Competing makes you better but requires mutual encouragement
I am not at all a competitive person. Being a perfectionist, I of course enjoy setting goals for myself, but even something as simple as playing a card game with other people is a stressful experience, and especially when I was young I tried to avoid sports as far as possible, because PE at school is mostly competitive. The very word ‘competition’ prompts negative associations with elbow tactics and aggression. And when someone wins, someone else inevitably loses.
When I was asked under the theme of this issue to discuss the meaning of competition for my career, I discovered that I am engaged in a constant mental exercise to avoid the sense of competing against others encroaching on my everyday life. This is not to say that I am unaware that competition is a fact of life in the music industry. Funding for culture is sparse, and there simply is not enough room for all aspirants to find employment, let alone a full-time job. Under these circumstances, my musician colleagues and myself are engaged in a continuous merry-go-round of vying for gigs, grants, visibility, public attention and so on. This is necessary for us to be able to continue our work, which for many of us is a vocation.
You win some, you lose some, but it is mere speculation to try to find out why. So how do you play the game?
All this sounds harsh and intimidating for a creative professional. Moreover, the competition in which I apparently am a competitor by virtue of my work, is so vague that its rules have never become clear to me. I never know exactly against whom I am competing, over what, who the judges are and what the criteria for success might be. You win some, you lose some, but it is mere speculation to try to find out why. So how do you play the game? My answer might be that whenever I am offered an opportunity, I aim to do everything as well as I possibly can while being nice to other people – but is this not the minimum you would expect in any case, without the situation being a competition or a game in any sense? In my art, I want to focus on what I really want to do, without distraction. I cannot calculate career moves when I create music.
Many of the people in my reference group studied at the Department of Folk Music at the Sibelius Academy. We were encouraged to discover our own musical pathways. I recall one artist saying that if you cannot be the best player of your instrument in the world, then you should perform music that you write yourself. Then you will be the only one doing what you do, and you will thus be the best at it. All of my fellow students wrote music for themselves and came up with original performance concepts. None of us have exactly the same skill set as anyone else. Our shared foundation in folk music has led us to travel in multiple musical directions. This fount of richness churns out gems continuously, all of them unique.
The vagueness of competition among freelancer professionals in the realm of folk music and world music is partly due to the fact that the artists are so hugely varied and indeed cannot compete directly with one another in the same way as, say, instrumentalists might compete for a position in an orchestra. This is somehow a relief.
Given the diversity in this domain, it is nice to follow the career paths of others and marvel at whatever they will think of next. I feel that there is an atmosphere of mutual encouragement among Finnish folk musicians; we can give support and take pleasure in the success of others. Year after year at the WOMEX fair I have taken pride in how brilliant and varied the offering at Finland’s stand is. While a trade fair like this is a place for exploring new opportunities and meeting new people, you can also recommend a colleague to a festival or receive tips on potential partners from an acquaintance. When a Finnish colleague does well abroad, I feel that we all benefit from it in some way. In the peer support group for folk musicians that I set up on Facebook, we read and comment on each other’s CVs and grant proposals and generally provide support and assistance. Whenever someone feels alone with the decisions they are facing, they can turn to the group for help. Collaboration and networking can help artists pursuing lonely careers, and I feel that this is something we should actively aim for.
Competitions and prizes, positive reviews and grants awarded are tokens of external appreciation in the music industry and may yield job opportunities. They raise your profile and audience awareness.
As much of an antipathy as I have towards competition, I did take part in music competitions when I was younger. I entered the International Astor Piazzolla Competition twice. Our band won the first time, and encouraged by this, we decided for our next time that if we won, we would send out a press release to all the media we could think of, with the aim of securing our first recording deal. Our band was indeed noticed, and a recording deal was signed. Here, the competition was a means to an end: a chance to do the work we loved.
Just making the music itself often feels like a victory. I feel like I win when I make music. I feel happy making music with others, being constantly pleasantly surprised by my fellow musicians. It is incredibly awesome when the music just flows and it is something we are creating together. Creating a new piece of music out of thin air and being satisfied with it is highly rewarding, as is being part of the magic circle that binds the performers and audience at a concert, living in the moment where music happens.
Competitions and prizes, positive reviews and grants awarded are tokens of external appreciation in the music industry and may yield job opportunities. They raise your profile and audience awareness. Despite my mixed feelings about the whole thing, it is probably a good thing that all these exist, because at least when you win a prize you can get noticed by the media even if the artistic content of what you are doing is not sexy enough in the opinion of the gatekeeper journalist. I feel exhilarated when people notice what I am doing and regard it as meaningful.
It is highly likely that I would keep on making music up to the end of my life regardless of what anyone else thinks, but by gosh how brilliant and empowering it is to be ‘officially’ acknowledged. Honestly, would I have the strength to keep going if I never had any positive feedback at all?
Although competition in an artistic field may feel crushing, the community, outside recognition and focusing on your own work while encouraging others help keep up a positive attitude.
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi