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Pay You Back with Interest

December 1, 2003
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It can't be the money, because you probably won't earn much. It isn't an easy ride, either; in fact, it can be heartbreakingly difficult — and even just heartbreaking. So where's the return on investment? Why do any of us in this business of creating music and sound keep doing it?

Many of us feel that we have no other choice: we can't not do it. I struggled for many years trying to figure out how to explain to my mother why I put myself through all the grief that playing in a band can and does generate. One day, I finally hit on it by telling her that it was really more a calling than a profession. That made a little more sense to her.

But what can call so strongly that it overcomes material, and sometimes common-sense, considerations? Although many of us got into music and sound in order to get all the attention and to partake in the abundant sex (!), actually staying in the music business for an entire career demands greater motivation.

Clearly, the answer is rooted in some kind of spiritual payoff rather than in hard logic. Playing music or making a beautiful recording, or sculpting a perfectly integrated mix somehow lets me express something of the glimpse of life that I have seen, and in so doing, it lets me touch, or at least hear, the divine. If that sounds a little religious to some people, then so be it. However it sounds, that is what I get out of it. One can achieve moments of true perfection when doing these things, even if sometimes it is the perfection of being human and flawed.

However you want to describe the sensation, it is impossible to experience such a feeling without having strong emotions about it, and therein lies the agony as well as the ecstasy. These emotions run incredibly deep and range from the unbridled joy of Bach to the confessional and redemptive power of the blues, and from the release of rage in punk or Beethoven to the inspirational power of devotional music.

But while the final result is capable of providing powerful resolution simply by serving as an outlet, the process can be dark and laden with pain. A classic example can be seen when a musician must turn control of his or her work over to someone else. It could be a producer chosen by a label, an ignorant client insisting on poor mix decisions, or a band's interpretation of a song that is quite different from what the songwriter actually had in mind. Because of the emotional investment, these changes can alter and even destroy the shining vision a musician or engineer originally had for his or her work. And the more the level of emotional investment, the more that hurts.

This subject comes up repeatedly in any pursuit involving even a shred of artistic intent. And each time I consider ways of coming to terms with it, I find the answers are hard to implement.

One tactic is to be totally in control: have your own studio, play all of the instruments yourself, and be the producer as well as the artist. That approach can definitely work; however, it requires taking on a tremendous creative, emotional, logistical, and financial load — and more. It cuts out the substantial energies and synergies that multiple contributors can bring to a project.

Another approach is to loose your grip on the emotional investment. That might mean a Zen sort of letting go, in which you release your attachment to what you had in mind and go with the flow. Sometimes it may be necessary to just care less so that rebuffs can't hurt as much. This can work, but caring less is an extremely slippery slope, even though it is sometimes the only workable solution.

However you come to terms with it, it is crucial that you recognize your emotional investment and that you attempt to understand its depth. Doing that will position you to make appropriate choices. If you can make the right choices, then your investment can pay off in the long run, with interest.


Contributing editor Larry Oppenheimer is a musician, engineer, and sound designer whose San Francisco-based company, Toys in the Attic, provides a variety of musical and audio services.

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