‘The music industry isn’t about healing pain and heartbreak and vulnerability. It’s about selling it.’
I recently saw ‘Mood Music’, an entertaining and thoughtful new play by Joe Penhall (at the Old Vic until 16 June). The piece revolves around a dispute between Bernard, a middle-aged music producer, and Cat, a young singer-songwriter. They have collaborated over a successful album, but their relationship unravels as Bernard claims sole authorship of its hit song.
‘Making other people feel better doesn’t really make me feel better.’
Our sympathies are with Cat. She is inexperienced, vulnerable and idealistic. We want to believe her romantic characterisation of the creative process.
‘When we’re making great music and it’s working, I’m free. Everything has clarity. Energy. Like a surge of life force. Something that’s uniquely mine pours out and connects. I can perform magical tricks. I can fly.’
Bernard, by contrast, is cynical, manipulative and misanthropic. He finds it hard to recognise the talent of others.
‘You see, singers tend to live in a world of their own. They have to completely empty their minds in order to sing, and then they just stay that way.’
‘The thing you need to understand about bass players is they’re not musical.’
‘Drummers can’t feel pain. They’re like fish.’
Bernard is undoubtedly the villain of the piece. And yet sometimes, in the midst of the bullying, bitterness and bile, his pronouncements about the craft of songwriting ring true.
‘A good song doesn’t have a ‘heart.’ It has a void. It’s a ‘black hole’. It sucks you inside it, and you fill it with yourself until there’s no escape.’
Bernard believes that creating music is not about freedom, passion and self-expression. For him it’s all a matter of detachment, compromise and control.
‘The key to emotion is nuance, and the key to nuance is precision. You have to be very mechanical to make it emotional. It’s a real dichotomy.’
Bernard goes on to muse on the character traits of successful creative people.
‘Well, you see, music is traditionally all about expressing yourself, and musicians are generally against repressing their feelings. But I think some people should be a bit more repressed.’
These themes may resonate for us in the commercial communication sector, where creativity is put to work; applied to a task; managed and manipulated to achieve a particular goal. We deal in calculated creativity.
Many veteran creatives have, like Bernard, a disarming air of cynicism about them. They wear their disappointments and past defeats as badges of pride. But often they also have the experience and expertise to adjust and adapt ideas; to revise and refine them so as to realise their full potential.
As an industry we spend a good deal of time paying our respects to the right-brain aspects of our work: to the anarchic free spirit; the magical spark of invention; the unfettered imagination. But the commercial creative requires logic, analysis and objectivity as much as intuition, thoughtfulness and subjectivity. Maybe we should spend more time celebrating the left-brain: the calculation and control that translate a raw idea into a compelling and effective piece of communication; the precise knowhow that guides concepts through the development process to execution; the craft of creativity.
Perhaps if we lauded calculated creativity more than maverick invention - if we gave due attention to craft skills, and taught them properly in our schools – we’d be better appreciated by our Clients, and better understood in the wider fields of commerce. And we’d be less inclined to indulge the unruly behaviour and wearying extravagance of the conventional creative stereotype.
In the course of ‘Mood Music’ both Bernard and Cat take to counselling to address their frustrations. Cat’s psychotherapist observes:
‘I’m just saying you find a lot of damaged people – sociopaths and psychopaths, for example – are drawn to the music industry because lack of empathy, raging narcissism and grandiose eccentricity is expected of them. It’s normal.’
It doesn’t have to be.