There are two children sitting next to each other at a school desk. They are both 8 years old. They are asked the classic question about what they would like to be when they grow up. ‘An astronaut’ says the first, ‘a rockstar’, says the second.
The odds of either succeeding with the first orbiting the earth and the second performing to sold-out crowds in the world’s biggest stadia are slim to say the least, and possibly about the same.
But a very interesting cultural phenomenon occurs in response to their dreams. The astronaut is encouraged; whether they succeed or not, the path is in itself is considered laudable with learning choices in science and the likelihood of an interest in sport and physical fitness ahead of them. If they fail at any stage there are clear transferable skills that generate options in the future job markets of research or aeronautics with aviation companies, pharmaceuticals and many other sectors requiring their skills. Success vs failure is not seen as a binary outcome from the outside as the journey itself has such value.
The rockstar in contrast is immediately schooled in the art of contingency planning for an alternative and entirely unrelated career to fall back on when they falter. The perception is of their aspiration to get up late, ride in limos, sip Champagne and work for a couple hours in an evening from time to time between parties and is not seen to offer the same richness of ‘safe’ alternative career options or transferable skills.
But much research has been done and it is widely accepted that early-years music tuition develops enhanced aptitude in languages, mathematics, socialisation and other traits we applaud in the labour market. The self-discipline and mental focus required during later childhood and teenage years to master an instrument and the teambuilding and tenacity required to coalesce and keep together a band that writes, rehearses and performs during those years develops skills most leadership training programmes at professional services firms are desperate to seek out.
As a society, we seem to acknowledge that music is a good thing for kids to do and that it is culturally and commercially important with the UK Music sector punching well above its weight globally and generating big numbers for UK plc, but we don’t really believe it. Not deep down. Not enough to invest and get behind it like we do sport or science. Not enough to give an equally positive and honest response to two 8 year old children who both dream of wearing white suits and floating amongst the stars.
There is a perception that ultimately success in the music industry is the result of a lucky break. But if it is, then being one of the handful of men and women that leave earth’s atmosphere is equally so. It is also equally the result of talent and aptitude coupled with years of hard work, dedication, self-belief and relentless application in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Governments tell us that what Britain needs is entrepreneurs. Risk takers and creative thinkers who can apply lateral thinking and ingenuity in the commercial environment to generate wealth and create British brands that express our nation’s greatness culminating in the spin-off benefits for us all – Aston Martin, James Bond, London 2012 – Greatness equals tourism and the rise of British appeal on the global stage and that means big wins for all of us.
But surely we can add to that list The Beatles, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Mumford & Sons, Adele and now Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran and more and more entrepreneurs in music who have combined art and craft to develop world-beating brands that achieve just as much as Dyson, Burberry and Pimms.
Succeeding as an artist is in itself entrepreneurial success and musicians often apply these skills in other, unrelated areas from Alex James’ cheese business to Ian Anderson’s salmon farm in Skye. Indeed music’s ability to let people connect was highlighted by astronaut Chris Hadfield whose version of Space Oddity has been viewed almost 25 million times compared with Neil Armstrong’s moon landing which has been viewed 1.2 million times.
The road ahead of the rockstar may be less directed by formal qualifications and the path to success less linear perhaps, but there is no better school for entrepreneurs than the teenage passion to create something out of nothing and to get strangers to pay money for your dreams. The 10,000 hours spent mastering the guitar are not wasted; whether or not that particular guitarist ends up playing a screaming solo at Wembley to adoring crowds. Plenty end up as lawyers and bankers and even more end up in A&R, marketing, PR, branding, music management, music publishing and the plethora of tech platforms leading us into the digital music revolution and providing the infrastructure and ecosystem in which those few that do make it, thrive.
In fact some of the routes available to the rockstar that doesn’t make it are the core targets in our nation’s plan for economic growth into the future. The astronaut on the other hand could be argued to be destined to be an employee; fulfilling incredibly important roles without doubt but generally from within larger organisations and therefore arguably less likely to be catalysing Britain’s next big thing on the international business stage.
It is time we stopped being scared to dream and time we started taking seriously the genuine opportunities generated by music learning. It is time also we properly recognise the Artist as entrepreneur and value generator, setting government investment in their education and development against outcomes in the commercial world as well as the cultural one.
In the final, analysis of success vs failure therefore, and between two careers with very long odds of ‘making it’, the rockstar in this case must surely have the edge as we must not forget that beyond the business debate, there is the emotional gain to each individual that takes part.
Playing music feels great and whilst the astronaut who doesn’t get to NASA can’t pop on the white suit on the weekend and go for a little float in their dream, the rockstar who never quite broke through can do just that and whether or not they are happy with their lot, they can always play on.
Read more on the Music Tank website