Like every musician, I’ve made plenty of mistakes throughout my career. So many of us start making music with big dreams and vague plans and quickly realize how hard it actually is to write and record great music and get the world to notice. But while plenty of the mistakes we make in music are inevitable, a lot of the emotional, financial, and creative trouble we get ourselves into is totally preventable. Had I known these four things when I started writing and performing music seriously, I would’ve been a lot happier and more productive:
You shouldn’t tour without a good reason
According to TV shows, movies, and books, touring is a non-stop experience of huge crowds and adventure for musicians. But if you’re an unestablished artist who’s toured, you know this is far from reality. Your time, money, and creative energy are valuable, and touring can eat up those things and keep you from reaching your goals if there’s not a good reason for you to be on the road––supporting a well-known artist, playing in cities you’re 100% sure there’s an audience for your music, etc. Touring used to be and still is a way for some musicians to build their audiences and earn money, but it’s often a waste of time and money for unestablished musicians. I’m not talking about playing regionally over long weekends here, but spending weeks and months at a time playing cities with no demand for your music that you’re not likely to return to regularly. Touring can absolutely be a rewarding experience for musicians, but if it’s not giving you more than it’s taking from you, you’re better off staying home and writing and playing locally.
Prioritize thoughtful and consistent music creation
Some talented songwriters can create stellar music right out of the gate when they’re young. Others need to develop their skills over years and decades in order to create great work. But no matter what camp you fall into, your creative process needs to be at the center of your career. When we’re chasing money, stream counts, or critical acclaim more than meaningful creativity in our careers, our priorities aren’t where they should be. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the identity of being a musician without having any good music to show for it. Your music is your most valuable asset, obviously, but it can be easy to forget that. Without meaningful work that resonates with people, you’re essentially posing as a musician, but not delivering anything that actually matters.
Your career has to be sustainable in order to work over the long-term
Going into debt financing an album, neglecting relationships from focusing too much on touring or recording, or completely cutting yourself off from non-musical, lucrative work for the sake of it are examples of dangerous unsustainability in a music career. Many of us make short-term sacrifices for the hope of long-term gains in our careers, but doing so almost always leaves you and your music worse off. If you love making music and want it to be a regular part of your life, you can’t wreck the non-musical parts of your existence to succeed. Your humanity and health are important parts of your creativity, so destroying one will inevitably impact the other.
You can always write a better song
If you’ve gotten negative reviews or, even worse, can’t seem to get anyone to listen to your music, it could be because your work isn’t very good––yet. Instead of sinking into despair or blaming critics and listeners, you’re better off getting back to work trying to make music that speaks to people. No matter who we are, what kind of music we make, or what our goals are, we can always make better music. There’s something incredibly beautiful and hopeful about that, and it’s something I think about every time I write. The music industry is filled with overnight success stories that don’t reflect the fact that it’s possible to get better and better at songwriting, recording, and performing. If this wasn’t the case, the vast majority of profound, world-shaping music out there simply wouldn’t exist. If you live to make music and aren’t great at it yet, you can and will get better if you put the work in.
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.