On Where I Began (part 2)

If I got my musical ability from my mum (see part 1 here), then I got my entrepreneurial spirit from my dad.

But which has served me better as an independent musician?

Many of the greatest musicians, the world-changing artists, the enduring inspirations that have shaped and defined the world we live in failed on the business front. One of my great loves, 1960s folk artist Nick Drake released a miniscule amount of music and gave up on life when it failed to become commercially successful. Passing away at the age of 26, his music would go on to inspire a generation of new artists and land on the Rolling Stones 500 greatest album list.

This is an artist who despaired at selling a little over 3,000 records during his time. The business side of his career was weak, but the artistic side was strong, and this is what resonates long after he passed away.

On the other end of the equation, art often falls to the wayside in favour of slick marketing and the five minute pop-star is born. I often wonder which of the ‘big stars’ of the 2000s will have enduring careers and which will fade away. For every Madonna of the 80s there are a hundred other chart-topping singles which disappeared into the past. In 50 years time will the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears be examined with the same love as the Beatles and the Beach Boys? (can I even make that comparison?!)

From earliest memory, Dad was one of the greatest proponents of the ‘work from home’ lifestyle. Countless houses in countless countries housed studies filled to the brim with papers. Filing cabinets overflowing with lifetimes of work. Dad constantly had numerous new projects on the go. Dad passed on the ‘new project’ gene to me and I took it gratefully, throwing myself into idea after idea with abandon.

The beauty of working from home is plenty of time to throw at other ideas as they come up. In one monsoonal flood season the local park filled with chest high water. Dad (possibly spurred on by my brother) took the opportunity and turned it into the ‘Great Raft Race (episode 1)’ and hordes of neighbourhood kids watched on in awe as three white kids and a middle-aged man paddled around the park in a dinghy. It was brought to an abrupt end with the discovery of some downed power lines sparking merrily away. We paddled home to safety. Episode 2 of the Great Raft Race involved driving twenty jerry cans and a pile of lumber eight hours to the nearest beach (Al Hudaydah). Several rolls of duct tape and a prayer later we pushed out to sea, a three-hour roundtrip to a sunken oil tanker off the coast. The Great Raft Race turned into a yearly fixture of the ex-pat community, final tally at around five rafts and some twenty people headed out to sea.

Outside of nautical pursuits, Dad has ostensibly spent his life as a teacher, with combined hats of researcher, author, creator and entrepreneur vying for space on his balding head (I inherited the balding gene too). I spent child-hood summers earning pocket-money by turning Dad’s learning materials into books, page by page photocopied and spiral bound into educational materials for the courses he created and taught. No topic was too strange, with books on teaching Arabic to English-speakers, on teaching English to Arabic-speakers (including one specific course on teaching English medical words to Arab doctors). Dad wrote picture books for mum to use to teach health education to rural village women (a big killer in third world countries is diarrhoea, turns out babies get dehydrated and die if the parents don’t know they have to keep watering them). Dad spent years developing and self-publishing books then, working through the faculty of a university, spent years creating books for other people to publish. He now ‘tours’ the world, not in a musical sense, but lecturing, running short courses, inspiring a new generation of thinkers.

As I grow older, my schedule shifts to match that of my dads. He developed the daily routine of an afternoon nap (in a country where the afternoon temperature can reach 40 degrees and the entire city closes shop and sleeps) and worked late into the night. I find my most productive hours begin at 10 pm, which doesn’t bode well for drum practice, but works well as writing and reflection time.

The ones who inspire me in a business sense are the people who get things done. The Elon Musks or Tim Ferriss or Steve Jobs or Dads of the world, where no idea is too crazy to throw your energy at. Without these people where would life be?

So I sit at a nexus between the creative and business worlds. I love the entrepreneurial aspect of music. I love creating business ideas, starting projects, pulling people in new ways and seeing what the combinations create. I love the beginning of an idea, where everything is so vague and new that you can push in any direction and make growth. I love sketching out ideas and seeing the possibilities that lie within.

But I also love creating music. I love fleshing out lyric ideas, putting them into context against a groove with a melody and underpinning them with harmony. I love performing these parts and seeing what resonates with people. I love the visceral movement that comes from placing two notes a certain distance apart from each other and repeating repeating repeating until you have a groove.

I close with a quote from Ed Catmull, author of Creativity Inc and founder of Pixar:

“Many of us have a romantic idea about how creativity happens: A lone visionary conceives of a film or a product in a flash of insight. Then that visionary leads a team of people through hardship to finally deliver on that great promise. The truth is, this isn’t my experience at all. I’ve known many people I consider to be creative geniuses, and not just at Pixar and Disney, yet I can’t remember a single one who could articulate exactly what this vision was that they were striving for when they started.

In my experience, creative people discover and realize their visions over time and through dedicated, protracted struggle. In that way, creativity is more like a marathon than a sprint. You have to pace yourself. I’m often asked to predict what the future of computer animation will look like, and I try my best to come up with a thoughtful answer. But the fact is, just as our directors lack a clear picture of what their embryonic movies will grow up to be, I can’t envision how our technical future will unfold because it doesn’t exist yet. As we forge ahead, while we imagine what might be, we must rely on our guiding principles, our intentions, and our goals—not on being able to see and react to what’s coming before it happens. My old friend from the University of Utah, Alan Kay—Apple’s chief scientist and the man who introduced me to Steve Jobs—expressed it well when he said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

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