Well folks, it’s been quite a year… and we’re only halfway through! I’ve already written about the Corona-crisis and how much life has changed in the last few months. I’ve also written about my first efforts to keep myself musically engaged and productive through this period; setting up a pretty decent home studio and working remotely with friends and colleagues for fun and (sometimes) money.
So many of us right now are doing whatever we can to survive, unable to perform music because our gigs have been cancelled or venues have closed, or just needing to set aside creative pursuits to focus our energy on surviving this rollercoaster of a year, both financially and emotionally. As the months wear on and the reality and probable length of this new gig-free life in the United States settles in, the question I can’t stop pondering (at the risk of evoking a Zoolander puddle reflection moment) is; if I’m not performing music, who am I?
I’ve been playing music as long as I can remember, gigging since I was 17 and working professionally since I was in my early twenties. The answer to “What do you do?” was always, “I’m a bass player”. That has been my identity and my personal tagline for two decades. But right now I’m really not a bass player, not in terms of my daily life.
With touring cancelled throughout most of the world this year, the last few months I’ve been working for my partner helping him with his clothing retail business, selling apparel to tourists at a pop-up shop (wearing a mask and from 6 ft away), and online through the e-commerce site we built at the start of this crisis, in an effort to help his business weather the storm. Although I’m very happy to help him out (and have a job right now), working 6 days a week doing retail is exhausting, and music is basically non-existent for me right now.
Yes, I’m busy and tired on my few days off, but the lack of time and energy isn’t really the whole story. Lately, I’ve also realised that the joy and satisfaction I get from music doesn’t come from playing by myself. It’s from the connection that comes from playing with other musicians and the human connection with the audience that comes from performing live.
Practising has never been a fun pastime for me, it’s always been something I did because I needed to prepare for a lesson, exam, performance, recording, or tour. Sure I’ve still played a little bass lately, done a few remote sessions, and enjoyed dusting off my piano chops to work through some basic etude books, but playing by myself just honestly feels mostly sad. A reminder of the career that has been put on ice this year and what I profoundly miss: performing live.
I feel fairly certain that live music and touring will come back at some point, and I’ll get to do the thing I love again, playing music with and for other people. But I’ve really been stuck on the question lately of, what if it doesn’t? What will I do without it? What value do I have in the world if I’m not doing the one thing I’ve always felt good at? Do I have any worth if I’m not ‘Vanessa, the bass player’?
I’m not talking about a paycheck, I know I’ll always be able to find a job and a way to pay the bills. My partner passed on some advice to me recently that he’d received as a young man from an employer he looked up to; that the key to his success in business was never being too proud to sweep the floors. I’ve worked physically harder in the last few months than ever before, and it’s certainly been a reminder that I’m not afraid to work hard, or too proud to sweep floors if I need to. But I also know that I’m an artistic person and I only feel truly happy and fulfilled when I’m being productive and creative. So if worse came to worst and my performing career didn’t come back, what would that look like without music? Can I feel of value without it?
The slump I was in about this lately has started to show glimmers of receding as I’ve realised that some of the things I’m already doing actually do have a creative element to them. I overhauled my partner’s business website using some of the knowledge I’ve gleaned from the web designers I’ve worked with over the years on music sites. Together he and I learned how to build and run an e-commerce site, and finding fun ways to promote his products online has been a nice creative outlet. With the help of my business partner in Findaband, Sam Browne, I’ve been learning about SEO in an effort to help drive traffic to the clothing website. I’ve had a book idea in the back of my mind for a few years now and over the last weeks have started work toward that.
Music is in my bones and I think I will always feel a little lost when I’m not performing. But I’ve also started to realise that there are other things I can find creative satisfaction in, other skills that I can build on, and different ways to feel of value in the world. Whether you were a full time creative professional pre-Covid, or you were balancing your hobby with a day job, just because you’re not pursuing your music, art, or other vocation right now doesn’t mean you can’t find creative and personal satisfaction elsewhere. These can be found hidden in seemingly non-creative pursuits and there’s intrinsic value in being a great friend, partner, family or community member, or just making it through these days mostly intact.
Vanessa McGowan is a Fender and Aguilar endorsee originally from New Zealand, currently based in Nashville TN. She plays bass and sings backing vocals for a wide range of touring artists including Sugarland, Jennifer Nettles, Brandy Clark and Tattletale Saints.