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Sounding Off: Paul Farrer

Look Beyond The Limelight... By Paul Farrer
Published February 2007

Sounding Off

The process of creating music is essentially a series of thousands of small decisions that collectively lead to an end result. The ability to self-edit, coupled with a sense of objectivity with regard to the quality of your decisions, is the most important skill any creative person can possess.

Take your average member of an up-and-coming band on stage. Typically, they're in their early twenties and good-looking; they've written a few songs, played a few gigs, got a bit of a following on Myspace and are getting more sex and booze than pretty much everyone they know.

Outcome A: their careers take off and they have continued success until they can retire safe in the knowledge that they lived the dream, rocked the world, did it their way and have sufficient income to see out their days in Tuscany.

Outcome B: they don't. I'm not sure of the exact figures, but I would hazard a guess that for every one person who has ever 'made it' in the music industry, there must be literally thousands who had the dreams but didn't get there in the end.

In his excellent book Fame in the 20th Century, Clive James made the point that human beings aren't designed to be famous. He argued that we are equipped with neither the evolutionary tools to understand this recent phenomenon, nor the psychological strength to look after our fragile egos properly when, and if, it ever happens to us. A cursory glance through one of the many weekly celebrity magazines will confirm the suspicion that the most screwed-up people you will ever meet tend to be the most famous ones. And here's the important point: musicians that have tasted the mass 'approval' of an audience in a live environment may have had their egos and their ability to appraise and judge their own work irreparably damaged.

I'm not suggesting that live performances aren't great fun, nor that you won't learn loads from them, but the adrenalin of the crowd and the buzz of the gig is an addictive mix; one that can very easily eat up decades of your life without rewarding you creatively or financially in the slightest.

In the real world, where commerce dictates virtually everything, your customers are no longer a room of 150 drunk people who would applaud a chimp in a tuxedo, but either a record company exec looking for an album that sounds like a cross between three other bands that happen to be selling loads at the moment, or (if you decide to go down the 'music for media' route) a work-experience teenager telling you that he'd like the music you've just spent hours working on to sound more like the score from Hitchcock's The Birds — a movie famous for having no music in it at all (this actually happened to me last month!).

Apart from a very select few at the top of the industry, pretty much everyone else who earns any money at all is (to some degree) told what to do by someone else. And in my experience, the people at the very bottom of the musical food chain (you know the type: grumbling about big business and crappy A&R quick-buck-thinking) tend to be the ones who take themselves far too seriously and, as a result, aren't very good at taking feedback or criticism and tend to be the most unfulfilled and uninspired.

Art versus commerce is one of the oldest debates there is, but it's worth remembering that virtually every great composer had patrons and sponsors, whose exacting demands would make even an ITV series producer blush. Most of the finest classical pieces of music we know were originally commissioned to celebrate an Emperor's birthday, or the opening of a new cathedral somewhere.

Gigs are great but beware: basking in the warm glow of an audience could be the kiss of death. Falling into the trap of thinking you're 'all that' simply because you played a solo and someone threw their underwear at you can, at best, lead to a cold, hard reality-check later on in your career. At worst, it will render you virtually unemployable in a demanding, fast-moving, multi-billion pound industry where the suits call the shots at every level.

It's a buyer's market and you're a seller, so you're almost certainly not as good as you think you are. But working hard, being consistent and striving to become generally respected in the industry without anyone really noticing is a goal within itself. He who pays the piper really does call the tune, but being a well-paid piper is one of the best gigs there is. 

About The Author

Paul Farrer has written music for numerous TV shows, including the Jerry Springer Show, Dancing On Ice, Ant & Dec's Poker Face and The Weakest Link, the BBC's most successful TV export of all time. To find out just how important he is, visit