If you’re a developing artist that wants to pursue music for the rest of your life either as a career or even just a hobby, there are huge obstacles that could stand in your way such as getting too busy to create or letting disappointment discourage you from creating. One of the biggest challenges every musician faces is grappling with their own ego.
Music is a notoriously difficult industry to succeed in. If you want to make this into a career, you now have more competition than at any point in musical history and a listening culture that’s addicted to insanely and often unsustainably cheap music. And yet often a much bigger problem that plagues artists isn’t the external forces that impact all of us as songwriters and performers, but internal issues revolving around the pride of the individual. It makes sense why ego problems impact so many musicians. It takes sacrifice, tireless work, and talent to create music, share it, and find an audience, therefore it makes sense that hard-working musicians would want recognition for their efforts, and to take pride in their work.
But when ego, identity, and the need for external affirmation trumps everything else, musicians not only set themselves up for chronic frustration and sadness but also conditions that make it nearly impossible to freely and authentically create in. Your ego can absolutely stand in the way between you and your best music if you’re not careful.
Ego causes big problems in the way you’d expect, like dramatic band breakups and situations when the spectacle of a musician’s celebrity begins to distract from their music. But ego shows up in other ways that are potentially even more destructive because they are subtle and impact far more creators. Ego is tightly linked with feelings of entitlement in music. The logic usually says, I’m putting this amount of work and effort into my music, therefore I’m owed things from other people. When artists complain about another band’s success or lament that their music isn’t performing as well as they’d like with streaming platforms and on blogs, these are ego problems.
If you share your music, you of course want people to listen to it and hopefully like it. That’s the whole point of making it public. But ego gets in the way the second you trick yourself into believing the world owes you something, because it doesn’t. Countless musicians are in the position of pouring their love, hope, money, time, and dreams into their music and seeing little or nothing come from their labor. The reality of how brutal the music industry is can be hard to swallow, and it’s a field where you can be fiercely smart, talented, hard-working, and even lucky and still never succeed in a tangible way. But there’s a big difference between accepting this difficult reality and thinking you’re owed money, fame, favorable reviews, opportunities, or anything else because you’re a nice person who makes pretty good music.
No one owes you anything as a musician, and this means that we could easily fail, depending on what our goals are. The urge to give in to competitiveness is your ego talking, and so is the urge to let streaming statistics and reviews determine your worth as a human being. None of this stuff is the music itself, or the joy you find engaging in the process of creating.
Keeping your ego in check in music demands a steadfast and recurring commitment to focusing on and prioritizing the love of creating and performing. This passion is the only thing you can control in music when it comes down to it. Doing what you love and making it a regular part of your life creates a foundation that musicians can build on, and no one can take that joy away from them, whether it’s a nasty review, fight with bandmates over something petty, or a single you share that doesn’t get listened to. You’ll never defeat your ego completely, but you don’t have to. As long as you make the joy of what you do the main focus, you’ll always be on the right track.
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.