Do you ever find yourself feeling discouraged because you haven’t gone as far in your music “career” as you’d like? Do you sometimes find yourself obsessed with thoughts about when and where your “big break” is going to happen? Do you wish you made more money from your music? Do you wish you were more known and respected for the music you make?
For some reason, a lot of musicians associate being successful in the music business with being “famous” in the music business. I think a lot of musicians even start with this being their primary goal. As if being a great musician and being a “famous” musician were somehow the same thing. It’s sort of weird if you stop and think about it.
There are few other professions where the goal is to get famous for doing said profession, apart from the entertainment industry. If you aspire to become a great doctor, you’re probably not also hoping to get famous in the process. Unless you’re Dr. Oz or Dr. Phil perhaps, but their career trajectories are more the exception than the rule. If your goal is to open a restaurant, chances are you’re not looking to become famous for it.
Ideally, fame, if it comes at all as a musician, should be a byproduct of being a great musician. If you’re really, really good at something, and enough people find out and appreciate what you do, there’s a chance fame will come as a result.
But, to pursue fame as the primary goal, is a bit like putting the cart before the horse, in my mind and I would even go as far as saying it's probably why most musicians don't actually end up becoming famous; they're pursuing the wrong goal.
I’m not really sure if I would even like being famous, it seems like a lot of pressure. Especially if you’re super famous like Shakira or Justin Bieber. Although, there are obvious perks, I can only imagine that level of fame would also come at an extraordinary price, in terms of having very little privacy, having increased demands on your time and the pressure to maintain the success you’ve achieved. I can understand why a lot of super famous musicians crack under pressure.
When I was younger I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed and become famous as a musician. To me, it seemed at the time, to be the ultimate goal. I wanted to be famous like my idols that I looked up to. When I didn’t have the success I aspired to have after several years of playing in bands and doing everything in my power to make it happen, I grew disillusioned.
I started to feel really negative about the music business and my role in it. I can remember the awful feeling of playing gigs that weren’t well attended and feeling like a failure. This isn’t how this is supposed to be going I thought. Music, for awhile, stopped being fun and started to feel like a giant source of frustration and pain. My goal of becoming a famous musician seemed to drift further and further away.
This feeling lasted a few years, until after about ten years of gigging, I took a break from playing live and playing in bands, in my early thirties. For a couple years I sort of put music on the back-burner, not really sure what to do with my passion or love for music. I still wrote new songs during this period and continued to pursue things like licensing, but music started to seem like more of a glorified hobby than a career.
This feeling lingered for the next few years until I noticed something sort of strange, which was that I reached a point where I wasn’t trying to “make it” in the music business anymore and didn’t really think about it anymore. As a result, I no longer felt the frustration associated with trying to do something and falling short of my expectations, but, my love for music remained.
In fact, untethered from the need to “make it” in the music business, I realized I enjoyed writing and playing music more than ever. It was as if I rediscovered what drew me to making music in the first place, which, at least in the very beginning, wasn’t to become famous. I simply loved music!
I think for most musicians, there’s something that drew us to music, before the idea of “making it” in the music business entered our minds. When I grew up listening to music, I wasn’t drawn to bands and artists because they were famous. I was drawn to different bands and artists because I enjoyed their music. They became famous, because a lot of people enjoyed their music. I was drawn to making music, because I simply loved music and wanted to follow in the footsteps of all the great musicians I grew up listening to. It wasn’t until late that I started obsessing over and worrying about becoming famous.
Benefits Of Detaching From Your Success
There’s this idea in eastern philosophy of the importance of detaching from the outcome of things. The idea is that as you pursue your goals and desires, it’s best to do so from a place of non-attachment. In other words, go for what you want, but relax about how things unfold. This isn’t the same as not caring about the outcome at all, but it’s just that things aren’t always going to go exactly how you want them to go, so you’ll be a lot happier if you just lighten up and not worry too much about how or when things happen. Do you really want to be successful, but worried and stressed out all the time? That doesn't sound like fun.
One of my favorite quotes, is a zen proverb that sums up this idea: “the hungry don’t get fed”. Think about this and how it rings true in your experience. Think about people who want things so much that they come across needy and desperate, as opposed to ambitious and confident. You obviously don’t want to simply throw your hands up in the air and become completely apathetic about your life and your goals. That’s not what I’m suggesting. But you also don’t want to be so fixated on your goals that the thought of not attaining them causes you to become crippled with fear. I think there’s a middle ground where you can simply pursue the things you love and let things happen, however they’re going to happen.
Back To The Music
When you shift your focus away from being overly concerned with success and back to your love of making music, you take your power back. You see, there are people in the music business, who in some ways can hold you back from success, although not as many as there used to be. But, there are still gatekeepers that can reject your music.
Maybe it’s a music publisher who doesn’t think your music has what it takes, or maybe it’s a music supervisor who doesn’t think you have the right “sound”. But, when you stop worrying so much about success and just focus on making great music, well, no one, and I mean no one can stop you. Only you can decide whether or not you’re going to keep making music, keep writing better songs and keep improving your craft.
You are completely in control of how good you become as a musician. Maybe you haven’t had the success you’ve desired so far, but it’s up to you whether or not you want to keep improving and growing as a musician. This is what’s so exciting about letting go of the need to “make it”, it puts you back in the driver’s seat and puts the focus back on the only thing you ever really had control of in the first place, the music!
And of course, the better you get as a musician and the better your music becomes, the chances of attaining “commercial success”, or success in general, become greater. It’s easy to be cynical about the music business and there are plenty of examples of ultra successful musicians and artists whose music you might not respect.
We probably all know musicians who are uber-talented that, for whatever reason, haven’t found much success to speak of. But, in my experience, when you work hard, and stay focused on growing as a musician and doing what you can to move your career forward, opportunities do come and doors do open, eventually. It might not happen exactly when or how you think it should, but when you persist at something like music long enough, success, in varying degrees will eventually come. And when that happens, you can take a deep breath, relax, and get back to making great music.