Many artists approach their work with a militant, failure-is-not-an-option attitude, and musicians are no exception. Through stories backed up by the press releases of successful musicians, we’re told over and over again that an uncompromisable willingness to sacrifice everything to see things through to the end are essential for becoming successful in music. If you aren’t making it in music, popular convention dictates, you must be throwing the towel in on your dreams prematurely.
But what makes for an interesting story rarely reflects the reality of what actually goes into a successful music career. Changing course, taking a break, or even flat out quitting something in music are courses of action that can actually help or save your music career, believe it or not.
Most musicians aren’t brilliant from the beginning
Whether it’s a struggling band or an album that feels like it’s going nowhere, giving up and refocusing energy elsewhere is sometimes the best option for a musician. We’re often obsessed with the idea of putting out amazing work from the beginning of our careers, which can inspire us to continue working on old and dead-end projects rather than embracing new ideas and moving forward. While overnight success stories do exist in music, they’re far from the norm, and it takes years or even decades for some musicians to build meaningful momentum and connect with audiences.
Accepting when things work and when they don’t
When we set out to create something new in music, the goal is almost always to make something great. But expecting for things to click every time you try to work with other musicians or write a new song is unrealistic and harmful for your career. A skill every musician should learn to embrace is discernment, the power of knowing when a project or idea is worth pursuing, and when it’s time to call it quits. This is a lot harder to do than it sounds. In music, it’s easy to get attached to other musicians and our own ideas. A project might be fruitful for a period of time without ever developing into something bigger and more compelling, making it hard to know when or if to give up. There’s no easy answer, but if you find yourself feeling lost, unmotivated, or resentful while working on a musical project, it’s time to take an honest look at what you’re doing and if it’s really worth your time and energy.
Making music can often be complex and challenging, but the things that make it difficult also make it rewarding. Ultimately, there’s no guide we can look to to know what projects to give everything to and which ones we should give up on. All we have is our own intuition, previous experiences, and goals to refer to. Similar to performing on stage, you aren’t always going to get things right, but embracing openness and a willingness to change course when you need to, will help show you what to do.
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.