Some Musings on Music, Meritocracy and MorePosted: April 21, 2023 Filed under: Art, Culture, Music - General | Tags: Alfred Cortot, Bill Haley, brian ferneyhough, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Deborah Annetts, Eddie Cochran, elvis presley, Fats Domino, incorporated society of musicians, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Lloyd Price, Madonna, marketing, meritocracy, promotion, rhythm 'n' blues, rock 'n' roll, thatcher, William Kapell 1 Comment
I am often interested in the question of to what extent musical careers, in all types of music, can be said to be founded upon merit. There are three types of positions with which I am familiar, but all of which seem unsatisfactory. One is that of the simple ‘talent will out’, that if someone is sufficiently talented, or at least has attained a high level of accomplishment, then recognition and success will naturally follow. Another, which another musicologist recently related to me as hearing from students, maintains that ‘if you believe in yourself, you can make it’. A third, sometimes thought by some on the traditional left, would suggest that almost everything comes down to marketing and promotion, and the quality of what is being promoted is at most a secondary concern.
None of these really seem to encompass the multiple factors involved. The first two arguments seem to bracket out all sorts of contingencies. To pursue a successful career in which work is to be found in major urban centres, at the very least one needs the initial wherewithal to live in or near to those urban centres. This factor would have been much harder if I were starting out now rather than when moving to London in the early 1990s. Some have a whole range of contacts through chance of who are their family and friends, which are not available to others, and this can certainly accelerate the process. One needs the freedom to practice, to be available for gigs, which can be difficult if, for example, one has major caring responsibilities. And of course there are many other types of prejudice, racial, sexual, class-based, which it would be foolish and reckless not to acknowledge in terms of career paths sometimes being considerably more difficult for some than others. The Chief Executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, Deborah Annetts, recently testified to UK Members of Parliament on the prevalence of sexual harassment and how some female musicians are told to ‘sleep their way to the top’.
The third position, which also informs some sociology of art, brackets out the art itself, or at least reduces it to a rather bland commodity relative to systems of patronage, as well as power structures, and the like. But can anything be ‘sold’ in this way? I am no expert on marketing, but do not believe this, not least because for all successful marketing/promotion campaigns, there are also plenty of those which are unsuccessful, in ways which may not be wholly down to the nature of the marketing. No matter how skilfully marketed was the music of Brian Ferneyhough, I do not believe it would ever reach a mass audience – it is too intricate, requiring of sustained attention, in ways which do not concur with many people’s common approaches to listening, for that.
With this in mind, I do not believe the factors in the first two positions should be discounted. I doubt there are many musicians or music which have achieved some sustained recognition, in which there can not be found some evident of talent or accomplishment, even if not always in the same places. Madonna may not be one of the world’s great singers, but in terms of her other musical choices, dance, ability to move between a range of different styles and respond to changing times, and careful cultivation of visual image, clearly lots of other skills were involved in establishing, developing and consolidating her reputation. Thelonious Monk had as idiosyncratic a piano technique as one could imagine, and would frequently play wrong notes, but at the same time his playing achieved such a striking angular presence, which was a different type of quality. From a wholly different musical context, the same would often be said of pianist Alfred Cortot.
With respect to self-belief, this should surely not be discounted either, even if it is not the whole story. The view that simple determination will breed success is one I associate with the Thatcher era, and comes with the concomitant view that those who are less successful are themselves to blame. But many will experience good and bad times as musicians, and without self-belief, might just choose to abandon their activities during the bad ones. A conviction in the value of one’s work has sustained many a musician in this way. On the other hand, self-belief can also be a substitute for disciplined work, and the limitations of such an approach can quickly become apparent. Just because one believes in one’s own work does not guarantee that others will share this view, though it can inform the conviction with which the work is presented.
The visual aspect of musical performance may be one of the most problematic, however. It is widely recognised that the impact of many popular musicians is the product of numerous factors, definitely including but not limited to the music, as in the case of Madonna mentioned above. In classical, jazz and some other musics, there are different visual conventions, and the visual may not be so obviously foregrounded and developed as a central part of the art, but visual factors are certainly there. But when one accepts the visual as a component, then can one avoid such factors as musicians being judged on their looks as much as their music, as has certainly (and more than understandably) been raised as a source of objection by many female classical musicians in particular? Some popular musicians who may not always be regarded conventionally ‘beautiful’ have nonetheless found ways to generate striking visual images and presentation which have contributed to their success. But this can become more difficult as some get older (examples such as Tina Turner, who sustained a long career right up to her 80s, may be the exception rather than the rule), and of course racial and other prejudices can play a big part. At the height of mid-1950s rock ‘n’ roll, there were major African-American stars (Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Lloyd Price) alongside white ones (Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran), but it was not at all mere chance that a white musician, Elvis Presley, became the biggest star of all – Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, recognised that it was through Elvis that there was a chance to bring music with a major African-American provenance to white audiences. Fats Domino was asked in the mid-1950s about this new music called rock ‘n’ roll, to which he replied that he called it rhythm ‘n’ blues and had been playing it in New Orleans since 1940. Even if African-Americans certainly played a part in the new movement, it was when white musicians also became involved that much larger audiences were found.
Audiences may be able to be ‘sold’ things, manipulated in various ways and induced to part with money when they might not have done so otherwise. Education can breed ‘ways in’ for more demanding music. But these processes are not, I believe, infinite in their scope, and some will never be persuaded of the value, to them, of certain music and musicians. And furthermore, this may relate to a range of factors over and above the music, including what the musician looks like. Careers can be worked on fruitfully and developed, but there are always other factors involved, not always in the control of the musician or those around them. To take the most dramatic examples: neither Buddy Holly nor classical pianist William Kapell could in any sense have had any meaningful agency relating to both of their tragic early deaths in plane crashes. While in either case these may in part have contributed to some of the mythology around them, obviously they could not continue to develop as musicians after then.
So many factors are involved in developing musical careers: talent, dedication and consequent accomplishment, self-belief, marketing, promotion and shrewd career choices, but equally privilege, prejudice, fortunate circumstances beyond the musician’s control, and so on. Some of these and other factors (or at least particular ‘packages’ of them) may constitute bottom lines, but are rarely the whole story. The models of meritocracy, of the ‘will to success’, or negative ones which deny the role of anything to do with the art, are insufficient.