[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire.]
This article is Part 1 in a series themed around creating a sustainable music career.
Most musicians will go to great lengths to avoid failing. Things like on-stage mishaps and underdeveloped songs that manage to somehow get shared with the masses are the stuff of nightmares for serious musicians, but I’d argue there’s something far worse we should be talking about: how the fear of failure keeps us from meeting our musical potential.
It’s a problem that keeps us from writing our best songs, stuck at home when we should be playing shows, and in the relative safety of our predictable career routines when we could be doing so much more with our music.
Music’s failure problem
If you love creating music and want to share it with the world, failure is an inevitability. Most musicians reading this are already well-aware of this fact, but it doesn’t make rejection and disappointment hurt any less. Disastrous tours, empty rooms, abysmal reviews––most serious musicians have experienced it all.
But for many, even worse than overt failure is the feeling of being ignored, unheard, and not taken seriously. We all know music isn’t a pursuit that guarantees success for musicians that work hard, but pouring your life into something only to see things fall flat can be excruciating.
Failure comes in different forms. For some musicians, it comes down to unrealistic expectations. For others, it has to do with an inability to create music that finds and connects with an audience. Some musicians manage to make meaningful and listenable music, but it never gets the chance to be heard. If you’re reading this, you probably have your own versions of career-related shortcomings to speak of.
When it comes to a lack of conventional success in music, we have a knack for transforming complex situations into broad declarations of failure. No one’s listening to my album, so it must be bad or Not as many people come to my shows as I want because my band isn’t good enough. When we write off situational outcomes like these as failures, we put ourselves in a bad place as musicians.
Most of us work towards bringing lots of listeners to our recorded music and live performances, but it often takes years of hard work, experimentation, and persistent action to make it happen. The same goes for developing the skills of creating interesting, listenable music and being able to play confidently live. Rushing to judgement when things don’t go our way in music leaves us at risk for giving up.
I should mention here that quitting in music doesn’t always involve made-for-TV scenes of musicians throwing up their hands and quitting. The most damaging and worrisome forms of giving up are decisions made silently, sometimes without us even thinking about it consciously.
It can hurt so badly to fail in music that we often shape our creative practices and career decisions around the goal of avoiding it altogether, and that’s where things get truly bad. This is because failure is a critical ingredient for growing as a musician and learning to create interesting music. The fear of failure is like a powerful cleaning agent. It wipes away all the stuff musicians perceive as bad, but it also kills all the exciting and interesting areas of potential in our work. Not trying in music will keep us temporarily safe, but it will eventually stifle our potential and eat away our ambition from the inside.
Musicians need failure
We need failure in music, whether it’s a wrong chord that leads us to the right one on our instrument or learning from our career mistakes. One bad show doesn’t mean you’re destined to have a career filled with them, and the same goes for negative album reviews or music that doesn’t get heard. Since failure is inevitable for all of us, what’s truly important is how we cope and what we learn from disappointment.
Low listenership or bad reviews could inspire you to create with more ambition, take more risks, and better develop your craft. A poorly attended tour might reveal that you need to do more to promote your shows. The lessons are all around us, but it’s up to us to pay attention and learn.
If you sit on the sidelines professionally or creatively, you’ll miss out on these opportunities to learn and develop not only as a musician, but also as a human being. The grit we develop working as creatives in the music industry can help us in all other aspects of our lives, from maintaining healthy relationships to solving non-musical problems.
How to keep going
So. You’ve been at it for years and haven’t seen any concrete success in music. What keeps you going? This article is Part 1 in a TuneCore series about building a sustainable music career. In the second part of the series, I’ll talk about how focusing on what makes us passionate in music is crucial for those who want to create and perform for the rest of their lives.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician.