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.
Pamella Bowen - March 4, 2020
I gave up songwriting for art and art for writing, hoping to get that conventional success. At age 67, I am coming around to the same wisdom. It’s all about relationships, creativity, and joy, not money, fame and accolades. Thanks for being honest enough to say so.
Louise Bell - March 4, 2020
Thank you Patrick! A lovely reminder to prioritise the joy of music and creation.
Fernando Antonio dos Santos - March 4, 2020
John Patterson - March 4, 2020
Great insight here for we independent artists! Thanks.
Jefg - March 4, 2020
First and foremost, you have to like what you do.
Ricky Biggs Sr - March 5, 2020
this is the best thing I’ve ever read on Reverbnation because I do it for the love of it. every one has something too say or nothing too say they don’t like the way you look or you are too old it can take you down but just go with the people who likes your music and be happy.
Chris Thomas - March 5, 2020
This was a very good article. We see these things occur when deciding to go pop mainstream or alternative.
Stephon Kobe Smith - March 5, 2020
“Loving the work of making music is the only guaranteed success we’ll find as musicians.”
Loving what you do is what’s most important & if you can also inspire someone else then your efforts aren’t in vain. Mission accomplished.
This was a great read!
Tyler - March 5, 2020
I hung it up finally and it made me feel more successful than I ever had spending thousands of hours creating content that ultimately went unappreciated. I now put all that energy into other areas of my life that actually pay off and I can now say I feel normal again. On occasion when Reverb posts come in on my email I’ll apply to whatever silly little offer comes through but ultimately I will never write, perform, edit or produce a single stitch of musical material again without some sort of backing. When you end up living in a tent for a period of time with your wife because your focus is on music 110% you come to the realization that music is a disease, not the cure.
Tosin - March 5, 2020
Wow! Thank you so much Patrick. This article sure describes my current season. Truth be told, I had focused too long on how the listeners are interacting with my songs and how I measure up with my contemporaries.
Like you mentioned, this usually distracts us from doing what we love, impacting lives and often makes our passion fizzle out over time.
Grateful for this subtle reminder 😉
Renny - March 6, 2020
Cool post as usual 🙂 Thanks for the reminder!
Preston - March 6, 2020
I’ve played guitar now for 21 years and just last year released an EP that is doing somewhat decent but only small and local level. Regardless of any fame, income or recognition I have come to realize that my biggest accomplishment was finally writing songs and putting them on record to know show myself and anyone else that hears it after I’m long gone is that I did that. It was mine. And that feeling alone is gratitude enough. When I perform live whether it be to an empty room or a sold out show I still feel that passion behind the music and that is what I do it.
Brett - March 7, 2020
After over 40 years, there is one very obvious observation. Anyone (yes, absolutely anyone) can become an International Pop Sensation. But only those dedicated to the craft become good, proficient musicians. This is not a world for equal justice for all. And so it is with Music. You’ve got to live and you have got to eat. Love of Music is perhaps the greatest pleasure of life. I’d never give up music and I’d never give up the dream of sharing my music with a receptive audience. On the other hand, there are responsibilities to be handled, so flexibility in developing other skills to earn money is also very important. My College Music professors used to lecture us on this all the time. Sound advice. Even if noone ever listened to anything I wrote or performed, my music has kept my physically and mentally content throughout the battle of life.
Ratzo Rizzo - March 7, 2020
I’ve been playing, writing, performing for over fifty years now. I’m not famous or rich for doing it. What do I get out of it? Each time I write a new song that I think is good I’m just happy that I can do it. I enjoy doing it . My friends who have come and gone are dear to me. I will have a chance to see some old band members soon and the joy of just being around my buddies and jamming is payment and glory enough for me. Ever since I was very young I wanted to be able to play and I did it!
Ron Slater - March 9, 2020
Thanks, Patrick. We all need to remember and revive the joy in making that brought us to be creative in the first place.
Alice Axe - March 9, 2020
Trouble is if you don’t have conventional success , you CANT do what you love. You have to work so hard at a different job just to survive, you have no time to make music. So your screwed either way.
Cally - September 25, 2020
Good article, eh? After my first gig, aged 12/13, I knew this was how I wanted to make my living. I just wanted to play music. The idea of being a big star never entered my head. It was not important. 50 or so years later I’m still loving it and carving out a living. I have spent my life earning a living doing something I totally love. What could be better than that?
Waz - February 1, 2022
I’ve been working on a new album and enjoying and appreciating every second of the process of making it. I’ve been releasing music for nearly 15 years and all I focused on was the end result. How it would be received. I kept falling into the trap of daydreaming about how people would be be blown away, I would be hailed as a musical genius by Pitchfork or the NME, get nominated for Mercury and I would no longer have to look forward to a future of mundanity. My goals and hopes for this next album have become more realistic. if I can get one new person to listen and genuinely like what I made, I would consider that a major success! And even if I don’t I will still feel a sense of self-fulfillment because I know I haven’t taken the process of creating the album for granted this time