Frustration, uncertainty, and disappointment are unavoidable for someone who pursues music as a career. With so much out of our control as songwriters, producers, and performers, it can be tempting to think that we don’t have any say over what happens to our music. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. When you focus on the things you have direct control of in music, you put yourself on a path towards fulfilling your creative potential and reaching your goals.
What we can’t control in music
There is a lot we don’t have a say over as musicians. When it’s technical issues with a venue’s sound system or a bad review of your latest album, you simply can’t control a lot of what happens to you as a serious musician if you’re out in the world trying to share your music. It’s true that the factors that are outside of our control can have a huge impact on our careers, finances, and personal lives. Some artists make incredible music and go on to have successful careers. Other artists make music that’s just as good, work hard for years, and never quite find an audience.
This might be a hard truth to accept, but obsessing over the countless things in music you can’t control won’t do you and your music any favors. In fact, doing this takes your focus away from where it should be: writing the best music you can and focusing on your goals as a music-maker. It’s a difficult position to be in, but music is a career where you can create work that you think is great, work hard to promote it, and still not find any success. More than being a little frustrated, your heart has probably been broken if you’ve ever been here.
But instead of looking at the external reasons you aren’t getting what you want in music, the best thing you can do is to embrace the reality that you can’t control much about how the world perceives you and your music and to refocus on the things you can control. If no one listened to your last album, what can you do in the future to find an audience for your next release? Maybe your songwriting isn’t as strong as it should be. Maybe your promotion strategy wasn’t thought out. Maybe you released the album during the pandemic, and couldn’t build momentum for the music because you couldn’t tour. These are all just examples, but the point is assessing a situation in terms of what you can do better or differently in the future.
You can and should work day in and out to be a better songwriter. When you release new work in today’s insanely saturated music industry, you will have a very hard time finding an audience without thoughtfully promoting your music. And while the pandemic looks like it will complicate live shows for a long time moving forward, you won’t be able to connect with listeners on the level you need to if touring is a part of your long-term strategy as an artist. You can’t control the pandemic of course, but you can make the call to delay a release until fans feel more confident going to live shows.
Instead of lamenting the uncertainty that comes along with pursuing a career in music, redouble your efforts to invest in the things you can control instead. Is your current music truly so amazing that it’s just a matter of time before the right people hear it and give you the opportunities you want? The answer for most reading this is no. The majority of the time, the absolute best thing you can do for your career is something you have complete control over, which is to engage thoughtfully with the music creation process as often as possible. Keep writing better and better work, and make sure what you create is recorded and produced well. So often we want the big opportunities in music without having the unique, exciting, and profound music to get there. If you want to succeed in music, write the best songs you can over and over again. This isn’t easy to do, but it’s 100% within your control as an artist.
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.