A Few Good Men (And Women)
By Adam Gorgoni (Composer, Founding member of SONA)
Professional music writers write better music. There…I said it.
OK, I’m aware of more than a hint of snobbishness in that statement and that I am making a value judgment that others may not share. But I believe it is true, and I want to argue here for the social value of the professional middle-class music writer. That we will all be worse off, individually and as a culture, if the profession is allowed to go the way of the horse and buggy, if the soundtracks to all of our lives are created only by the mega-writers, the robots, and the amateurs.
A few caveats: I do not mean to disrespect the super-successful who got to the top of the food chain and stayed there. Max Martin. Diane Warren. Hans Zimmer. There will always be a small elite group at the top. And more power to them. But they can’t write all the songs and score all the films.
Similarly, I don’t mean to denigrate the hobbyists…. In fact, all of us who write music professionally were once amateurs, kids who loved music and dreamed of a career as a songwriter or a composer. The human race only produces a Mozart or a Stevie Wonder a few times a century. The rest of us have to start from scratch.
And let’s be honest, back then, when we first started out, most of us weren’t very good. We had to spend years honing our abilities, studying, practicing, studying, practicing, and then studying and practicing some more. We wrote HUNDREDS of mediocre songs that never saw the light of day. We tried and failed. Most of us didn’t make it. We weren’t talented enough, or lucky enough, or persistent enough.
But in the pre-digital age, if you were able to beat the odds and build a career, you could support yourself while you got good. Every once in a while you got lucky and somebody recorded your song, or you placed something in a TV show, or you got hired to score an independent film. You were able to eke out a living while you improved your skills.
And you did improve. You learned how to set up a great hook, or how to deftly weave a melody around a character’s dialogue. You developed what talent you did have over time and soon you had grown expertise: an enigmatic combination of perseverance, instinct, and inspiration that produces excellent, memorable work.
Let’s get real: we’re talking about music, that wonderful magical alchemy that has moved human beings since we were chanting and banging drums around fires thousands of years ago. It’s vital. It’s in our blood and bones. The physics of the cosmos vibrate according to its mathematical relationships. We literally couldn’t live without it. As a society, we need it to be the best it can possibly be.
And I would argue that most of the music that really moves you, that stamps itself indelibly onto your life, was written by professionals who paid their dues. When ET and Elliot took off on that bicycle ride, your heart would have stayed on the ground without John Williams’ score. Would that moment have had the same impact if it had been accompanied by a computer program, or a music library, or someone experimenting with software in their spare time? The same is true of the other movies and TV shows that have had lasting impact on your soul. The composer, spent years learning how to create music and marry it to film in just such a way as to make you laugh or scream or cry.
And the songs you love, the ones you remember from your high school prom, or danced to at your wedding…yes, some were written by the artist who performed them. But how many of them were written by someone fooling around in their bedroom and then posting them to YouTube? Not many. Rather, most were written by professional writers whose names you will never know and whose voices you will never hear, but who poured much blood and sweat and many tears into those exceptional songs, made them possible, gave you that elevated experience.
Think of it this way: would you want to receive open heart surgery from someone who learned how to do it on the internet, or have an attorney who didn’t go to law school and was trying their first case defend you at your murder trial? No…you would want the best you could get. The John Williams of heart surgeons. And if he or she was booked, you would want someone perhaps less famous, but who was similarly skilled and experienced (albeit not as touched by God.)
That’s who we are…the thousands of nameless and faceless hard-working small businesspeople. As Jack Nicholson said in A Few Good Men, and I paraphrase: “You want us on that wall, you need us on that wall,” writing the music that turns your black and white life to color, pen the songs you sing with your kids in the car, the melodies that resonate within your most precious memories.
We writers are not looking for sympathy. We choose the artistic life and we embrace it. And we know we’re not alone in facing job dislocation caused by technological change.
But here’s the last crucial point: we don’t make typewriters or cassette players. There is still massive demand for our product. More people are consuming more music in more ways than ever before. Record companies are having their best quarters EVER. The tech companies that profit from our labor are at the top of the Fortune 500. But our slice of the pie has shrunk to the point where even young writers, even if they are successful, will not be able to buy a house, send their kids to college, save a little for retirement. Sadly, that means there will be way less meaningful music in the world.
And as the saying goes…you get what you pay for.