Whether it’s through popular culture or unrealistic standards set by other musicians, many of us approach our work in music with a cultish devotion. There’s this idea floating around out there that if a musician doesn’t completely focus on creating, performing, or sustaining their career 100% of the time, they’re not deserving of success. But while devotion borne through hard work and sacrifice is absolutely vital for a musician to find any measure of success in their work, only caring about music is an extreme attitude very much capable of hurting your career and causing major damage to your life.
What happens when an artist bets everything on their music and nothing else
Making music, like any other creative profession, is risky for someone to pursue because it doesn’t offer any guarantees. An artist can be both talented and ruthlessly devoted to their work for years and still not find the sort of success they’re looking for. But while we’re all familiar with the idea of someone suffering for their art with little material success to show for it, something more complex to think about is the paradox of a person giving up everything in the pursuit for making art and not having anything to make art about in the process.
In the same way that music can’t be about itself, musicians creatively limit themselves when they set their eyes only on their music and not on anything happening in the world around them. If music’s purpose is to inspire something in your listeners and make them feel understood, it’ll be hard to accomplish that if the narrative behind your work is all about you trying to be creatively successful and devoted. Living your life as deeply as you can might be the very best thing you can do for your music career.
When music edges out life priorities
Music is brimming with stories of artists who dramatically gave up everything for the sake of their music and were rewarded with massive success. These myths make great press release fodder, but they don’t reflect the reality of what it takes to launch and sustain a career in music. Many artists adopt an extreme all-or-nothing approach to music when they’re young only to be broke, alone, and out of options soon after. Sadly, many of these musicians end up quitting for good, no matter how promising their music is.
Quitting your day job or severing a romantic relationship in dramatic fashion to tour for a year straight sounds a whole lot sexier than approaching your career with careful planning and moderation, but those impulses can devastate your personal life and diminish your capacity for pursuing music in the future. Risk-taking in music can be a positive thing, but usually in creative ways. Putting everything on the line for your music at 22 means you probably won’t be doing it seriously at 32, 42, and beyond.
If you love music and want to spend your life doing it, it can’t be your only focus. You have to eat, pay bills, maintain relationships, and pay attention to the non-musical aspects of being alive. Fail to do so, and you run the risk of hurting much more than just your music career.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.