[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire.]
It’s safe to assume the majority to people who will read this are musicians who began their careers with the goal of being able to do nothing but make music one day.
There’s nothing wrong with starting out with this goal, and many musicians make it happen for themselves; whether it’s through playing to sold out arenas around the world night after night, or by doing things on the side like teaching lessons or playing in a cover band. But the fact is, that most musicians never go on to reach the goal of making music a full-time career the way they wanted or envisioned at the start of their careers, and many give up music entirely eventually.
Because, sadly, big goals like these that are meant to help us reach our full potential as musicians are also the very things that bankrupt us and destroy our interest and hope in making music.
I don’t need to tell you about the challenges of sustaining a musical career in 2019, and that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
Instead, I want to discuss goals and expectations in music, specifically about how a lack of sustainability in a musician’s personal and professional life can end their music career. Moonshot goals can be incredible motivators for creatives, especially if a musician is young and charting out the course for their career. But what happens when, like most musicians, things don’t turn out exactly how you want after years of effort and sacrifice?
Instead of obsessing over the success stories we hear about in music, let’s turn our attention to the vast majority of musicians who aren’t famous superstars.
What keeps a musician going show after show, record after record, year after year? One major factor is a willingness to create goals that are more realistic and creatively fulfilling than “become a rich, famous artist who only makes music.” That’s a bit of an obvious takeaway, but dig a little deeper and you’ll see that people who make music over the long-term choose to by creating sustainable lifestyles that allow for it.
What I mean by “sustainable lifestyle” is building a life that makes room for making music, but also things like relationships, health, and a career that might not have anything to do with creativity.
Contrary to what you’ve heard, a musician isn’t selling out if they make money in non-musical ways, and that hardcore all-or-nothing attitude is exactly the sort of thing that discourages us into quitting. “If I can’t have a life making music, then I guess I’ll just give it up,” is the gist of what musicians tell themselves before ending their careers.
This is sad on so many levels, and not just in ways that impact individual musicians. Think of how much music the world has lost because of extreme attitudes that tell us we’ve either ‘got it’ or we don’t; that there’s success and failure in life and nothing in between.
If you give music up for good, it should be because it’s something you don’t truly love to be doing anymore. Any other reason is a bad compromise for not just your creativity, but your humanity and well-being.
We can create sustainable lifestyles as musicians by learning to prioritize the things that are most important to us. Maybe that two-month tour or $5,000 PR campaign will have to take a backseat to a lucrative job or more time with your kids. Maybe your desire to get attention and admiration will have to be exchanged for more modest and creatively challenging goals. What’s sustainable for musicians completely depends on the person, but there’s one thing that has to be at the top of your list of musical priorities: the act of making music.
If you’re convinced music is important to you and you want it to be constant fixture in your life, then you’ll need to build time into your daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly routines to make it happen.
Opposite of the way some musicians give up music when they don’t get signed or become famous, others fade out over a long stretch of time by only practicing, creating, and learning when they feel like it. Making a schedule is a phenomenal thing for musicians because it forces them to prioritize ahead of time and work however they’re feeling on a particular day.
When relationships and non-musical careers are a big part of your life, those times that used to be ideal for creating music get swallowed up and become better suited for other things. You’ll lose your desire for making music over time if that creative muscle isn’t flexed and challenged regularly, but you can stave off creative atrophy by planning, prioritizing, and continuing to make sacrifices for your music in a way that works in your life.
The truth is that the only thing you can control in music is yourself. What listeners, critics, and labels think about your work is up to them. So instead of creating in a way that’s focused on success that comes from other people, you’ll have the best shot at creating a sustainable lifestyle around your work by learning into what you love most about making it.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician.