There is something they never tell you, when you decide to become a musician. They never tell you that it is both a blessing and a curse.
In many ways, music has, for me, been my sanctuary and an all-consuming interest, throughout my entire life. I am definitely enriched, as a sentient and sensitive human being, because I spent time on my music (but less enriched in my bank balance). Music has been a comfort, a friend, an escape, a protective fortress, a place to feel comfortable, a way to appear cool, a conduit to lasting friendships, a confidence builder, a way to relax and de-stress, a joy, a pleasure, an emotional release, a means of self-expression, my hope and dream, a way to strike up interesting conversations with people that wouldn’t ordinarily look twice and it has been the stable rock that has been at the centre of my life, ever since I was very small. For those many blessings I am eternally grateful. I am no less grateful for the time and money my parents devoted to my musical education and to my nearly obsessive hobby. I am also lucky to have a musical wife and two musical children who, while rolling their eyes every time I see a guitar shop, are indulgent and supportive of my music. Those blessings are considerable.
The curse is that it has been a Tantalus. I have never been able to make it a paying proposition to the extent that I can support a family in comparative middle class comfort. To do so would entail sacrifices that I am not prepared to make, on behalf of my family. They deserve a better living and shouldn’t have to endure deprivation, so that I may create. I also realise that making music full-time means your ability to obtain better gear and more musical learning resources becomes severely constrained. We have always been a twinkle in each other’s eye, music and I, but somehow never made it all the way. The frustration of needing to play down your lifelong interest in music, for the convenience of others’ egos, or to silently nod and grin, when a professional musician of less experience, ability and polish calls you a mere amateur, is quite wearing, in the end. Never being able to devote the time to get your skills up to the level you would like is also quite annoying. However, the worst curse is the feeling that there is still music inside of you that needs to be released, but you just can’t get it done. You’re busy earning a living instead. I may be one of the better music producers that nobody has ever heard about, for all I know.
The music industry is a cruel and unjust place, which appears to rip off its best artists more today than it ever did. Starting from the base it started at, in the fifties (for argument’s sake), that can only mean it has gone from abysmal to worse. Audiences are fickle, everybody else gets paid first and there is no certainty in building a life around your music. I don’t know any musician, personally, that has really managed to square the circle of maintaining a reasonable family life, some income stability and yet remain free to pursue their art with some degree of artistic independence. Not a single one. They’ve all struggled. Everybody I know has had to make some sort of terrible compromises along the way. I don’t know many top-flight musicians, but I know a few. The legions of next-tier musicians I know, to a man and woman, have found it a massive struggle to keep going with their music. Every one of them has a terrible story to tell.
All of that is not to say that working as an actuary or quantity surveyor is not without its terrible compromises, either and I suppose that’s my point. We’ve reached a nadir, in human affairs, where it is seemingly impossible to do what you love most, without terrible sacrifices, compromises and heartache. That represents an enormous amount of psychological pain and stress, in aggregate. But here’s the thing that mystifies me utterly: nobody can tell me why a human life should have to be like that.
They mansplain that it’s economics, or the system, or that it isn’t reasonable to expect to live a life of happiness, yet that is always trotted out as the stated aim of all political and economic systems. Why the high failure rate in fulfilling on that promise? Can it really be that we’re born to suffer, and then die, when things like music provide so many opportunities for sublime happiness and an exquisite emotional life? Surely, in the twenty first century, when we are glutted and sated with just about everything and commodity prices are plummeting, there would be ways of distributing the abundance more equitably, without forcing the majority of people to foreswear the things that make their hearts sing. Call me naive.
All that prevents this dream coming true is the greed of a few who lay claim to the most. That’s all. The hierarchies and deference we maintain, to enable them to do so, is all in our heads. The privileged keep it this way because they cannot stand sharing. You having more hurts their feelings of self-importance. But that’s all it hurts. They still have more than enough, even if they share. There’s a hell of a lot of opulence to go around.
I bet none of them play guitar well.