When it comes to creating and performing, musicians often take a perfectionist approach to their work. From the second we pick up our instruments, we’re taught that there’s the right way of doing things and endless possibilities for getting things wrong. This all or nothing philosophy can bleed into the ways we measure value, success, and contentment in our careers. This can cause damage to our creativity and ourselves. It’s natural to hate errors like placing a capo on the wrong fret during a live set or forgetting the lyrics during recording. But I’d argue there are much bigger mistakes musicians should be worrying about.
We often associate the idea of being stretched too thin with boring day jobs and parenting. Yet, it’s absolutely something that can do damage to our music careers. An immense amount of work needs to happen to lead a thriving music career. If that work gets in the way of your happiness, it’s not sustainable. Most of us need close relationships and emotional stability to feel healthy and productive. An unhealthy music career can threaten our well being if we’re not careful. To stave off burnout, you must realize that a sustainable, thriving music career has to be balanced with other important parts of your life. In the same way that short breaks help long-distance runners achieve their goals, taking time to focus on the non-musical parts of your life will be a big help when it comes to maintaining your creative focus and energy.
Why are so many musicians saddled with debt? We can give some credit to the fact that fans pay far less to enjoy music than they used to. However, there are other factors at work that we should pay attention to. There’s no getting around the truth that music pays many serious musicians very little. This means it takes a huge financial investment to tour and buy instruments. When our musical pursuits aren’t financially sustainable, we hurt both personal lives and our ability to create and perform. You might want to sacrifice everything for a new record or international tour. But what happens if you don’t make money? Yes, we need big dreams and tenacity to thrive in music. Yet, we also need to work in ways that allow us to make music over the long-term.
Playing it safe creatively
This is an issue that plagues countless musicians. Whether it’s imitating another artist’s work or feeling afraid to try anything new or risky, giving in to safety and predictability is one of the worst things you can do in music. If you have a lot riding on your career or are in constant fear of failure, your creative process could suffer from a lack of imagination and curiosity. Getting back to the fun and freedom making music initially gave you is the best way to combat creative stagnation. Let go of the expectations of success and productivity for a while. Focus on having fun and expressing yourself in a genuine way.
Focusing on superficial success
With constant reminders of how well our music is performing digitally, it can be hard not to focus more on being superficially successful than creatively fulfilled. However, giving more energy and attention to the numbers behind your music than your songwriting routine and career goals is a bad situation to be in. It’s natural to want your music to be heard. Indicators like streaming counts can show us we’re on the right track. But, like everything else in your career, you’ll need to find a balance between checking in on the performance of your music from time to time and focusing on what’s most important in your career.
Mistakes are inevitable in music, whether they are on stage or elsewhere in our careers. How we recognize them and move forward is what matters most. If you want music to be your career and livelihood or even just a regular fixture in your life, being able to cope with shortcomings and self-induced problems is essential. To do this, we need patience, resilience, and a plan for our music.
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.