Thoughts on the Future of Musicianship part 2 – Guest post by Paul Kirkham

Paul Kirkham continues our series of guest posts by speakers from our Future of Musicianship event on May 1, 2012 in London. A full recording of the event is available for listening and download. Paul is Managing Director at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, an independent school/college specialising in teaching students of guitar, bass, drums, vocals, songwriting and music business at Diploma and Degree level, with over 700 full-time students.

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Where to begin

“The future of musicianship is, in my view, exactly the same as the past of musicianship, but delivered in a different context and under different ground rules.”

I was invited to the ‘Future of Musicianship’ debate at the start of May, and really enjoyed the event. Heli had made sure she invited a panel of knowledgeable (not to mention extremely opinionated!) individuals, including me, so one thing soon became clear – we would have needed several days of discussion to cover the ambitious agenda that had been set! But what was interesting was the different angle of approach of each of us, generally leading to similar conclusions but getting there from a distinct direction of travel.

There is no way in a short blog post I could comment on every aspect of what was discussed, or what needs to be discussed, so I’ll keep myself to one aspect of the debate. That is, that the future of musicianship is, in my view, exactly the same as the past of musicianship – but delivered in a different context and under different ground rules.

Messages in bottles

Let me elaborate a little. Music, and perhaps especially popular and folk music, has always been about one thing – capturing a feeling, an emotion, a desire, an ambition, a story or a wish, and expressing it succinctly through the medium of sound and lyrics. I think pop songs (the good ones anyway) do this brilliantly, because they are bite-sized reminders, photographs if you like, that transport us to an important place in our soul. Who doesn’t remember an important time of their lives – a love affair, or breaking up, a first dance, the death of a loved one, a travel experience or such like, and connect this to a tune? The phrase “the soundtrack to our lives” may be cliché, but it is correct. And it has always been, and will always be, the role of musicians to create, interpret, perform and communicate these little messages in bottles, and release them on the ocean of life.

However, we can become obsessed with the mechanism of creation and communication of music, which I think detracts from the essence of what is happening. The only rule should be – does it work? So whether a musician expresses a song or a piece of music through a classical instrument, an electric guitar, a rhythm standing alone, a synthesiser or a computer, who cares? All that has changed are the tools, not the end result.

So, the first part of my abbreviated thesis is, nothing has changed nor will change – music will always try to capture these emotions, and musicians will always be required to create, interpret and communicate this. Harmony, melody and rhythm are eternal, and will always be central to music making, and therefore the foundation of musicianship.

Paul Kirkham (centre) with Heli Rajasalo & Ben Hillyard of Loving & Living Music

A changing world

But the second part of this thesis is important too; the context of musicianship has changed, and will probably continue to change – and, indeed, always has been changing. It is easy to forget that the recorded music industry, as most of us perceive it, has been around for less than a century, since we discovered how to capture sound on a material disc. This allowed music to become packaged and sold, and consumed, in a different way to simply attending a concert. Listening to a radio or TV broadcast has only become possible in the last 60-70 years. Digitisation of sound is an extremely recent concept, and the internet didn’t exist until the 1990’s, never mind smart phones and iPods. All of these developments facilitated change in the distribution and commercialisation of music, allowing companies to move in and control its manufacture and distribution, creating new markets and making music more widely available in the process. And like most aspects of the development of our culture and economy, this progress has generally been a good thing, with more people than ever before now able to enjoy more music, at their convenience.

“The creators and performers of the music of tomorrow need to be much more creative, entrepreneurial and business-aware.”

The problem, however, up to the advent of Napster and the concept of file sharing in the late 1990’s, was that as the companies that controlled the manufacture and distribution of music became more powerful, more wealthy and more comfortable, the benefits to both the consumers and the makers of music began to diminish. As many of us will remember, up until quite recently, the only way to get hold of the latest album from your favourite artist was to go to a record store, buy a CD or vinyl recording for around £15, and have to put up with what was usually half the tracks being rubbish in order to get the tracks you wanted. This was not in the interests of the consumer. And I would hazard a guess that (with few notable exceptions, whose fanbases and business savvy meant they had negotiated good deals with their record companies) it was not generally in the best interests of the artists and musicians either.

To cut a long story short, and without getting into the IP debate (if you’re interested , my view is that file sharing is inherently not good if allowed to proceed unchecked, and the creators and performers of music should be able to rely on a market mechanism that protects their work and their income streams), where we find ourselves now is in a much more democratised music society, where music can be created, distributed, sold and otherwise enjoyed through a myriad of different ways. And this is perhaps where the future of musicianship is different to the past of musicianship; the creators and performers of the music of tomorrow need to be much more creative, entrepreneurial and business-aware, in order to benefit from these new opportunities.

The musician of the future

There are, of course, an awful lot of debating points in the above text, and it is a rather simplistic summary of a complex situation. However, it leads me to my ultimate conclusion – that is, that education and training, not just in the skills required to be a musician, but in the knowledge and ability to capitalise on one’s passion and talent, is more important than ever. The musician should be free to create and express music and in this sense answerable only to his or her muse; however, there is no shame in wanting to earn a decent living, and the musician of the future must be able to convert that love of and commitment to music into a sustainable career, not subject to an overbearing corporate machine, not beholden to a locked-in contract that is unfairly balanced, not dependent on the whims of a marketing department or a financial controller.

“There is no shame in wanting to earn a decent living.”

The musician of the future must be empowered to follow their own creative path, all the while being able to earn a decent and stable living from the fruits of their talent and hard work. And for this to happen, the musician of the future will have been able, through education and training, to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to achieve both their artistic and financial goals.

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What do you think?

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