THE LONG HAUL: What Success Looks Like to a Musician
Rachel Baiman very successfully jams with friends at the Green Mountain Bluegrass & Roots Festival in Vermont.
A year or so ago, I pulled my red Subaru wagon, packed to the brim with bandmates and gear, into the parking lot of a grungy looking club in a small Wisconsin city. I was on a tour of the Midwest and it was a beautiful spring day. Inside the club, vintage signs, puppets, and animal heads adorned the walls of a hip bar with a small stage. It looked like a promising spot for a show, but the evening slowly took a turn for the worse. After asking numerous times where the promoter was, what time we should sound check, etc., it became apparent that nobody knew much about the “show.” The bar staff kept assuring me that “Steve,” the promoter, would be there soon to answer all my questions. In the end, neither the promoter nor the audience ever showed up, with the exception of a few sad souls who wandered in for a drink. After two long hours of playing music to a few pity-faced listeners, and being shorted $50 from the agreed-upon pay, I beelined to the bar for a drink.
While I was waiting for my beer, a man who had been watching my show struck up a conversation with me. “So,” he began, in his best “let me advise you” voice, “what’s your goal with all of this? You’re trying to get famous? Are you hoping for a big break? What are you trying to accomplish here?” In that moment, as my morale sank even further, I was mentally so far from wanting to have that conversation that all I felt was anger and embarrassment. I don’t remember how I replied, but the conversation stuck with me for days. Why did those questions feel so confusing and irrelevant to me? I had no easy answer to give him, but surely I must have a career goal or some measure of success that I’m trying to achieve as a musician. Otherwise, what was even doing out there on that, the saddest of nights?
The conclusion that I’ve come to is that my greatest desire, the thing that makes me feel the most fulfilled and the most, dare I say, successful, is the process of working on and creating meaningful music. Rehearsing, playing shows and making records are the acts that inspire me, that drive me to wake up in the morning and start my day, that make me feel most human and alive. The other tasks that I do for my job are just work that enables the music-making to continue to happen: promoting shows on social media, figuring out flights and tour logistics, applying for international artist visas, communicating with booking agents and publicists, etc. The tricky thing about being a musician or an artist is that your singular goal is probably not to achieve the greatest profit margin, or even the biggest possible audience for your work, but rather to have the necessary time, headspace, and money to create what you want to create in the way that you want to create it.
That’s not to say that artists don’t care about making money, or having people enjoy their work, but rather that the money and popularity are really the means to the end, rather than the end goal, which is always just the ability to live a creative life. If your aim is money or fame, there are far easier ways to achieve that than through the creation of art. But in our profit-driven, capitalist society, where money is constantly equated with success, how could I explain such a thing? “Here I am, on tour!” I should have screamed at that man, “I have the ability right now in my life to spend my time creating every single day, and therefore I am successful! I have achieved the dream!”
It may be hard for those in the traditional business world to understand, but financial success does not actually equate with artistic success. I can name off of the top of my head at least 10 musicians whom I believe to be absolutely great, people who in my opinion have equal artistic merit with The Beatles, Bob Dylan, or Aretha Franklin, but who for any number of reasons will probably never be household names. Some will never even play a “real” gig. However, their art still holds value. It has brought immeasurable joy, inspiration and comfort to all who have had the pleasure of encountering it. In the same breath, I can think of countless musicians making millions of dollars whose jobs and careers I would never want, because I would find the music unfulfilling, and the job therefore pointless. Additionally, of course, there are artists who I and countless others consider world class, and whose work has found a large audience as well as extreme financial success. The art and the art business world are two separate entities; sometimes they align, and sometimes they don’t.
I don’t think this is a particularly new revelation, but it did get me thinking about how one can truly measure success as an artist. I’ve tried very hard to divorce (in my own brain) the idea of creating great art from the goals of making money and having a huge fan base. That’s not to say that I don’t want to also be making money and growing my fan base. I work on that too, but I file it under a different category in my brain, the category of “things that make it easier for me to create,” the means to the end. For example, if I had more money, I could spend as much as I wanted to record a phenomenal album, or buy the best-sounding instruments. I could hire a sound engineer for every show and present the music in its best iteration. I could hire a bigger band and pay my friends what they are worth rather than what I can afford. None of this has anything to do with living the lifestyle of a higher tax bracket.
If you can’t measure professional success financially or through fanbase growth, how can you know if you are achieving it? I’ve come to believe this; If you are running your life such that you have the headspace to continue creating art in the way that you want to create it, you are successful. The only way to fail as an artist is to stop creating, to silence that part of you, and to deprive the world of your artistic voice. It is prudent to mention that this artistic mentality is also the reason why art is so easy to exploit economically, and I am in no way promoting artists working or performing for less than they are worth, but that’s a whole ’nother issue. Gillian Welch surely said it best with her song “Everything is Free Now”: “Someone hit the big time / They figured it out / That we’re gonna do it anyway / Even if it doesn’t pay.”
Back to our friend who confronted me at the bar in Wisconsin. We’ve all encountered these “unwanted adviser” types. The people who have probably never taken a risk, pursued a dream, or tried to create something from nothing, but still feel that they have a better idea of what you could/should be doing with your life than you do. And they are dying to tell you about it. In fact, if you would only listen, they could tell you exactly what you should be doing to have an all-American profit-driven career. And in reality, if making money is what you’re after, such people might have some helpful advice for you.
But I hope that anyone who feels alive through creation will know that, yes, we all need to eat, and we all need art. Art and capitalism aren’t friends, and our profit-driven society tends to ignore the fact that people need meaning and beauty like they need food and shelter. After all, if we have nothing in our lives that brings us joy, what are we all working so hard for? Artists do what they have to do to continue creating, and that drive, that singular focus on making something exist that didn’t exist before, is the end, not the means. It needs to be honored, no matter how much money it is or is not generating.