Or: How I learned to stop chasing popularity and (mostly) love my job
When I was an assistant engineer at a prominent studio—back when those two things existed—I worked a short stint with a well-known rock producer. After a long first day that featured band in-fighting, bruised egos, and a particularly shitty lunch, we were relaxing with a beer in the control room when someone said “whew, tough day”. The producer, leaning back in his chair with his feet up on the console, took a swig and replied: “Yeeeeah, but we get paid to hang out in a studio listening to music all day.”
I keep that in the back of my mind and pull it out when things get to be too much. Perspective like that won’t get you more clients. It won’t alleviate insecurities, and it won’t make you better at or more successful in your work. What it will do is give you a vantage point outside your own in those moments when the pressures of running a small business and making art in 2019 collide.
If you‘re reading this, there’s a 70% chance you’ve experienced depression and/or anxiety1. This isn’t news to anyone in music today, and at some point we’ve all had the “why” conversation with fellow musicians, which always boils down to value. There are the obvious culprits: the demonetization of recorded music; the fact that club gigs pay about the same today as they did in the 70s; the passivity with which consumers regard music; modern country radio… but I think these are symptomatic of more acute personal crises that aren’t as openly discussed. Furthermore, I believe that by identifying and addressing those internal struggles, we can achieve a state of mind where the little things, and their accompanying immediacy and threat of consequence, don’t matter as much.
“Who’s the most famous person you’ve worked with
How many times have you heard some variation of that question? “Famous” is the layperson’s metric for success in music. Spotify plays, Instagram followers2, and proximity to popular individuals are a few examples of how we measure ourselves and each other right now. Buying into this too hard means measuring yourself against others, which will almost always leave you wanting. In reality, everybody measures success differently; we just don’t talk about it. Yes, you have to be smart and savvy if you want to make any headway, but keeping an honest perspective of where you’re at and how far you’ve come will do so much more for you and your mental health than constantly wishing things were different/easier/better/fairer/etc. Your early triumphs that garnered a sense of pride and accomplishment are routine now. You’ve moved your own goalposts, and that’s great. That’s how we get better and stay interested (and relevant).
The problem, at least for me, is losing sight of both the fact that you made those achievements and the accompanying feelings they produced whilst getting caught up in others’ ideas of what you need in order to be considered successful. Keep in mind: most people work an undervalued job in a crappy office with fluorescent lights and Windows 10.You get to work an undervalued job in a cool-ass studio and listen to music all day long.
Spotify, therapy, basketball
So what do you need to be reasonably content with who you are and where you’re at?
First off, check in on your mental health. I referenced this earlier, and it’s the single most important issue I’ll discuss here. I personally believe mental health services should be as routine and accessible as physical health and not segregated or divorced from other forms of healthcare. Making that arbitrary distinction only serves to perpetuate outdated taboos and personal insecurities. If you haven’t already, ask yourself this question: “If there were someone I could tell anything and everything to in complete confidence, literally anything no matter how dark or weird or scary or whatever, and they would just listen without judgment, would that maybe help?” Wherever you live and whatever your income bracket, there are resources available. I urge you in the strongest terms to look into your options. Do a quick Google search today for sliding-scale therapy in your town and poke around a little. After all, your earballs are directly connected to your brain (it’s science), so keep that shit healthy.
Define what success means to you, being brutally realistic and honest while keeping in mind that you enjoy the rare privilege of making art for a living. I seriously mean sit down and think about this stuff. Do you really need to work on huge records and have your picture in magazines? Really? If so, figure out how the hell you’re going to make that happen and work your ass off. For most of us, it means doing excellent work and being rewarded for it both internally and by those who matter to us. It seems obvious, but by working hard and smart and setting realistic goals—goals you allow yourself to celebrate unconditionally when they’re met—you can not only take stock of what you’ve accomplished but also become more efficient. When you know what you’re good at and where you need help you better know where to focus your time and energy.
Demote social media as a form of affirmation of your talents. Your pride in your own work and the support of those close to you have to be enough. You’re simply not going to get lasting external validation from social media (and I’m including streaming services in that term) because they’re designed to be fleeting. I know these are the numbers we’re measured by, and we have to play the game, but big picture it’s not that important. When your kids pull out a record you did 30 years from now you’re not going to say, “Oh yeah, that one got eighty-two hundred Spotify plays in its first week!”
Don’t believe the hype. The handful of super successful people out there had as much right-place-right-time luck as talent, and chances are their lives are as complicated and tumultuous as yours. The same applies when scaled down to local scenes. Focus on you and what’s next, not what you don’t have or haven’t done. Energy follows attention, and that focus could be channeled into improving your craft.
Remember why you started doing this in the first place. I mean the literal first: jamming in a garage with friends or recording your first album. It was hella fun. Remember the excitement and joy you got from doing this before external approval and obligation became factors in your work. Those won’t go away, but they aren’t nearly as rewarding as enjoying the process.
Exercise. Yes, exercise. Physical activity has been clinically shown to combat depression3 and anxiety4and among all the other health benefits, it just makes you feel better about yourself. I play basketball with a handful of musicians every week. I don’t particularly like basketball, and I’m definitely not very good at it, but the cumulative effects are anything but subtle. Studies also show that frequency is more important than intensity3, so find something you can do to get yourself out of the house, out of the studio, and do it.
There is no finish line. There’s no arrival or “made it” moment. Not really. We’re conditioned from childhood to believe that one day we’ll be something we’re currently not, that only through hard work and sacrifice will we achieve it, and that failing to do so is indicative of a personal shortcoming. I think much of that narrative is outdated and doesn’t apply to the world we currently occupy. If you love what you’re doing you’ll always be striving to do more, to do better, but that doesn’t mean you have to constantly exist in some awkward state of insufficiency. Short of saying “live in the now”, keep in mind how far you’ve come regardless of where you perceive anyone else to be.
I use the word ‘circumscriptions’ in my closing, and I’m pretty psyched about it
One of the few real upsides to the devaluation of recorded music is that we’re freer than ever to express ourselves however the hell we want. What do you care if someone thinks your song is too long or doesn’t like the crazy effects on the vocals—if they’re not paying for it, why should their tastes and opinions matter to you? That’s obviously a little hyperbolic, but I’m serious. There’s opportunity in our current circumstance wherein musicians, songwriters, producers, and engineers have more freedom than ever to assert their intrinsic value through art without feeling beholden to the circumscriptions of financial backing or sales.
That said, it can be really hard to convince yourself that you’re enough, that you have inherent value when all the social signifiers may suggest otherwise. If external validation is what you need, and for most of us on some level it is, work at making others see that by constantly learning and improving and asserting pride in your work. They won’t always see it, and some may be hung up on the popularity game of name dropping and awards. If that’s the case you need to be able to identify and disregard it, because that has nothing to do with you. Most of your best work will go under-appreciated, even when you shout it from every corner of the internet, and that’s OK. It’s always been like that. Take care of yourself, make great recordings, and have fun doing it, realizing that your process of striving to make great art adds value to the world.
Your contribution combats complacency. Now get back to work.
Thanks to Carrie Torn and Monte Holman for making the above amalgam of words possible.
- Hu, C. “70 Percent of Musicians Say They Have Suffered From Anxiety or Depression. What’s Next?” Billboard. 17 October 2017. Retrieved from https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/8005671/70-percent-musicians-suffer-anxiety-depression-what-next↩︎
- How insane is it to be measured by followers on a photography platform?↩︎
- Craft, L. L., and Perna, F. M. “The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed.” Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 2004; 6(3): 104–111. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC474733/↩︎
- T Lake, J. “How Exercise Reduces Anxiety.” Psychology Today. 6 October 2018. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/integrative-mental-health-care/201810/how-exercise-reduces-anxiety↩︎