Strange subject matter for an artists’ blog, I know, but hear me out. Those of us of a certain age were around before the advent of hippies. For those that have never known a world without hippies, it might be difficult to comprehend the impact of this social revolution, but the repercussions are felt each and every day, I assure you.
When I was young, people did as they were told. It’s what got so many people killed during the two world wars, but even the adults that had been through these wars as children still clung to the idea that the authorities knew best, that your sacrifices for king and country were always worthwhile and that you should attempt to ally yourself with a benign corporation, who (it was believed) would paternally protect you from the cradle to the grave, if necessary. What was seen as dangerous nonsense was working for yourself, being an artist, making a living as a musician, designing clothing, etc. These occupations were seen as poorly paid, disreputable, insecure and would end in tears for anybody that attempted to live such a life.
Then the Beatles arrived on the scene and suddenly people with a talent for entertainment and filling the world with peace, love, colour and music were able to make sizable incomes. They also seemed to be having incredible amounts of fun doing so (though I suspect there were down sides to being a Beatle too). This is what many children of the sixties saw as role models. We wanted nothing more than to be able to live in Abbey Road studios and produce albums of the quality and freshness of Sgt Peppers. We wanted to have nice guitars and wear outlandish clothing and never have to sit at a desk, filling out forms. It seemed like a nice life. Many of us pursued our interest and talents in music, song writing and audio recording, with fervour, just so that we could do what the Beatles did. The emergence of Pink Floyd, less than a decade after the summer of love, seemed to cement the idea. Here was another band that lived in Abbey Road studios and produced albums of the quality and freshness of Sgt Peppers. Dark Side of the Moon was proof.
We all knew that making a record was a competitive industry. Only the best got the chance. We all wanted to be the best. We practiced hard every day and had band rehearsals every weekend. We wore through our fretboards and strings, we destroyed plectrums and our young hearing, playing our “affordable” copies of name brand American guitars until the chrome plating wore off. That was what we wanted to do.
Then our parents found out. The softer strategy for a parent was to encourage an interest in jazz- something more sedate and respectable. The hard line approach was to forbid the enterprise entirely and argue vociferously that you needed to study harder to get a “real” job – one where you would be a professional, with technical skills that would earn you a handsome living, protect you from unemployment, afford you some middle class respectability and respect and provide you with a generous old age pension. The goal of work seemed to be to do whatever it took to avoid change, uncertainty and the worst thing of all – unemployment. It was about as practical as trying to avoid the weather.
Many of us obeyed. We were good kids. We did what our parents told us was right and we strove for that illusive security. We went to university and got degrees, prepared to take our place at the upper middle part of the tree, in the world of work. At twenty five, we were supposed to be set for life. Done.
For some of us, though, the idea of working in a steelworks or power station for the rest of our lives didn’t hold much appeal – certainly a fraction of the appeal of making fabulous music and releasing exciting new records. We went into things like engineering with one eye on applying it to that dream. Maybe we could design effects pedals, through our knowledge of electronics. Or amplifiers. We might be able to make our own guitars, to our own designs. Perhaps we could design synthesisers or audio recording consoles. Maybe we could find a way to build machines that did away with audio tape entirely. That would be sort of like being in the music industry, while keeping our parents and a wider society convinced we were obeying and conforming, living the steady, secure life. It wasn’t.
The life of an engineer was and is one of under-recognition for your talents and value. Some engineers reconcile themselves to the lack of recognition and remuneration on the grounds that they are being paid to have fun, because engineers usually really love to be engineers. I know I do. However, at some point, those of us with interests in colour and music grew to see that these engineers were being taken advantage of, by people that could afford to pay better and recognise with more sincerity, but who saw the alternative as a means of control. This was one kind of creative being you could sink your claws into and control, sucking them dry for every ounce of new innovative product they could invent. The status of engineers, therefore, is actually pretty low in the countries I have worked in.
Of course, engineering for musical applications isn’t that well paid either. Eventually, you find yourself with a family and a mortgage and a need to earn enough to pay for it all, so you take your engineering skills to another field of engineering entirely (goodbye music) or you start a company and hope you can find enough customers and luck to survive the ruthless culling process that all start up companies, in technology, are subjected to. One day you wake up, realising that your job is not secure (companies that employ engineers come and go), you aren’t particularly well respected, you aren’t treated all that well as an employee, you’re not rolling in money, you still have to work extra years to get your pension, like everybody else who was steam-rollered by the crisis in the world economy and all that safety and security you abandoned your artistic passion for, by obeying, just hasn’t materialised. It’s easy to feel short changed.
Some other children of the same age pursued guitar playing as a career, but ultimately did not move into Abbey Road or produce albums either. Those that I know are sometimes frustrated by their lack of engineering and technical skills, because those turn out to be really useful to working musicians. However, their frustration is no greater than mine at my lack of musical theory knowledge and composition skills.
So, in the end, it didn’t matter much which path was pursued. Obeying for the sake of security turned out to be fruitless. Obeying partially didn’t particularly feed our families too richly either. Life as a musician is now much more difficult, ironically because of software engineers, in part. Nobody has security. There are no bands that move into Abbey Road (even though some still visit briefly) and although fewer albums are made in big studios, many more are made in project studios that have more capability than the Beatles and George Martin ever dreamed of.
What is still hard to do is to make an album of quality and freshness, as monumental as Sgt Peppers or Dark Side of the Moon. Maybe we’ll never see such events in our lifetimes ever again. At this point, who knows what the right path forward is? Maybe obeying didn’t pay off, but disobeying isn’t as lucrative as it used to be, either. What counts more and more, these days, is doing what your soul tells you you must. Finding a way to put food on the table, while you do, remains as challenging as ever, no matter whether you obeyed or not.