What is a Musician?

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Autechre is an electronic music duo. One of the foremost artists of the genre since they formed in 1987. Today marks the release of their 14th studio album, SIGN. So for over 30 years, Autechre has been making world renown music. And yet, in a recent New York Times interview, Sean Booth says “I still don’t feel like a musician.” Here’s the excerpt with that quote:
Booth and Brown are both from Rochdale, a town near Manchester, England, and they started collaborating on mixtapes and electronic music in the late 1980s. Neither had any formal music training; Brown studied architecture at art school, and Booth spent six months taking courses in audio engineering and electronics.
“I still don’t feel like a musician,” Booth said. “I don’t know what we are, because we came from messing around with other people’s records on tape. You just learn this stuff by listening to a lot of records and then having the equipment. Most of my training early on was equipment manuals.”
This would sound completely outrageous if it did strike me as so relatable. Not that I’m comparing myself to Autechre. Because there is no comparison.
I started playing guitar in 2007. I began writing music soon after. During that time, I’ve dedicated more time to music than anything else. Yet, I still don’t feel like a musician. The label feels so detached from the act of playing an instrument. That’s all I’m saying.
At what point does one become a musician? Surely, not everyone who’s ever picked up a guitar is a musician. So where is the line? But then, what does it matter?
I enjoy experimenting with sound. When I hear something I like, I record it. Then I’ll play something else over that. If it sounds good I might record that too. This layering process is the primary way I write music.
But surely, I’m not a composer. Not in the classical sense of the word. I haven’t formally studied music theory. I’m not really big into Beethoven, Bach, or even The Beatles. Yes, I’ve written many songs. But not everyone who strums 3 chords around a campfire is a composer, right? So where’s the line?
Does it really matter?
I guess it matters if you’re going out for the Philharmonic. But I’m not. And I’m sure those ladies and gents of the Philharmonic would be astounded by all that I don’t know about music. So I won’t offend them and their lifelong pursuit of musical mastery by giving myself the same label as them: musician.
Then again, isn’t the culture around “proper” musicians a bit stuffy? A bit exclusive? Exclusivity benefits those who are inside the club, but doesn’t do much for anyone else. Maybe that was part of the enthusiastic fervor behind rock n roll music, then punk music, followed by hip hop, and eventually electronic music. People like being included. Being a part of something. And by definition, not everyone can be part of the elite. So while a select few are diligently practicing scales on their violin, thousands are chopping samples into beats and telling their story one rap verse at a time.
But let’s emphasize that neither approach is wrong. Of course preference will be determined by someone’s individual values. Some people favor tradition, order, diligence, scholarship, even elegance. Another might be more of a free spirit. The type that doesn’t like to be told what to do. Is inspired by experimentation and not having rules. Free flowing, unscripted expression. Can you guess which type of music each of these very stereotypical and hypothetical people might like?
The point is, there’s no reason to be so exclusive about music and musicianship. If someone wants to record a capella rap music on their iPhone and call themselves a musician, fine. That doesn’t take anything away from suits that can sight read symphonies. In fact, it may even add to it. People who appreciate “real musicians” will appreciate them even more in comparison. Today though, a lot more people have iPhones than violins.
There are valuable life lessons hidden within the pursuit of music. I don’t see why those rewards should be kept behind a paywall. Whether it’s the price of a of a cello, or piano lessons, or a Master of Arts in Music Theory. Learn from those who inspire you. Make work that inspires you to see it to completion. Try something new and you may inspire someone else to start on their own path. These are just a few of the traits that define Autechre. If they’re not musicians, neither am I. But hey, the label isn’t all that important anyway.