Stop Setting Up Your Own Hurdles
Back in the day when NYC and LA were the only places you could get “discovered” for any kind of entertainment, an old joke had a fellow bumping into an old friend and asking him what he’s been up to.
“I’m trying to break into show biz in Hoboken, Pennsylvania,” is the answer.
“Well, I didn’t want to do it the easy way.”
In those days, the stupidity of that response was so obvious that even general audiences “got it.” But I still keep running into musicians who erect similar hurdles for themselves. Some of them are even geographic.
The “I Gotta Be Me” Hurdle
Yes, authenticity is important, but I frequently bump into people who have bought into the musical equivalent of “Love me, love my dog.” Please note that if I visit a home, even of someone I like, and his dog is out of control, I don’t go back. Even dog lovers understand that dynamic. (Some of them anyway.)
But having a “Love me, love my music” chip on your shoulder attitude toward potential listeners discourages folks who might have given you a try if you’d just tried a little harder meet them halfway.
You may have something unique to offer. But if you refuse to give anybody a “bridge” to “Island Me,” you are only hurting yourself.
With very few exceptions, almost every musician you’ve ever heard of has made at least some adjustment at the beginning of their career. I’m going to show my age by describing how some of today’s icons of popular music took detours on their way to the careers we know them for. (My apologies if the YouTube links go away, which often happens when I publish them.)
For example, long before he wrote “The Boxer” and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” Paul Simon was a pop music song writer, helping write the Cyrkle’s “Red Rubber Ball.”
Bob Dylan had a rock band in high school before he decided his future lay in Folk music.
Judy Collins always loved Broadway tunes, but she earned her right to record Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” by covering Gordon Lightfoot songs like “Early Morning Rain” and writing songs in the same style.
When Elton John’s “Your Song” came out, his producers insisted on making it sound as much like James Taylor’s recent breakaway hit Fire and Rain as they could, with too much bass boost on his voice and the acoustic guitar occasionally overpowering the piano in the mix. But this tack resulted in John being invited to tour the same venues that Taylor was packing out, jump-starting his career in North America.
Amy Grant’s managers always wanted her to be a pop star eventually, but they thought it would be easier to “break her” into the (then) emerging genre of Contemporary Christian Music. (Yes, it helped that Amy was a Christian, and I believe that what she did in her CCM era was sincere, but that was never the “end game” for her team.)
Taylor Swift’s team always wanted her to be a pop star eventually, but a little research showed that she could attract a huge following among young Country music fans with less effort and investment than it would take to “break her” directly into pop music.
In other words, even the people who are recognized as best in their fields today took detours at the beginning. If you’re as good now as, say Elton John, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Judy Collins, Amy Grant, or Taylor Swift was/is at their peak, you might make a compelling argument for your refusal to compromise your “musical principles” just to pick up followers who don’t quite “get you” in your default state. But I probably would have heard of you by now if you were.
The “Bloom Where You’re Planted” Hurdle
Yes, today it is possible to get fans and followers from all over the world as long as you have a sufficient Internet connection and tech and “social” savvy. But some careers, especially songwriting, require a high level of face-to-face interaction.
Years ago, I wrote a song that was “perfect for Alan Jackson.” But I lived in Springfield, Ohio, and had only one friend who was really involved in the Country music industry. The chances of Jackson, or anyone on his team or anyone like Jackson, or anyone on their team ever hearing my demo were “less than zero.”
If I’d been serious about making a living writing Country songs, I’d have moved to Nashville in my twenties and gotten to know as many people as I could, so when I wrote such songs, I’d have at least some idea of who to pitch them to and I’d know someone who could give me an introduction. But that wasn’t my dream - long story. (Alan, if you’re reading this, have I got a song for you! Or at least for the you of the 1980s.)
Since those days, Contemporary Christian Music rose and fell in the same town, and I did spend some time in Nashville with friends from that genre. That’s when I realized what a cosmopolitan little city Nashville had become. Besides songwriters of every genre, quite a number of artists from different genres and from all parts of the world have discovered that being “based” in Nashville helps them to make the kind of personal connections they need to survive in their chosen lines of work.
Of course Los Angeles and NYC have their own music centers, and if you can afford the living expense, they may be a better fit for you. But Hoboken, Pennsylvania is not, necessarily going to do it for you.
The “I’m As Good as I Need to Be” Hurdle
If you write songs and if you listen to the radio at all, you are constantly hearing songs that are worse than anything in your repertoire. The thing to realize is that the way the music industry is structured, the best songs seldom get a chance. Don’t pat yourself on the shoulder about being a better song writer than, say Justin Beiber. The average barista in your neighborhood - wherever you live - writes better stuff than you hear on the radio.
The same goes for everything in your arsenal - your voice, your guitar playing, whatever you consider to be your strength. Everything you do or can think about doing is already being done better by someone else you never heard of.
Don’t get depressed. You’re not redundant - your combination of skills and the “voice” of your songs are still different from anyone else’s. So you still have something to offer. But you’re not “the whole package” yet, and you need to keep moving forward to stay ahead of the wannabes who are almost as good as you are now.
Consider voice lessons, guitar lessons, and songwriting classes, whatever you can fit into your schedule and budget. Frequent intensive practice is not negotiable, however.
The “Other Interests” Hurdle
I have more than a few musician friends who can’t work on their music as much as they’d like because - in addition to their day job and family responsibilities - they are busy restoring old cars or they can’t miss poker night with the guys or they can’t stand for their friends to all have higher scores on some video game than they do.
Yes, we all have read about successful musicians who - in their spare time - play golf, do woodworking, run model trains, or whatever. But those are people whose “day job” is music. Not people who are doing a day job, plus a music avocation plus some hobby or three.
I also know musicians who declare that their devotion to their music destroyed their marriage, but when I take a closer look it was music plus poker night plus Facebook addictions, plus a dozen other things that took time away from music as well as family.
There are some things you shouldn’t set aside, such as family activities, household repairs, and anything that helps you maintain your spiritual focus. But if you’re putting ten hours a week into watching your favorite HBO series or something and only five hours a week into your music, please don’t complain to me that being a musician is too hard.
The “Addiction” Hurdle
I alluded to video game addiction in the above section, but there are all kinds of addictions. Internet cat videos for one. Not to mention more sinister Internet addictions, or chemical addictions of all kinds.
The great musicians whose careers you aspire to imitate did not make great music because of their addictions - they made it in spite of their addictions. And far too many of them died far too young because of them.
Not to mention the tens of thousands of talented, aspiring young musicians you never heard of because their addictions sidelined their aspirations or put them into the morgue long before they got their first real “break.”
Maybe you’re just dabbling with something now. Stop dabbling. To compete at any level of today’s music industry - even for local bar gigs - you need your wits about you.
Personally, I think you should stop smoking, too, if you smoke. You’ll save a fortune, live longer, and sing better. And my sinuses won’t cut loose if I sit across the table from you at a restaurant.
The “Waxing and Waning Interest” Hurdle
I admit: I am a poster child for “Adult ADD.” Often I am compulsively driven to pursue some interest for a time, but then, for no apparent reason, I will lose interest and move onto something else that I’m compulsively driven about. But I have learned, by and large, to “ride out the storms,” and to invest time, energy, and income only on the things that are really important to me long-term, including God, family, and music.
Now, switching from banjo to 12-string for my next songwriting session can help me “switch gears” without throwing me off center. But a bigger problem is that some days music is terrifically important to me and some days, it’s not. If I want to keep moving forward I have to work just as hard on the “off days”as I do on the “on days.”
I have worked with musicians who let this sort of cycle get to them. “I won’t be at practice tonight because I’m just ‘not feelin’ it.’” One fellow skipped a gig I had worked hard to secure because he wasn’t “feelin’ it” that night. Imagine if you treated your day job that way. Or parenthood or anything else important to you.
If you’re prone to such cycles, it’s time to stop letting your biorhythms or whatever causes them control your life. Practice, write, learn, perform whether you’re “feelin’ it” or not.
If that sounds too hard, then feel free to let the low points of your cycle make your decisions for you. But the next time you get all excited about co-writing or starting a band or something, call somebody besides me. And stop blaming the world for your lack of “career progress.”
Yes, many wannabe musicians are their own worst enemies, for reasons outlined above and many more. Learn to recognize self-pity, emotional cycles, jealousy, resentment, addictions and anything else that is keeping you from being the musician you fantasize about being or short-circuiting the career you dream about having.
True, even folks who do everything right hit roadblocks outside of their control, and fail to achieve anything like their career goals. But most of the folks I know who’ve gotten a so-called “lucky break” had actually laid the groundwork for that opportunity by working long and hard to be ready for when that opportunity arrived. And nobody stays “successful” for long without keeping up the level of effort and continuous improvement that got them there.
I should finish this article off with a bunch of cheery motivational stuff to help you stay on the “bright side” of your musical life. Sorry, that will be a separate feature. Or features. I haven’t decided yet.
In the meantime, please contact me with corrections, complaints, clarifications, etc. If your response is responsible, I’ll include it in a “reader response” section.
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