Serious musicians hate failure. This disdain was bred in most of us back when we learned how to play an instrument for the first time. There are only a few ways to correctly hold drum sticks, finger guitar chords, or belt out vocal exercises; and there are countless ways of getting things wrong. When we master our instruments and start writing songs and playing shows, failure shows up for us in a myriad of new and painful ways, like when your local alt-weekly magazine trashes your album or when no one shows up to the show you’ve been promoting for months. Failure can be excruciating. But it can also deliver huge benefits to your music career if you let it.
Failure is usually not a choice in music, but our willingness to allow it to help our careers is
The vast majority of the time, failure is not something we choose or plan for in music. Failure can be anything from a song not turning out the way you wanted it to to being passed over for an important opportunity in your local music scene. Sometimes it shows up in the form of a stinging rejection, and other times it arrives as FOMO, and a general feeling that you’re not living up to your creative potential. Failure is inevitable in music if you pursue it long and seriously enough. If you’ve been making music for a while, it probably hit you right at the beginning of your career and has been showing up from time to time ever since. We can’t choose whether we fail or not most of the time in music. But we can choose to let failure improve our lives and work as musicians.
Doing this requires honestly reckoning with our flaws and shortcomings. When that album you’ve been working on for a year fails to find an audience, is it just the world’s fault for not paying attention to your musical brilliance, or is the truth harder to swallow, that your songs need work and that you didn’t put any work into promotion? When you get back home after a long tour playing to empty rooms, why did your efforts fall flat? Was it just bad luck, or was it the wrong decision to tour before establishing yourself in the cities you played?
Approached the right way, failure is an incredible teacher not just in music, but in life. When we’re brave enough to look at how and why we fail, we get the opportunity to grow and move forward. This requires a great deal of honesty and willingness to change as people and as musicians. It’s an attitude and approach to life that’s a universe away from the “it’s everyone else’s fault” philosophy, which is all too common in music. Music is an incredibly hard industry to pursue a career in, and this is why it’s common to encounter musicians who are jaded, bitter, and constantly looking to blame others for their problems, whether it’s their local music scene, old bandmates, or listeners in general. I’ve written about this dozens of times on this blog, and I’ll say it again: music is a pursuit where you can do everything right and still fail. Your music could be great, you could be talented and hard-working, and you still might find the success you’re looking for. Knowing this can liberate you with the right attitude. Instead of chasing conventional success, you can make exciting work that honors your unique identity and creative intuition. Rather than blaming others when things don’t go your way, you can accept that doing what you love and getting paid for it is something uniquely difficult to achieve in music. This doesn’t mean you should give up, but that you should embrace reality instead.
If creating and performing music makes you feel happy, awake, alive, and challenged, then the only way you’ll truly fail is if you give up. You get to decide what success and failure means in music; no one else. This isn’t just helpful advice, but guidance to help you thrive in music for as long as you want to keep creating.
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.