Measures of Success 

Teaching others about things is the best way to retain them yourself, or so they say. And in general I have to agree. But it can also be the way you unlearn something you’ve known—or thought you’d known—for many years.

This occurs to me because I have a gig in 10 days giving a group of young musicians a four-hour primer on the music business. After more than 20 years doing this music thing full- or part-time, I figure I know a fair bit by now. And I do, but the ground is shifting so fast.  I have given many, many workshops over my career. But usually they have been about certain measureable skills or areas of knowledge I have acquired—guitar, fingerpicking, songwriting, music history, the blues, etc. The music business isn’t a skill, or even a definable universe. It’s really a matter of choices… what you want to do, how much you are willing to sacrifice or work, and how content you can be with whatever the results are.  

So it hits closer to home.

As I prepare to tell these youth what they should do to be successful, I have to examine my own definition of success and where I see myself on that spectrum. What can I say to a singer who wants to get on American Idol, and be a star? Probably not too much, other than some technical advice about the voice and maybe to warn them to keep their heart in it.

A man I know in his eighties recently told me that when he left home at 17, his father shook both his hands. Holding them standing there, he told his son, ‘this one is for your heart, and this one is for your head. Never let the two get too far apart.’

What occurs to me to tell these youth, in the course of the workshop is that there are–at least—two types of success. And the context I am bringing to this—the pathway to success—is the one that Victor E. Frankl describes so elegantly and powerfully in his seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning,
“Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. ”

For the purposes of considering a life in music, then, there is the practical, behavioural stuff that will bring about some sort of success as a by-product of your work. And a spiritual approach that will perhaps lead to another kind of success. First the more pragmatic side.
In thinking on this now, I put these ‘positive’ behaviours into five categories. There are more I’m sure.
In no particular order:
  1. Learn your instrument. Get good, or decent at what you do musically. It opens up doors and broadens your appeal as you get out there and try to create magic in a live setting.
  2. Write songs. The best ones you can as often as you can. That will be a different frequency and unique for every person, but having your own tunes is not just a good revenue stream, it’s a creative endeavor that increases your options in music.
  3. Support your fellow musicians and try to abandon competitiveness. So many opportunities come from other players. I feel like every second gig I do has come from a friend in the business passing on a name or doing something to move me forward. Do the same for others. And on a practical level, competitiveness just makes you unhappy, so give it up.
  4. When you have your sound and skill down, and you’ve found a creative voice in your songs—or maybe even before—get a good publicist to craft your story and create your value proposition to the market. Most people want a booking agent or a label first, but I always remember the great Mitch Podolak saying to a group of us having dinner at his house several years ago that the most important thing to start with is who you are and what your story is… what will you represent to the listening public. I remember hearing him and thinking, ‘Where were you 10 years ago when I started out in this business?’ Getting your public story, one that is true to you but is comprehensible and engaging for the public, will make the rest of the road a lot easier to travel and perhaps make greater success possible.
  5. Be a pro. That is, honour your contracts, be on time, have gear that works and do your job with pride. Don’t mail it in as the old saying goes. That saying that you never know who might be in the room… turns out it’s true. And on more than a few occasions, it has benefitted me that I worked my ass off on stage to a small crowd. Once in a tiny room at a conference, I played for a handful of people, one of whom was the Artistic Director at a major Canadian festival. He booked me based on that showcase. I’ve also had it go the other way, not delivering at the level I could and missing out on impressing someone who could have helped me. Doing your best to hold up your end of the contract, even when it is real tough, means you won’t have any regrets, at least around that part of your career—let’s face it, we all end up with some regrets. And this includes in dealing with your band and others who are involved in your career. Be honest when you have to but try to do the fair thing.
So there could be a hundred practical tips, but those are my five.
 
The second part of success is about honouring your unique voice. Bob Dylan once said about songwriting that you should always keep that crazy first lyric that popped into your head out of nowhere and sounded weird. It’s weird, but it’s unique and it’s you, perhaps a part of you that only comes out when the critical part isn’t paying attention. Those ideas that emerge without the input of your critical mind telling you to fit it into a market or a style—those are gold. Those are uniquely and originally you. That, in the end, is your greatest asset as a true artist. But it is challenging to honour and listen to your own voice.

You can see it in the experience of William Faulkner. The Nobel Prize winning author from Oxford, Mississippi, like many authors and artists, suffered much in his early career. He was writing but it wasn’t happening. He had published two novels and a book of poetry to no great success. Then his third novel, Flags in the Dust, which he considered to be leaps and bounds ahead of his first two, was rejected by his publisher Boni & Liveright. He was shocked and dismayed. And forced to doubt his developing stream-of-consciousness voice—the voice that would soon set him apart and establish him as one of the greatest novelists in history. That voice seemed to be closing doors for him.

But he stuck with it, following his own internal voice and no one else’s. His very next novel would be The Sound and the Fury. It was 1930 and he was 28 when he wrote that book. He would reflect later in life about how it came to be.
"One day I seemed to shut the door between me and all publisher's addresses and book lists. I said to myself, Now I can write." Faulkner didn’t even allow his editor to change a word or any punctuation. He had honoured his own creative process. The ground-breaking book is considered one of the greatest novels in history.

Honouring your own voice is a true measure of success. 
 

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