This feels weird to say, but if you live a life that’s completely revolved around making music, the songs you write might not end up being very good. We’re taught that to be truly good at something, the complete devotion of our time, thoughts, money, and energy is the only way to succeed. In many cases, this is accurate whether your sights are set on being a doctor or professional athlete, or politician. But things are infinitely more complicated when it comes to creating music.
Like all art, music has the ability to reflect life back at someone and reveal new things about themselves and the world around them. Not every song or album is capable of pulling off this sort of magic, and as artists, this is the sort of connection we should strive for every time we write music. But if you want your work to truly resonate with people, it has to be about things that matter and relate to your listeners. If you live your life holed up in your room doing nothing but making music, you’ll deprive yourself of life experience that’s crucial for creating meaningful songs. The same goes if you spend month and after month and year after year touring. As artists, we absolutely do need to build our songwriting and performance experience by saying no to things to free us up to write, play shows, and focus on music in other ways. But saying no too many times and to too many things can end up leaving you deprived of important human experiences.
Sitting around your home studio day after day is far less inspiring than being alone in nature, breaking up with someone (or getting broken up with), laughing with your friends, or protesting for a cause you believe in. The trick is, and it’s not always easy, to live the kind of life where you can make room for both meaningful experiences and your music. If you set aside time to write music every week, you should also make time for the people and things in your life that are important, whether it’s your relationship or trips to the beach. By living a deep life and staying connected with the people who are most important to you, you’ll have more inspiration than you need to make great music.
Building a career in music you can live with
If we need deep life experiences and countless spent hours writing music and performing to create meaningful music, how can we find the time? Personal sustainability is probably the least sexy but the most important thing to embrace in a long-term music career. It’s about pursuing music seriously and passionately, but in ways that allow you to live a deep and fulfilling life outside of music. It’s about carving out enough time in a month to chase down and develop musical ideas and perform and still make it to your friend’s wedding or up to the mountains to hike. If you’ve ever taken music lessons, a core belief you’ve probably internalized is that music is something that needs to be sacrificed for over again and again. Staying inside on a summer day to practice guitar is an example of this. But to pull off a sustainable music career, there are times you’ll have to turn down shows and put down your instrument to be fully present during the non-musical parts of your life. Music can’t and shouldn’t be everything in your life because music itself can’t just be about music.
Making this work takes time management skills and a willingness to take breaks from music every once in a while. If you schedule time in your week to work on music or play with your band, consider scheduling some other things as well that make you feel happy, fulfilled, and challenged as a person. If you see music as being your complete purpose and identity in life, actually doing this won’t be easy, but you’ll be surprised how impactful focusing on other things can be for your music. It’s often hard to remember that there are human beings that will eventually hear the music we create. By pursuing authentic human experiences in earnest, you’ll have the best chance of creating work that will connect with people.
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.