better at marrying the two and good on them. It's a beautiful thing to witness when done right. But I get the same feeling when I see another soulless remake in the cinema as when I see another advert for another season of fucking X Factor. I wonder at what point Art has become commodified beyond reimbursing the artist for the lengths at which they have gone to supply truths, emotion, friendship, ecstasy, companionship and wisdom. Services rendered.
The purpose of Art is to celebrate life.
The problem it solves is existential angst.
The illness it cures is intolerance, dread and ignorance.
What kind of person tries to boil down, quantify and imitate this for fame and fortune? And worse, yet, why is it so readily consumed? It's like Art's greatest use in the 21st Century has been its potential use in conning people.
But, are we primed for a revolution? Do we, here and now, have a real chance to seize back control of the value of Art before the minds of the masses are totally consumed (for want of a better word) by the never-ending, neon lit pit of consumerism? The truth of all that remains to be seen but one thing is for sure; if you’re going to try to make a living out of Art there will come a point where you’re going to have to let that uneasy relationship between Art and business in. How much, or how far, is up to you but it will need to play a roll in some way.
So my advice to aspiring musicians would be this; that although you might be searching for your profession amongst all this noise, don’t ever let the trends, the likes, the charts, the streaming metrics, the popularity contests get in the way of making something you feel is intricate, layered, authentic, rewarding, hard won and delivering it in a way that is authentic to who you are.
That you make sure, at the core of it all, you have something to say! And having something to say comes from real life in all its splendour and all its pain.
Make sure your something isn’t mundane, monotonous, quota filling or box fitting but from you, from your time here on this earth. Discipline yourself, turn away from the nonsense, more often than not, so that you can live in and be present in the real world. You, the music and your relationship with it, come first and foremost.
Easier said than done, sometimes, I know. The world we live in is a very different one to the worlds of John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix and Nick Drake, people seem to lead very busy lives now, it’s hard for them to see beyond immediate satisfactions. Not to mention trying to create a music career on your own with whatever funding you can muster has got to be high up on the list of long and arduous tasks which is why it is more important than ever to be that kid in that room alone toiling over those instruments. Because once you can consistently strip away all the hollow trends, fads, popular opinions and business jargon and you’ve switched off from what feels like an endless race against richer, better looking and younger contemporaries, you must hunt down those moments where you’re in a room alone. Phone off. Computer off. TV off. That’s the good stuff. That is real life, and your documentation of it. That is where Jimi Hendrix’s, John Coltrane’s and Nick Drake’s are forged. And then, when you’re ready, you can emerge from the solitude and let the cold metrics in as far as you are willing to let them. And the moment the music, the passion, the drive and your happiness are being compromised then take a step back, back into the room where there is just you and the music.
I know for a fact there are Jimi Hendrix’s, John Coltrane’s and Nick Drake’s out there right now and there must be many, many more we don’t know anything about. And since many within what’s left of the old music industrial world seem too frightened to take a chance on them, choosing to settle for the same old safe bets year after year, it will be social media and live music venues where these next virtuosos and visionaries are found for, like Freddy Mercury rowing the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, it will be up to them to show their worth and bring it into fruition.
My only fear is will they be found amongst the quickness and easiness of hollow fads?
Will they even be recognised at all? Well that is up to us to seek them out and recognise the signs.
None the less, more are out there.
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