It’s impossible to say exactly how many promising songwriters have called it quits because of doubt, but it’s safe to assume the number is high and it’s not difficult to see why. If you’ve chosen songwriting to be your profession or even just as a hobby you take seriously, there are massive barriers standing between you and success. More people now are making music than ever before, and there’s simply more great music being made than people have the time and attention span to listen to. And, even if your music does get heard, low streaming payouts and a playlist-centric music listening culture make it difficult to earn a living and make a connection with audiences. Doubt is inevitable in music, just like with any creative pursuit. How you grapple with it can make the difference between whether you continue creating for another year or for the rest of your life.
How uncertainty breeds doubt in songwriting
People with normal jobs show up to work and get paid for their time. Songwriters spend weeks, months, and sometimes years to come up with ideas and refine them and have no idea how the world will respond to their work, or if anyone will pay attention at all in many cases. Pursuing music creation is an uncertain act, and uncertainty and doubt go hand in hand. The songwriting process is just one example of uncertainty in music, but there are many others whether it’s trying to figure out whether anyone will see your next show or trying to predict how much money you’ll earn (or lose) in a certain year.
The importance of accepting reality
Accepting reality is the best and only advice that’s applicable here. The music industry has always been notoriously difficult to succeed in, and it’s gotten even more challenging in recent years. As music-makers, we can either accept that succeeding in music is extremely difficult, even with great music, or we can deny it and live in frustration and disappointment. You’ll end up doubting yourself much more as a songwriter if you trick yourself into thinking you’re always one break away from “hitting it big.” Doubt and despair will always be a part of creating and sharing music as a songwriter, but you can cope by accepting the world for what it is, not what you wish it would be.
Define success on your own terms by focusing on doing what you love in music
What does success in music mean to you? Is it making lots of money, earning positive reviews, or simply just knowing that a wide audience is listening to your music? Creating your own definition of success is one of the best ways to cope with doubt because if you simply opt to chase the conventional version of it, you’re probably never going to measure up. There will always be artists with more money, fans, and positive reviews than you. The only thing we have control over as songwriters is whether we do what we love or not. If creating music makes you feel alive, understood, and engaged, then you’re succeeding in a crucial way. You’ll never have control over what other people think of you and your music no matter how hard you try, and knowing this can easily make you doubt yourself as a songwriter. But by focusing on the passion and enjoyment you get out of creating, you’ll be able to create a foundation that helps you withstand the inevitable frustration, disappointment, and uncertainty that comes with creating music. If you love what you do, you’ll be able to cope with doubt and continue writing songs for as long as you want to.
The truth is that your music could be amazing and thoughtfully promoted and it still might not succeed in today’s insanely competitive music industry. Don’t let this fact fill you with doubt, but instead let it liberate you. By truly loving what you do and creating whatever you want, you are succeeding in a big way as a songwriter. If other people connect with what you do, then that’s even better. Doubt won’t slow you down in music if you stay focused on doing what you love most.
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.