What does success in music really mean? It’s a question every serious musician is faced with throughout their career. Whether it’s an artist’s public streaming stats or the constant barrage of content associated with famous musicians on social media, we’re constantly reminded of what conventional success looks like in the music industry: wealth, acclaim, and notoriety. For unestablished artists, it can be tempting to focus more on the success of other musicians than the creative merit and limitless possibilities of their own work. Giving in to this temptation is something that’s thwarted the careers of countless musicians.
How only focusing on success can keep you from making music
Every serious musician knows how difficult and thankless making music can be. From playing to empty rooms night after night to investing large sums of money on instruments, equipment, and and CD duplication making music that ultimately never gets heard, music can be a brutal passion to pursue. Most musicians focus on their own definitions of success not because they have an overwhelming desire to become rich and famous, but for the satisfaction of knowing their work means something to people. But whether your sites are set on earning big money through your music, getting signed to a label, or reaching a certain amount of streams, follows, or downloads, what you’re actually focusing on isn’t music, but instead the favorable potential outcomes that could come with making music. Fixate too much on these desired outcomes, and there’s a very real possibility that the creative energy and urgency surrounding your music will suffer.
When it comes to a music career, there’s the act of performing, writing, recording, and producing music, and then there’s everything else––releasing work, promotion, booking shows and tours, posting photos on social media, etc. The desire to be successful in music isn’t a bad thing until it begins to get in the way of your creativity. When an obsession to be conventionally successful in music starts to inform our creative processes, we’re not only unable to work freely and without expectations, but we’ll also probably end up making a lot less music. Goals in music are crucial, but if we’re not careful, they can become all we work towards.
The only guaranteed success in music
Loving the work of making music is the only guaranteed success we’ll find as musicians. Whether you’re 15 years old writing your first song or are making an album in your 40’s, the joy you’ll find in your process is the only surefire reward you’ll find as a musician. By returning to the joy you find making music again and again, you’ll have access to a resource robust enough to keep you working year after year whether you find conventional success or not. This reward is not only free, but it’s a foundation that can keep our work genuine and energized no matter how the world interacts with what we 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.