I sometimes wonder if the reason it’s difficult for freelance live performers to motivate themselves lies in the lack of a tangible product of the work. A sculptor can point to their work with a certain satisfaction and say: there, I did that, that was the direct result of my work. An author can look over a day’s worth of pages and feel that something has been accomplished. But the product of the live performer is intangible: a rehearsal, a performance, a moment shared (or none of the above, as is more likely at the time of writing).
Perhaps that’s why I’ve always enjoyed the process of recording CDs. Not only do you get the intense focus of working on something with other people and making it as perfect as possible – that true feeling of team effort – but at the end of it all you have a product, an artefact. You can send it to people, as if to prove that what you do is real work after all, because it had a physical product.
While there are may things I would do differently a second time around, making my first CD as a conductor in 2019 was a fascinating and rewarding process for many of the above reasons. Add to those the post-production process – going over and over tracks, track order, booklet layout, album art, &c – and you had the feeling of polishing something until the final product gleamed. (I would be remiss not to acknowledge the patient expertise of Convivium Records who guided me through it.)
However, that process is very much the exception in my life and career as they’re currently configured. There are rehearsals and services in their hundreds (2020 excepted), concerts and workshops and recitals – but they’re over in a flash, leaving only a memory. Of course, that’s what makes them precious – the thrill of the live, the electricity in the air, the limitless potential of what might happen. But I do occasionally struggle with the lack of some kind of longer-lasting artifact, one that can prove to me that all those things weren’t just a dream but something I did.
In doing so, I am probably succumbing to a little workism. If you’re unfamiliar with the coinage, start with this article in The Atlantic. Workism is the idea that we define ourselves solely or principally by our work, by producing things endlessly, keeping our economies chugging along and our money-machines going brrr. In the article, Derek Thompson writes:
In the past century, the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings—from necessity to status to meaning.
He goes on to point out just how damaging this view can be. If you don’t succeed in work, your whole being becomes suspect. My desire for some tangible outputs to show for my work probably stems from a desire to join the class of people with that sense of meaningful work.
But, to quote Admiral Ackbar, it’s a trap. After all, the goal of human society shouldn’t be 100% employment, but 100% unemployment, with humanity doing what it wants, and the machines doing all the things we don’t want. It’s another reason I’m uncomfortable with the economic justifications for creative work – creativity is a human good.
That doesn’t help me with my dilemma – where is my artifact? Take today, for example. The ‘work’ content of my day consists of the following: learning some music; programming music for some upcoming services; thinking about the structure of next season’s programmes; processing some invoices; preparing for and then leading an online session for a choir. At the end of the day, although plenty of work will have been done, I won’t be able to admire it hanging on a wall, or observe it like a half-finished sculpture in the middle of my workshop.
In having this problem, I find myself somewhat surprisingly aligned with the information-economy workers of my millennial generation. Thompson again:
Blue-collar jobs produce tangible products, like coal, steel rods, and houses. The output of white-collar work—algorithms, consulting projects, programmatic advertising campaigns—is more shapeless and often quite invisible.
My output may not be as economically useful as a programmatic advertising campaign, but it’s just as invisible most of the time. Thompson argues that one result of this is that we feel the need to prove our accomplishments by preening our images on social media and making what we have done in a given day seem meaningful.
‘You are what you do’
‘Career as life meaning’ might be a relative newcomer to the workforce at large, but we in the so-called ‘creative’ professions have been haunted by it for much longer. We’re constantly told that what we do is meaningful, and, if caught complaining, will invariably be rebuked with something along the lines of ‘yes, but you get to do what you love/follow your passion/etc’.
Our careers have been expected to be our life meaning for a long time, probably since the 19th century elevated artists to the lofty plane of suffering genius, and persuaded people that being creative wasn’t a career but a calling. Artists succeed, we are told from a young age, because of their burning and unquenchable passion. But we didn’t undergo some Pokémon-like evolution from the travelling court musicians of the Renaissance into beings with a higher calling; we are still crafts-people, and if for some reason I’m not so ‘driven’ as to stay up all night thinking about Brahms, it doesn’t make me a lesser musician.
Combine this already damaging view of art and artists with contemporary millennial workism and you’ve got a toxic, if not lethal, combination. TwoSet Violin are perhaps the most successful classical music YouTube channel in the world, and their message strongly parallels hustle culture: practice, practice, practice. You can even get a hoodie with it on. I’m not about to say they haven’t done a great deal for classical music’s reputation with young people – and we all know we need to practise – but the fact that they might have worked themselves into the ground doing it doesn’t fill one with confidence.
In their haste to prove that artistic work is just as much work as anything else is, some turn to workism. ‘Today’s office’, as a caption on a picture of a beautiful concert venue, is ubiquitous among musicians on social media, and I think the intent is to make the reader recognise that art can be work too, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the privilege of occasionally working in beautiful spaces. However, it also feels a bit like workism – not only is this work, it seems to say, but it’s meaningful. I’ve almost certainly done this myself over the years. Who doesn’t want to prove that they’re a useful, productive member of society?
I think the pendulum might be slowly swinging away from workism. Personally, I’ve begun to stop idolising workaholic musicians and instead contemplate the people I respect for being curious, creative and chilled-out. The social-media grift-porn is wearing thin. There’s a better and healthier way.
Back to those work artifacts. Perhaps it’s a realisation of the need for some kind of product to show for my day that I’ve tried to use my non-work time to produce something more tangible. No sculptures, mind, but at least one or two drawings, and, if I finish it, the very blog you’re reading now.