Originally I had planned on calling this blog post, "reconciling the conflict of art and commerce". But the more I dug into the topic and really thought about balancing these two, seemingly contradictory ends of the spectrum (art - commerce) of being a professional musician, the more I realized there was something more profound and meaningful, albeit slightly more subtle, to discuss.
I realized, upon closer investigation, that these two different aspects of being a musician aren't so much diametrically opposed as they are intricately connected. They're connected in the same way that night is connected to day, good to evil, up to down and so on. I like to think of art and commerce as being the yin and yang of the music business. For better or worse, they depend on each other. Without an audience, music doesn't have nearly as much impact and without getting paid, musicians have a hard time eating. Hence, the existence of the music business.
In The Beginning...
Let's start with what I'm assuming is the primary reason the vast majority of us were drawn to being a musician in the first place: making music. Whether your passion is performing live or sitting in your bedroom and getting into that blissed out zone where great songs emanate from, I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of professional musicians are drawn to the music business out of a deep love and passion for making music. Makes sense right? If you love doing something, a logical extension of that is to try and make a life out of it. It's not necessarily the easiest life plan to execute, but it's a hell of a lot more inspiring and motivating than trying to make a life out of something you have no interest in doing.
Most musicians probably start with pretty pure intentions and a sincere desire to create something unique and beautiful to contribute to the world. Sure, there's most likely a healthy dose of some level of desiring to acquire fame and fortune in the mix for a lot of musicians. But the vast majority of musicians I meet and interact with seem to have a true passion and love for making music. I think we all desire success on a certain level, but most musicians don't stay in the game very long if they don't truly love music and making music first and foremost.
However, as anyone who has been a musician for more than a minute can attest to, the music business, isn't always a bed of roses. Making a business out of music is a much, much different experience than just playing music for fun in your spare time. Turning your love of making music into a viable career path is a journey that can be so challenging and so treacherous that it can potentially undermine and destroy your love and passion for making music. I've seen musicians go from having an absolute, unabashed love and joy for making music to simply not wanting anything to do with it, in the span of just a few short years, as a result of the music industry's cutthroat and heartless nature.
And even if you are one of the few who do succeed at "making it" in the music business, well that's no guarantee that your life is going to be a happy, care free and joyous life anyway. One needs to look no further than the recent suicides of Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell, or the long line of musicians throughout history who have died tragically young due to substance abuse and mental health issues (Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Elvis, Prince, Michael Jackson, Hendrix, etc) to see that it's pretty clear that "making it" in the music business doesn't automatically equate to a happy or "successful" life. Obviously correlation is not causation, and there are, I'm sure, many happy and well adjusted musicians, successful and otherwise. But from the outside looking in, it doesn't really seem like success in the music business, in and of itself, is a very dependable way to attain happiness.
The more I think about and break down the distinction between the art and commerce aspects of the music business, the more I realize that the music business is simply a microcosm of life. At the risk of getting a little too philosophical, life is both tragic and beautiful, simple and profound, sad and happy, up and down and [insert your own cliche pair of opposites here], regardless of what profession you choose. No life path is a guarantee for happiness. I've met absolutely miserable people who are obnoxiously wealthy and ultra successful by societal standards, and I've met entirely happy and content people living in third world countries who make less than ten dollars a day, and vice versa.
The music business just seems to magnify aspects of humanity that are prevalent in all our lives. At its worst, the music business is comprised of greedy, egotistical, maniacal and power hungry executives (and in some cases musicians) who will stop at nothing to increase their bottom line and further their power and dominance without regard to things like artistic merit, integrity and talent.
Conversely, there are tons of musicians out there who want nothing more than to simply make beautiful music, share it with the world, and hopefully earn enough to lead a comfortable, sustainable life at the same time. The music business isn't one or the other, it's both. Just like life, it's not really possible to reduce it to some sort of easily quantifiable box or category or thing.
Achieving Balance - The Zen Of Being A Musician
On an individual level, as musicians, the "zen" part of being a musician is about maintaining balance and having a healthy perspective. You need to have thick skin to deal with the inevitable ups and downs that come with the path of being a musician. The music business is hard for a variety of reasons, many of which I've addressed on this blog and in my newsletter ad nauseam over the years. Without going into the obvious reasons why the music business is so challenging, let's just say it isn't for the faint of heart.
What's allowed me to forge ahead after all these years and still deeply enjoy music and to a certain extent, the music business, is the realization that "making it", at least as traditionally defined, isn't really the goal to begin with. What you talking about Aaron?! You're sounding crazy! How could that not be "the" goal??
Think about it, it's pretty clear that making it in the music business doesn't automatically lead to a happier and more fulfilling life (see above). I mean, I'm sure there are plenty of examples where it has, but there are clearly an abundance of examples where it hasn't. So, I'm not overly concerned with stressing myself out about reaching some sort of arbitrary goal of "making it" in the music business that would seem to, at best, give me about a 50/50 chance of happiness and fulfillment, and could actually reduce my life expectancy by as much as 25 years.
But, then again, sitting around and wasting your days away doing nothing or doing things you don't care about isn't exactly a great recipe for a fulfilling life either. At least not for me. For me, the sweet spot is in the middle, where you're actively engaged in life and pursuing things that are important and meaningful to you (like music), but you're not so attached to the outcome that you hinge your happiness on achieving or not achieving certain goals. Even goals related to your music career.
It's sort of like when you want to be with someone, romantically, so much that you scare them away. If you cling to hard, you risk squeezing the life, and fun, out of the relationship. It's the same with music. If you take it too seriously, it's all too easy to turn your music career into something that's just another, run of the mill, stress provoking attempt to make money.
I think Gandhi summed up this idea well, when he said “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” When I think about this quote as it relates to being a musician, it really helps put things in perspective. It means, to me at least, that in the grand scheme of things it probably doesn't matter whether you or I or anyone else make it in the music business, but it's important that we try. It's important that we're engaged with and enjoying our lives and contributing to humanity to the best of our ability. But don't take any particular goal or endeavor so seriously that you squeeze the life and joy out of it.
I know, I know, it's a bit of a paradox. "You should pursue your goals but not care if you achieve them? Is that what you're telling me Aaron?" Well, not exactly. A better way of saying it is you should pursue your goals as passionately and joyfully as possible but don't let your emotional well being depend on any particular outcome. I know, it's deep, but I didn't call this post "Zen And The Art Of Being A Musician" for nothing!
Think of it this way...
True freedom is pursuing and doing that which we love, but being comfortable enough to let the chips fall where they may, because ultimately they're going to anyway, whether you like it or not.
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.