Do you feel like your music career is on the right track? Or, do you feel like your spinning your wheels, not really getting anywhere? Are you sure your on the right track with your music career? Are you sure your pursuing the right goals for your particular set of talents? How can you be sure?
I had the revelation many years ago, that as long as I feel like I’m moving forward and making progress towards my goals, I feel satisfied. I’ve never been overly concerned with reaching a specific destination, as much as simply wanting to continually progress. For me, it’s always been more about the journey than the destination. Not that I don’t have specific goals, I do, but my over arching goal is to keep progressing and growing.
But how do you really know if you’re making progress in something like the music business? Is it enough to just have a vague sense of moving forward, or should you have specific, concrete goals you can gauge your success by? Is it about financial success? Is it about artistic satisfaction? Both?
Enjoy The Journey, But Know Where You’re Going
Ultimately, I think you need to have both specific goals and targets you’re shooting for, as well as a deep appreciation for the journey. The mistake many musicians seem to make is setting goals that are too distant and too lofty and then getting disappointed when they don’t reach those goals quickly.
If you’re obsessed with the idea of playing stadiums like U2 or The Rolling Stones, you’re probably not going to really enjoy playing small bars and clubs for many years, although it will be required in order to reach your ultimate goal of playing stadiums. If you have no appreciation for sweating it out in smaller venues and paying your dues, you’ll likely get burned out and give up way before every reaching your goal.
If your goal is to make a full time living licensing music and that’s all you think about, it might be challenging to appreciate the years it takes to get there by improving your tracks, writing more songs, spending days and months networking and building relationships, and so on. If you don’t truly enjoy the process, it will be much harder to push through the challenging times and ultimately reach your goals, whatever they are.
I used to fall victim to this sort of thinking in the past and it derailed me for several years. I felt frustrated because I wasn’t moving forward fast enough and wasn’t reaching my, admittedly, very big goals. It wasn’t until I redefined my own definition of success and changed my approach to making music and the music business, that I started to actually make progress and began to appreciate the journey.
Now, I know what you might be thinking. Because I’m thinking it even as I type this. Isn’t this just some sort of a trick to get your mind to accept settling for less? And the answer is a definitive no. I don’t want you to settle for less. I want you to push as hard as possible and give everything you have towards reaching your goals. In fact, you might even need to set bigger goals for yourself, to give yourself the proper motivation to truly grow and move forward. BUT, you also need to be truly in touch with yourself and with where you are in the grand scheme of your career and life, in order to set the right goals. You need to learn to enjoy the daily, weekly and monthly process of grinding it out and moving forward. And most importantly, you need to be sure you’re pursuing the right goals, the ones that are a best match for your particular set of skills, your personality and your desired lifestyle.
Part of success, in any industry, is being realistic about where you actually are and the things you need to work on to improve, on a daily basis in order to reach your goals. If your dream is to perform in stadiums in front of 50,000 people, but you can barely muster up the courage to perform for 40 people at your local bar, you clearly have some work cut out for you. If you don’t look forward to the incremental steps you need to take to inch your way towards your bigger goals, it’s going to be hard to move forward at all. Even if you get extremely lucky and somehow manage to skip the necessary steps you need to take in order to achieve success, there’s a good chance you won’t be ready for it when you get there, if you’re not prepared.
You also need to be realistic about how much you actually enjoy the work required to reach your particular goals, whatever they are. If your goal is to become a famous touring musician, but you don’t actually like being on the road and being away from your home for extended periods of time, you might need to reassess your goals. If your goal is to perform for thousands of people, but you don’t really enjoy performing or feel comfortable in front of large crowds, you might need to reassess you goals. If your goal is to license music full time for television, but you don’t actually enjoy the kind of music that’s used in TV, you might need to reassess your goals. If you want to be a famous songwriter, but you’re not comfortable with periods of struggle and uncertainty, you might need to reassess your goals.
Even though we live in a time where there are, perhaps more musicians than ever before, making a career out of music is still a fairly unconventional and risky career path. Although there are plenty of examples of people who have figured out how to turn their passion for music into a viable career, doing music for a living requires and enormous amount of both self-discipline and self-awareness.
You might have a dream of becoming a famous touring musician, but do you really, truly want that deep down? Is your passion and love for music strong enough to overcome the enormous obstacles and challenges that will inevitably present themselves on your journey? Only you really know the answers to those questions. Only you know if you really have what it takes to make it in the music business. Only you know what part of the music business your particular temperament and interests are a good fit for.
If you’re not sure what you really want and what you’re a really good fit for, perhaps some soul searching is in order. It took me many years to really figure out where I fit best in the music business and to learn how to turn my passion for music into a viable career. I’m still tweaking and modifying my particular formula for working in the music business, to this day.
Also, keep in mind your goals and interests may very likely change as you move forward and grow as both a person and musician. When I was younger, I was dead set on forming a band and becoming a famous rock guitarist in the vein of Carlos Santana, Trey Anastasio, Jerry Garcia, etc. So after I finished Berklee I formed a band in Chicago that lasted several years and played a lot regionally. After this first band broke up, I formed another band and continued to perform. This band lasted about two years. After that band broke up, I formed yet another band, that lasted about a year and a half. After that band broke up, I formed yet one more short-lived band, that only lasted about six months.
After a decade of playing in different bands, none of which became “rock star” level successful, I was forced to reassess my path and goals. I loved my time playing in bands, but as I got older, there were things about this lifestyle and path that started to feel incongruent to me. For example, when I was younger, I used to get pretty bad stage fright and my solution at the time was to simply drink alcohol until I felt comfortable enough to perform. After all I thought, I’m working in an environment where drinking is not only permitted, it’s given to me for free! Drinking alcohol is a really effective short term solution to stage fright. It works in the moment to relieve nerves, but like many “quick fixes”, it comes at a price. Negative health consequences, hangovers and social costs, are all part of the fun of using alcohol excessively.
So, after a decade of performing live I decided to step away from playing in bands for awhile. In retrospect, it was a much needed break, because it allowed me to really focus on myself and get healthy. I took a trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua during this period, where I ended up actually performing a lot, particularly in Nicaragua, where I befriended a fellow musician and bar owner. Except this time, I was performing mainly for fun, so I didn’t really feel the pressure I felt before when I was trying to “make it”.
I learned how to perform either with no alcohol or very little. To this day when I play gigs, I will often have one or two drinks. I’m not against moderate drinking, I’m just against using alcohol as a crutch, to the point where it becomes a problem and bleeds over into other areas of your life. This is an easy and common trap to fall into if you’re not careful. In fact, I read a study recently that said the average “famous” musician has a life span of about 25 years less than the general population, mainly due to drugs and alcohol.
These days I perform live frequently. Usually at least once or twice a week. Sometimes I play solo. Sometimes I perform with different bands. Over the last several years I’ve performed in a variety of different contexts. Playing live is probably my favorite thing about being a musician. I love the immediate feedback and immediate gratification of getting up in front of an audience. But, it took me a few years to really learn how to perform in a healthy way. Ultimately, the best cure for stage fright, is simply experience. I don’t necessarily aspire to live a life on the road, but I’ve learned to love performing and it remains an important piece of the musical puzzle for me.
The point I’m making, is that the path you choose to pursue, will potentially impact your entire life. You need to know yourself well enough, to know which path you should go down and which path is really right for you. Being a touring musician, for example, isn’t for everybody and if you come to the conclusion that it’s not the life you desire, there’s no shame in that. I’ve talked to many musicians who have had considerable success touring who decided it wasn’t what they actually wanted after getting a taste of success and life on the road. A few years ago, I interviewed the former Saxophone player for Sublime and “Sublime With Rome”, who also happens to be a medical doctor, who decided after more than a year on the road with Sublime, playing venues like Red Rocks, that the touring lifestyle wasn’t what he wanted! He said ultimately, that he missed his family and didn’t really enjoy the extensive travelling and the lifestyle that went along with playing in a band as successful as Sublime.
Many Different Paths
The music business is comprised of many different roles and career paths. Becoming a famous musician ala Justin Beiber, Beyonce and The Rolling Stones, may be what many of us think of when we think of “making it” in the music business. But, it turns out there are many different ways of “making it” in music. There are songwriters who simply write music for a living. There are musicians who have carved out careers in only licensing their music. There are producers who produce music for a living. There are music publishers who publish and license music for a living. There are artists who make a living performing only regionally. There are music teachers who inspire and teach other musicians. And there are artists who do any combination of the above that make a good living though several revenue streams.
There are many different ways to make it in the music business. What path is right for you?