I’ll never quit music. Ever. This is a path I’m on for life. My entire life. I’m firmly committed to the path, for better or worse, in sickness and health. My commitment gives me a sense of clarity and calm. It also give me a sense of direction. I have my life purpose figured out, or at least one of them. Whereas many people struggle their whole lives to “figure themselves out” and “find their calling” and discover their purpose, I got that shit all figured out.
However, it hasn’t always been easy. It’s still not easy. Figuring out my life purpose hasn’t translated to a life of ease and leisure. To the contrary, I sometimes feel like figuring out my life purpose has brought with it an enormous weight and an added sense of stress and responsibility. After all, now that I know what my purpose is, I feel an obligation and pressure to pursue it, to make progress towards my goals, to not rest on my laurels and to keep advancing. This extra pressure is, in my view, a net positive. There is extra work and stress involved, but it’s worth it in the end, because of the meaning and depth music provide. I could just skip all the work and effort and not be bothered with any of it, but I would be missing out on something that also brings with it an enormous sense of reward and satisfaction.
But, there is a clear price to pay for being a professional musician and a career in music is filled with challenges, obstacles and typically, many setbacks along the way. If you’re pursuing a career in music or are thinking about going into the music industry, I don’t think this reality should be glossed over. I’ve seen multiple studies that show that musicians, on average, have much higher rates of things like depression, anxiety and substance abuse than the general population. I even saw a recent study of over 12,000 musicians that concluded that professional musicians, on average, die a full 25 years year younger than the rest of the population. That’s a significant difference and this reality of the music business shouldn’t be ignored.
Ok, so being a musician is hard, or at least it can be. Now what? Why on earth would anyone go into a business that’s fraught with so many challenges? Is there a way to mitigate the risks involved with pursuing a career in music? Well, that’s what this article is going to explore.
So, let’s get to it…
Let’s start with talking about the upside of being a musician and why a career in music is, at least potentially, so rewarding. First of all though, let me preface all of this by stating that what works for me, might not work for you, and vice versa. We all have different things that drive us and motivate us. Some people are quite content and happy to lead very simple, somewhat mundane and conventional lives. Nothing wrong that. Who am I or anyone else to tell you or anyone how to live? We all get to figure out what works for ourselves and ultimately, we’re the ones most qualified to decide how we live our lives. After all, no one knows you better than you. With that said, if you’re also drawn to making music and share that passion with me, it’s probably safe to assume we’re at least somewhat alike.
So, why pursue something that is so difficult and risky? Well, doing something that is difficult isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I would suggest that what plagues many people living in modern, western society, isn’t that their lives are too difficult, it’s that they’re too boring and lack meaning and depth. Many people spend their time, or much of it, doing things they don’t find inherently meaningful or interesting, but that they feel they have to do in order to survive. A life spent simply working to pay bills, with occasional periods of relaxation mixed in, probably isn’t that fulfilling for most people. As Thoreau said, “most men live lives of quiet desperation”.
Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs
Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist who came up with the idea of the “hierarchy of needs”, aka Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs, observed that “the healthiest and most motivated among us, are those that are motivated by trends of self-actualization”. This was Maslow’s conclusion after decades of studying the psychology of those who excelled in life, in a variety of fields. Notice that he didn’t say anything about money or one’s net worth in relation to their well-being, although I’m sure many of the people he studied did quite well financially.
Maslow defined self-actualization as “an ongoing actualization of potentials, capacities and talents, as fulfillment of a mission”. Does this sound like something that could apply to musicians? Way before I had ever even heard of Abraham Maslow or his theories and research, it was self-evident to me that this was true. From a very young age, I sensed a deep sense of satisfaction from the process of struggling to get better at the guitar, putting in hours of practice and eventually progressing to higher and higher levels. It just seemed obvious to me that this process was somehow connected to my happiness and sense of fulfillment in life. By directing my energy towards something concrete and tangible, like progressing as a guitarist and musician, I grew as a person, which brought a deep sense of fulfillment and helped shaped my identity and path in life.
Maslow was so convinced of the importance of self-actualization in life, that he boldly stated, “If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life”. This idea resonates deeply within me. When I go through periods where, for whatever reason, I’m not working on and progressing with music, I feel a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction and restlessness, that becomes more pronounced over time. It’s a feeling that grows and grows, until eventually, I’m motivated to pick up my guitar and get back to the process of exploring new song ideas, finishing existing songs, writing new music, and so on. I can’t go too long without returning to my love of writing songs and playing the guitar.
Reconciling Art & Commerce
So, if pursuing a craft like music can be so deeply satisfying, why does pursuing a career in music often times feel so frustrating and uninspiring? Well, this is a big question, and there are a lot of variables. But let me try to unpack this conflict by sharing a few things I’ve learned on my journey.
I think the biggest and most obvious conflict is that learning to play music, learning to write songs and so on, and progressing in these endeavors, is very different than learning to make money from music and learning to excel in the business of music. They are obviously related. You need a certain amount of talent to make money from performing and writing music. But getting good at an instrument or getting good at songwriting, is not the same as getting good at marketing and monetizing your music. They are completely different skill-sets.
So, one way of reconciling this conflict is simply seeing this dichotomy for what it is. If you’re struggling to make it in the music business, don’t allow this to take away the joy you get from craft of writing and/or performing music. Realize that your lack of success in the music business might not have anything to do with your lack of success as a musician and the talent you possess. This should be rather obvious, but it can be easy to forget. You might be an amazing musician whose time simply hasn’t come. You might be doing everything right but for whatever reason things just haven’t lined up for you. There are countless examples of this having happened in the music business. I’m sure you probably know plenty of musicians that fit this description yourself, right now.
This is why I think the most important barometer for success should really be your own internal sense of whether or not you’re getting better as a vocalist, guitarists, songwriter, etc. Are you getting better at your craft? Are you writing better songs today than you were a year or two years ago? Self-actualization involves realizing your full potential. How much money you make may or may not be connected to that. For many it will be, especially if you go far enough and excel enough. But it shouldn’t be the primary thing you focus on, especially when you’re first starting out. After all, I’m sure we all know plenty of well-off people, financially, who are far from self-actualized. Financial well-being and self-actualization don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
One way a lot of musicians come to terms with this reality of the music business is by simply not going into the music business. It’s hard to fail at something you’re not really even trying to be successful at doing. There are plenty of musicians who are actively performing and writing music who aren’t really trying to “make it” in the music business. Yet, they still get a deep sense of satisfaction from playing music on a regular basis. Maybe they have a completely different career or day job, but yet music remains an important and consistent part of their lives. This is one way to deal with the conflict, and for those that are happy and content to approach music this way, I think it’s completely valid.
But what if, like me, you do want to make a career out of playing and writing music? How can you focus on the benefits of reaching your full potential as a musician without letting the struggle and the grind weigh you down? Is there a way to reconcile the conflict between and art and commerce?
Well, no two paths are alike, but my general suggestion, if you do want to make a living out of music, is to keep your day job and consistently chip away at creating revenue streams from your music until they reach a point that allow you to sustain yourself. Then, make the leap to doing music full time and devote even more energy to it and keep building the revenue streams you’ve created.
This will obviously take a sustained effort to achieve, but the good news is that in many ways this is becoming more and more possible and easier to attain. I think that in the near future we’ll see a rise of more and more indie musicians who are able to make a respectable living from their music. I really believe that. In many ways, it’s already started. I might be a little biased, because I work in the music industry, but I’m meeting more and more musicians who have figured out how to create a career out of writing and performing music. Most of them you’ve probably never even heard of, but they’re quietly building sustainable and growing careers in the music business, doing what they love.
To me, this is the ideal scenario for musicians and is really the best of both worlds. It’s what I feel most musicians are shooting for; the ability to make a living doing what they love. When you can combine the benefits of self-actualization and striving for and reaching your potential as an artist and musician, and also figure out how to make enough money to sustain yourself, well, it doesn’t get much better than that, now does it?
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.