A little while ago I was complaining to someone about my lack of success (in a long list of other things that were/are wrong with my life). In the course of this I mentioned offhandedly that I loved playing music, and she interrupted me:
“Do you love it?”
“Yes,” I said. It seemed like a strange thing to ask.
“Well, isn’t that success?”
I chewed on that one for a while and finally had to conclude that no, that is not success. But it is happiness, even if only in brief, occasional little bursts.
At this advanced age, I’m unlikely to become an overnight (or any other kind of) sensation (although Robert Pollard was my age when Guided By Voices broke, so a guy can always dream).
But I have to ask, what is the absolute worst-case scenario? Probably something like: I have a minuscule audience and barely break even on my expenses. (I hope you will forgive me a moment of self-pity when I say that this is not drastically different from the actual scenario).
What then? It’s not like I would stop writing songs, recording or performing. I don’t think I would be able to even if I wanted to. (Whenever I do harbour the notion of abandoning it all, as in The Godfather III, just when I think I’m out, it pulls me back in).
It might seem self-evident, but the fact that my music doesn’t make business types see dollar signs when they hear it, and that it doesn’t fit into whatever the latest micro-trend might be, doesn’t have anything to do with the music itself.
As my brother, a wiser man than me, said in this interview, music is its own reward. It’s so easy to lose sight of that in an atmosphere where a few (very few!) artists’ genuine, hard-won success has filled the community with delusions of grandeur.
Truth is, there are only three kinds of people who can “make a living” in the music biz:
1. Trust fund kids
2. People who are comfortable with a quality of life one step above that of a homeless person
3. People who are really smart and serious about the business side of things.
If you, like me, are none of these, then it’s probably best to separate your artistic pursuits from business concerns.
I have a lot of respect and admiration for my more business-savvy friends. But the fact is that if I look at my own music career as a business, it is not a successful business. If I look at it as something that I do for its own sake, it actually seems worthwhile.
Earlier this year I was unexpectedly offered a job. It was kind of a no-brainer: being chronically broke is a lot less romantic in your late 30s than it is in your early 20s. I took the job, putting my dreams of rock glory on the back burner for the time being, going back to being a guy with a job who plays music for fun.
And strangely enough, I feel better about my music career already.