Today’s post was inspired by a recent video that “Youtuber” / Musician Mary Splender posted on her channel, called “The Dark Side Of Ambition”. It’s a great video that I really resonated with, and it touched on a similar theme as one of my recent blog posts called “Be Careful What You Wish For”.
In Mary’s video, which I will post below, she discusses the dark side of ambition and success and how high levels of success in the music business comes with a price, in some cases a very steep price. Things like grueling tour schedules, the pressure of supporting the team of people that are needed to support a successful touring act, the pressure to pay back record label advances, the pressure of maintaining the success you achieve and more, are part and parcel with achieving the “success” that many musicians spend years aspiring to attain.
Check out Mary’s video here:
What from the outside looking in, often seems like a glamorous, enviable lifestyle, in many cases is anything but. In Mary’s video she cites the example of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who took his own life at the height of his success, The Foo Fighter’s drummer Taylor Hawkins, who died, most likely in part due to the grueling touring schedule of The Foo Fighters, Prince’s addiction to opiates and his untimely death and Tom Petty’s drug addiction and subsequent death at a relatively young age, as examples of musicians who literally paid for success with their lives.
This is just scratching the surface, there is an extremely long list of famous musicians who died prematurely due, at least in part, to the stress and pitfalls of the “rock and roll lifestyle”. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Karen Carpenter, Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Keith Moon, Jerry Garcia, Jim Morrison, Tupac Shukar, Whitney Houston and Mac Miller are just a few names that come to mind off the top of my head, that died at least in part due to the pressure that comes with being successful in the music business.
Of course, just because some musicians succumb to substance abuse or struggle to deal emotionally and mentally with fame and success, doesn’t mean that all musicians will. I can think of plenty of musicians actively touring and performing today who are legitimate rock stars that, at least from what I can see, appear to be well adjusted, healthy individuals. There are plenty of musicians playing music at a high level while successfully managing the stress of life on the road. People like John Mayer, Dave Grohl, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks and Joe Bonamassa are a few that come to mind. I don’t know these people personally, so who really knows how well adjusted they are in their personal lives, but at least from my vantage point, these musicians seem to be dealing with their success in a very grounded and centered way.
For many years, especially when I was younger, I really pursued the idea of becoming “famous” with a lot of intensity. The idea of “making it” and becoming famous seemed like the whole point of getting into the music business at the time. It seemed so obvious that this was the whole point of becoming a musician that I never even questioned why I had this goal for many years.
The idea of “making it” in the music business is so wrapped up in what it means to pursue a career in music for most musicians, that I feel like, as a community we don’t really step back and question why we have this goal in the first place or if it’s really a healthy goal. Why is it so important to musicians to “make it”? Is it to get rich? Is it to boost our egos? Is it because we want the attention and status? Is it because we feel like we’re nobody if we’re not “somebody”? Is it because we think we’ll get a more attractive partner or partners if we “make it”? Is it because we simply love music and want to share our talents with the world? Is it a result of capitalism and the “American dream”? My guess is that for most musicians it’s some combination of at least a few of these different motivations that are driving us.
To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything right or wrong per se with wanting to “make it” in the music business. I also don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with wanting to be famous. Having goals and things we’re passionate about that we’re working towards is an important part of life and it’s a big part of why pursuing a career in music is so exciting in the beginning stages. But it’s important to have enough self-awareness to make sure we’re pursuing the right goals for the right reasons. That’s a personal job and it’s something only you can do for yourself. I can’t really tell you what the right goals are for you, in the same way that you can’t tell me what the right goals are for me.
Regardless of your motivations, pursuing and building a career in the music business can be a stressful endeavor, whether you “make it” or not. It’s a good idea to check in with yourself every few months or so and just make sure you’re on the track you actually want to be on. Are you happy and healthy? Are you connected to friends and family? Are you enjoying the process of working towards whatever goals you’re working towards? Are you sure that what you think you want is what you actually want? And so on…
As Mary points out in her video, the solution to the fact that there is potentially a dark side to ambition, is not to aspire to failure or mediocrity. There is a healthy middle ground. Mary cites a study from the Harvard Business Review on ambition that concludes:
“In excess, ambition damages reputations, relationships, and can lead to catastrophic failure. On the other hand, too little ambition can make the person in question look lazy and unmotivated. Further, it can result in mediocre performance, boredom, and a bleak sense of futility.”
From my personal experience, pursuing a career in music and being involved in the music business over the last couple decades has been a humbling experience. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t gone as far in the music business as I aspired to when I set out on this journey so many years ago. Although I get the occasional twinge of “I should be more famous by now”, or “I should be more successful” by now, there’s also another part of me, a more mature, spiritual side that realizes, in the grand scheme of things, I’m exactly where I should be.
In many ways, when I’m being totally honest with myself, I’m grateful that I don’t have to deal with many of the pressures that come along with fame and the lifestyle of a touring musician and I’m happy that I’ve figured out a way to support myself doing something I love.
These days, I’ve become, more than ever, simply focused on being the best musician and guitarist possible. Over the years, whenever I have moments of frustration related to the business of music, I find myself returning to playing music for the sheer joy and thrill of it. This invariably gets me back on track and serves as a reminder of why I got into this crazy business in the first place.
To that end, in my ongoing effort to become "internet famous", I've been posting a lot of videos lately of myself simply playing guitar, which musically speaking, is probably my greatest strength. In an effort to get more views, I've been experimenting with using sometimes sort of silly, "click-baitish" titles and I've been trying a lot of different things with varying degrees of success. Check out my latest video, "The Next John Mayer?" here:
How do you know if you’re pursuing music for the “right” reasons? Well again, that’s a personal thing and there are no definitively right or wrong answers to this question. But, in my mind, a simple litmus test is this: Ask yourself the following question: “If you knew that there would never be a chance of becoming rich or famous from your music, would you still make music”? If you can honestly answer yes to that question, your heart is probably in the right place.