In what has become somewhat of an annual tradition, I’ve spent the last six weeks playing music in The Caribbean with a group of friends I made in the beach town of Cabarete in The Dominican Republic during my travels here over the last few years. Our drummer is Canadian. Our rhythm guitarist and lead vocalist is from Boston. Our saxophone player is from Germany. Our bass player is from Wyoming I believe (or maybe it’s Utah) and I’m from Chicago. We’re an international group of misfits that together our known as “The Garden Slugs”. Whenever we are all here at the same time we get together and book shows around the local area.
Winters are high season in the area and the small, normally fairly sleepy, laid back Caribbean beach town comes to life with thousands of tourists descending on the area. It’s an ideal time to be here playing music as there is a built in, ready-made crowd of tourists from all over the world who all love going out and hearing live music. Minimal promotion is required. It also happens to be really cold in Chicago during this time of year, so it’s the perfect time to get away and recharge my batteries. It’s one of the perks of being a childless, self-employed musician.
When I’m here, rehearsing or playing live most nights, I really come to life musically in a way that I don’t when I’m focusing strictly on songwriting and recording, which has been my main focus the last several years. Which isn’t to say I don’t love writing and recording music. I do. But, there’s just something about the excitement and energy of playing live for a crowd that can’t be replicated in the studio. There’s an immediate sense of gratification to playing live that is in many ways the antithesis of something like music licensing where the rewards unfold much more slowly, over time, in a fairly anti-climactic nature.
One of the great things about playing with “The Garden Slugs” is that we’re under no illusion that we’ll ever be anything outside of Cabarete. Which isn’t to say we lack ambition, but due to our circumstances and all being from different parts of the world, we realize our time together is limited and consequently our focus is on simply having fun together and making the best music possible. So, there’s none of the typical pressure that comes with forming and launching a band. There’s zero tension or disagreements. We all sort of take the path of least resistance. If the majority of the band wants to play a song, I’ll play it, even if it’s not my first choice. Conversely, I’ll present songs that I write and want to play and nine out of ten times everyone is enthusiastically on board. This is in stark contrast to other bands I’ve played in where every step of the way seemed to be fraught with disagreements and disputes about what direction to go in, what songs to play, how to market ourselves and so forth.
When I’m here, playing live music, my passion for performing music live is re-ignited. This latest stretch of time here playing music has really inspired to start booking more shows in the States, in Chicago and elsewhere, something I haven’t done for a few years as my focus has been more on writing and recording.
Here's a clip from a recent Garden Slugs performance here in Cabarete, featuring yours truly on lead guitar.
I ran into another musician here from Georgia at the gym recently and we got into a conversation about music and the music business and I shared with him my excitement for wanting to return to the states and get back to playing live music and how I really wanted to push myself to go further in terms of playing live again. His response sort of surprised me, but it inspired this blog post and got me thinking about the broader topic of exactly what success in music looks like in 2020, so I’m grateful for his response. He said something along the lines of, “It seems like you’ve already made it to me. You’re a great musician, you license your music frequently, you make enough money to live comfortably, you have a beautiful girlfriend and you get to come and play music in the Caribbean. Isn’t that enough to make you happy? What would make you happy?”. Something like that, I’m sort paraphrasing his response.
His response took me back slightly because I feel like he sort of misinterpreted my goals and the implication was that one couldn’t be simultaneously happy and reach for greater goals. Which I don’t think is true, at all. I feel really happy most days, yet I also want to push myself to continue to grow and become a better musician and person. Happiness and pursuing goals are not mutually exclusive.
But our conversation really got me thinking about how we should define success in the music industry and how much of our happiness should be contingent upon reaching specific goals. What does success in the music industry, realistically, look like? Why are so many of us chasing success in music (40,000 new songs added to Spotify daily)? What are we hoping to ultimately attain? Fame? Money? Validation from our peers? Self confidence? What really drives us? What really drives you?
The more I reflected on his question and my time spent in the music industry over the last 20 years, in one capacity or another, the clearer the answer became. It’s actually really simple. When I think back over the last twenty years, it’s clear to me that I’m the happiest when I have something I’m working towards and involved in something that motivates me to grow, overcome challenges and so on. For me, a lot of that revolves around music; playing music, writing music, licensing music, etc.. But I think it can be anything really. Whatever excites you enough to get out of bed in the morning, brush your teeth, shower and give this crazy thing called life another go. For most musicians, we need more than just the prospect of working to pay bills and taxes as a reason to keep going. We want to actually be excited and passionate about what we do. We’re crazy like that.
The potential pitfall, in my experience, is thinking you have to reach a specific destination in order to be happy. You could just say, it’s about the journey and not the destination, but I think that’s an over-simplification. You do need goals and targets to guide you and give you something to aim for. But the joy and happiness is a result of the process and the journey and ultimately the growth you experience, as a result of pursuing your goals. I’ve always intuitively felt this, and neuro-scientists have actually proven this recently; that it’s the seeking of goals that brings us happiness, not the fulfillment of our goals. See: https://qz.com/684940/neuroscience-confirms-that-to-be-truly-happy-you-will-always-need-something-more/
Of course, just as there is the pitfall of hinging your happiness on achieving your goals, there’s also the trap of not having any goals at all. Or not having goals that sufficiently motivate you and push you to grow. The realization that your happiness isn’t contingent upon reaching specific goals, isn’t an excuse to simply not have goals or things to strive towards. Because again, seeking goals does bring satisfaction and living an aimless, goalless life is a great recipe for being miserable.
So back to the question at hand. How should we define success in the music industry? Well, for me, I would say it this way; Success is doing everything in my power to move towards my goals and being ok with whatever the outcome is. Fortunately, I still have a few goals left.