I’ve known and met a LOT of musicians in the last 20 plus years of working in the music business. If you factor in all the musicians I knew from way back in my Berklee days, to the bands I played in and hung out with in my Chicago days, to the musicians I’ve met and interacted with via my website, I would estimate I’ve met at least 1,000 musicians over the years. That’s a lot of musicians! In fact, it’s a large enough sample size that I think can draw some fairly statistically sound conclusions about musicians and the likelihood of “making it” in the music business.
Of all the musicians I’ve met and interacted with over the years, I know of only one musician who I would describe as having “made it”, for a time. It was actually my former lead singer of a band I played in from 1999 to 2002, Joshua Scott Jones. He moved to Nashville after the band we were in together broke up, formed a country duo called “Steel Magnolia”, went on the CMT reality tv show called “Can You Duet?” with his singing partner in 2009, I believe, and won. First place.
As a result of their exposure on Can You Duet, for a time “Steel Magnolia” was riding high. They had two top 20 country singles. They toured arenas opening for artists like Reba McEntire, Brooks and Dunn and the like. They were nominated for several Country Music Awards. They appeared on Late Night with David Letterman. They were signed to Big Machine Records, the same label as Taylor Swift.
Their success continued for a couple years. Then problems ensued. My former singer, Josh, had drug and alcohol problems that forced him to leave a tour with Steel Magnolia to go into rehab. Problems developed between Josh and his singing partner, Meghan, who he was also dating and engaged to. They ended up breaking up. They were subsequently dropped from their label, Big Machine. They both went their separate ways and although they have both had limited success on their own, neither of them have been able to achieve the success they experienced together, individually.
I can think of one other musician, out of the 1,000 or so that I’ve met over the years that has had a relatively successful career as a songwriter. This particular person, the artist Bleu, that I crossed paths with a bit during my Berklee days, has written songs for a lot of well known artists like The Jonas Brothers, Selena Gomez, Hanson and the like. He tried to launch a successful solo career early on, and although immensely talented as a writer and performer, his career never fully took off. He’s opened up for artists like Jon Mayer and Train over the years, and was signed to a subsidiary of Colombia Records, but for reasons I don’t fully understand, it just never quite happened, at least in a major way.
The music business is a fickle business, achieving what most of us would consider “mainstream success” is something most of us will probably never achieve. I don’t say that to discourage you or get you down, it’s just a statistical fact. It’s pretty hard to argue with statistics and facts.
However, I’m also here to say that it doesn’t matter. In fact, I think this whole obsession with trying to “make it” and reach a certain level of notoriety and fame that we associate with success is actually what prevents many of us from ever actually achieving real, sustainable success.
Let me explain…
I think a lot of us, as musicians, have a sort of preconceived idea of what success in the music business looks like, or that we think should look like. Most of us started pursuing our dream of “making it” in the music business at a young age. I was 12 years old when I started playing guitar and daydreaming about becoming a rock star! We often start pursuing music from a fairly naïve, inexperienced place. When I was 12, for example, I loved the idea of being a rock star. Who doesn’t fantasize about things like becoming a rock star or a famous actor or celebrity? These sorts of goals seem to be part of our collective consciousness. Most of us have some version of this fantasy during our adolescent years.
As we grow up and move into adulthood, most people decide to “grow up” and pursue more traditional and stable ways of making a living. Some of us though, decide to go for it and chase our dreams. People like myself, and I’m assuming people like you if you’re reading this. A few more years go by and most of us don’t “make it”, because let’s face it, it turns out to be much harder than we thought it would be and as I’ve already pointed out, statistically it’s simply very unlikely. The odds were against us going into this.
However, maybe if you associate with enough musicians, you see one or two people that actually do, through a combination of talent and being in the right place at the right time, go on to “make it”. Then you think to yourself, it really is possible and so you decide to keep going for it. But, deep down, you feel discouraged that you haven’t gone farther, and you can’t help but to compare yourself to those who seem further down the road than you are.
All this comparing ourselves to other people and wishing we were somewhere else ends up slowing us down. Instead of loving the process of becoming better at our craft, we obsess about why we’re not “bigger” or “more successful” than we are. Instead of falling in love with the journey, we end up hating the fact that our journey is still unfolding. We long for our journey to end, or at least to lead us to a better place. We want to get to our destination already.
What started out as something we loved doing, making music, turns into something we end up despising, trying to “make it”. As we feel the abyss grow between where we are and where we think we should be, we grow resentful. The joy we used to feel when we picked up our guitar, or sit down at the piano, or sing, starts to fade. We start to associate something we were once passionate about with a feeling of failure and negativity.
This is the part of the journey, where most musicians just throw in the towel and resign themselves to the fact that they’ll never “make it”. It just wasn’t in the cards they think. They went for it, they tried, but it didn’t happen when or how they thought it should, so they decide to give up. I know this part of the journey, because I’ve been there.
But there’s another possible realization, one that I eventually reached, which is the realization that you can keep going. You can realize that although time does fly, life is actually pretty long and you still have time, so you get back to focusing on what you can actually control, the effort and dedication you put into your craft. You can realize that for 99.99% of us, there are really only two elements at play that really make a difference that we can actually control and influence; effort and talent.
Just like most businesses don’t unfold in the same way that Facebook or Google did, most artists won’t break onto the scene the same way Justin Beiber or Miley Cyrus did. And that’s ok. Most successful businesses are built on years of blood, sweat and tears. The same is true for most truly successful music careers. Most of us will never be an “overnight success”. Most of us will have to fight for whatever success we attain. To me, this is true success. Success that just luckily falls into your lap isn’t true success, it’s luck. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been very lucky.
This blog post was inspired, in part, by Gary Vaynerchuck and the following video:
If you want an amazing dose of no holds barred, in your face motivation, be sure to check out Gary’s channel. Great stuff!
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.