[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire.]

This article is Part 2 in a series themed around creating a sustainable music career. Check out Part 1 here.

If you’re a serious musician, you already know how tough it is out there. An unbelievable amount of competition, an audience that’s growing more preoccupied by the day, and a music industry climate that makes it exceedingly difficult to earn money or even simply break even for many. No wonder why so many of us quit.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Music is a creative pursuit where you can do everything right and still fail. You may have incredible music that’s comprehensively and vigorously promoted, but that doesn’t mean people will care or take the time to listen. If you’ve narrowed down your idea of success in music to a dollar amount, certain number of streams, or affiliation with a record label, there’s a good chance you’ll never see yourself as musically successful. 

Don’t get me wrong. Goals in music are essential for driving us forward and bringing us to a place where we’re creating at our fullest potential. But instead of pinning our hopes and ability to create music over the long-term on conventional successes, we have to dig deeper and look for a more reliable motivator. 

What do you love about making music?

To build sustainable, rewarding careers no matter what happens with our music, we have to think back to why we started making it in the first place. The same thrill you felt learning your instrument or playing on stage for the first time is the energy you need to tap into over and over again to lead a sustainable career today. It’s the thing that makes creating and performing fun and human, and the more you embrace it, the happier you’ll be in your career.

For most of us, musical passion is simple, boundless, and not hard to access when we make ourselves available to experience it. It’s everything else that happens in our careers that’s the problem. It could be the ambition to be conventionally successful and the soul-sucking baggage of expectation that often comes with it, or the harsh realities of how much it costs to make music and how little it pays.

For other musicians, the non-musical work of their careers puts an invisible barrier up that makes it hard to access what they love about making music. DIY touring can be hugely rewarding, for example, but the non-musical work needed to pull it off and the stresses involved can burn out musicians if it’s not done in a sustainable way.

Here’s the story for many of us:

We discover a love for making music and want to make it a major part of our lives.

Serious careers are eventually formed as our hobbies transform into full-blown pursuits.

We release music, book shows and tours, and constantly look for opportunities for our work.

Somewhere along the line, the first part of the story gets lost in the mix of things. Sure, we intellectually know our passion for creating and performing got us where we are now, but much of the time it feels like a distant memory instead of something we’re in touch with in our daily musical lives.

It’s a dangerous spot to be in, but many of us find ourselves here. 

How to prioritize passion in music

Finding our way back to the things that drive us in music is important not just for making great work, but for being able to work at all. Passion drives each of us in a different way, and it’s our job to find out how.

The good news is that we can do this while retaining our career ambitions. The not so good news is getting in touch with what drives us can be tricky, and it’s something we’ll need to do over and over again as long as we want to keep making music.

For me, it’s as simple as focusing on doing the things I like most in music, but in a way where I’m letting go of expectations and goals for a little while. A new song can’t be truly new if it’s written with the intention of mirroring the success of another, so it turns out this exercise is helpful on multiple fronts.

I try to think back to the kid I was in high school who had just learned to play guitar and was eager to write songs. If I can embrace that sense of earnest curiosity, I can do anything, regardless of what’s going on in my career. Every song is a fresh start.

What rediscovering musical passion looks like again and again will be a different process for you, but the fundamentals are the same. The music industry is brutal, but making music is wonderful. That’s a simple statement, and embodying it in your complex musical life is your best shot at sustaining your career.


Patrick McGuire is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician.

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