I think the reason many of us have chosen the path of being a musician, is that we aspire to greatness. Think about it, we could have chosen many, more secure, less risky paths in life, but for some reason you and I, and most of the people reading this, have been drawn to music as a vocation, or the very least, a serious hobby. But why? I’m sure are motivations are all slightly different, but I suspect that at on some level, everyone reading this wants to be “great” at music. Why else would we pursue playing music as a profession? To be mediocre? If you’re anything like me, you feel like you have greatness inside you and you want to express that and get it out into the world. Music is a potentially a great vehicle for doing that.
But how do we define “greatness”? It’s a little tricky if you think about it. We could take the very easy to measure approach of using something like how much money you make from playing music as a barometer of your greatness. But how accurate is money in terms of measuring musical “greatness”? We all know brilliant musicians who struggle to get by, or at the best, live a life of modest means. Conversely, the world is full of examples of artists that aren’t exactly pushing musical boundaries who, for one reason or another, become filthy rich and famous and are considered by many to be great.
So if it’s not just about money or the number of albums we sell, how do we measure greatness? Are we only “great” when others recognize us as being great? Are we only great when we make a certain amount of money? Are we by default great once a certain number of people appreciate what we do? Well, I think it’s clear that the answer is no, our greatness isn’t dependent on x number of people thinking we’re great or x number of people buying our albums. Greatness is more than just being commercially successful.
There are different definitions and ideas of what “greatness” is. My definition of “greatness” is being the best and most actualized version of ourselves we’re capable of. When I think about being “great”, it’s not about making a specific amount of money or achieving a certain level of fame. It’s more about the feeling that comes with knowing we’re pushing ourselves to become the best version of ourselves we’re capable of being. Although it’s not about money or status, it’s also not about resting on our laurels and not moving forward just because we don’t care about “success”. This is as bad as those who pursue fame and fortune at all costs. Both ends of the spectrum are out of balance. Greatness is about being the best we’re capable of being, whatever that means to us. If our goal is performing, than it’s about being the best performer we can be. If it’s about songwriting, it’s about writing the best songs we’re capable of writing, and so on. Chances are that if we’re pushing ourselves to become the greatest version of ourselves, other people will start to take notice and we’ll get closer, by default, to whatever external goals we have.
I think it’s ultimately up to us to define what greatness is for ourselves. I would love to make millions of dollars from my music, but I know this alone wouldn’t give me a sense or feeling that I’ve achieved “greatness”. For me, it’s more about how well I’m playing, how good I feel the songs I’m writing are and how much energy I’m applying to developing my craft. I know, intuitively, when I’m on the right track and I also know when I’m off track. For me, greatness, is about consistently following my muse and following that path as far as I can go. Sometimes, it’s simply about playing a really good show where I know “I’m on”. At other times it’s about getting a recording of a song just right and promoting it effectively. Greatness is about being the best version of myself, as consistently as possible.
Greatness is an ongoing process, it’s not some sort of end point we arrive at. Throughout our lives, we have the opportunity to achieve greatness in different ways and in different times. It’s about pushing ourselves towards the best versions of ourselves wherever we are in our lives. It’s not about neurotically obsessing over specific goals. It’s about always looking for and creating opportunities, as opposed to delaying our sense of gratification until our biggest goals our realized. For example, I’m going to be playing a show in a few weeks in a new trio I’m performing in with a mandolin player and percussionist. We’re expecting about 100 people to be there. I could look at this as just another random bar gig and not take it that seriously. But instead, I’m promoting the shit out of it, I have plans to film the entire performance for my Youtube channel and I’m practicing daily in anticipation of the show.
Greatness is about rising to the occasion for every opportunity that comes along, no matter how big or small. Greatness is about pushing ourselves to grow as people and musicians, as opposed to resting on our laurels and not moving forward. Greatness is about realizing we have just one life to live and every moment counts. Greatness is about being great, no matter how many people are watching. Greatness is about giving your all, whether you’re performing for ten people or ten thousand.
There’s an enormous amount of luck required to “make it big” in the music business. It doesn’t take any luck at all to be great.
Do you ever feel like just giving up music and throwing in the towel? Do you ever feel like it’s just too hard and wonder what the point is? If you’re at all like me, you’ve probably had thoughts like this go through your head from time to time. The music business is hard. Trying to navigate your way through the business can be daunting and frustrating. I’m sure most musicians have entertained the idea of just giving it up and moving onto something more “realistic” and easier.
Sometimes giving up might be the right thing to do. Music isn’t for everyone and obviously not everyone who entertains the idea of becoming a professional musician will become one. During this post I want to explore the idea of how to know whether or not going forward in the music industry, or with music in general, is the right thing to do.
Sometimes quitting things and moving on to something else is a wise decision. Life is full of trying things out, gaining new experiences, and then making life decisions based on experience and maturity. There’s no sense in pursuing something that brings more frustration than joy and conversely, it’s not wise to quit something you love just because you experience the occasional setback or frustration. The challenge is really knowing the difference.
Here’s an analogy:
I have a girlfriend. I love her. Sometimes we have conflicts. Sometimes I get frustrated when things aren’t going smoothly. But the relationship brings me more joy than it does frustration. The majority of the time I’m very happy and have no desire to be with anyone else. I value our relationship and what we have, so I am more than willing to work to resolve any conflicts that come up My girlfriend feels the same way and so normally when we have issues, we resolve them fairly quickly and we get back to enjoying all the benefits the relationship brings us.
I like to think of music in the same way. I have a relationship to music and the music I make. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes there are setbacks. Sometimes I don’t feel like going forward. But, at the end of the day, I love making music, and it brings me a lot more joy than it does pain. I believe in it and so I’m willing to put in the work to get better at it. It’s not a hard decision for me. I’m committed to making music.
However, there are other things I’ve tried in the past that I haven’t felt that strongly about. I took art classes a couple years ago for example. I wasn’t that good at it and it didn’t bring me that much joy. I took classes for a couple months and then I quit. It wasn’t a hard decision. It simply wasn’t my thing.
In my twenties, I entertained the idea of becoming a mortgage broker. I was intrigued by the idea of making good money at a young age and I could see the potential for doing well. However I hated the job. I hated the idea of working with numbers all day and cold calling home owners to see if they wanted to refinance their house. It simply wasn’t a good fit for me, so I walked away and never once second guessed my decision.
I’ve also had relationships in the past that I walked away from without any regret. Sometimes people just aren’t compatible and there’s so much friction and tension in the relationship that walking away is the only sensible thing to do. I think career paths are similar. Sometimes we just simply aren’t a good fit for certain professions. We all have unique interests and personalities that lend themselves to different paths.
Pursuing music is a very unique path. It’s not for everyone. It might not be for you. Only you can really decide. Only you know, deep down, if your passion for playing music is greater than your disdain of the setbacks you experience. Only you know whether or not playing music brings you more joy than pain. Just like all relationships have a certain amount of inevitable conflict, most fulfilling career paths have frustration and setback along the way. You could even say that’s part of what makes the journey enjoyable.
There’s something very fulfilling about overcoming obstacles and harnessing the inner strength that you didn’t even know you had, to achieve your goals. Conflict shouldn’t be avoided, but instead embraced. The conflicts we resolve will make us stronger people. But you have to really love what you’re pursuing to find the strength to overcome the obstacles that come along. If you’re just sort of into something, it’s far too easy to just to take the path of least resistance and walk away.
When you truly love something, you’ll fight for it.
I’m 41 years old. My girlfriend is 19. We’ve been dating exclusively for nine months. When we first started dating, I was concerned about how well our social circle would accept us as a couple. To my surprise, the vast majority of our friends have embraced us and seem to have no problem with us dating. We get invited to parties and social functions together, we hang out with a wide range of friends and for the most part, people to seem to “get” us as a couple and can see that we’re happy together. If anyone has a problem with us dating, they don’t express it to me, that is, until last night.
I was out with a couple friends last night. One of whom is a 62 year old women. Let’s call her Deborah. I haven’t seen Deborah in quite a while and she asked how things are going. Naturally the topic of who I’ve been dating came up. I described my girlfriend and all her wonderful traits. I talked about how happy we are together. I explained how she’s a singer, that she’s studying TV production and how well we get along and how compatible we are. Deborah listened intently. Then she asked me the question that I knew was coming. How old is she?, Deborah asked. I paused for a moment and then answered as confidently as I could, she’s 19 I said, with probably a hint of reservation in my voice.
Deborah’s reaction didn’t really surprise me. She proceeded to outline all the reasons why a relationship like this wouldn’t work. She brought up the typical, cynical objections to may-december romances that most people who oppose these types of relationships espouse. What could we possibly have in common? My girlfriend must be using me for money (despite the fact that I’m far from wealthy). It’s wrong to be with someone so much younger than me and that I must be exploiting her youth and naivete. Of course, all of these objections were coming from someone who has never actually met my girlfriend or spent time with us together.
My friend’s reaction didn’t surprise me, but it did throw me off a little. Like I said, this is really the first time in nine months anyone has expressed their objections to me and I was a little taken aback and defensive. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but to judge someone or something you don’t really know about is unfair at best and completely off base at worst. But, our whole conversation really got me thinking about the topic of “haters”, where these sorts of criticisms come from and how we can deal with these sorts of critics in our lives.
No matter how conventional and socially acceptable our lives are, all of us will confront people from time to time who don’t agree with the decisions we make. As the saying goes, you can please some of the people some of the time but you can’t please all of the people, all of the time. We all have different ideas of what’s right and wrong, smart and stupid, and so on. We’re all on our own unique paths, making different life choices that lead to different places.
If living a conventional, “normal” life is met with inevitable criticism, then it goes without saying that a less conventional life will be met with even more critics and naysayers. Anytime someone veers off the conventional, socially accepted life path, they open themselves up to even more criticism. Criticism comes in all shapes and sizes. Some of it may be well intended advice based on wisdom and life experience, but in my experience, more often than not, it’s simply other people projecting their own insecurities and limited view of life and what’s possible onto others.
Pursuing music as a profession is considered by many to be an unconventional way to earn a living. As musicians, we have to deal with haters and critics on many levels. Whether it’s people within the industry that reject what it is we do and tell us we’re not good enough, or friends and family who discourage us from following our hearts, critics and haters are all around us.
I’ve dealt with my fair share of “haters” and critics related to playing music over the years. Whether it’s the implied but unspoken sense of disappointment from family members or the snide comments about what a hard life being a musician is from my more business minded friends and acquaintances, musicians are a fairly easy target for “haters”. What’s easier to make light of and put down than someone actually chasing their dreams? Musicians make an especially tempting target for those who are unfulfilled in their lives and afraid to pursue whatever their version of chasing their dreams is.
I spent a week at home with my Mom and stepdad recently. During my time with my family, I played one of my newest songs for Mom and stepdad. My mom was positive and encouraging, but my stepdad, as he tends to be, was cynical and judgmental. He listened to the song, visibly uninterested and unmoved. At the end, he looked at me with a smirk and asked, “What did you write that for”?
The question on the surface seemed innocent enough, but the implication was clear…. what’s the point? At least that’s how I took it, knowing my stepdad the way I do. Well, I said, I wrote it for myself and for anyone else who’s interested in listening. I write music I explained, first and foremost, because I’m simply inspired to write music. It feels good to me. Anything that happens after that is icing on the cake. My stepdad seemed unimpressed with my answer, and the conversation quickly shifted to something more mundane and not related to music.
This is just one of countless examples of people trying to belittle my passion for playing music over the years. I’m pretty numb to it at this point, but it still never amazes me how quick some people are to discourage others from pursuing what brings them joy.
F&%K The Haters
It would be easy to just say, screw the haters and the critics, follow your heart and don’t let anyone stop you. In fact, that is what I essentially believe, but it’s easier said than done. Apparently, the tendency to hold onto negative criticism is natural for most people. According to Roy Baumeister and researchers at Florida State University, we remember negative emotions much more strongly and in more vivid detail.
In a research paper titled, “Bad Is Stronger Than Good”, Baumeister summarizes
academic studies that prove that we are more likely to remember negative criticism than praise. Baumeister found that even happy people tend to remember more negative events than positive ones. In fact, Baumeister and his team say that it when it comes to your brain, it takes about five positive events to make up for one negative event.
The Biggest Hater Of All
Ultimately though, the biggest hater of all, that most of us have to confront, is ourselves. We choose which ideas and beliefs that others present to us we believe and embrace. Other people are entitled to their opinions and beliefs about our lives, but we get to decide what’s best for us. We’re the captain of our own destinies, at least as far as our beliefs go. We only have one life to live and it’s up to us to develop the courage and conviction to create and lead lives that make us proud.
I may not spend the rest of my life with my 19 year old girlfriend and I might not realize all my rock and roll dreams. I don’t know what my future will hold any more than anyone else does. But I know that when I get to the end of my life, I’m going to have few regrets about the choices I’ve made. I’m going to continue to live my life on my terms, un-deterred by the well-intended opinions of others.
Ultimately, whatever choices you make in life, someone is going to criticize you either way. You mine as well create a life that you’re proud of and happy to live, after all, you’re the one who has to live it.
I think Billy Joel summed it up best:
“I don't care what you say anymore, this is my life
Go ahead with your own life and leave me alone”
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.