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Why I'm No Longer Trying to Make It in Music
September 17, 2014
The following is a lengthy post that chronicles not only the very stressful last few years of my life as a musician, but also how my relationship to the term "making it" has changed over time.
I hope that perhaps this post may find an audience with some folks who have found themselves in a situation similar to mine. But if this should find no audience at all, no matter. Writing out all these thoughts has been an incredibly cathartic release in and of itself.
In case you don't feel like devouring an entire six thousand word piece, here's a very quick summary:
Over the years that I've spent trying to make something of a career for myself in music, I've taken more emotional hits than I can even count. At this point, I'm done with that even being a goal in my life.
By no means does this mean I'm giving up on music or recording or performing, but seeking anything more than that is no longer a goal I deem healthy or worth pursuing.
And on the subject of making it, it seems that I've repeatedly been forced to learn the same harsh lesson: that when it comes to music, the only "it" one should be concerned with making is "music"--and little else.
Whenever I tell a new acquaintance that I'm a musician, they will almost invariably at some point ask me something to the effect of, "So, are you trying to 'make it' in music?"
I've often found myself at a loss when confronted with this question. It's never been clear to me what the term "making it" even means specifically. It's a phrase commonly used in the lexicon of the modern musician, yet it appears to be one of those unscientific terms that lacks any formal definition. Because of this, it can often seem to flat-out defy close analysis.
While the term "making it" might remain undefined with any particular specificity, it surely almost universally brings to mind a certain understanding. We all generally know what it means. It will usually evoke any number of a few different scenarios, all under the same umbrella of "success in the music business".
The most common of these scenarios is perhaps the cliche "larger-than-life rock star dream": the glitz, glamour, limousines, world tours, countless rows of adoring fans, etc. Most people, however (especially musicians), know that this version of "making it" is so unbelievably rare that it is quite the epitome of a pipe dream. It happens for just a few handfuls of people each decade, and is a fairly easy temptation for most people to jettison from their minds when considering their goals in life.
Personally, I have always defined "making it" for myself as "earning a living wage as a performing and recording songwriter". Nothing extravagant. No mansion. No Ferrari. Just making enough money writing, recording, and performing my music that it can be something of a career. To me, certain aspects of this goal even remained negotiable. For example, I didn't mind having to supplement my income by doing another job (or jobs). But nonetheless, the goal of "making it" for me has always included at least some meaningful degree of financial success. And based on my discussions with just about every songwriter and/or member of an original band that I've ever met, I don't think I'm venturing too far out on a limb to conjecture that some variation of this goal is what most of us shoot for.
(One thing that should be obvious by now is that the entirety of my discussion about the term "making it" in this post is to be about how it relates to original musicians, i.e. songwriters or performing members of bands that write their own music. Much of what I'm saying here simply doesn't apply to cover musicians or studio musicians, etc. But I think that at least some of this discussion may still hold some value for people in those other situations.)
On its surface, a refined vision of the cliche "larger-than-life rock star dream" doesn't seem too lofty a goal. And in comparison to that cliche dream, it actually sounds downright easy to achieve.
But is it, really?
Well, the answer to that question obviously varies greatly from person to person. Some people may actually find an easy success in the music business. These individuals are exceptionally rare and equally exceptionally lucky.
Many music industry professionals find it extremely difficult to break into the business, but are able to sharp-elbow their way in regardless. Most successful members of the industry that I know personally seem to fit in this category. They worked hard, were tenacious, and also enjoyed a fairly remarkable amount of good luck.
However, very few of us--and by very few of us, I mean very few of us--will ever reach the goal of financially sustaining ourselves with music-based revenue.
(Now, I know at this point there may an inclination for some contrarians out there to try and refute this claim--though any such argument seems to me to defy even common sense. The biggest problem I would have in defending my position against such an argument is that I can't really do so scientifically. There are currently no figures to back up my claim. It seems to me that in order to reach any scientific conclusion on this subject, one would have to conduct a poll of original musicians of all walks of life--including your average college-aged musician, 30-something songwriter, middle-aged bandleader, etc.--find out his/her particular dreams and aspirations, find out his/her income and how much of it is derived from playing original music, and conclude what percentage of musicians out there actually do make their aspirations a reality.
Of course, whoever would like to waste a whole lot of time and effort doing such a study is more than welcome to do so. Or you could just take the word of anyone with common sense who knows about this stuff--the vast majority of musicians don't "make it" in a traditional sense of the term.
Needless to say, the statistics aren't good if you're an artist looking for a career in the music industry. And anecdotally, I can tell you that very few musicians I've come across are living even remotely well on income from shows, merch sales, or licensing either. To be fair, there can be money in all that stuff for some bands, but even the most successful musicians with whom I've had personal relationships aren't raking in significant amounts of dough. And you can choose to believe me or not, but that's pretty much the situation for the vast majority of original musical acts out there.)
Given this stark reality, that most musicians do not achieve the financial success that would admit of a career in the industry, it seems more than possible that focusing one's entire life around this goal can be a rather emotionally detrimental affair for many of us. Yet from the nearly two decades that I've spent involved in the world of music, I can attest to the fact that this is precisely what at least some of us do. We spend countless hours tirelessly aiming our sights on converting our dreams into a reality. I certainly did.
Is this healthy? Is this justifiable behavior considering the clear statistical improbability of any one of us actually being among the precious few who secure a career in music?
Again, these answers will vary greatly from person to person. I would never sit here and tell anyone not to follow his or her dream. But considering the multitudes of self-help "How to Make It in the Music Business" type blogs out there all over the internet and the seemingly total lack of any written words about topics like "How to Accept Not Making It in the Music Business" or "At What Point is Continuing to Follow Your Dream Bad for You?", it appears to me that a fundamental reality has either consciously or unconsciously been removed from the conversation for many of us.
My intention in writing this post is certainly not to dissuade anyone from pursuing his or her dreams. But after more than 15 years of endlessly gunning toward a career as a performer and songwriter, I have had countless successes and failures. I hope that my experiences may be helpful to others who have found themselves embarking on a path similar to mine.
There is likely much to be gleaned from my mistakes. If you should find yourself interested enough to read on, I suggest you strap yourself in for the wonderfully triumphant and woefully stressful tale of the last few years of my life.
Five years ago, I swore off playing in bands. They always seemed to prove themselves a way bigger hassle than worth the tremendous effort involved in getting them off the ground. And worse still, it also seemed to me as though most of my efforts in bands over the years had fallen on deaf ears. And yet even worse still, this was probably true.
For many years, I struggled to find a musical "voice" that not only felt appropriate from the technical standpoints of musicianship and freshness of perspective, but one that was emotionally on target as well. Any songwriter who has searched for this balance knows what a feat it can be. In hindsight, I see clearly where most of my troubles were: I was simply trying too hard. I was so fixated on attempting to please a multitude of invisible audiences, each with a multitude of varying concerns, that I somehow missed the fact that I was saying nothing in my art that emotionally resonated with me.
So, after years of playing in bands, I finally settled down to quietly venture out on my own. I was no longer concerned with pleasing audiences or finding a voice. I just wanted to be left alone to play my music.
In early 2009, my friend Juan called me up to see if I'd be interested in laying down some tracks on a new Pro Tools rig he had set up in his living room. I had little new material, but I decided to use this as a challenge: I'd write songs as I went and not worry about a single thing other than turning them into a reality. No worries about shows. No band members to appease. No deadlines to meet. No audience to cater to. Nothing but pure creation.
It wound up being unbelievably cathartic. That mindset brought about a fundamental shift in my approach to art as a whole. I felt as carefree as I had when I first picked up a guitar at age 12. Free beyond words.
Soon enough, I ventured out on a limb and decided to play a solo acoustic show. As nerve-racking as it was to be alone on a stage playing all new material, I yet again had no agenda. I didn't expect to please anyone. I only wanted to do the best job I possibly could.
To my shock, people seemed to truly enjoy my new material. It went over better than I could have imagined; certainly better than anything else I'd ever done in my life. Yet again, the feeling was incredibly freeing.
By 2011, I had finally put the finishing touches on my record--by now an 18-track whopper--and released it in a manner than can best be described as haphazard. No concentrated effort towards a marketing scheme. Initially, there was no Bandcamp. No Twitter. No plan of attack. Just random new tracks scattered about on Facebook and Youtube.
I did put some effort into sending out my new material to friends and bloggers who might enjoy it, but not with any confidence that my efforts would be well-received.
But again, despite my low expectations, people actuallylistened! Some bloggers even gave the record downright glowing reviews. Fans started showing up at gigs. Amazing musicians not only began to give me the time of day, but really wanted to collaborate with me. And so I softened on my initial rule and decided to put together a band.
It was incredible that what had begun so quietly in my friend's living room had grown into something so artistically life-changing.
Momentum continued to build. The band sounded better by the day. I began to receive more show offers. Better shows. More fans. I began to love this situation like none before. I had finally found my voice. The once-abandoned dream was finally coming true!
Or so it seemed.
As all this started to take off, there was also much more stress with which to contend. Let me try and break down for you the day to day goings-on of my experience as a bandleader for the last few years. (Keep in mind, my intention is not to complain. It's just to let you somewhat understand what it's been like to be me.)
There were the normal stressful elements of sustaining a band.
For example, as we played more shows, more work needed to be done to maintain our busier schedule. It's not a ton of work in and of itself, but it's definitely not easy to consistently wrangle together a bunch of guys who all have lives and schedules of their own. The booking of the average show would usually go as follows: first I'd get an email from a booker; then I'd email him/her back to let him/her know that I just needed to run the date by my band; next, I'd post the show offer on our band message board and hear back from the guys. Usually there wouldn't be any huge problems (the guys in my band have been some of the easiest I've ever worked with), but often there were slight scheduling snafus and the like, which had to be remedied between myself and the band and the booker.
By the time any one show was booked, I'd have spent a significant amount of time corresponding between the booker and my band. Not a huge deal in and of itself, but it becomes a bit exhausting after a while of playing shows week after week.
Then there's the practice schedule that it takes to maintain a band. We would try and practice once a week, which again, was usually not a terrible headache. There were, of course, the expected number of no-shows and scheduling problems that did cause a bit of stress by impeding progress. Nothing out of the ordinary. Just normal stressful band stuff--but stressful stuff nonetheless.
Also, I was responsible for all of the songwriting. Now obviously, having to write songs is not something I, a songwriter, would ever complain about. But writing, especially high quality writing, takes a lot of time and energy. And when you consider the amount of energy that a bandleader has to spend focusing on the scheduling of shows and rehearsals and recording sessions and dealing with the litany of minutiae that can come up daily, that is all time that is being taken away from writing tunes. When you have a quality standard of musical output to uphold and far less time in which to write, it can feel like quite a daunting task. Again though, as with the other aforementioned items, songwriting has never even been a remotely terrible burden. In some ways, I've even enjoyed having a bit of creative pressure on myself.
But here is where the real stress began.
Just after the first record was completed, I was trying to get into the studio to do my next record. I was completely broke; far too broke to have the means to record at a fancy studio (I am a musician, after all). So I enlisted the help of the guy who co-produced my first record in his living room--my good friend Juan. We worked on material as often as we could, but as the weeks turned into months it became apparent that he was just too busy to record as often as I was hoping to.
We very amicably parted ways on the recording sessions and I sought another engineer.
My friend Jon wound up volunteering to engineer and co-produce the record, and we got to work rather immediately. But almost as immediately, it started to become apparent that we were totally incompatible in the studio. Virtually every idea that was suggested by either of us was rejected by the other, almost without fail. We trudged on for another few sessions before finally calling it quits, our friendship just barely intact.
At this point I was months into this recording process, frustrated, and had almost nothing to show for it. I didn't despair, but I was getting scared. We were steadily gaining momentum with our live shows, were receiving much more attention from local fans, and even industry people were starting to come check us out. If I was to keep up this momentum at all, I needed this record out. And fast!
However, not only did some burst of long-sought good fortune and album-completing energy not come, things began to fall apart completely. This is where the story turned from bad to downright bleak.
At that time, a band member had offered (in fact, insisted) that he take the reigns and co-produce/engineer the record. I was hesitant. I just didn't think that it was a good idea to have a member of the band working that closely on the record, because I didn't want any possible studio contention to spill over into our everyday working relationship.
But despite my reluctance, I agreed. By that time, I had run out of obvious choices for recording engineers anyway. My only other logical option at that moment was to learn audio engineering myself, which would have taken a whole year or so before I could even start to trust myself behind the board for the kind of album this was to be. So I relented and agreed to have my bandmate record the album.
At the outset of the sessions, the situation was acceptable, but just barely. My bandmate's schedule and life were hectic. He had lost his job and was subsequently losing his car and his apartment. He was doing whatever odd jobs he could to keep things going, but it was clear that any such effort was tantamount to shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Thus, the scheduling of recording sessions was hectic. We were forced to work around his schedule, which often led to sessions at crazy hours, from 3am to 8am, or other such insanity. Or we'd suddenly wind up having to cancel at the very last minute because something came up.
It was an exceedingly difficult situation, but there were other elements that were downright maddening. My bandmate spent so much time in the studio focusing on tiny, minute details that he seemed to miss the big picture almost entirely. We were in a rush to get this thing done and on very limited time with each session, yet somehow he had apparently not gotten the memo. He spent exorbitant amounts of time correcting infinitesimally small mistakes that no one in the world would've noticed but him. Apparently in his mind, we were locked away in the studio for the next six months to work on a major label release. In reality, though, we were following up a home-recorded album with a hopefully-slightly-better-sounding home-recorded album. Sure, it was supposed to be quality work, but you have to pick your battles and not sweat the tiniest of details when you've got to get things done.
The thing that was truly disheartening, however, was my bandmate's seemingly pathological failure to meet any deadline. If he would agree to work on something on a Wednesday, you could rest assured with clockwork reliability he would not even touch it till at least Friday, regardless of how busy his schedule was during the week. This was time-tested and depressingly predictable.
This is how things progressed for months: we'd set up a date to accomplish a task, that date would be moved around multiple times, we'd wind up meeting up at some ungodly hour of the night, waste hours upon hours of time sweating out the tiniest details, and almost nothing would be accomplished.
The whole time, there was a voice in the back of my head screaming, "Stop this madness! Learn how to engineer your own sessions so that you don't have to rely on others to do it!" I ignored this voice repeatedly. My reasoning was, if I took a whole year to learn how to produce myself, I would lose all momentum and be completely screwed. So I reluctantly, but consciously, continued down this regrettable path.
But then something great happened! At some point in the midst of this chaos, I got a call from a very reputable entertainment lawyer with whom I had been somewhat connected. He laid it straight out to me--he was open to the possibility of doing business with me and wanted to shop my music to a very well-known indie label. This was incredible news! I was cautious, but ecstatic nonetheless. All he needed from me were some demos of new material that we had been working on.
I called up my bandmate to explain the good fortune into which we had just stepped, and proceeded to lay out the obvious reasons why it was of utmost importance that we accomplish things quicker. We had been working for months at that time with nothing to show for it but a few half-completed tunes. We had nothing to send to this guy who was planning to help us in a major way.
Time came, and time passed, and still things continued on just as they had. Set up a date, date would be moved, meet up at some ungodly hour, waste time on minutiae, get nothing done. By the time I finally sent my lawyer friend the one song we had completed after leaving him waiting for an entire summer, it was clear that he had moved on. Nothing ever happened on that front again. It was a completely blown opportunity.
This was around the time that despair had set in. And my reaction to this situation was almost as unstable and ludicrous as the situation itself. I drank. I drank a ton. I shrugged my shoulders and said, "I don't know what to do anymore", and drank myself stupid on a regular basis. I was watching the fruit of all of my labor from years of playing out, fine-tuning my songwriting skills, and developing my performing chops all just go straight down the shitter. My train was de-railing and all I could do was watch.
It pains me to say all of this because I still think the world of my now ex-bandmate. He's a great human being who was going through some terribly rough circumstances, and he was just doing the best he could do at the moment. I didn't take it personally, but to this day I still seethe as I think about that situation.
I'd say that not putting a stop to it sooner was the single biggest mistake of my life as a musician.
But finally, there came a point when I did say enough is enough. I put down the bottle long enough to see straight, kicked out my bandmate (who, again, I still love to death--I just want to make that crystal clear), and I decided that no matter how long it took to learn, I was going to produce my own music.
The Comeback (?)
So with a new-found enthusiasm, I did my best to shake off the two-year nightmare that had just transpired, and I labored on. I decided to attempt to learn Pro Tools, as it was the only recording software with which I had any familiarity. I more or less had to teach myself how to use it, and as difficult as it was, I found it do-able. It wasn't easy, but slowly and surely my skills improved to the point that I could picture myself actually engineering a record. (Mind you, at no point have I actually felt comfortable with my production skills, but I've had the inclination from the outset of my self-schooling that it may actually be possible for me to pull this off.) It was quite a triumphant feeling. For the first time in a while, I had some hope that I might be able to turn things around after all.
At around this same point, we started to pick up steam again as a band: we acquired a talented bassist, as well as a really solid piano player, and a classically trained violinist; and sounded fuller and better than ever. The shows at that point were really something special to behold.
Things were finally going great! We had a kick-ass band that was firing on all cylinders, I was readying myself to produce our record, and the vibe was at an all-time high. Things were totally different now, right?!
Well, not so much.
The names changed, but the unreliability of the situation didn't. The first chink in our new-found armor came when my drummer discussed with us the possibility of leaving to move to France. He made it clear that such a move was only a small possibility, but a possibility nonetheless. It was a big scare for me at the time, realizing that if I lost my drummer at that moment, things would be nearly impossible to pick back up. Ultimately, he and his girlfriend did go to Europe, but only for a few months. It wasn't nearly the problem I had feared.
Then, we realized that our new bassist was actually a terrible new addition to the band. He was one of the most thoroughly unreliable people I've ever met in my life. (And I'm sure you can imagine how many unreliable folks I've come across. Again, I am a musician.) This guy would regularly show up to gigs just moments before we were set to take the stage. In fact, sometimes he would even show up after we were set to take the stage. Needless to say, that kind of behavior was not going to fly. We gave him the boot pretty quickly.
Next, our violinist moved to New York City to go to school. We pretty much stopped hearing from her.
And then came the coup de grace to any illusions I had about this situation being anywhere near stable: our piano player, who by this point was an irreplaceable and integral member of the band, took a job in Indianapolis, thus leaving the band.
That was it. The final straw.
Essentially, I am now left with hardly any semblance of the band that I had. I'm not only feeling an intense frustration at the memory of what I used to have, but am also haunted by the ghost of what could have been.
But more than all of that, I'm left with absolutely zero desire to put it all back together again. When you've taken this many emotional hits, there comes a point when you just need to protect yourself. At a certain point, the roller-coaster stops being fun and starts to make you sick. It's time to get off the ride.
This a moment when I have to look myself in the eye and admit that perhaps not only did this goal of "making it" not work out, but it may have also been leading me to severe emotional harm. I've been utterly monastic in my focus on this music thing for about 15 years now. I have very consciously let a great many other things in my life go unattended because my mind was so singularly focused on this one particular goal. My health, my sanity, my financial stability, and my overall sense of well-being have all been things that I've willingly sacrificed.
To understand how I've felt for the past 15 years of trying to make it in music, picture yourself driving down a very long road with lots of stoplights. You're driving along and seem to be hitting every single red light along the way. Mile after grueling mile, just red light after red light. And you're thinking to yourself, "At some point my luck has to change. It just has to!" But it doesn't. It's just constant. Mile after mile. Red light after red light. This is Red Light Road, and it's where I've been living for almost two decades now.
At what point in this nightmare scenario do you pull over and try and find a new road to travel?
Well, for me, that time is now.
I am officially done spending my life focusing on the goal of making a career for myself as a singer-songwriter. For me, the notion that this goal is consistent with my own well-being and happiness is an illusion that I'm finally seeing with a total keenness of vision. And in order for that goal to even come to fruition, so many things would have to go so perfectly right at just the perfectly right time that it is quite literally nearly impossible. It would be like solving a Rubik's Cube by accident.
So, a music career will no longer be my goal. I will no longer continue to feed this beast. Too many things are at stake, and top among them is my mental health.
None of this means that the dream itself has to be left for dead completely. A dream can be healthy if one sees it only for what it is--a glimmer of hope for the accomplishment of the extremely difficult or the virtually impossible. Each of us does this, quite healthily, with all sorts of things in our lives. For example, each of us knows that it's a near-impossibility that any one of us will actually hit the lottery. But of course on the occasions that any of us does buy a ticket, we momentarily hope like hell that we'll win. But unlike with the dream of a music career, everyone knows that it's a terribly unhealthy idea to plan your life around hitting the lottery.
(Now, don't get me wrong. If I should somehow hit the musical lottery and inadvertently stumble into some type of successful career in music, I won't begrudge it. But I also won't be making the mistake of traveling down Red Light Road again by focusing my life's attention on this thing over which I have a total lack of control.)
There are some that may consider my decision to be nothing more than a simple cop-out. I can imagine the most jaded of readers accusing me of giving up. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, behaviorally, I'm not giving much up at all.
I'm certainly not giving up on music. I'll still be playing music just as often as I ever did. Songwriting is the deepest spiritual connection that I've found in this life. A good writing session--when I'm all alone with my guitar and just hearing musical ideas flowing freely from wherever it is that ideas come from--is something so beautiful as to defy language. There is scarcely a single moment that I sit alone with a guitar in my hands that doesn't feel like a truly blessed and numinous occasion. Music has allowed me to communicate feelings that I otherwise would have lived an entire lifetime without noticing. I know these may seem like rather florid illustrations, but there is practically no way of overstating how profoundly music has touched my life.
How could I ever give that up? The answer is that I wouldn't. And I won't. As long as I am physically able, I will play music.
I'm not giving up on recording either. I love making songs come to life and sharing them with others almost as much as I enjoy writing them.
Nor am I even giving up playing shows. I quite enjoy a good occasion to play for friends and family and the fans who have decided to join along on the journey.
What I am giving up is much more subtle than all that. It is an intention. Intentions are one of those unfortunately rarely-examined subjective entities that can only be known by whoever is experiencing them. But they are one of the root causes of nearly every moment of happiness or suffering you're likely to encounter in life.
It may just sound like trivial semantics, but there is a huge difference between framing up this situation in my head as "I am a singer-songwriter with a band who is looking to have a successful music career" vs. "I am a guy who writes songs and records them in his house and plays some shows with his friends and is looking for nothing more than that".
Up until recently, I mostly considered myself the former. Now I see with crystal clarity that it is unwise and unhealthy to consider myself anything but the latter.
What Now, Specifically?
So where does all this leave me today, right at this moment?
Well, I'm currently recording an album in my house, with a ton of help from the friends with whom I've played for the last few years. I'm recording it not in the hopes that it will bring about some future music career. I'm recording it for the intrinsic joy of recording.
Once the album is done, I will likely be raising awareness of its existence in any way that I can without being disingenuous. Again, not in the hopes that it will garner me a career in music or sell a lot of records. Only to share my music with listeners who might be interested.
I will also more than likely play some shows after the album is done, either solo or accompanied by friends (or a combination of the two). But I will not be "touring" or "hitting the scene hard" in support of my new record so that I can hope to find some record deal or other such industry attention. I will play because I enjoy playing. I will play because I truly delight in having a drink with friends and sharing my music with them.
There comes a point in all of our lives when we need to face reality or risk the inevitable bottom-out that comes with embracing an illusion. And the reality is that pursuing a career in music is far too emotionally painful for me now, and there are far too many other beautiful things in this world that are worth investigating and embracing.
To be at peace with this decision is taking a bit of time. After all, nearly a lifetime of self-programming has led me to develop the unhealthy tendencies that I've rather unconsciously fallen into over the years. It will likely take a little while to find peace in a new direction. I'll have to go on new adventures in search of it. I'll have to travel new roads to find it. But of this I am certain--there is no peace for me on Red Light Road. It's not a path worth traveling.
You're Not Alone
Here I am, six thousand words or so into this post, and I can only leave you with this--if you're going through a similar experience to my own, you are not alone.
If you've stuck with me for all this time here, I would imagine you must be able to relate to my story on some level--or perhaps you're just a really bored masochist. Either way, considering the number of people I've seen exit the music world with their tails between their legs, I'd venture to guess that my heartache is in no way unique. I hope that this post will be helpful to anyone who has found themselves in a position similar to mine. You're not alone out there. It's damn difficult, and you're not alone.