In Western society we have a new, seemingly more accurate, way of measuring how successful your music career is: how much your concert tickets cost and how many social media followers you have. For example, Nigel Kennedy: 2994 Twitter followers, 29,652 likes on Facebook, concert tickets from around AU$40 in his home country (UK). Not bad, Kennedy, not bad. This is quite enviable for a musician who isn’t selling out concert halls and reaching 30,000-odd punters at the click of a button, because all musicians want is to be heard and continue to live (pay bills, pay rent, eat food, buy more instruments).
This is a common, yet achievable, pipe-dream among jobbing musicians: survive off your art, without compromising your art. Sure, you may have to split the bill on an order of 8 dumplings between 4 simpaticos, or fabricate cappuccinos for hipsters, or (heaven forbid) take a wedding gig every now and then, but all these things are doable. And it seems that the rich and famous have it sorted: tour the world, make your art, enjoy the finer things, repeat. This begs the question, “why do we put these successful musicians down?” I happen to think, at least from my own experience, this attitude is born from envy.
For example, I envy so much about Kenny G (34,200 Twitter followers, 1.6 million likes on Facebook, AU$65 to see him in Budapest): the bank account, the slender tailored outfits, the ‘doing what you love for a living,’ the unrelenting mass of well-groomed hair, wise investments in Starbucks, a couple of aircraft, and a single-figure handicap on the golf course. However, I’d rather listen to a soundtrack of senior citizens hanging out laundry than hear Kenny G butcher Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World again. You see, G isn’t known for being an ultra-musical polymath who transcends the dichotomy of smooth and modern jazz saxophone whilst still upholding the values of high art in motion that the finest improvising musicians are known for. In the words of guitarist Pat Metheny, “there must be hundreds, if not thousands of sax players around the world who are simply better improvising musicians than Kenny G on his chosen instruments.” So apart from being a heinous saxophone player, G also has the nerve to persistently cover the work of others or provide the world with an unadventurous, über-diatonic soundtrack to auto-fellatio. Why would I, or anyone else, envy that?
Well, what about someone with less controversial criticism to his name (maybe more followers than that Kennedy chump too)? André Rieu: 64,000 followers on Twitter, 1.8 million likes on Facebook, and starting price of AU$80 a ticket to see him in the nosebleeds of Rod Laver Arena later this year. This is more like it! With numerical credibility like that, Rieu must be the greatest living classical musician. I should expect a revolutionary on the violin, and a infallible concertmaster.
I pull up a random YouTube clip of Rieu. A golden carriage worth over AU$50 million rolls onto the stage. The set is like a Viennese gondola ride: white dresses, flaxen hair, coattails and bow ties. When the music began, I instantly pummeled my fist into a concrete pillar with fury. I discover Rieu plays the music of dead, white, European men, exclusively. And by ‘plays’ I mean, looks like he’s trying really hard by pulling the O-face while literally fiddling with himself. He doesn’t give a shit about harmony, or time, or anything musical except the alert tone from his phone when another cheque clears.
This envy I harbour for G and André (even Nigel no-followers), isn’t about money, or fame, or golf handicaps. It’s about exposure. I also feel disappointment over what they’re exposing the public to. A ‘new’ version of a Viennese waltz? A ‘new’ version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons? A ‘new’ version of the song which is a subversively optimistic outlook on the racial and political climate of 1960s America? What is their concept? “Ignore music”? Part of me now sympathises with Nigel Kennedy, though, because out of the three, he genuinely tries to do ‘new’ things with old repertoire; but that’s like that edible soil bullshit you see in trendy restaurants – it’s just old grated chocolate, and the Four Seasons is just Vivaldi. But is it really a surprise; three middle-aged, upper-class, white men dominating the financial pissing contest in instrumental music?
My final hope looks promising. A humble 5,671 Twitter followers, 17,464 likes on Facebook, and I remember seeing him as an impressionable teenager for a small fee that even my single mother could afford. He’s revered internationally; a feature at the 2016 International Jazz Day celebrations at the White House, head of a tertiary education institute that specialises in jazz, and he’s technically able on almost any instrument, with the exception of drums (which his brother plays). His life is luxurious; yachts, planes, rally cars, an enviable collection of musical instruments, and two sons which are following in their father’s footsteps to the noble path of clocking the jazz idiom. It breaks my heart to think that James Morrison, a stand-up guy with students who are in awe of him as a musician, has relied on gimmicks for his entire career. This is tough. Every Australian trumpeter I know has owned (or copied) a J-Mo album and heard it in its entirety. And if you, my faithful but now furious reader, are into short term thrills like having sex with bear traps, then J-Mo is your guy. If you like sophisticated harmonic choices, interesting rhythmic interplay, and unique melodic choices, I suggest you look elsewhere.
The entire reason that any of the aforementioned musicians are rich and famous is because they found their gimmick and began to flog it to death. All of these musicians have worked very hard to achieve this goal too, no question. James Morrison can play all the learned patterns over 3-6-2-5s on cor anglais and piccolo trumpet until he decides to stop, just like André Rieu can play Strauss from memory on the violin while thinking about what region his next bottle of wine is going to come from. And Kenny G… has a marvelous head of luscious curls, and that takes dedication. But they’re all tricks; a magician who has perfected slight-of-hand magic isn’t actually making the coin disappear. And if you like these performers, by all means don’t take what I am saying about them to heart. This is an opinion column. If this is the version of success in music that you’re after, you don’t need to thank me for giving you the formula. Find a gimmick, manipulate it and publicise it, and don’t change. Create music as a means of searching for something more than money, fame, or perpetual discounts at Starbucks, get obsessed by the intellectual pursuit of music itself and don’t let envy ruin your routine.