Perhaps it's the time of year, or the fact that I just got a whole mailbox full of Holiday gear catalogs in the mail, but recently, I have been doing some introspection regarding the balance between creation and consumption in my musical life. As musicians in this hi-tech, highly object and goal-oriented world, we are constantly looking for things that will help us find our sound, our niche, or even our purpose. Perhaps something to propel us into some realm that we desperately wish we were in. We are also a culture of productivity. We are not content just listening, watching, or observing. We want to perform, write, produce and be noticed for our accomplishments and art.
Now more than ever, it is easy to find new gear, discover new inspiration through a band or artist, pay for educational materials, the list goes on and on. It is also easier than ever to be seen and heard. We can post our guitar playing on YouTube, put our songs on iTunes and market and advertise through Facebook all for virtually no monetary cost. Music creation is also much easier and more accessible than it has ever been. With some spare spending money, discipline, know-how and a good musical sense, you can write, record, produce, market and sell your music all without leaving your basement or spare bedroom.
This accessibility makes for a potentially exiting climate for independent musicians. We have a golden history of rock and roll to inspire us, and we have all the toys we could ever need to do what they did... or better!
It's also exciting on the entertainment front. We carry an entire warehouse supply of CDs and a video rental store around in our pockets every day now. We buy ringtones, movies, music, apps, tools, gifts, and virtual instruments. Nobody collects rocks or baseball cards anymore. We collect cleverly marketed bits of data that have a sense of meaning and personality attached to them. We also collect devices to help us with this entertainment -- computers, phones, TVs, screens, etc.
As musicians, we are, by definition, creators. We become musicians because we have the desire to create. We then become consumers of music-related tools and resources that help spur us on in our quest for creativity. This is a simple, yet important concept: Our desire to create motivates us to consume, and our consumption, in a healthy balance, fuels and inspires our creativity. Both creativity and consumption are necessary for the active musician in the same way that we all must consume food on order to continue living. There is a tension and balance between the two that we will continue to unpack here.
If you think back to your very first exposure to music, it was probably in the context of consumption. You were not handed a violin, flute or guitar before you even knew what music was. Try to remember the first song you heard that had an impact on you. What was the first CD or album you bought? How has the music you identify with shaped your tastes in other areas of life? Without a doubt, music has helped you identify with certain types of people, styles of clothing, food, drink, vacation spots, cars etc... Whether your a musician or not, music is infused in to nearly every facet and event of your life. First and foremost, you are a consumer of music because you enjoy it. You're not really thinking about the other things you consume BECAUSE of your love of music in general or your admiration for a musical artist. Here is another simple yet important concept: Consumption spurs on more consumption.
We listen to music that we identify with and genuinely enjoy. We find other artists that further refine or broaden our tastes. We purchase a number of new ways to enjoy that same music such as an upgraded car stereo, more phones, MP3 players, or home theater systems. Without us even realizing it, our submission to the advertising world leads us to more, and even seemingly unrelated purchases. We buy a shirt with a band name on it, or based on our perception of the artists preferences fed to us by endorsers or advertisers, we purchase certain things because it reminds us of how we feel when we hear that music. Just as a favorite song can trigger an event in your life, music used in clever marketing plans can drive you to purchase certain things because that music is so emotionally connected to us all.
This isn't really a bad thing, and its smart business to use positive associations to sell stuff. In short, it is just the way things are. Do we need to have 16 different ways to enjoy our music? Are we forced to read or view advertisements associating our favorite artist with a sugary water-like beverage? Do we have to look at musical celebrities as the fashion standard by whom we purchase clothes? Obviously not! But assigning additional value to something that we naturally enjoy is a great way to make money, and ultimately and unfortunately, it dilutes the original point of musical art for the sake of expression.
When you are in your creative element for creativity sake, you are making music for the sake of expression. You're putting a piece of yourself in a song or a guitar part and offering it up for people to enjoy, relate to and internalize. People have done this throughout history using everything from masterfully crafted trumpets to flaming sticks on stretched animal hides.
When you first start playing guitar, some of the coolest moments come when you've finally got the thing in tune and you work up the courage to share something you've worked on. As you progress in your musical journey, the tension mounts between consuming and creating. The tension is probably best examined by taking a look at a couple different scenarios:
Scenario 1 is an 18 year old who was given an acoustic guitar on his 15th birthday. He hasn't had the money to pay for lessons, buy music, or purchase anything in terms of accessories or additional gear to help him 'create' or really even improve. What he has done though, is gone to see free live music whenever he can, spent time playing music with friends and practicing diligently for 3 years. Though he has no formal training, and doesn't own a lot of the toys a lot of people use for 'helping' their playing, the intentional time spent learning from a wide range of people and the time spent practicing has helped to turn him in to quite the blossoming guitarist. In his own circle of contacts and friends, he seems to find himself always playing somewhere for something. As he meets more people and brushes shoulders with the 'been there... done that' type, he continues to improve on his guitar technique and musical sense. Clearly, having little ability to consume has caused this guy to dive in to making the most of what he has. He may be a little held back by the lack of resources, but has made up for it by surrounding himself with everyday people, and making his guitar playing a priority.
Scenario 2 is a 22 year old who is almost done with college. He is going to school for music production, has played guitar for the last six years, but in the last three years, he has purchased a number of guitars, built a pretty substantial recording studio in his apartment, and has made plans to go in to business after school making recording of bands and writing and recording his own music. He has a great knowledge of musical styles, and that comes through in his guitar playing and other various projects. Much of his spare time is taken up learning about his gear so that he can serve his future clients well, and he is always keeping his eyes open for internet deals for other items that will round out his offerings to his clients and give him unique sounds to experiment with musically. He doesn't get out much because he is focused on his business, finishing school and is too busy to practice as much as he would like. He has the means both financially and educationally to do something pretty cool. He's just not sure how it's going to look yet.
Nether of these guys have it too bad really. It seems they both have different goals and, based on their circumstances, have taken interests in different aspects of music and guitar playing. Scenario 1 is setting himself up to be a great performer. He networks, practices and learns. Scenario 2 is well resourced, well educated, also enjoys learning, and is business-minded. It is unclear as to whether Scenario 1 wants to make music a career, but it's pretty clear where #2 stands.
Its probably pretty obvious, but what we see here are two extremes. One person has very little, and while having more guitars, pedals, recording equipment and such may have helped shape his playing, the lack of stuff has really propelled him to focus on his craft and building relationships. The other guy probably isn't nearly as developed as a musician and performer largely because he has all the stuff. We've established that their goals are different, but the point is made. When it comes to being a musician in a highly products and business-based world, you have to keep things in perspective.
I've seen all to many scenario 2's. They have it in their mind that if they build something with the resources they have, get an education, and learn how to work all the stuff they purchase, they will be successful. They don't even see that this way of doing things can simply be reduced to consuming products and reading owners manuals if the creator mindset doesn't set in sooner or later.
On the other hand, I wish to share a little anecdotal evidence from my own musical journey. Different guitars bring out different styles of playing. Having a huge iTunes library with loads of music to listen to helps me round out my playing. Having a pedal, effect or amp and that can inspire new creativity in writing or arranging is really special too. Owning a recording studio makes it easy to capture an idea when creativity strikes.
Here's what I've noticed lately with this balance and tension between having the necessary resources to be creative and becoming a stereotypical 'gear head':
I'll read guitar magazines, or surf the Internet and gradually, I unconsciously subscribe to the idea that buying stuff will make me a better guitar player. I see an add in a magazine that states that one of my favorite guitar players uses a certain pedal, or that this new multi-something-or-other makes getting "the coveted sound" easier than ever and this sends me on a whole mind trip that in the end, is completely detached from the whole reason I picked up the guitar in the first place, to create music!! What pickups can I put in my guitars to make them sound just a little different so that I can play more like whoever? What other amps do I need so that I can dial in that sweeter sound? What effect did Jimi use on that one recording? I've gotta have that!! Oh yeah, and if I keep buying more and more recording equipment, I'll eventually be able to cut that recording that'll finally pay for all this crap!
In the end, what is present is not only a lot of money spent, but also a lot of stuff that you have to learn how to use properly. The more stuff you get, the less you utilize what you have and the more time you spend tripping over oddly shaped, plastic boxes, cleaning up packaging materials, cursing through owners manuals, finding receipts, twisting knobs, making returns, fixing busted things that shouldn't have broken yet, and NO TIME sitting in a dimly lit room with a warm drink writing that song or perfecting that guitar solo!!! And this doesn't even count the time wasted during the process of researching the next item that will rob you of yet another hour!
Clearly this downward spiral starts with an honest desire to create. Then, we see a product that will help us accomplish what we are hearing in our head. Some of this is okay, but it has to be driven by the right perspective.
In a sense, accumulating 16 different ways to play our favorite music, or connecting our musical tastes to our fashion interests is creative. Building an elaborate pedal board or chaining multiple amps together for a unique sound is also creative. If you're doing any of these things, you are having to think critically, use judgment, define goals, and assign value. This IS creativity, but what does it produce?
The question that must always be asked is this: Is my consumption driven by some kind of an end goal that involves creativity in the process?
Think of how absurd it would be if someone went to a home improvement store and purchased all of the materials and tools to build a shed, but when he got home, he simply figured out how use all the tools, organized all the stuff he'd just purchased, and then sat down in his favorite chair to shop for stuff to put in his shed. The shed never gets built, but he continues to buy more things to put in it.
This sounds weird when we take it out of the "musical/gear" context but this is done all the time. It is easy to accumulate a bunch of stuff and never really put it to proper use. Then your musical life turns in to a "what can I buy next" life and your musical soul starts to die.
Back to the shed... If you want to build a shed, you buy what you need to get the job done, and THEN the fun and work starts. The tools and materials are just the beginning! This kind of creativity has a clear goal and objective.
Think of this analogy the next time you want to make a purchase to enhance your musical state. DO NOT ASK : "What can this new object do as advertised by the magazine or internet,” but instead ask “how does it fit in to your current projects?” What WILL BE PRODUCED as a result of your consumption? If you don't have a clear plan, consider not making the purchase. There is absolutely no point to owning something that does not get used. If you have stuff you are not using, sell it!
Remember that the guitar-related products world operates like any other industry and thrives off of convincing you that you constantly NEED more things. They will use the same tricks like NFL uses such as: "Quarterback Jack wears these shoes and he is a professional athlete, so if you buy those shoes, you'll be big, strong and rich." We musicians have it a little worse because we have a NEED to consume in moderation in order to create. This is the struggle. The shoes and the football player can't directly play the "create" card like the music world can.
Here are some suggestions to make sure you keep the balance of creation and consumption in check:
1. Try to see advertising for what it is. Just as it is completely absurd to believe the claims that buying a $40,000 car SAVES you $8,000 at the time of purchase, (You are not saving $8k, you are spending $40k... there's no two ways about it) it is also absurd that just because your favorite guitarist uses XYZ strings, amps and pedals, you will play like him if you own the same stuff. They are in NO WAY related.
2. Make a commitment to yourself that for every minute you spend shopping for musical toys, you will devote that same amount of time to practicing your guitar or creating music for yourself.
3. Try to do more with less. Spend a season with the mindset that the musical equipment/gear you have is ALL you have to work with, and start thinking about how musical you can be with just a guitar and an amp. You can focus a lot on technique, songwriting, theory, new chords, etc... with a cheap, less than ideal guitar, a few of your favorite albums, a dimly-lit, distraction-free room and warm drink!
4. Look for ways to have access to a ton of stuff without having to drop the money for it. This is one of many ways it pays to spend time with people rather than gear. The more like-minded people you know, the more you can pool resources to accomplish your goals. We all need to get the idea out of our heads that in order to create things, we have to spend our money!
5. Don't try to do everything yourself. Again, the people over possessions rule applies. If you only play acoustic guitar, but want to write songs with electric guitars, co-write with a friend who inspires you with his electric guitar playing! Borrow his electric guitar. Learn from him. Teach him. Rely on others!
6. Resist the need to simply be entertained. The more we sit engaged in passive entertainment, the less time we spend thinking creatively and the more exposed we are to advertising. If the computers are turned off (unless they are being used to aid you in music production or education) the MP3 players are silenced (unless you're using them to learn a new lick) the TVs are thrown out the window (unless you're watching a video of your own playing technique) there will less to remind us that we should have more of what we don't really need. (Even in this paragraph, you see the tension with every device being a distraction or an asset :>).
7. Set up a practice schedule for your playing. Put your focus on your craft, on your art. The more truly immersed in your practicing you are, the better perspective you will have for truly necessary purchases.
8. Don't think too far in to the future. If you have grand dreams of being in a touring rock band but you are a young, intermediate guitarist who doesn't get out much, the scale of that dream can lead to frivolous consumption based on the gap between realty and the dream. Focus on setting small goals and achieving them. Here are some examples: Playing out regularly, writing one new song per week, jamming with a new musician every month, teaching a certain number of students per week, posting a weekly video online that showcases what you are learning.
I admit, I ranted and raved a little in this article, and this is partially due to the new awareness of the create/consume tension in my own musical journey. I don't believe that advertising is inherently evil, or that we should all try to pursue our musical dreams with our great grandpa's waterlogged 3-string acoustic guitar. But I do believe that we must always be pursuing balance and discipline in our musical lives if we are going to be proud of what we have to show. It is my hope that these rants will help each of you examine the balance and tension of consuming and creating in your own musical journeys.