Last weekend I had the pleasure of giving a paper at the ‘Creativities, Musicalities and Entrepreneurship‘ conference which was a wonderful event organised by the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance. This post is essentially an abridged version of that presentation.
In addition to my university work, I also teach music in schools and on a number of youth music projects and, therefore, spend a lot of time working with young musicians. One particular youth music project that I am involved with affords young musicians (aged up to 25 years old) an opportunity to work with music industry mentors (professional musicians, composers and audio engineers), over a six month period in order to write, record, produce, publicise and sell their own music. Through working on this project and in schools/colleges/universities I have become very aware of a number of interesting issues surrounding the music making of young musicians, particularly in informal learning environments, and I will use this post to discuss them briefly.
It seems to me that music making (particularly that of young people), when considered as a leisure activity, is a cultural/social phenomenon that seems to enjoy an interesting and complex relationship with education and industry. As such, I will discuss these ideas in three sections, namely: (1) The development of skills/competencies and creativities, (2) ‘Pressures’ to monetise musical activities, and (3) Progression.
(1) The development of skills/competencies and creativities
This is clearly a huge area and one that could merit its own post but I think the most relevant and sensible thing to consider is the way in which young musicians develop their instrumental skills, their musicianship and their approaches to composition/improvisation.
Lucy Green writes of ‘musical enculturation’ and notes that it is a concept that refers to the ‘…acquisition of musical skills and knowledge by immersion in the everyday music and musical practices of one’s social context’ (2001, p22). She gives the example that many children ‘bang’ objects rhythmically and that people experiment with playing some notes on instruments etc., but states that for those who progress beyond this basic phase of musical enculturation, there is often a ‘fork in the road’ – one path leading to formal ‘western’ music education – and the other path to continued and more sophisticated informal explorations of sound.
This is clearly the case with the young musicians that I work with and the image of the fork in the road is a lovely way to describe this interesting dichotomy. Of course, it must be noted that these paths are not mutually exclusive and more and more frequently, people find that their music education may incorporate aspects of both the formal, structured traditional music education (i.e. the grade system and playing in school orchestras etc.) and the exploratory, experimental venture into informal music learning. In fact, it might be said the most successful of these young musicians are those who take elements of both approaches. However, there is an important issue related to the degree of access that students have to music education.
When discussing access to music education with the young musicians participating in the aforementioned youth music project, a few interesting issues were highlighted. One participant (a 17-year-old guitar player and singer) noted that his main source of music education was through school but he/she noted that this provides a specific style of education and that it doesn’t seem particularly relevant to their interests. He/she went on to say that:
‘…I learn most from just putting on the songs that I like and trying to play along – I sometimes get the tab too and work it out from there but…I don’t know… that feels like I’m actually learning music…’
This type of response is typical among many of the young musicians that I work with and they serve to provide some nice examples of pupils who, to use the analogy of the fork in the road, seem to follow both ‘paths’. That is to say that they do receive formal/traditional music lessons in school but feel that the more relevant (perhaps more valuable) lessons and educational experiences come in the form of their more experimental, self-directed, exploratory, extra-curricular pursuits. What is also particularly interesting is the importance that is placed on listening to music and playing along with it. This is probably not a surprise to anyone who has experience of teaching pop music or working with young musicians in informal learning contexts. That said, it is important to highlight because I believe that this is one of the first and most fundamental steps in the development of the vital aural skills, music theory, improvisation and composition skills required to be a successful pop musician – not to mention the development of musical identity (but this is definitely an issue for another day).
Another participant (a 16 year old guitarist), when asked about the process of song-writing and composition gave a particularly interesting answer:
‘I suppose that when I want to write something for the band I just put on loads of songs and play along for ages – something usually comes out. So, if I want to write a heavy song I’ll put on tonnes of heavy songs and…kind of… copy what they’re doing (if I can work it out). Then I change it a bit or just try to make something up that kinda sounds close.’
This is a really interesting but by no means unique strategy among the young musicians on this project and many others that I have worked with. Again, this is not hugely surprising and, I would have probably given a similar answer at 16 years old. What is interesting is the importance placed on being able to ‘sound a bit like’ something (a song or a band etc.) and how, in this sense, imitation and replication is the basis for composition (and improvisation, incidentally). Such an approach is consructivist in nature as the musician is building on what they already know and developing their knowledge, understanding and skill from there. In this sense, the early stages of creative musical activity seem to be consciously based on the works of others in many ways. For most of the young people I work with, this is usually restricted to bands, acts, composers that they enjoy, respect and in some ways identify with (this is often also evidenced in their physical appearance). As such, their aural understanding is often limited to the styles of music that fit with their aesthetic and creative values and they might really struggle with playing and appreciating other types of music. In this sense, could we say that we are seeing a very specific type of musical enculturation taking place – ‘idiomatic enculturation’, perhaps?
(2) ‘Pressures’ to monetise musical activities
Many young people are involved in extracurricular music-making activities that may be considered as ‘leisure’ or ‘recreation’, such as playing in bands, making demo recordings, or live performance, for example. Such activities are often done in their spare time, i.e. when they are not in school or working, for example. As such, it would be fair to say that a great deal of the musicing that goes on amongst young people could probably be described as a hobby – i.e. something that is done regularly in one’s spare time for fun and pleasure. So, imagine you’re a 16 year old and you have a keen hobby – lets say it is mountain biking. Well, in order to do this you need a bike, the requisite safety equipment, some food/drink for sustenance, and a place to ride. What about if your hobby is watching sport? This will require enough money to buy your ticket (maybe some snacks etc here too), TV subscriptions, match programmes and perhaps even replica kits…
I am not going to keep boring people with obvious examples but the point that I am trying to make is that hobbies are often expensive, require purchases of tickets or equipment and may be dependant on the ability to travel. This is no less the case for those young people who choose to form and play in bands (rehearsing, buying/maintaining instruments, travelling and gigging are all expensive aspects of musical activity) but there is often one key difference which forms a nice link between leisure, industry and education. What I notice amongst the young musicians that I have been working with over the years is that there is an interesting relationship with this hobby and the notion of income generation that is NOT present when considering most other hobbies. This is to say that it is recognised that there is a potential for bands to make some money from their hobby, even if a very small amount, but it seems like this is valued in two distinct ways:
- As a way to subsidise the aforementioned activities (rehearsal room fees, studio time, instruments, transport etc.)
- To give the impression of success and professional behaviour for the benefit of their peers/rivals, potential ‘customers’, bookers and representatives from other areas of the music industry. That is, if bands have CDs, Merchandise (t-shirts, badges etc), a website, Bandcamp page, and even better, music on iTunes and Amazon etc. this will give them a sense of credibility and worth among their peers and to those who are interested in their music.
So, it may be said that this type of music making is interesting because of the funny link that it has with leisure and commerce. It is both a leisure activity that encourages the spending of money and a way to (a) make money by way of building a reputation, and (b) pay for the creation of saleable products which may or may not end up making a financial return but that will help to develop a professional reputation.
In the context of this post, ‘progression’ is intended to relate to the way in which young musicians who are involved in music making as a leisure activity develop and progress, perhaps into further education or careers as musicians.
To me, it seems like two of the biggest issues facing young musicians, and particularly those interested in pop music, are (a) their perception of the music industry, and (b) their ability to gain entry into music education. A common issue noted by the participants in the project mentioned above was the change in their conceptions and understanding of the nature of the music industry. Another participant (a 17 year old singer) noted:
‘…the industry is, kind of, changing – you know? …so people can do things for themselves without relying on big companies or spending a fortune of their own money on demos and stuff…’
It is clear that many of the young musicians that I work with (from high school to university) have a varying ideas with regard to what is meant by the term ‘music industry’. However, many have have begun to understand that this varied and diverse employment sector in which they, as young aspiring professional musicians, can feasibly forge a career. A growing number of young musicians also believe that the best way to ensure greater longevity and earning potential in this industry would be to study music in higher/further education. This is really interesting to me because it is an indicator of a mindset (which is not uncommon amongst the musicians that I work with) that studying music seems like a valuable pursuit; and, interestingly, that this seems to be linked to ideas of potential career/industry success.
It seems that there is an increase in the ‘professionalisation’ of music making as a leisure activity and that this seems to be related to perceptions of how the ‘music industry’ functions. The mechanisms (both digital and physical) for writing, creating and distributing music are now so cheap, easy to use and prevalent in the lives of young musicians – this allows the creation of relatively high-quality products and simple effective dissemination.
So, how should we view this? What activity are we describing as the hobby/leisure activity? Is it the act of making music? Is it making saleable products? Is it running a small musical business? Have those aspects of music-making that are often viewed as ‘the music business’ (e.g. making, selling, promoting and advertising music) become inextricably linked to playing in bands as a hobby, at least for those who want to play pop music and perform in public? At what point does this stop being a hobby and become the early stages of a business or profession, for example? These are questions for another day but I think that they signal an interesting development in the practical musical activity of many young people. Particularly those who have engaged in informal music learning and are interested in pop music. This is perhaps because pop music and ‘industry’ are perceived to be natural bedfellows or perhaps because, for these musicians, this offers something of a developmental path or focus in what might be considered as an otherwise haphazard or idiosyncratic learning process.
Green, L. (2001). How Popular Musicians Learn: a way ahead for music education, Ashgate