In 2016, I happened to discuss with many musicians what could be filed under “success”, for lack of a better word, and I kept jotting down several notes about it throughout the year. The topic we always shared was along the lines of where we are now in terms of our music, are we doing well with it, where are we going next, have we ever thought of quitting, etc.
So, what’s a better way to start 2017 than writing down about those pointers and thoughts relating to “success”, hoping it’ll be a successful year to everybody.
I’m writing this in reference to music, as that’s what I do, but this could be applied to other creative fields as well.
I’m sure there are as many definitions of success as there are people, so I don’t consider mine to be “right” or the most correct by any means. I’d love to hear about yours.
The way I see it is based on having made music for 25 years so far (and not quitting yet, ha!) and observing what happens around me and to my “colleagues” in the process and how their thoughts regarding their craft shape as the years go by.
I also wanted to write about this because I think that in today’s social-media-driven world, we often end up looking at the wrong statistics to define one’s success somewhat erroneously. For real success, the statistics may not be so cut-and-dry, and there’s way more under the hood than meets the eye on the first glance.
So how do you start defining a successful artist, then? To most people, even if they’re not into arts of any kind, money and income is a fairly easy way to determine success. You make money out of what you do, so you’re successful, right? Well, look at this way: you could probably start a company selling bottled water, and hey, that sells, so you’re successful, yeah?
Looking at money as a sign of success may be truthful to some extent, but it is quite a one-dimensional way of looking at it. Being happy with what you do is an important component in the equation that needs to happen in order for one to push towards success, but money may not equal happiness or success as much as first meets the eye.
“An artist cannot fail; it is a success to be one.”
I’m not sure who said this at first, but it doesn’t matter. A lot of people would like to be artists, and some do become that (by any loose definition) for at least a short while in their lives. But the truth is that many of them do quit, and the main reason for that is their inner feeling of lack of success.
Truth is (if you ask me) that being an artist IS hard. In music, anyone can make a song. Anyone can make an EP. Anyone can get inspired momentarily. There are tons of people making 16-bar loops, some probably a hundred of them a year. But that alone doesn’t make you an artist, much less a successful one. It does take some serious energy, perseverance, and ability to do long-term work to come up with coherent packages of music that are not just loosely joined random musical pieces connected by very long intervals. I’m talking about albums.
It’s not easy to be an artist creating music somewhat regularly – and being one who comes up with good music is even harder. And reinventing yourself as an artist every now and then – that is even harder. We all can probably think of some musicians who have been churning and rehashing the same style for a bit too long, not shedding their skin often enough – because that’s way easier, as you don’t have to leave your comfort zone and invest energy in trying to expand and change.
Any artist that’s able to make decent music on the regular and stay fresh and offer new things is a successful artist in my book.
For these things to happen, to a certain extent, you need to stop every now and then and take a look at where your music is and where you are mentally, as you probably shouldn’t stay in the same place forever.
E.g., I experienced pretty high international demand as a DJ for a few years between 2005 and 2009, roughly, traveling all around Europe, USA, and Russia. Even though my music has never been “the most dancefloor” type of music in its genre, it definitely did aim at dancefloor energy to an extent back then, but when I got older and also had to admit that the bookings weren’t coming in like they used to, I felt I wanted to adjust my output accordingly and reassess where I was musically. That felt great and liberating, and I felt more “home” with my music after that, and I found new directions for it and also started working with genres and styles that were new and very relevant to me in terms of where I was mentally.
Bottom line here is that developing and steering your craft takes serious time, faith, effort, and some deliberate thought processes. Any artist capable of producing music on the regular while staying fresh with their style and keeping it moving is a successful artist in my book at least.
So how do you stay on the above-mentioned grind of success and not get all discouraged and quit? Why do some drop out while some keep doing it regardless? Often, the crucial factor here is that those who seem to be able to do it the longest are those who started doing it out of love and passion for music – they started doing it for themselves in the first place. Then, there are those who start making and playing music to chase gigs, quick fame, and chart positions. It is that type of thinking that offers an easy trip to feeling discouraged, as your enjoyment is mostly dependent on whether you get to play out or if your music sells well or not. I’ve read posts along the lines of “I’ve been making music for X amount of years and haven’t got signed or booked very many times – should I quit?” many, many times, and that stems from the fame-based thinking.
Being happy with your music and being able to sell yourself / your music are two entirely different things (not mutually exclusive, of course), and if your craft is based on the former, you’re probably able to sustain your happiness way longer – even when there is no demand to prove to you that success is still coming in.
This leads to being happy with your music – which I consider the most important bedrock – and not looking at external factors.
I got officially certified by Ableton in Berlin in July, so that alone was a reason good enough for me to go visit Berlin again this year, so later in the year, I attended Loop, a summit for music makers arranged by Ableton, and one thing I took home was Jazzy Jeff’s lecture on musicians whose “spirit is broken”.
He mentioned an encounter with a (somewhat former) rap artist on the backstage at a music festival. The artist in question was one that had enjoyed success in the late eighties and early nineties, and he was known for being quite a skilled lyricist on the mic, but these days he’s more into photography and related activities. Jazzy Jeff and asked him to do a few bars of rhyming to a beat, and his reply was along the lines of “Fuck rap. I don’t do that anymore”, and when J.J., all surprised, had asked him why he wouldn’t want to do it anymore and told him he used to love his output, the rap artist had said he had got very discouraged by music industry, which had eventually led him to quit making music.
I’ll be honest: that resonated in me for sure, as, truth be told, I’ve been in that crossroads several times, asking myself whether it’s worth it at all when I’ve felt that “nobody cared” about what I was doing, and to me, too, that was an “unsuccessful” period (in my own mind) after a successful one when I got booked constantly, there were always interviews happening, etc., and then things changed.
So Jazzy Jeff’s question was: “But what did music do to you?” And that is a relevant question when you think about it. This relates to what was mentioned earlier: initially, you probably start creating your music because you love it. But if demand for it comes in and it becomes too meaningful to you in terms of you being able to sustain your music/happiness, lack of demand may mean it’ll break you. But it’s never the music that treats you bad – music has only provided you with a lot of enjoyment – so why stop doing it?
“Live from praise, die from criticism.”
So keep this in mind: if you create art for your enjoyment, don’t forget that, and never lose that! Don’t let circumstances break your spirit – you should always be able to enjoy making music, as that’s the only bedrock you need to keep going. And keeping going – that IS success!
Another thing or two relating to perceived success and today’s climate is the difference between fame/attention and respect. They seem to get mixed a lot.
Today’s social media culture allows for great tools for seeking quick attention/fame (unfortunately). We all can probably think of a few attention seekers or “attention whores” resorting to questionable attention-seeking posts or even posting questionable images in hopes of gaining followers. Also, we’re all so aware of producers posting things like “Go check out my page!” and “Peep my Soundcloud bro”, it’s not even funny. Honestly, when was the last time anyone followed those guys? 2007? Posting lots of funny memes totally irrelevant to one’s craft definitely seemed to work for that in 2016, too, even for many talented musical artists, which is a shame.
Seeking attention is easy. Getting followers by somewhat questionable means is easy. You can probably think of some “internet sensations” enjoying quick fame, too.
However, respect is a totally different thing. Attention can be gained quickly, while respect must be earned, and it does not happen quickly or overnight and it seldom is a result of actions spanning over a short period of time.
I love hip hop. In that musical genre, I can think of some pioneers who have only been paving the path of respect with no interest in gaining any fame or attention. Think of DJ Premier and Pete Rock, for example. In electronic music, think Amon Tobin. All of those producers have been working on their discography for a very long time, and all of them them enjoy tons of respect from anyone. You will not find a person saying bad things about them. They have been earning their respect for a good while, and that respect has been gained by their music, and their music only. There hasn’t been any interest in trying to gain quick fame or attention. The music does the talking.
So, gaining respect takes a lot of time and work and usually lasts forever, while attention can be gained – and lost – very quickly and won’t last. Continued respect will inevitably lead in success in whatever you do. Consider which one you want to work on on your way to your success: you may be able to gain lots of followers by being just funny and good with memes or showing some skin, but, in the end, will that contribute to people’s respect towards you and your craft? Something to think about.
Also think about this: what is the point of your art? Give it some thought. If you think of that, it may tell you what the ultimate definition of success in your craft is.
What is the point of music? Vibes and emotions that resonate in people and make them feel something. If you can make music that evokes these things in people, it hits the target, and your music is doing what it’s supposed to do, so you have succeeded in what you do. If your music evokes an emotional response, it is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do!
The last and strongest point I want to bring out is this.
To me, all these years, the somewhat ultimate definition of musical success is being able to inspire others. There really isn’t anything greater than that, and there really isn’t anything else to prove to the artist better than that that their art really does affect people.
You start making music because you love music. You become a performing artist because you love that art. The art created by someone else inspired you to start.
The greatest power and gift that you can have is being able to inspire others with what you do. Having big headlines on media may look successful and powerful to many of us, but remember that eventually, that is something that could be bought with money. Being able to inspire others and touching them with your art so that it resonates in them – that is something you could never buy from anyone, no matter how much money you’d pay them. That has absolutely nothing to do with social media statistics or numbers.
With your art, you could be a trendsetter or start a movement and a following or change the direction of the art in your field. That is power.
If your influence carries over to other people, that is the most powerful type of success there can be. You start doing your art because somebody inspires you, and realizing that your art can cause somebody else to feel the same way and become and artist – that is a powerful realization. That is success.
What is your definition of success? I’d love to hear about it.
Wishing all a successful 2017,