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What is Success? Starting from scratch

February 29th, 2012 | 11 Comments | Categories: New Music Strategies |

She Makes War, Live at All Hallows in Leeds

“What Happens Now For Music?” is a growth area of exploration, both for academics and industry analysts, consultants and representative bodies.

The old machine that has controlled things for the last 40-50 years have their lobbyists and their clumsy, internet-ruining political agenda, but for the rest of us who give a shit about little things like ethics, art and culture, the questions are WAY bigger than ‘how can we pretend we’re making less money while actually making more money so that we can make EVEN more money, and still blame the internet for our made up failure?’

No, the bigger questions start with challenging the foundational principles of what the relationship is between a culture and its soundtrack, and how we can define success for those musicians who are somehow meaningfully engaged in the process of creating that soundtrack.

Because, as we’ve explored here many times before, the old model was wholly unsustainable and unsuccessful in any meaningful measure for the vast majority of musicians who engaged with it. Even for many of those that we perceive as successes, it took them acquiescing to a wholly alien notion of success as defined by the worst excesses of Late 20th Century hypermodernity. One completely at odds with their reasons for making music in the first place. In oh-so-many cases, a career in music became a shit day job that stopped them making music that they cared about.

So when we start exploring what ‘success’ might look like, or who the success stories are that are emerging from the new music ecosystem, we need to throw out discredited notions of success that somehow link success to abstract metrics of ‘reach’ and ‘audience’, and certainly quash any notion that fame was a meaningful indicator of anything related to success.

As Nik Kershaw so succinctly put it on an episode of Trisha years ago – Fame was the downside to success.

I tweeted a list of possible metrics for success a couple of hours ago, and I’ll repeat them here:

  • Sustainability – can I keep doing this?
  • Independence – creative, economic and strategic independence – what music am I making? How am I funding it and how is it making that money back, and what’s the bigger plan?
  • Progress – linked to strategy – is my own artistic and personal progress happening in a way that I’m comfortable with? How would I measure that?
  • Fun – seriously, being a musician is the greatest privilege in the world, whether or not you get paid for it. The joy of making music should never get obscured by the slog that getting into the position of being able to make music for other people often becomes. How do I define my own satisfaction with the Big Project of my music life?

Those are the big questions, and none of them are helpfully answered by looking at chart positions, stadium appearances, TV credits or numbers of Twitter followers.

They change from artist to artist, and given that ‘success’ can now exist quite happily and sustainably with a core audience of only a few hundred people, and can even be enhanced by the performer having an outside source of income, we need to be looking at some much more foundational defining questions before we start trying to match like for like in the process of building alternatives to the myth machine of the 20th century.

So, musicians, what is success for you? Did you have to let go of a long-held dream of super-stardom to find what you were looking for? Do you still – deep-down – actually want to be a rock star? Is your future so bright you gotta wear shades, while playing to 30 people in a friend’s living room? Answers in the comments, please :) 

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11 Comments so far ↓

  • Oli

    The idea of being famous is absolutely terrifying, can’t think of anything worse. Making a living from my creative endeavours, literary or musical, would be nice, but just being able to continue doing them is the main point. Success in a wider sense, perhaps equivalent to the whole unit sales/ chart position schtick, would be best measured in terms of benefit to culture/ society, in my view. If you’re crazy enough to try and make a living from music, your life won’t be noticeably enhanced by owning a large shiny Rangerover: you have other priorities, so as long as you have food, clothes and shelter, you’re ok.

  • ugo capeto music

    Success is probably making a living out of making music but that’s probably setting the bar too high for most. So, more realistically, success is just having fun doing it and if it leads to making a living, it’s butter on the spinach, as they say in France.

  • Jackie Kaines

    Excellent points, succinctly put. Your argument could equally apply to writing.

  • James Barrow

    Hi Steve.

    I’m a full time (OK two-thirds time) musician – I play and teach Japanese Taiko Drums. Studied it for 4 years when I was teaching English in Hiroshima. Now the hobby is the day job , and has been for the last 13 years – how cool is this eh?

    Actually these days I’m more a music teacher than a musician – I’m a better Taiko teacher rather than I am a Taiko player. Which is a bit sad, but only a little cos I love teaching aswell. But I probably love performing and composing and recording even more.

    I first spotted you online a few months back on one of your video lectures – which included Why U2 are like Tescos – challenging stuff for an old school U2 fan!

    But I’m also an internet lover and new technology fan, and think I have at least some awareness of what you’re talking about re. “the new music ecosystem” – great phrase.

    Against this background, I’ll go first – What is Success for me? It comes in stages, each building on the other:

    - Paying the bills while still making/teaching music/Taiko and not needing to take a Mcjob. DONE! HOORAY :-) (I work hard delivering workshops in schools etc.)

    - To find increasingly effective ways to pay the bills via music and thereby free up more time to be “purely creative” with little or no eye on income generation.
    DOING – (Plenty of school workshops already booked for 2012, and 2 new mini cds of my own music coming out this year, or at least that’s the plan! Am following your lead here and starting to set up bandcamp accounts etc.)

    - To find increasingly effective ways for the results of the “purely creative” activities to also start generating income.
    UM,…(don’t even have the fruits of those yet, have written the music, have lots of rough home-made versions, just don’t have a polished finished product to “sell”. That’s this year’s goal.)

    - To only do “purely creative” work (less lugging of drums into schools etc.) because that generates enough to pay the bills.
    SIGHS, IF ONLY…

    That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Would welcome any feedback.

    All The Best,
    James Barrow
    Taiko West

  • Jennifer

    This is a really good question :-)

    Ultimately it’s about the effect on other people’s lives. The best thing is when somebody tells me how a song moved them &/or described or affirmed their reality. I also like to have songs which convey a particular kind of reality to someone who doesn’t necessarily experience it themself. So that’s the genre of result that I’m fundamentally working towards, and in that dimension I would say I am successful.

    In another dimension, it’s about how many people I’m reaching. E.g. “percentage of people who would love this song who have actually heard it”. By that measure I’m very unsuccessful so far!

    The main limiting factor in that area at the moment is in my ability to steadily crank out recordings. Only part of that is actually about the recording process itself: part of it is about managing to disengage for long enough from all the compelling/fascinating political & social “rival claims on my time”.

    But of course the way I’m embedded in my communities and people-relationships is also where the songs come from, so it’s not like I want that to go away! So there’s questions about life-&-time-&-attention balance wherein I’m still very much on the learning curve, and only partially successful.

    As for making money: I do want to make more from music than I do now. Otherwise I’ve got to get money in other ways which are less satisfactory. But there’s so much untapped potential in terms of reaching people, it seems to me like that’s the area to work on, not money per se. I already know that a small percentage of listeners will want to pay me, and the question is “small percentage of what?” So I do basically trust that the money will come naturally in the fullness of time. I just worry sometimes about how soon that time is, or rather how not soon :-) Which all hinges back to the previous point.

    There might be more to this that I’m not thinking of right now, but that seems like the main salient features of my landscape at the moment.

  • Matt Stevens

    Great post man, and yeah Oli “The idea of being famous is absolutely terrifying, can’t think of anything worse” Totally agree, very scary for someone as socially awkward as me :)

    My problem has always been i can get close to earning a living from music but not quite there, very difficult and I’m not sure how you would get it to a sustainable point, did it for 2 years then found it more difficult. Not sure how things will pan out long term to be honest.

  • Brenda K

    Brilliant post as always, and I’ve been meaning to weigh in since it appeared, which unfortunately coincided with our youngest cat falling critically ill with what turned out to be renal lymphoma resulting in acute kidney failure, so for the past three weeks success for the Panache Orchestra has been defined as Pink making a complete recovery….

    Getting back on topic,

    As you so accurately put it, “…the slog that getting into the position of being able to make music for other people often becomes” has totally ruined making music for me. Totally. I gave up working as a side player a few years ago when I realized how absurd it was to spend all of my time turning myself inside-out to learn and perform music I don’t much care about, or trying to wrap my head around and produce what someone wants whose musical sensibility is radically different from my own, i.e., turning into another shit day job, and a rather poorly compensated one at that; and I have more recently been forced to confront the awful truth of how positively demented it is for me to be spending all of my available time and energy left over after I finish slogging through my “real” day job, slogging through still more shit-work I absolutely, mortally, viscerally DETEST, i.e., marketing/administration/promotion work to get our band booked and “build a fan base”.

    So perhaps musical success for me personally may look like, at least for the time being, forgetting about booking shows and “building a fan base”, and reinvesting the recovered time and energy into fully engaging in the process of re-learning how to enjoy making music for its own sake, regardless of whether other people are interested in it or not, spending quality time with my instrument, playing our existing music (composed by Chi) as well as I can, while spending time doing more creating of my own and also experimenting with recording various arrangements of our pieces as I’ve been wanting to but haven’t had time to. Once I return to a place of finding satisfaction in what I am creating instead of just putting on a brave face and surviving each rehearsal and gig, then hopefully there will be a point of intersection where I can move up the list of metrics into having it become financially sustainable, although I do expect that the quality of life I want will almost certainly require a few complimentary streams of independent income.

    The crowning irony is that I first began to truly enjoy making music when Chi and I began our collaboration on this original project after years of being a free-lance player doing mostly classical and theatre music and some session work, and then “trying to make a viable go of it” with the original project totally destroyed it for me!

    Oh, and +1 re fame = terrifying!

  • Ben Walker

    For Little Fish, one of the indicators of success has always been being able to travel, play music and meet interesting people around the world. Of course this was based on a naïve vision of the old industry model of success, where you would have a hit then tour the world.

    What’s interesting for us now is to figure out how to achieve the same thing (travel, meet people, play music, have adventures) without the industry framework to organise and pay for it. Sometimes we dip into the fame game, doing the old photos/posters/radio/promoter/venue thing and sometimes we make up other ways of doing it (house concerts, Twitter contacts, outside investment, collaborations). There’s no single way to do it, but it’s useful to have a clear goal.

  • Ben Walker

    I thought more about this here: http://ihm.gs/a3

  • Keith

    I love it!

    On the one hand the old machine that has controlled things for the last 40-50 years have their lobbyists and their clumsy, internet-ruining political agenda on the other hand the rest of us who give a shit about little things like ethics, art and culture.

    It is made worse by the tacky TV shows like X-Factor and the myriad clones, the wanna be celebs who seem to have lost track that it is about enjoying music, music as a source of pleasure, not a commodity to be bought and sold by global corporations as though a can of baked beans or a can of sweetened syrup backed by a massive adversing budget.

    The old record companies are finished. They are dinosaurs. But like dead dinosaurs their tails are still thrashing around as the message has yet to reach the tail that they are dead.

    Part of that tail thrashing is to lash out at those who may dare to share music, to criminalise those who actually love music enough to wish to listen to it, to try and control the net.

    Even such worthies as Tim Berners-Lee, he who invented the World Wide Web, have joined in the debate. He is highly critical of the major record labels trying to control the net. As is Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of Google.

    http://keithpp.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/berners-lee-dont-let-record-labels-upset-web-openness/

    http://keithpp.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/web-freedom-faces-greatest-threat-ever/

    Viewing as an ecosystem is an excellent analogy.

    A pristine rainforest has many species, each occupying a niche, each supporting each other. That is how Gaia works. It is sustainable.

    A monoculture, be it acres of GM oilseed rape (canola to Americans) or acres of palm oil plantations, is not sustainable.

    Paulo Coelho is a writer. A very successful writer. But that is not how he measures success.

    He measures success by the fact people read his books and that he is able to do what he always wanted to do, write.

    He does not write to become rich or famous, he writes because he has a story to tell.

  • drew stephenson

    I think for me success varies with the time of day! Sometime it’s as simple as just coming off a stage and having someone you’ve never met tell you they really enjoyed the show. Other times there’s this desire to be able to stuff the day job and just be able to play. But at the same time there’s the knowledge that it’s not like that; for every half hour on stage there’s hours of begging for slots, promoting stuff, sorting out and sticking up posters, all of which feels like a day job really quickly.
    So i guess there’s still a big part of me that would like the life without alarm clocks, the life where it’s just about writing and playing and recording and performing and all the fun bits, whilst an unspecified someone else gets on with the dull stuff.
    But that ain’t gonna happen.
    So in the meantime I’ll take the comment from the random stranger after the gig.