The Only Way We Truly Fail Is When We Stop Trying To Get Better

There are countless ways to fail if you’re a serious musician trying to get the world to care about your music. From scathing reviews to sparsely attended shows, few things hurt as much as giving everything over to a dream only to see it go nowhere.

The world doesn’t associate grit and resilience with most musicians, but it should. Failure is part of the DNA of every artist, and music-makers are no exception. In fact, most of us are bound to fail over and over again as creators before we manage to pull something impressive off by making music that truly resonates with audiences. 

Big and small failures alike are essential parts of the creative process, which makes them not true failures if you think about it. A bombed live set or boggled album rollout are examples of failures we can learn and grow from. However, there is one example of failure that’s not possible to benefit from. Knowingly or unconsciously throwing in the towel by not trying to create better music is a sign of true failure in a songwriter. It’s akin to raising a white flag of defeat to the constant pressures and challenges we face as musicians. And, weirdly enough, wallowing in predictability and mediocrity from a creative standpoint is often more common than giving up making music altogether. 

Why songwriters give up

Music is an astoundingly hard thing to pursue, even if you don’t want it to be your full-time career. Think, for a second, about all the non-musical duties and obligations there are associated with creating and sharing music seriously: touring, promotion, the money it takes to buy instruments and record, etc. Now, add on the immense pressure it takes to make compelling music at a time when there’s already an unfathomable amount of great new songs coming out each and every day. 

It’s a lot to cope with, and we don’t talk about that enough as musicians. Some make music for a couple of years, realize how hard it is, and call it quits. On the surface, others seem to forge ahead each year with new music while secretly opting for the easy way out of creative problems. That last album didn’t find an audience because my local music scene is too cliquey is one excuse. Not being able to connect with meaningful inspiration is another. If you’ve been making music for a long time, exploring whether you’re still trying to create your best and most engaging work or not can be scary. It’s a bit like getting punched hard in the face and dreading looking into the mirror afterward. But accepting the truth and inviting change into your creative process is the only way to stave off the failure of complacency as a songwriter. 

Getting comfortable with discomfort and embracing risk

Since the only true failure in music is settling for creative mediocrity, perpetually embracing risk and discomfort is essential for succeeding as songwriters. But let’s pause here for a second and recognize just how tough this is to really do. As humans, we’re hard-wired to avoid these two things, so simply popping them into our unique creative processes isn’t easy to do. But making the effort to write dangerously and without the burden of expectations results not just in better songs, but also in an exciting and rewarding songwriting practice you can’t find any other way.

When it’s time to spread the word about your music, it’s time to look at Promote It

I’m not talking about adding in dissonant modes or obscure time signatures into your songs to keep them interesting; unless doing so feels natural. Instead, embracing risk and discomfort is about exploring the unknown, asking questions, experimenting, and, above all, always trying to write music that better engages our audiences and explores our own creativity. You can do this writing any type of song in any type of genre because it comes down squarely to the relationship you have with musical creativity. If you find yourself failing by writing the same tired songs over and over again, summon the bravery to do something different. Maybe it’s exploring a new genre, or maybe it’s tossing out an entire album and trying to write something that’s truly different and honest. It doesn’t matter what the change looks like so long as it’s authentic and thought-provoking. That’s how you manage not to fail in songwriting. 

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.

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  • Kevin Heckler - January 13, 2021 reply

    One thing I see in these blogs regularly is branding. How can I correlate branding into this article when I write and perform across multiple genres? I write country , rock, classical, but find it hard to find a ” brand”.

  • Paul Burton - January 14, 2021 reply

    Hi Patrick
    Thanks for an excellent piece.
    I can totally relate to all of this as a ‘songwriter’ seemingly getting nowhere!! It can be very demoralising.
    I continually release original songs to friends and followers with very little interest or response.
    Like every songwriter, I try to write in the style of music that I personally like and enjoy but apart from a few “likes” and even less plays it offers very little in outside return apart from the pleasure of creating, recording the music.
    Of course, managing expectations and “accepting the truth” is important and as far as realistic expectations go, mine are truthfully to find a few people who genuinely like the songs and hopefully pick up a few gigs where I can play them (fame and fortune is a long forgotten dream !!!).
    Of course whether music is good or not is totally subjective and contrary to the evidence, I really like my songs and think they ARE good. I choose to listen to them myself alongside other music.
    I think I have got things in perspective in my own mind, I am now very rarely disappointed by lack of response, the world has much bigger problems and the songs keep coming ( two new ones in the last couple of weeks) and as long as they do, I will keep playing and recording them.
    I also could relate to your suggestions on “doing something different”. Most of my songs are written on acoustic guitar and follow a fairly traditional verse/ chorus structure. On a recent flight back from a sunny holiday I got involved in writing usingvGarageband’s
    Sound Library packs and found this both different and rewarding.
    Anyway, thanks for the inspirational piece from someone who, like myself has an affinity to dogs. Naturally I will leave you a couple of links to my music, what is there to lose !!
    Latest film clip – https://youtu.be/ycubULTpJj8
    The song written on the flight – https://soundcloud.app.goo.gl/LAksEEkfSiwVBfjR8
    Another clip – https://youtu.be/NqtKrEGKEGI

    Thanks and regards

    Paul Burton

  • Dennis - January 14, 2021 reply

    Hello

    The title caught my attention and it’s appreciated. As a musician/songwriter (yah gotta own it and say it) and pretty much all in life…if you ain’t movi’n…well…it gets harder to get all the layers of dust off.

    Almost missed buying a great car once because of dust. Went passed it in the lot a couple times until someone suggested brushing of the dust that settled. Ohhh…one hand swipe and the metal flaked paint poked me in the eyes…put over 180,000 miles on it.

    I’m kinda doing a quantum leap (You Squared/Price Pritchett…good stuff…I scribbled on the pages) music wise to see where it goes as in trying anti-dust settling nudge out of comfy zone styles. However, at least to me, it needs to be something that though new feels like it fits. Like trying to make a size six K-pop foot fit a size ten extra wide Instrumental or Americana. You may force part of it on but it’s just not going to fit.

    I hope your article reaches dust covered glasses out there.

    Appreciate your time and talent

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