Consumption anxiety

Every now and then, I have a worrying thought, and it takes this form: is there a serious imbalance between the amount I’m creating, and the amount I’m consuming? To put it another way, I’m worrying about the ratio of things that I contribute to the world to things that I take from it. I don’t mean this in an environmental way – although I’m sure that’s true as well – but in a cultural sense.

It’s certainly a worry that’s been exacerbated by being unable to contribute to creative life in the way I normally would this year, what with global pandemia. But it’s not a new feeling, nor is it confined to this year. It’s an anxiety that appears to affect a large number of people. At a time when ‘content’ is available at our fingertips, more content than we could consume in a hundred lifetimes, many of us feel worried, even guilty, about consuming so much more than we produce.

It’s so easy to watch my friends making music online, or to binge a TV show, or waste time down in the depths of YouTube rabbit-holes. People have produced so much, and they share so much of it, and it’s just so very easy to gobble it all up. I’m attacked by the sense that I reap but I do not sow.

It’s not just me – this anxiety seems to be everywhere on the internet. Newer generations of internet users are well aware of just how much they consume; a quick google reveals that this has in turn provided the platform for dozens of articles about how to ‘release our creativity’ and counter the problem. It’s linked to an increased awareness of and contempt for the idea of consumerism. The revolt against this has led to movements such as ‘digital minimalism‘, which seems to be a reaction against the ease with which it is now possible to consume media of all kinds.

(The huge popularity of people peddling their own versions of this new ‘minimalism’ on YouTube is an interesting outgrowth of the idea. It can be easy to forget that they too are selling a lifestyle, albeit one with Apple-branded clean lines and the endless and subtly consumerist permutations of the quest for the ‘perfect productivity desk setup’.)

Where does this anxiety come from?

The disjunct between just how easily we can devour the fruits of culture, and how much we ourselves contribute to it, can seem vast. Most of us want to feel that we’re in control of our lives, and yet so many of us are reliant for our entertainment or consolation on the product of other people’s hard work and initiative – which makes us feel like maybe we aren’t in control after all.

I’ve been wondering if this is something which is particularly pertinent for those who practice music in the classical tradition. Most people would probably think of us broadly as ‘creatives’, but do we really create? I sometimes feel that at most we ‘curate’ – we take other people’s work (most often composers) and re-interpret their notes or rehearse their ideas. Thinking this way can leave me feeling like a net drain on the world’s creative output.

Is ‘creation vs consumption’ a false framing?

I wonder if it might be a bit simplistic to equate ‘creation’ with agency and ‘consumption’ with complacency. Certainly, for musicians, we can choose to frame interpretation and facilitation as a creative act in itself, one without which the composer’s notes and ideas cannot be realised.

A teacher once told me that to be a conductor is not to be an artist, or some kind of lofty spiritual being, but a craftsmen, working with their hands to fashion something, just as the musicians do. Seen this way, the performing musician is indeed a creative person. Performers are always creative when performing, as long as they are not doing so on auto-pilot or without intention.

Even beyond the realm of performance, the facilitation of a creative act is just as vital. Think of those who commission composers or arrange competitions, who stimulate or provide a conduit for the creativity of others. Teachers, artist managers, stage crew, tuners, luthiers, patrons. The whole ecosystem of the cultural world is so integrated that it doesn’t really make any sense to separate ‘creativity’ into something that some have or practice and others don’t.

Consumption is necessary for creativity

There’s a broader point to draw out here about how creativity works. Tiago Forte, in the Building a Second Brain Podcast, talks about the importance of the ‘gathering’ phase of creativity. This is when we intentionally gather material and allow ourselves to digest it. Only when we have consumed a lot of material and distilled it down to that which is most interesting or insightful do we then begin germinate ideas of our ‘own’.

Essentially, Forte is arguing that it’s not only OK to consume plenty of material, it’s a prerequisite to the creative act, a way of seeding the brain with the raw material which it can then play with or recombine in new ways.

Obviously, it’s going to make a bit of difference if we do this mindfully, being alert as we consume and positioning ourselves to be able to record things that resonate with us, in order to be able to recall and play with them. This idea is at the heart of Forte’s ‘Second Brain’ theory.

I’m enjoying processing this idea of how to think of creativity: as something not opposed to consumption, but the potential product of it. I’m hoping it will help me let myself off the hook – especially if I find that those tangible, recognisable fruits of creativity are thin on the ground in the wasteland of 2020.