Making music can be a completely isolating experience. So isolating, in fact, that it’s easy to forget that what we’re doing is for the benefit of other human beings if we choose to share our work. If you’re a musician who’s been at it for years, you might be tempted to have an “it’s me against the world” or “it’s me and my bandmates against the world” mentality when you write music. Feeling this way is understandable if you’ve sacrificed many things in your life for the sake of your music. Unfortunately, it’s a destructive mindset that can leave you jaded and less able to make meaningful music.
Rather than acting like the world owes you something for how hard you’ve worked to create and share your music, you should be thinking about what role you and your work can fit in your listener’s lives. It’s a hard truth to stomach, but you could work tirelessly for the rest of your life to make the best music you can and never earn money, acclaim, or affirmation for your efforts. Music isn’t unique in this regard. The same truth applies to pursuing any sort of art seriously.
As songwriters, we can accept this truth and forge ahead with the intent of making the best work we can. Or, we can write with chips on our shoulders and the belief that we’re not getting what we’re owed. Staying positive and approaching music from a perspective revolved around creating great music that people will want to hear in the most authentic way possible isn’t easy, especially if you’re still finding your audience. It can be tempting to give into resentment if you’ve worked on an album for a year that no one has listened to or have just stepped off a stage after a show when things didn’t go your way.
But giving in to despair and letting an entitled, pessimistic attitude won’t do you or your music any favors. It’s not about putting on a happy face, acting like everything is okay, and writing music. It’s about finding something deeper and more human to communicate than how unfair the music industry is, or how much more you’re “owed” as a musician. Realistically, would you listen to an album about an artist not getting their dues? No, you probably wouldn’t.
The challenge is to create authentically and freely in ways that aren’t shaped by the burdens and expectations that come along with a serious music career. If you have trouble finding inspiration within your own life, try thinking about what your music means to your fans instead. Maybe you’re not a superstar or earning enough off your music to quit your day job, but if there are people out there you don’t know who look to your music for comfort, joy, understanding, or just entertainment, that’s an incredibly special thing. Asking how you can help your listeners instead of how they can help you is a way to keep from feeling cynical in your music career, but it does more than that. It’s a perspective that allows you to ditch the baggage you might have accrued throughout your time making music and focus on creation and expression.
Asking what you can do for your fans is not pandering to them or creating at the lowest common denominator. It’s realizing that if you make music and share it with other people, the music creation process isn’t just about you and what you hope to get out of it. Thinking that way is sort of like going into an interview for a job you really want and talking non-stop about how much you want the position and nothing about what you can offer. If we can set aside the pressures and expectations we’ve placed on the process of making music and think about what we could give our fans, we’d all be better off for it. While your unique creative expression as a songwriter shouldn’t be compromised by trying too hard to please the world, it will be similarly thwarted if your focus is purely on your own goals, needs, feuds, and disappointments. The goal should be to create as freely as possible, and considering what you can give to your audience through your music is a good way to get there.
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.