Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ambition: a ramble

Young people are told that they can be whatever they want to be. Young musicians with talent, aptitude, and the ability to work hard are told that if they practice and study they can become great musicians. I certainly agree. Becoming an insightful and expressive person is, after all is said and done, the greatest benefit of studying music. I measure greatness in terms other than monetary ones, but our larger culture (the one that has been around for most of recorded history) seems to favor a different system of measurement.

Everyone knows that in order to be successful (or simply to be able to make a living from their music) musicians need to have a whole range of business and entrepreneurial skills, some kind of support system (financial and otherwise), a lot of luck, and an extra helping of resilience to put up with a lot of rejection. They also need a lot of ambition, and good (or at least distinctive) looks are always an asset.

As the daughter of a principal player in a major orchestra, I had a rather clear view of the music business when I was young. I have seen ambitious people win auditions and develop careers. I have also seen people with tremendous amounts of talent, ability, and musical intelligence treated unfairly by people in positions of power.

Now that I am on the other side of childhood, I see the business-related aspects of the musical world in my figurative rear-view mirror standing tall in the musical landscape. Musicians, particularly good performing musicians, are insecure by nature. Many do not feel very comfortable with promoting themselves, particularly because they understand the impermanence of what they do, and they understand that in order to maintain a certain degree of competence they need to put in a great deal of work. They know that it is easy to get out of shape, and it is hard to build skills up again once they have been abandoned. It is also easy to become discouraged and disappointed by the various hands life can deal to musicians who deserve much more recognition, community support, and respect than they often get.

The nature of the musical beast hasn't really changed over the years, but what has changed access that musicians have to the public and to one another. A generous handful of excellent (and not so excellent) "tell all" books about the business of music explain how managers, record labels, and contractors ruled the pre-internet musical world. Now, thanks to this tremendous public relations machine, anyone with excellent computer skills (or a friend with excellent computer skills), a domain name, and the willingness to put the time and energy into self promotion can make his or her work known to the world. It doesn't necessarily turn music making into a livelihood, but it can help if the person promoting himself of herself is willing to do marketing-type things that generate revenue.

It seems that ambition itself is the greatest currency in the internet-based musical world. I learned long ago that there is no such things as becoming "rich and famous" from most endeavors that are worthwhile. But richness and fame are not the measure of a musician (or a writer, or an artist). The ability to deliver what you promise is. If the biography that you put on your website or in your programs says something like "one of the finest (add instrument here)-ists of her generation," you should be able to prove that to be plausible when you play. (A phrase like that one always pings my "implausometer" because of all the relative terms: how long is a generation? Who is measuring the quality. How large is the "pool" from which the "finest" can belong.)

Perhaps we need to rethink ambition as our PR machine (the internet) changes its face every couple of months. Does the time you spend on facebook or twitter, or any of the other "social networking" tools cut into your practice time or the time that you spend writing music or studying music? Do you find that your need for recognition for what you do via the internet defines your self worth and affects your productivity? Is the joy of having recognition short lived? Does the lack of recognition from the "masses" on the internet make you feel empty?

There are many questions we need to ask ourselves about the relative health of tethering too much of our musical lives to the internet. I have to keep reminding myself that it is the here and now that matters in music, and the only recognition that is important is the recognition I give myself. When we turn off the computer, which is a window to the world (as well as a mirror) for so many people, we have to face, once again, who we are to ourselves and to the people we relate to in real time and in real space.

1 comment:

Ben said...

Cool, mom!