Why am I doing music?
In the real world, why am I doing music? I am asking this because I am not an artist. I have been filling the twenty years of my career with artistic creation, but it wasn’t mine… I am a professional in the domain of sound: An “audio-engineer” as they say, but, if I’m an engineer, why am I doing music?
The game you choose to play when you’re a child
I’ve always had music in my head, as far as I can remember. It is here all along the day, like it was the software running my mind. Maybe it is just the way I work: I am always singing melodies and tapping rhythms to myself like long hair move with the wind. That’s the way I feel it.
I am honestly not a hard worker and I have never been serious enough to learn how to play any instrument. The same with sports, I like playing but… “Feeling pain? No thanks!” Since I was a kid I’ve always been mainly having fun. Producing strange sounds with electronic machines and programming music on computers was my favorite game.
I’ve always been mesmerized by the folks around me that could play instruments. As a young boy, I remember being fascinated because I imagined they could instantly express what was in their mind. I did not have this “super-power”, that is why I thought I was not a true musician. These were my two original mistakes.
Because I was convinced performance was not my “way”, I took the “technical path”: I learnt sound techniques to push the boundaries of my creativity. My first studio was in fact a place where I transferred all the gears that were in my bedroom, so I could record performers that would play my music.
A game turned into a business by accident
As I had my own studio I was asked for the first time to record and mix bands and I got paid for that. I was surprised but the guys were satisfied with my work! A little later I got recruited in a huge alternative studio in Paris where my DIY background was appreciated.
That is how I became a pro without ever considering myself as serious. All this was just playing! I was like a child spending hours drawing a picture and focusing on details like his life depends on it. When the drawing is over the child just smiles and wants to show it to the ones he loves, he doesn’t mind about how much money he can get from it…
Twenty years have passed since this accident. Such a period is quite an experience level on a corporate scale. I felt surprised when I created my Linkedin profile recently and it qualified me as an expert in all my domains! To summarize if you don’t know about pro audio I would say the two main domains for sound technicians are live music and recording studios.
As I said, at the very beginning I worked in studios. But during these first years, I also developed a small entrepreneurial activity as a sound-system provider. I was selling my service and equipment for private events in the African Communities in the North of Paris.
No professional wanted to work with them and they always coped with technical conditions close to zero. Their DIY state of mind was perfect to me because it spared some self induced feeling of illegitimacy.
(some might notice what a colonial way of thinking that is… go ahead and hit me!)
Much Ado About Nothing
For years I worked in conditions my fellow sound technicians qualified as awful. I guess it was not choking me because I did not consider myself as a worthy professional! So I was unconsciously finding logic to offer my service to the people that were considered unworthy by the “real” professionals…
Anyway these events were excellent training for me. I realized years later that I was perfectly at ease under very high levels of pressure. And that became one of my most appreciated skills.
The first time I noticed that was when I got in charge of a concert for a band I was a super fan of. Their songs were turning endlessly on the radio at the time and I was just crazy about them. My boss had told me “hey Mathieu you like this band? Do you want to make their sound?” Waoooh! Thrills…
It was a Canadian band called Souljazz Orchestra, white guys playing afrobeat in the legacy of Fela Kuti. I felt like my life stopped the moment my boss told me that. I don’t know if there is any translation for this but in French we say “I made a mountain out of it…”
The big night happened and I did what I was used to doing. The sound balance (that moment before the show when the band is on stage and you set the sound for them in their stage monitors as well as for the audience in the “front-of-house” speakers) lasted only a few minutes and the guys stopped. They went down the stage straight to the kitchen, sending me a familiar “peace of cake man” as they were passing by…
Let the magic flow
So that was it, American “straight-forward-ity” blowing my so-French-unacademic-illegitimacy apart! The sound was good to them, no big deal. Let’s go to eat now. Something was gone from me, I was levitating.
That night was 100% pure magic for everyone. The room was full, it was one of the best nights ever organized in that concert room, the audience was crazy, the band played like fire, the bar sold beer like never before… But to me it was a tipping point. I realized how I’m just always feeling doubts about myself, regardless of my real skills, experience, or legitimacy. Truth is I was the only one wondering if I would do the job! So I pardoned my stupid ego, I smiled and I spent the night having as much fun as possible with pushing the sound-system to its maximum!
It might be hard to capture for someone who’s never performed in front of an audience, but being an artist is not being a robot. Performing music live has nothing to do with perfection. It has everything to do with sincerity. On small shows especially, the artist is very close to the public. The technician’s main mission is not the sound or the lights, he first needs to do anything that can be done so that the performer feels well. ANYTHING
If the artist is comfortable, the magic can happen, and then there is music to mix. Without magic, no music to highlight, only a bad time for everyone to pass through…
Why am I doing music activism?
A major turn happened for me when I took over studios in my hometown. Once again it happened by accident, like an opportunity offered to me, to play with a new toy. I was not considering myself as an entrepreneur and the entire economic part of the project could stand just because I didn’t care about the way I would get myself some money out of it. I only focused on creating the best tool for music dreamers like me, ever!
I was not running these studios in an alternative way because of political convictions. The devotion I put into it was in fact only due to the fact I considered myself as a trivial amount in the calculation. But that was sometimes considered by left-wing artists and punk rock bands as mostly radical activism!
I never asked any public financial help for my studios:
“Me, getting public money? Are you serious? In a time when hospitals or schools get budget cuts? I don’t think so…”
That made some of my partners crazy! Some of them were private non-profit music organizations supported by public finances, and others were public establishments. So my being independent was something really strange to them when it came to comparing our personal situations….
But at that time I had come to a situation where I only cared about managing the emergencies day after day. I had stopped making my music for long and the reasons why I had become a local music entrepreneur had become so blur I just stopped thinking about it.
One day you’ve become a local resource
Having my own studios brought me, in just a few years, to another level. I was now locally a “resource person”. I was spending my days with amazing musicians that were asking my advice or requiring my service to make some choices in their career. I also co-created an audio engineer school to teach my knowledge!
One day I welcomed at the studio a jazz drummer called Daniel Jeand’heur. This man had already an amazing and very alternative background at that time. He felt comfortable in my DIY studios running with no budget and the place quickly became his workshop.
A few weeks later he asked me to produce a new album he was composing. It took almost two years to record and mix this project! I learned a lot working with him and spending so many hours together renewed my fascination for performers. When he finally told me the mix sounded the way he was hearing things, I was exhausted but happy! Producing jazz albums for such a rock-solid musician was a personal challenge and I had succeeded.
This episode is the most significant to me, but it is far from being the only one. During those years I also had so many opportunities to help artists with their music. I was often the one giving them the little push they needed to assume being an artist in such a material world. I was the guy they could tell: “Hey I think this world is nonsense, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know if I’m worth it…” I knew exactly what they were talking about!
I was spending so much time motivating young musicians, giving them support and erasing any feeling of guiltiness and illegitimacy they ever could feel. That is exactly the role of local resource persons. I had become one and nobody would argue about that. Even myself, finally.
What about assuming I’m an artist too?
As a true professional I could not hide the obvious paradox inside any longer: Everyday I was encouraging an artist. But I was still questioning whether I was worth an artist myself! Come on…
I applied to myself the simple formula I was telling everyday to all the artists sharing their doubts with me: Just be yourself. So I published a five-tracks EP called Recorder Blues that was about the blues of the sound guy that’s directing artists while he feels inferior to them…
I composed this first release as a short music trip, like when we listened to a Pink Floyd album, from the start to the end. It was meant to introduce myself as an artist and I wanted to show that my universe had many different sides. I was very proud to finish this work and I was very happy when I saw that all the artists around me were not surprised: They just considered me as an artist too, no big deal!
As I was now assuming myself as an artist too, I faced the two original mistakes I quote in the beginning of this post: On a legal point of view, instrument players are considered as the official musicians (that’s a 100% French legal debate), so indeed, being an artist was not my job. But musicians themselves don’t think like that. They don’t have this artificial border that I had for long. And my second mistake is that playing an instrument, and being able to instantly translate the melodies in your head, is not the same thing! Improvisation techniques can be taught in music schools, but most musicians are not jazz players and just can’t improvise.
I made these two mistakes when I was young just because I asked too many questions about myself! I needed time and experience, that brought me to become a professional, and now I was there I had enough legitimacy so I could come back to my original creative identity. What a waste of time and energy! But at least I had now all the tools to produce my music on a professional level.
Why am I doing music?
Last year I made the most difficult professional decision, ever: I closed my studios. With the lockdowns they had been closed for two months. And the year after that was the moment to pay for these two months. There was no way I could take over this. Never.
So that was the end finally, unfair and brutal, cold as a calculation. I moved to Brittany, far from Paris, to get closer to my Celtic roots, to live in other conditions, and also to pay a lower rent! There I found myself isolated and I had to face my demons: I had finally felt legitimate after twenty years of live music experience, of managing studios, of entrepreneurship. Now everything was down and I was back to being noone!
My feeling illegitimate came back, stronger than ever. I realized the true cost of this career. It was such a high price just because I had doubts about myself… I took the time I needed to deal with this crisis and I let myself go as much as possible. I knew I had to explore the deepest parts of my psychology, and I had no idea what I would find. Then, while I was just lost, a little light appeared and, as I was in complete darkness, it appeared that it was shining bright like a sun.
I guess we all came through difficult times these last days, weeks and months. At a certain point I stopped thinking. I knew I could find no answer and all I could think about was what a failure I was. So it was better not thinking. I was not even waiting, I was just doing nothing. I did not hope for anything, I did not know where I was going, it was the best I could keep doing: Just nothing.
Sometimes I felt like doing music but with it, all the associated bad moods came back: “Why am I doing music? Am I worth it? Will I ever interest any audience? If I had no success while I had my own studio and label, how could I better succeed now that I’m all alone in my home-studio? Etc etc.”
All these dark questions got a simple answer: I was still feeling good when I was working on my artistic creation!
A little sun inside
So that was it: It appeared as simple and pure as the smile on the face of a child! Creating makes me feel good. That was the legitimacy I had always been looking for. I had needed to become someone, then lose it all, to come back to the source! No need to algorithm it or to make it fit a budget or a production plan! Artistic creation is resilience because I’m a creative person, and whatever can happen in my life, melodies and rhythms will always be the way my mind flows into the world, just like long hair moves with the wind.
In that moment so dark I could not figure out who I was any longer, the last sparkle left had appeared as a shining sun and filled me with the obvious meaning of abstraction: Creating makes me feel good. That’s the littlest irreductible quantity I brought with me when I came to this life.
This idea can look simple but it is pure power to me. I have always been sure I had something to do with music and artistic creation in general, but I didn’t really know what, or how. That led me to become a pro in sound techniques. I wanted to find myself so I explored many different paths in music but none was truly mine. And when I was totally exhausted and I thought I was lost, then something reminded me I am a creative person. Creating makes me feel good. That’s a simple fact, no doubt possible here. It is the last thing left to make sense when I have asked and answered all the questions I could.
So why am I doing music?
This resilience does not give me any answer about what I should do for a living and the way I should earn some money. It is a lot deeper than that: Feeling good when I create just means I am a musician, and that is the most simple answer I ever found to the question: Why am I doing music (for so long, and forever)? I am doing music because I AM a musician.
It is the same with this first post: Why am I writing this? There are a thousand reasons from totally false to mostly valuable. But the only true one is: Because it makes me feel good.