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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Amateur Hour - will the profession of musician go the way of the Blacksmith?

We live, in the arts at least, in the age of the amateur. Technological advances coupled with the ease of internet access, have flooded society with the work of amateur photographers, film makers and musicians.Nothing wrong with that in itself, people have always had fun with the arts as a hobby and hopefully they always will. Being involved in something artistic is so good for anybody. The problem these days is that the flood of material and the sophistication of the technology has blurred the lines between people who dabble and use software to help them look like they know what they're doing, and the people who actually know what they're doing. The torrent of Instagram/Photoshop/Garageband/Youtube type content online is testament to the fact that many people have a sense that they are professional standard artists, when to the professional eye, or ear, they clearly are not. The technology can make you look good for a minute, but as to producing anything high level over an extended period time? I don't think so.

Again, there's nothing wrong with people having a sense of hubris about their Facebook photos - in itself that kind of thing is a harmless human peccadillo. The problem these days is that the professional is being edged out by the flood of amateur content. The hubris has reached the point where the general public either can't tell the difference between high quality work and dabbling, or doesn't care. Professionals are finding it harder and harder to get paid for their work, and to be able to make a living at the arts discipline to which they've devoted years of their lives, and an incredible amount of work. Couple this lack of public discernment between high level work and amateur dabbling, with the reluctance of the public these days to pay for arts content, (especially music), and you have a perfect storm for the professional artist.

I've been thinking about these things for a while, but this post was brought on by a brief conversation I had recently with a part time musician at a performance by an incredibly highly skilled professional group. He said to me 'how can those guys play like that?' and went on to talk about them as if the reason for the gulf in class between him and them was because they were some kind of super-beings. I didn't get into it, because I didn't want to appear rude, and I was too tired at the end of the night, but my immediate mental response was that one very good reason why they could play so much better than he could was because they've devoted their lives to music, and he hadn't. Leaving aside the creative aspects, what we'd seen on the stage was at least partly the result of years of PRACTICE! 

There are certain musical things that can't even be approached unless you've devoted years of time and effort and thought to it, yet in this age of the amateur this aspect of being a high-level artist is becoming forgotten, or is not considered necessary. 'Why should I practice for years when I can use an app?', seems to be the kind of attitude displayed by many. My amateur musician friend thinks nothing of opening for true professional acts, and doesn't seem to see any reason why he shouldn't be up there with people who actually know what they're doing. He seems to think the only reason why he can't do what they can is due to some genetic disparity, and has nothing to do with the fact that he hasn't put in one hundredth of the amount of the work that the pros have.
Which is typical of the disrespect for craft that is so prevalent today

And is something which poses such a threat to the high-level artist. True professionals are competing with amateurs as never before, and trying to make themselves heard above the din of substandard content that floods the internet every day. Combine this with the death of mainstream media,  and the old way of publicising yourself, and the higher valuation given to the method of delivery of content (iPods, Kindle, Ipads etc), over the actual content itself (music, photographs, video etc), and an unwillingness to pay for good content, and you have a situation where the profession of high-level musician is under threat as a viable way to make a living.

It seems to me that unless something changes, the inevitable endgame of all this will be the disappearance of the high-level professional musician. Yes there will always be people playing music and writing music, but will they be any good? Probably not, since they won't have devoted any time to it, and why would anyone devote years of study and financial resources to something that nobody will pay you for? Will the profession of musician end up like that of the Blacksmith - once one of the most common trades in the world and now one of the rarest, maintained by a few very highly paid specialists? I can foresee a situation where there are just a few very highly trained jazz musicians, whom, if you want to hire them, will charge you a LOT of money. Listening to live jazz (or any music that takes a lot of skill and dedication to play), could become like eating in a Michelin-starred restaurant - something very expensive, only available to the well-heeled connoisseur. The rest will have to listen to the McDonald's of the music world  - low class dross, mass produced by amateurs costing little or nothing to produce or buy.

I hope I'm proved wrong, but at the moment it's only going one way - Amateur Hour is here, and looks like it's here to stay.


  1. Nice, if depressing, piece, Ronan. A couple of thoughts: I would posit that the most relevant point to the rise of amateur/DIY/tech-aided vs. traditionally "professional" is not that people can't tell the difference, it's that most of them GENUINELY PREFER the amateur or tech-aided stuff, probably because it's made specifically for them and isn't an acquired taste. And re: jazz, the reason I don't think it'll become like eating in a Michelin restaurant is that the market is absolutely FLOODED with mediocre jazz players (and growing), while the number of people interested in listening to them dwindles. Sonny Rollins concerts may become the provenance of "well-heeled connoisseurs" (see the $35 minimum ticket palace recently constructed here in San Francisco), but for anything but the most "famous" musicians it's going to be play-for-free, or don't play at all.

  2. Hi Ronan, I'd like to make a few observations to your interesting article. In a discussion at the university - unfortunately I can't remember with whom - I was told about a recent scientific study that examined 'genius', in all forms. One of the main factors that really stood above all else was time spent developing the art form in question. I don't remember the actual figure, but it was something quite amazing like 10,000 hours minimum to become a genius. It's exactly as you point out, and probably what most true amateurs don't think about.

    Secondly, of course there is the X music factor, which is a non stop discussion, but I'll stay off that for the present. Otherwise, I think one has to also understand (or accept) that music culture is going elsewhere, such as programming languages like ChucK, (i)mpromtu, Pure Data, SuperCollider, the use of DAWs and the like, that's new musical culture (*). That doesn't mean that jazz, or other serious musics are dying out, but just changing their focus. I'm sure that you must have noticed - I think you're the director of the jazz section of conservatory in Dublin(?) - the change in musical interests in your students over the years? I've noticed many changes in interests from the students I've taught, although those that grow musically (and intellectually) always gravitate towards more 'classic' influences as they develop, such as acquiring a taste for Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Elmo Hope, Bach, Roland De Lassus, Van Ockerghem or whoever. The more you develop, the more you understand about what these geniuses gave to us musically, and what can be learned from them.

    Lastly, the idea that professional musicians may die out is possible, but not probable, I think. It again applies to what I said earlier, they are just changing their sense of focus. One thing I notice if one looks back through the ages is how music has changed. Professionals always existed, but in different ways within the music fields, as teachers, as philosophers, as performers, as composers, as watchmen (the waits), as publicists (broadsheets writers), etc. The drive that people have for making music is very strong, so if they need to find a way to make a living from it, or die, then they will.

    I could carry on, but I've taken up enough space already, so although I didn't put much solid facts for you into my remarks I guess I just want to say that I have great hope for the future of music, it just probably won't be my idea of music.

    Thanks again for the thought provoking article, great stuff.

    * = Here's two interesting examples of what you can do - at the present. Andrew Sorensen develops some very interesting ideas using live coding. There's plenty of other people working in different areas, but I though you'd enjoy this due to the 'jazz' angle. Remember there's often silence at the beginning of the video whilst he sets up the code.

    Jazz Ensemble live code -
    A Study in Keith -

    p.s. Just for the info I studied (jazz) music at college and then in a conservatory (long time ago!!!), and finally an MA in musicology - doesn't mean I know anything, just a reference.

  3. I think your response is even more depressing than mine Ian! :-) Good points - interesting viewpoint regarding people preferring amateur music. I'm not sure I agree, but it's definitely food for thought. Thanks Ian

  4. Joesh - thanks so much for the considered response and very interesting points. I think in my original piece I didn't make it clear enough that when said I felt that the profession of high-level musician was under threat, I was really talking about the profession of performing musician. Already professional musicians are migrating into writing for gaming etc, and I would see the examples you sent me regarding coding etc, as being more in the sphere of composition than performance. Many schools are already adapting their curriculum and following the money trail into music production, writing for gaming etc, so i think this movement is already underway. I'll be interested to see in 20 years (if I'm still around!), how many people opt for 4/6 year BA/MA programmes in jazz performance. I think they'll be in the minority, because the work opportunities for such skill sets will be so limited

  5. Yes, I definitely agree with you there. It's certainly odd to see dozens of graduates coming out of these music schools and conservatories into what? I don't really see an expanding market in live instrumental music, at least in the jazz field. I suspect that jazz will become more and more like classical music, a sort of hybrid subsidised art form which will be performed in concert halls, and specially organised festivals. It already is, but luckily (for us) there's still the possibility of catching some good stuff in the few clubs that manage to exist. There's nothing like seeing real jazz with the musicians only 10 feet away, and in a small room and the warm acoustics that gives.

    I also liked Ian's remark although 35$ is cheap when you examine the prices we have to play here for big festivals/venues - I'm in Brussels. I have to admit that (apart from the logistic side of things, and money maybe) I can't understand why a musician, such as Rollins and others, who made his name by playing in small clubs and touching people via his music and proximity, likes to play in huge concert halls? But that's another article!

    Just a quick addition on the coding examples. Yes, you're right it's composition mainly, but those examples are live 'on the fly' programming - although I don't know how much preparation went into them. There are some stumbling blocks for live improvisation (especially if you don't have perfect pitch, or a preplanned chord progression). But I can see how this can, and probably will develop. I work in ChucK and Pure Data and see how quickly they are developing in some of the more 'improvisatory' forms of music, even if often more 'noise' oriented.

    Anyway, I should get back to my work also! Lots of interesting ideas to mull over in your article, thanks.

    All the best - Joe

  6. Maybe we are in a trough in terms of the ongoing, rolling waves of music and creativity?? I've been reading David Byrne's How Music Works & it is really interesting the way he frames his own history as an artist and musician with in advances/changes in music recording technology over the last 50 years.

    One of the things he does talk about is the whole emergence of the DIY ethic in terms of punk and new wave and how both recording technology and the capacity of computers to digitise and manipulate sound/music - and in certainly in terms of immediate access to "the means of production" there is something democratic/liberating about that - which if that is the case brings us into the realms of the price of democracy/liberty being eternal vigilance (you have to keep looking and dig deep for the good stuff) or eternal filth (the critical eye takes on the role of a sewer filter - as all art/media becomes uncannonical and anything goes).

    So whilst the culture we are in may develop / has developed a taste for steam-punk, DIY, app-driven everything is free and nothing is worth anything products– at some stage the tide will turn and people will start seeking out that which is crafted and doesn’t reflect novelty or being current but has different strands and in the terms articulated here we roll back to the top of the wave.

    The Blacksmiths’ craft died out because of technological advances – but those advances did not bring an end to creativity and inspiration – they just manifested in different forms – I would be optimistic that the same will happen in music. The biggest challenge for a musical charlatan is to pass himself or herself off as being authentic; and the biggest risk is that they will be found out; whereas the biggest challenge for a musician with integrity is to fulfill their potential and the biggest risk is that they might suceed & over time that is the most meaningful thing any of us can witness.

  7. posted a couple o responses R but I think they disappeared! - anyway the second was a sorta re-draft of the first if you got them at all!

  8. We love in a world where audiences across the world and genres are rising. What threat is this to the artist. You say it yourself the amateur is in disbelief of the professional,
    Get a grip

  9. Great points, I hope you're right RT - it's an optimistic viewpoint of a possible outcome, which is always welcome! Thanks

  10. Mark - I'm afraid the comments didn't get through! Sorry....

  11. Annabel and Matt - 1) I clearly lay out why I believe there is a threat to the professional musician, 2) 'Get a grip', does not constitute debate. If you want a flame war kind of exchange, go and find like minded people on Youtube

  12. Amateur hour has been here a long time, long before the internet arrived. Those who devote their lives to anything generally don't do it for the financial benefits but for personal satisfaction. Because of this, so called "professional musicians" will battle on.

    There are many inspiring musicians around the world and I personally don't see a decline in great artists, you just need to know where to look and I think it depends on what genre's you're looking into.

    However, I understand where you are coming from. It is difficult to make a decent living through music and technology has given music a broader stroke - but I like that - It's a tool just like any instrument and to do it well you still have to devote a lot of time to it.

    Thanks for the interesting read - Take care

  13. i think there could be more basic music education in the early school system so that every child learns a bit about music and how it works. i'm not referring to music theory, leave that for the kids who then actually want to pursue music.

    to illustrate my point i refer to my local radio government radio station, run by our national broadcaster. this radio station tends towards interview and talk-back style programming and is run and staffed by professionals.

    last week a local singer/songwriter was in the radio studio promoting a LP launch by performing songs and being interviewed. the host asked about the upcoming shows. the performer, without hesitation, gave the dates and locations of four upcoming shows. the host was gobsmacked - "wow you actually know when all your shows are?" (or words to that effect).

    a couple of days ago the director of the Black Arm Band was being interviewed about an upcoming show in collaboration with the state symphony orchestra. She was asked how the band got started. the co-host was wondering, because the word band was in the name, whether they started out with a couple of tambourines and a few songs? no, they were formed to perform at the melbourne international arts festival, came the sober response.

    many of the hosts of these shows seem to approach musicians with an attitude of "so you sing songs and play guitar? wow, how do you do that? wow. and you've just spent the last 12 hours on a plane? wow!"

    the same hosts will engage in serious discussion with politicians, scientists, industry representatives, community advocates, etc. but it all gets dumbed down for music. there appears to be an enormous gap in their understanding of what a professional musician actually does. not just in terms of producing sounds but in running a business, contributing to a society.

    i think we need to take a look at the music curriculum - there's some things we should be explaining to the 5 year-olds before they fall for the media hype and fabricated mystiques.

  14. Very good point. I just returned from teaching in Serbia, and there they use the old Russian system of beginning training from a very early age. The level of the students was outstanding and the knowledge among the general population about music was remarkable.

  15. Interesting comments from 'fungle' and Ronan. I guess that since many teachers - at all levels - don't know anything about music they can't teach it (include it in some form in their classes). I think many people would be very surprised to learn that:
    a) Music was a science up until the early 1700's, not so long ago in historical terms.
    b) Some of the most serious philosophical discussions (and conclusions) were formed due to music, just read Descartes, Rousseau and Rameau, Kant, Mersenne, etc.
    c) Or even that our understanding of the universe, and orbits is completely due to music. Kepler was very interested in understanding music and the movement of the planets. This was one of the vital points that cracked our understanding of 'orbits'.
    We could add to these names such as Pythagoras, Aristotle (who said the world was made from intervals of sound), Boethius, etc. So as one can see 'music' actually played (and still does) a big part in the understanding of our universe and of course other things, but that's never taught in schools, which is probably why we as a society don't take it seriously enough.

    Just thought I'd jump in with the musicology hat on again!

  16. I think one of the problems is that people no longer really listen to music. They do not know how to and so an amateur performance is no longer distinguishable from a professional crafted performance. To an uneducated ear it is all wallpaper music, understandably as modern life is saturated with sound from various forms of media, desensitizing
    the aural sense to the point of deafness. Perhaps the way forward is to ' re- educate' and awaken aural perception. I have been a poorly paid working, musician and teacher for nearly four decades and I am sick and tired of amateurs who think they are:
    i. The bee' s knees because they can afford the gadgets.
    ii. Who play one-upmanship games.
    iii. Seek every opportunity to show off their favorite party piece and impress.
    This is not professionalism by any standard and does not stand up in any other line of work. In my view a professional musician works at his/her craft to become versatile enough to perform the duties of a given job in an appropriate artistic manner. An amateur pleases him or herself. A professional never blames his/her tools. Today's amateur is totally dependent on them.

  17. Some great points there, and I particularly like the point made about people not knowing how to listen any more.... thanks for taking the time to write!