Where did all the benevolent gatekeepers go?

I first became involved in the Australian independent music scene at the dawn of the 1990s. I was young, idealistic and full of passion to make music that challenged the status quo of the “normals” and bean-counters of the world. The state in Australia where I lived had only just got rid of an oppressive, 20 year-long political regime that pandered to religious fundamentalists, big business and was fond of declaring a “state of emergency” each and everytime it felt the need for extra political muscle. (There was much to be feared by young educated people who asked too many questions…don’t even dream of being indigienous).

Bums on seats

Imagine my shock and horror to discover that the music industry, even at this grass roots level was no safe-haven from the facts, figures and logics of the mundane world. In fact, not once did I personally meet anyone in a position of power, a “gate-keeper” you might call them – for example, a booking agent, pub owner, record distributor or Artist and Repertoire (A & R) person – that cared in the slightest what my band’s music actually sounded like. It simply didn’t matter.

The one and only factor that ever had any bearing on whether we would be gifted an opportunity or not related to how many bums we could put on seats. Even an unknown band such as ours (The Young Adults) could get a gig at a really big rock playroom such as The Corner Hotel in Richmond (Melbourne) but if you didn’t pack the room full you wouldn’t be going back. There was one gate-keeper who actually listened to the music and was supportive: JJJ’s Richard Kingsmill. Why? Because JJJ radio was part of the editorially-independent Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) network and didn’t have to deal with the grubby realities of generating profits. But it was too little, too late.

I don’t want to sound jaded but…

I have since realised in no uncertain terms that the music business is just that – a business. So the question remains ( even moreso today) how does one get from zero to hero. The stories of the early Alice Cooper band and the young David Bowie, with their long and winding roads to fame and fortune, present possible answers – [i] irritate the listener’s mums and dads, or [ii] become “someone else” entirely (preferably both).

Back in the “arsehole of the world” (as Keith Richards once lovingly referred to parts of the Antipodes), the only bands from our “scene” that made it to a “major” record deal – with all the trappings of excess such as videos, promotion and tours etc – got there by becoming gatekeepers in their own right (ingenious yet unsporting). That is, one band had a member volunteer as a DJ at a university radio station and preceded to give his band all the best promotional opportunities afforded by such privilege. The other band was formed by the two individuals who booked bands for the premium indie venue in the city (if not Australia). Today, it looks like you’ll have more luck with the ol’ sob-story, rags-to-riches TV talent show approach.

Like it or lump it, popular music doesn’t get made in a vacuum…

Creativity and the music industry: Person versus the person-environment

(McIntyre, 2008)

McIntyre (2008) states that conceptions of creativity that focus on the individual betray a Romantic or inspirationist bias. He champions Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model of creativity (1999) as a way to include the other “necessary factor[s] in creativity” residing outside of the individual (p. 2). According to Csikszentmihalyi, only when information, ideas, and creative products flow between (a) the domain, (b) the person, and (c) the field can true creativity occur. McIntyre is suspicious of those who criticise the commercial side of record production, saying such people see it as the opposite of individual creative autonomy.

Csikszentmihalyi (1999) states that a set of rules and practices must be transmitted from the “domain” (the culture) to the “person” (the individual creative practitioner), given some sort of novel variation, and then assessed by the “field” (the experts and gatekeepers) to see if it’s worthy of inclusion back into the domain.

When one places Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model within the broader context of creativity theories that have emerged since Guilford’s (1959) groundbreaking structure-of-intellect framework that spear-headed creativity scholarship during the “space-race” between the US and the Soviet Union, it becomes clear that the systems model is a confluence approach to creativity (i.e., one that emphasises the need for multiple components, both within and without the individual, to converge in order for creativity to occur), having much in common with Amabile’s componential concept of creativity (1996, 1983).

The main difference between such approaches and the psychometric method employed by Guilford (1959) is that his model factorises the various cognitive components at play within the individual, whereas confluence approaches also factor in the environment. The systems model does not refute or negate Guilford’s work, it simply places it in the wider context of creative flow that is larger than any lone individual.

By addressing popular creative practitioner’s individual concerns (such as the question of “frame of mind”) when appropriate – and by using the appropriate theoretical models to that level – greater positive impact will be made possible for them when the creative “ball is in their court.” In some cases, their actions might even influence the greater cultural domain. Taylor (1975) uses the term to transactualisation for instances when the creative person-environment is altered in addition to the sole self-actualising creativity practitioner (Taylor adopts Maslow’s humanistic terminology to describe the different levels of fulfilling creative potentials).

It’s therefore possible to observe creativity using a variety of theoretical tools, each as appropriate to differing levels of creative granularity that nonetheless factor in both the individual, small groups of collaborators and the wider socio-cultural context; along with the possibility that one’s attempts at self-actualisation might get past the gatekeepers (i.e., Csikszentmihalyi’s “field”) so that transactualisation may occur.

Each new theory that brings with it new understandings does not necessarily make previous ones redundant. At times they might simply enlarge their scope. Componential approaches, in particular allow for a certain degree of conceptual synthesis. However, great care is needed to deal with issues of terminology that can be a source of potential misunderstanding. Whilst some component factors of competing theories may possess considerable similarities, they might still be, by degrees, inconsistent.You have to really “know your stuff.”

Who’s minding the store?

Beatles producer, George Martin.

Ground-breaking recording artists such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and The Beatles were clearly embedded within a larger socio-political and cultural matrix. They were also dependant upon the experience, refined sensibilities, tenacity, power sharing, and sense of humour of the record producers who signed them, guided them, and helped them reach their fullest potential, particularly during their early years in the studio.

Multiple Grammy award-winning producer and engineer George Massenburg has bad news for today’s would-be music makers:

‘[Today] there are no “gatekeepers” that recognize [sic] great recordings (that is, great tunes, great performances, and/or great innovations) and introduce them to a broader audience. Now it’s many-to-many, with what seems to be at once a hugely democratic opportunity and a denial of the requirement for uniquely individual, idiosyncratic talent…the music business has gone through overwhelming upheaval…what once were big labels have simply come apart…everything started going into the toilet around 1989 to 1991 – not coincidentally, the dawn of the leveraged buyout. More specifically, I remember when we started taking direction from accounts rather than the “gatekeepers” we had grown up with…Music men – people like Mo Austin, Lenny Waronker, and Bob Krasnow, among others – were ousted to be replaced by accountants…Among those axioms brushed aside were the importance of building an artist’s long-term career and the expectation that no more than one out of 20 recordings would turn a profit…Projects were directed by numbers alone; gone were the men and women who made decisions from their instincts, quick brains, sincere heart, and guts.’ (in Massey, 2009, p. ix, italics in original)

Being in the world, but not “of it”

I agree with Csikszentmihalyi that in order to be truly creative, practitioners must both take from, and give back, to the larger world around them. Such a model, when applied to the concerns of contemporary popular music begs the question: “Who are the gatekeepers in the brave new digital world of popular music dissemination?” Search engines? “Reality” TV producers (what could be less “real” than a reality TV show)? Apple? The accountants running the last multi-national record company left in the world?

Furthermore, it’s not enough to say that the systems model is the answer to all of popular music creative practitioners’ problems. When practitioners sit down to make music, whether they be individuals or small groups, they negotiate the terms of each specific instance of play (playframing, as I call it). Regardless of whether they do so tacitly or overtly, consciously or unwittingly, in doing so they temporarily overturn the givens of the real world as they re-create it. They are, in fact, building a psychological protective bubble around themselves in play. That is, to achieve creative flow with a playful frame of mind is to “be in the world, but not of it.” Only by developing an awareness (and eventually a mastery) of this powerful process can we creatives survive, and given half a chance, flourish. That is what we can do to hold up our side of the bargain.

(c) 2015 Marshall Heiser

Please note: Portions of some of the articles and postings contained in this website were presented and published in thesis form in fulfillment of the requirements for the PhD of Marshall Heiser from Griffith University (Qld. Conservatorium of Music).


Amabile, T. (1996). Creativity in context. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Amabile, T. (1983). The social psychology of creativity: A componential conceptualization. In Journal of personality and social psychology, 45(2), 357-376.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Implications of a systems perspective for the study of creativity. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of creativity (pp. 313-335). Cambridge, England; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Guilford, J. P. (1959). Three faces of intellect. In American Psychologist, 14(8), 469-479.

Massey, H. (2009). Behind the glass. Volume II: Top producers tell how they craft the hits. Milwaukee,WI: Backbeat Books.

McIntyre, P. (2008). The systems model of creativity: Analyzing the distribution of power in the studio. In Journal on the art of record production, (3). Retrieved from http://www.artofrecordproduction.com/content/view/2 172/2109/.

Taylor, I. A. (1975). An emerging view of creative actions. In I. A. Taylor & J. W. Getzels (Eds.), Perspectives in creativity (pp. 297-325). Chicago, IL: Aldine.