Why Doing The Work Is The Only Way To Succeed As A Musician

Succeeding in music is a frustratingly vague thing to wrap your mind around because it means something different to every music-maker. For some, success might be the idea of transforming into a mega popstar overnight and earning enough money to buy an island. For others, success means making music audiences love and being praised by critics. But no matter what success means to you, you won’t find it without doing the work.

By “the work,” I mean sitting down day after day to work on writing, recording, and producing music: scribbling down lyrics, trying out different combinations of chords until you find the perfect chord progression for your next song, recording a bajillion takes of that complicated guitar part until you get it sounding exactly how you need it to. You’re not ever going to get where you want to go in music without throwing yourself into the process and getting better day by day. This applies whether you’re a pop singer, aspiring music producer, singer-songwriter, or metal drummer. 

From the outside, there are few careers as glamorous as being a professional musician. This is probably why being a famous rockstar is the dream of so many people. But every serious musician knows that achieving any level of success in music takes a remarkable amount of work. It’s easy to obsess over the payoffs of being a musician while ignoring the difficult and often thankless work it takes to actually be successful. Maybe you want fame or perhaps it’s affirmation you’re after in recognition of your creative talents. Or maybe success for you simply means knowing in your heart that you wrote an amazing song. When it comes down to it, your definitions of success don’t matter. When all of your energy and focus is directed at the end result of making music but not the process itself, you fail as a musician. Daydreaming about hitting it big, writing a hit song, or playing in front of sold-out stadiums won’t do you a bit of good if you’re not constantly working on writing songs, producing, and/or recording. 

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The work isn’t something you do for a little while and then stop and wait for the positive results to roll in. It’s what you do day in and day out for as long as you want to pursue music creation and performance. If this is something you’re truly committed to doing, music is an identity you wear for decades of your life, not just a couple of seasons. Doing the work means showing up to the music creation process again and again and again whether you feel like it or not. It means recognizing that failure isn’t just acceptable, but is an inevitability whether you’re trying to improve as a musician or write original music.

If you’re not sure how to work towards your goals as a musician, you’ll need to think small instead of big. Forget getting signed, selling out big shows, and making money for a bit. Create goals and break them down to the smallest tasks possible you need to complete to reach them. Releasing an album becomes writing 15 demos and narrowing down your ten best songs to record. Going on tour becomes selling out your first local show and booking a week-long tour in your region before the end of the year. Sounding as good as that famous guitarist becomes practicing your scales and arpeggios every day with a metronome. “The work” is a vague term that will mean something completely different for every musician. Learn what it means to you, and take action by breaking down what you need to be successful into small, realistically accomplishable tasks. 

It’s great to have dreams in music, especially when you feel discouraged and out of ideas. But without work, your dreams will stay far from your reach. Committing to doing the work in music puts you in a position of control and action, not one of passivity and frustration. If you love music and want to get better at it, you have every opportunity to improve by embracing a plan and putting work into what you love. 

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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  • Glen Foster - November 17, 2021 reply

    Good well written message. I’ve spent most of my life as a pro musician, some 50 years, and there is no substitute for hard work. Also as you’ve pointed out, being organised and doing all the things that you don’t necessarily enjoy. Thanks

  • SourceCodeX - November 17, 2021 reply

    You forgot to mention the immense glut of independent music out there to compete with & after all the hard work — there simply is no money for most of us in a myriad of streaming services and physical CD sales are essentially nil. Music is mainly digital for most consumers. The real money is in touring big venues and earning a take of ticket & merch sales. So, if you want to do music for making money nowadays — you can forget it unless your music is globally popular with millions of fans and you tour like crazy. COVID-19 has crushed even that once expected source of income.

    So, to me, you simply gotta love the music for what it is — an expression of your soul — a joy to be shared. Yeah, that type of riches is ineffable but so satisfying. It’s work — but it’s all worth it.

  • John Harney - November 18, 2021 reply

    Extremely vague article with a strong (oft-repeated) opinion, but I do agree about having a good work ethic to help you toward success. It is a real shame the business of music is so fragmented these days.

  • Music - December 6, 2021 reply

    this was a good read thank you!

  • Cosmo key - January 3, 2022 reply

    Sometimes it is difficult to find the drive to do the work, but everytime I release something new, I look back and reflect on how it is all worth it. Even if the payout isnt much. I get it. You need money to pay the Bill’s. It seems as though everyone is so focused on money that they only release singles on a regular basis. That love for the full album can only be achieved through tedious management. Of course that is kind of the point. Me personally, I love working on full albums. And if I’m not constantly babysitting my social media pages, I might loose fans or not grow at a fast rate. Everyone is forced to push music out so fast that they are sacrificing quality. Always do your best and keep learning every day (or whenever you can.) Never sacrifice quality just to release more music.

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