Recently, I had lunch with a very dear friend, who, for lack of a better set of terms, is at a crossroads in his life as a musician. He is young, not long out of college, and freshly home from a lengthy stay in NYC where he apparently realized that, as a musician, he was a very small fish in a very big pond.
He wants to be a successful musician and does not want to find himself at 40 years of age playing crap gigs and struggling just to pay the bills. A reasonable thing to wish for in the life of a working musician...
He also conveyed to me that he knows where it is that he wants to end up, but has no idea as to how to get there. He wants to work and wants to play as much as possible, but doesn’t want to have to play the same old songs over and over again because he feels that it is creatively stifling. He would prefer to only play gigs that are musically appealing to him. However, those kinds of gigs are few and far in between these days.
Ahhh…the classic conundrum…on the brink of becoming another jaded and disillusioned used-to-be musician.
I think every working musician finds himself or herself grappling with this one at some point. "Is this for me?" "Is this what I truly should be doing?" "Why am I not getting anywhere?" Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Having gone through this similar situation myself many years ago, I served up what little bit of “wisdom” I have to offer on the matter.
Here’s what I told him…
It’s not enough to know where you think your end destination should be…you also need to know the path to get there. It’s kind of like standing in the middle of Nebraska knowing you want to go to Yellowstone National Park but don’t which direction to drive in(northwest, incidentally, for those who are geographically challenged). I suggested that he take the end destination and trace the steps backwards to find the path. Kind of like how you did when you were a kid tracing your way through a picture maze in a coloring book…start at the end and work your way backwards to the beginning. Why? Because you find fewer false turns going backwards and the once seemingly indecipherable maze then begins to look more like a map. When we look at maps do we look first at where we are? No...we first look at where we want to go and then figure out where we are in relation to that point, and then figure out how to get from point A to point B. It’s easier that way…
I also suggested that he needed to clearly define what successful means for him. For me, being a successful musician has always been defined as never having to keep a day job. From time to time in my life, I have had several part time jobs that were necessary to keep the bills paid, but they were only temporary. For me, it was enough to be able to play music and pay the bills...that was the mark of success for me. The struggle of living that way created a drive for me that propelled me to work as much as possible as a musician. True, that doesn’t work for everyone, but the point is I knew what my definition of successful was for me and knew the path I needed to take to get there. Of all the places I could have gone to pursue a career in music, I chose Birmingham…the logic being that (due to my definition of success for me) being a bigger fish in a smaller pond was far more appealing than being a tiny fish in huge ocean. Lately in my life I have been enjoying the fruits of said hard work and struggle…not because it was what I intended though. It’s just how things have worked out.
As far as keeping things fresh and creative, I pointed out to my young friend that his perspective could be changed a bit. Why does he feel stifled and bored on a rock gig in which he’s playing the same old stuff when he doesn’t feel stifled on a be-bop gig in which he’s playing a standard collection of material that is the same from gig to gig?...perspective. I merely pointed out that from genre to genre there are going to be a list of standard tunes that will be played and that it is his perspective of the music being boring or too simple that creates that stifling feeling. All styles and genres of music are equally as challenging, just for a different set of reasons, and once you figure this out, you find that freelancing as a musician is a very good thing.
I suggested the idea that even the most successful touring musicians are playing the same material, the exact same way, every single night they play it. Talk about stifling…that has potential to make someone with the wrong mindset want to take a hostage. Besides, playing music that you are not so fond of, and taking gigs that are less fun is still way better than sitting at home not pursuing your chosen path…you are still getting to play music for a living, right? You are still getting to do what you love and get paid for it even if the situation and circumstances are not ideal. Playing a crap gig performing covers you hate, in a place you would never be in otherwise, is far better than working a day job you hate in which all you can think about is when you’ll get to play another gig. Feel blessed that you are doing what you love to do. That is what has always worked for me.
After lunch, as I was driving home, I began to realize that what I had told my friend could apply to almost any chosen vocation…
Find your passion, and pursue it. Sure, it may be hard to make ends meet from time to time, but the rewards, which are sometimes less tangible, are far greater.
Define specifically what it is that you want to do in the field that you are so passionate about.
Define success for yourself. (...this, friends, is the end point on your map!)
Trace the maze backwards from success to where you are now to find a suitable path to take.
Open up your perspective so you can recognize that doing what you love to do under less than optimal circumstances is far better than doing something that you would rather not be doing.
Start your journey!
That’s my opinion…I could be wrong.