The Occasional Musician: An Introduction


The Occasional MusicianIf you’re serious about music, there’s no escaping Simon Frith. You can run from academia but can’t hide from Simon. Or Greil Marcus. Or Lester Bangs. These people are in the DNA of music writing. Even if you haven’t read them, you’ve read them. But Simon Frith is one one of those writers in particular who make people want to study music at university. People like me. He made me think it was a good idea.

(My parents probably hate him.)

In academia, all scholars worth their salt are looking for that space in the existing literature. That thing that no other academic has properly done yet, some vacant real estate to build a career on. In my first year of post-grad, I found that space in-between a few sentences of Simon Frith’s in Sound Effects (1988). In the fourth chapter of Sound Effects (“Making Music”) Frith introduces some key concepts. He opens up with a brief history of how the ‘rockstar’ emerged into popular culture. He details the class-related roots of the rockstar, starting with the 1950s stereotype of the rock’n’roll singer as a working class teenager (i.e. Elvis) and through the 1960s broadening out of the term. Of the (then) present, he writes:

‘the sharpest distinctions between rock musicians involve(s) not background or ideology but success and situation’ (p.64). 

Or put another way: a rockstar is someone who lives like a rockstar. It’s not really about attitude. If it were, Royal Trux (or Circle Pit) and Bon Jovi would be the same band. Instead, his definition of the rock musician, unsuccessful or successful, then becomes a spectrum of involvement which spans:

…from that of a superstar – moving leisurely, luxuriously, excessively between studio and stadium, cocooned (and cocained) by an entourage of servants and sycophants – to that of a local bar band – moving desperately and sporadically between welfare and squalid gig, sustained by dreams (p.64).

Here’s where I come in. I read that and thought: ‘But Simon, what are those dreams? And where are all my friends in this spectrum? Where am I on this spectrum?’

I wasn’t on the spectrum.

I was no superstar, not on account of any of the metrics provided.

For example:

  • I never moved luxuriously. Only by Tarago. And via my 1988 Daihatsu Charade.
  • The only drug I was ever much good at was Ventolin.
  • Cocooned? Most of the time, I had no one – at all – doing my band’s bidding. No manager or booking agent or label person, let alone a servant or a sycophant.

And yet I wasn’t exactly on the squalid gig end either…

  • I wasn’t desperate. I kind of liked playing in a ‘local bar band.’
  • I wasn’t on welfare. I always had a job. Or a scholarship. Or both. I liked my work too.
  • I had dreams sure. But in my dreams, I didn’t long for the other end of the spectrum. I wanted to be in Fugazi. Or Shellac. Or, in my most lavish fantasies, Sonic Youth or The Melvins. And as testament to the fact that these were fantasies: I only wanted to be in those bands on my holidays.

(Which, unbeknown to me at the time, sounds exactly what being in Shellac is actually like. It’s what Steve, Bob and Todd do with their down time. It’s how they bro down.)

So Frith’s spectrum didn’t fit. And this is how most academic thesis projects start.

In the end, I started studying the people around me. Some were aspirant professional musicians. Some were professional-amateurs (they earned, they were professional, but only ever part-time). Some were hobbyists. The hobbyists didn’t really seem to care about music careers – and they weren’t just saying that! These people were not anarchists or artistes. To the contrary, they had jobs and relationships and children and home loans and interests and they juggled these concrete everyday things with playing in bands, sometimes really weird and noisy bands. And they seemed pretty happy about it. They seemed especially happy with music in the doing: booking and playing shows, recording at home, screening t-shirts, updating their websites and being a part of a community of like-minded bands.

This was music as an advanced form of leisure. Like touch football, but not as lame and with more parties.

As soon as I looked at these people in a detached scholarly way, I realised something that never seems to be said often enough:

Commercial success and professionalism sits on the fringe of music, not in the centre. 

In today’s world, the big commercial bands are actually the marginal product. That’s part of what makes them seem so extraordinary, sure. But that stuff is not what music is about. That ‘superstar’ end of music is not the dead centre or the overriding theme or the core story any more. Being in a crappy local band, that’s what playing music actually is for most of the people, most of the time. That type of music-making is a huge part of people’s everyday lives. And while local band music may not be popularly celebrated or as listened to by Joe Public, in the world of musicians it’s the majority product by a huge degree. It’s the typical experience.

This is what this blog is all about: those occasional musicians, who are everywhere.

So don’t come here looking for music career advice. Because I haven’t really had one.

Don’t come looking for Punk 101 either. I’m not a punk. This isn’t resistance. Or separatism.

And don’t whine about ‘the state of the industry’ because I don’t really care. I really don’t care. I have a job. My rent is covered.

(The occasional musician covers her rent by other means. You may as well make that part of the definition.)

This blog is my attempt to move a little past those binaries anyhow.

In short, this blog is an attempt to talk about something else for a change.


3 thoughts on “The Occasional Musician: An Introduction

  1. Excellent work, brother. What you’re dealing with here is such a massive part of the current Australian musician’s experience – those in bands, punters at the gigs, fans on the webs, kids in the studio.

    The problem I have with it though, is in there in title of the blog. If a person playing music is only occasionally picking up her instrument, and only sometimes engaging with crowds, how can they come up with the right sounds to express exactly what that want to play, or say? And how can the music they make be of lasting, or any, importance? If everyone is an “occasional musician” won’t it follow that bands playing pubs, clubs and warehouses will only receive a lukewarm, non-committal, “occasional” (if you’re lucky) response? And why pursue a hobby where expression is the purpose of the venture, only to have no-one engage with it? How will you know if what you’re doing is the most incredibly inventive noise around or a pile of steaming horseshit?

    Or are “occasional musicians” avoiding this kind of response by keeping things deliberately quiet, clandestine and of the clique?

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