In this post I look at the distinction between pursuing “music” and pursuing a “career”, and how the relentless pursuit of both could lead to an unhappy life and failure with the very thing you’re pursuing. 

Last night as I was driving home from a gig I turned on the local radio station and heard a guy being interviewed on a music business show. A show aimed at young musicians on the precipice of a career maybe, or in the midst of a career they’re trying to build. He was talking about attitude and mindset, and about how you have to devote yourself 24/7 to your career. That you can’t have anything else in your life that distracts you from it. He stated if you’re waking up in the morning thinking about your girlfriend, or your family, or your plants, or anything other than your career, you’re doing it wrong. And you should remember that every time you take your eye off the prize, every day you don’t spend every waking moment working on your goal, your competitor won’t, and they will succeed where you won’t.

This is so far from the way I think about music and my own career I was completely shocked. So, let’s unpack some of it…

“Career” vs “Music”

Everything he was saying was about building a career, not being a better musician, and that’s an interesting distinction. Like those youngsters today who, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, say they want to be “famous”. Not famous for a particular skill, talent or achievement, but just famous. Period. Aiming for a “career” in music doesn’t seem like the right goal to me. Yes being a musician can become your career, and having that as a goal can be a positive motivating force, but focusing primarily on building your career rather than letting it develop as you build up your musical experience and skills seems to be putting the cart before the horse to me. Music isn’t about a particular number of sales, gigs, or fans. It’s about creativity, art, and connection, and focusing on the former before you’ve got the latter happening will, best case scenario, lead to making terrible music and worse case, lead to utter failure and disappointment.

Music is a challenging job to pursue, like any freelance profession, and to be successful in it you need to work hard, for a long time. But to my mind that’s not very different to most other skilled professions. If you want to be a successful mechanic you’ll need to spend a lot of time working on cars, if you want to be a doctor you’re going to spend many years studying, if you want to be an arborist you better believe you’re going to spend a lot of time learning about botany and arboriculture. The path to those jobs might be different, maybe you’ll need an apprenticeship or several degrees, but the effort and hours logged is close. However, a music career is very similar to how most professions in the freelance world function. Makeup artists, web designers, writers… all very different skillsets but essentially the same in terms of the path the job tends to follow and the hurdles you face. So why is there this idea that to be a successful musician you have to give up everything else? Why do we tell our young musicians they must choose between this profession and everything else in their lives?

Let’s look at how tunnel vision might actually turn you into a worse musician/songwriter.

For a moment, let’s set aside the fact that you’ll probably be an awful person to be around and your family (and friends and partner and plants) will likely resent you for completely ignoring them every day. Let’s park, for a moment, the damage you’ll probably do to your own mental wellbeing by cutting out everything else that matters to you. Let’s think, for now, just about how such laser focused tunnel vision could actually hinder your music career.

If you’re a songwriter how on earth can you expect to write songs about the human experience if you’re not actually experiencing life? The best songwriters throughout history find a way to pinpoint emotions we all feel, to draw out experiences and feelings that we can identify and find ourselves within. They evoke the feelings and thoughts we can’t articulate, to help us feel not so alone in our emotional world. They somehow say the things we all feel, and often in a way we’ve never heard before. How can you write about the joy of discovery if you don’t allow yourself time to explore? How can you expect to write about heartbreak if you never give yourself time to fall in love? Simply put, how can you write about anything at all in life if you’re not actually living?

Even if you’re not a songwriter, the music industry is a network of humans. And humans like working with other humans who exhibit actual human qualities - like interests, hobbies and thoughts outside of music. Once music becomes a day job (which is your whole goal, right music-biz-radio-show-listening-youngster?!), and you’re spending days/weeks/months on the road with people, you will crave anything else to talk about or do with your music colleagues. Someone to run with, or share books, or discuss sports, or debate politics, or drink a delicious cocktail. Ironically, having genuine interests outside of music makes you a more interesting person to be around and builds and fortifies the friendships and networks that lead to more work. It’s actually a win win.

Music isn’t a zero-sum game.

Viewing your fellow musicians as competitors was one of the saddest things I heard come out of this guy’s mouth during the radio show. Music, like love, isn’t a zero-sum game, and viewing your fellow musicians, writers, singers as such will poison all your interactions. It’s true that if there’s one gig, or one sync spot, or one support slot open and someone else gets it - yes, there is a quantifiable loss there. But there are lots of opportunities out there and acting like your music career is a battlefield will do nothing but turn people off you and close doors in your face. Most of my work as a bass player in Nashville has come from the recommendations of other bass players, the very people this guy would have me believe are my adversaries. That’s just not true and treating them as though they were, rather than the great friends and allies that most of them have become, would have done nothing but hinder my progress in the industry here.

Mental Health

We’ve looked at how this kind of relentless career pursuit might actually hinder the very thing you’re pursuing, but what about your mental wellbeing? What kind of life will you have if the only thing you care about and the only thing you devote any attention or time to is your career?

It’s no secret that work-life balance is important for everyone, but in the creative professions, when we’re pursuing a career in something we already love as a pastime too, it’s hard to see the wood for the trees with what actually constitutes work and what is play. I play music for a living and I play music for fun. I listen to music for work and I listen to music when I’m exercising, cooking, driving, and chilling. I go to shows I’m playing and I go to shows to enjoy the music and hang with friends. It can be hard to see how your work-life balance really is when both inevitably include lots of music. Whether you’re living a balanced life is really something only you can determine. But some ways to figure that out might be asking your friends and loved ones their opinion, mindfully checking in with your mental wellbeing or noticing whether you’re still seeking out activities and experiences that distinctly aren’t career builders. Only you will know if you’ve struck the right balance, but if you’re unhappy or if you look around one day and all your family and friends have quietly disappeared from your life - you might want to revaluate.

One key thing I’ve learned in the last few years is that having other things in your life that bring you joy really helps to cushion the blow if you suffer a professional knock. If your career is all you have, and it’s going badly even for a brief moment, it will devastate you. If you’re happy outside your career, a set-back is less likely to crush your spirit. You’re more likely to last the distance In pursuit of this career if you’re able to take a breath occasionally, shift the focus to something else, regroup and re-energise. 

In conclusion…

Just like any career, if you want to be successful in the music industry you still need to work hard and put in the hours to hone your craft. Maybe the viewpoint of encouraging musicians to work relentlessly in pursuit of a career comes as a counter to the attitude some young musicians have that a music career is all songs flowing effortlessly through you and tequila shots at your sold out shows. Of course that’s not how this works either, and someone with that attitude who expects everything to just happen without hard work is very unlikely to succeed. I understand we all need to be encouraged to work hard, but relentlessly working 24/7 and not allowing yourself to have anything else in your life won’t make you a success - it will grind you down until you hate music and everything about it. And make you someone no-one else wants to be around in the process.

So maybe take a break from writing, practicing, emailing or networking for a second. Go for that hike, read a book, bake a cake, hang with a friend. Let yourself turn down the new gig that falls on your cousin’s wedding date and go be part of your family. Enjoy your life AND the music you make - I don’t believe they have to be mutually exclusive concepts.

(Photo: me taking a break from climbing this career mountain to climb an actual mountain in Wanaka, NZ)