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.
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.