Some of us make music in hopes of connecting with people. Others create purely out of the motivation for fame or financial game. For other musicians, the desire to build something artistic and challenging is at the heart of their musical identity. But no matter what drives us to be musicians, one thing is certain––we’re all bound to fail at some point, even if we do everything right.
You vs the world
If you’re a musician who shares music with audiences, the truth is that, depending on how you define success, there are countless factors working against you that are outside of your control. You’re making music at a point in history where it’s never been cheaper and easier to create and share work. The downside of this is that there’s now more music out there than audiences can listen to. If you’re lucky, hardworking, talented, you may have an audience for your music. Yet, to make a living creating original music is incredibly difficult if that’s your goal. And if you’re a musician driven by the desire to make work that’s unique, compelling, and rewarding to listen to, you could spend countless hours pursuing your ambitions and never achieve what you want to. We make the conscious decision to create music. What happens after that usually isn’t up to us.
While the idea of musicians not having much control over important, career-defining aspects of their lives might be discouraging, all artists experience this. If you’re an experienced musician, you’re already familiar with disappointment. A sold-out performance goes poorly. An album gets bad reviews. A record label passed on signing you.
What we do is dynamic and so much of how the world interacts with our music is out of our control. There are a lot of factors we can control, however. We can choose to make music for months on end and to be our best creative selves, sacrifice everything in our lives to share our work, and stop at nothing to promote and advocate for it. But doing these things won’t guarantee we’ll ever get what we want in music. Far from it. The most important choices we have to make in music over and over again are whether we keep creating, and how we define success.
All musicians should think about what they hope to get out of making music. If your dream is to sell out amphitheaters and become internationally famous for your music, there’s nothing wrong with having that big dream. But the problem happens for musicians who have dreams like these when things don’t pan out. Will you still be making music a decade from now if you’re struggling to bring people to your shows and still can’t find an audience for your music? Big, uninhibited ambition is paramount when it comes to inspiring musicians. Yet, an all-or-nothing approach can stop you in your tracks, even if you create great music.
Compromise is one of the best skills we can embrace as musicians. It can help us maintain our musical relationships and preserve our sanity when we pour everything we’ve got into our work and receive nothing in return. The balance between keeping our dreams alive and defining success in a way that’s realistic and reachable is tricky. But the more we try, the better off we’ll be. Music isn’t easy, and that’s one of the best things about it. When we make something great and listeners take notice, it’s a powerful connection that we can’t buy or will to happen. All we can do is show up to the songwriting practice again and again and commit to creating something new.
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.