When I was sixteen-years old I went on American Idol. (It was quick, seriously.) Back then in 2009, it had been a dream of mine since I was nine years old and Kelly Clarkson won the first season, closing the finale with that-song-we-say-we-hate-but-secretly-still-love, A Moment Like This. I don’t even think I auditioned hoping to win the show; what I really wanted was to see what three legitimate music professionals might think of me – a young girl from Rhode Island who grew up in a small town, a small church, and was raised by incredibly supportive, but very conservative parents. Outside of that world, I had no idea who I was, and I was finally at the age where I needed to find out if I really wanted to take music seriously.
When I arrived in California for ‘Hollywood Week’, it took about half of a second for me to realize I had nowhere near the self-awareness that the others did. After all, I was wearing clothes my mother and I deemed “nice” and “professional,” singing songs that were “sweet,” and “appropriate.” I was a singer, and just that. The other contestants were different. These people had ‘I-don’t-give-a-****’ hair and assertive style. They were the epitome of effervescence; their spirits bled with fearlessness and individuality.
I remember feeling so envious of the freedom that they allowed themselves. I wanted to know what it was like to wear clothes solely based on how confident they made me feel. I wanted to be on stage not to entertain, but to share a moment with the audience that could make a stranger feel known. I wanted to perform songs that expressed my soul rather than stroked my ego.
I never knew the difference between an ‘artist’ and a ‘singer’ until I met some of these people. Understanding the distinction was just the beginning of the agonizing journey of authenticity that lay ahead. When I finally returned home, I brought with me an understanding that branding and vulnerability were just as important as one’s talent in order to achieve success in this field. So a few years later, I moved to Nashville to study the entertainment industry and learn how to pursue a career as an artist.
I’m now about to be 24-years old, and EZA has been my artist project for three years. I’ve been doing it full-time for the past year-and-a-half, and have learned more about music business and authenticity than I ever thought I could handle. I can’t even count the number of times I have gotten my ass handed to me because I didn’t do my research, I jumped the gun, or tried to operate with my walls up. Talent aside, you cannot do this job if you’re uneducated about the field and you cannot do it as a fraud.
That is the kicker in this industry – why being an artist is the ultimate paradox: Creating music requires your heart, sustaining your career requires your mind, and each are constantly threatened by the the other. I think if anyone followed an indie artist around for a year, they wouldn’t believe how or why we still wake up every day and keep trying to find the balance.
Over the years, I’ve come to a really difficult conclusion that might slap you across the face just as hard as it’ll kiss you with encouragement: Those of us who master the heart and mind paradox will be successful. I truly believe if we are good enough at what we do (music and vulnerability) and want it bad enough (work ethic and business) we will find the success we are so desperately chasing.
I know that sounds too simple to be true, perhaps even too cold to be true. But it is. Many of us have been told that luck is half of what makes a person in the music industry successful. (It’s true that for some, luck helps speed the process along.) However, I don’t believe that we find luck so much as we make our own.
We cannot give up the wheel and stop taking responsibility for our own careers. Relying on anyone else to make you successful, or blaming something/someone for never becoming successful is simply a defense mechanism; it is a deflection to avoid taking matters into our own hands.The truth is, when you’re doing something right for long enough, it is impossible to go unnoticed. As Steve Martin says, “Be so good, they can’t ignore you.”
If you’ve never read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, stop what you’re doing, open Amazon right now, order a copy- and then continue reading. More than anyone I’ve ever read, Pressfield puts words to every internal-struggle a creative individual has ever faced. He teaches the deception of “Resistance” and the different ways our mind tries to distract us from doing the very work we feel called to create. The entire book is a collection of small chapters that speak truth after truth about why we aren’t where we think we should be. Accepting that we are the only one in our way is a jagged pill to swallow, but there is also unimaginable freedom when we embrace it. In the end, those of us who strip away the B.S. and really figure out who we are and how to do it well are going to end up where we want to be.
If you’re still unsure about hopping on board, I’ll close with some send-off questions:
- What am I really trying to say in my songs? (What am I not saying and need to?)
- Who am I afraid to let down if I reveal my true self?
- Am I vulnerable enough to confront what “my best” looks like right now? Do I hold back from giving 100% of myself to my work because I am afraid to see that “my best” is in fact, disappointing?
- What would it sound like if I only released songs that brought me to tears of joy, sadness, or anger, when I wrote them?
- What would my band/project look like if I started over right now and only committed to ideas that I would bet my career on?
I’m curious to hear how this sits with you. Feel free to reach out at email@example.com or hit up the comment section if you’d like to keep the discussion going.