When I was an assistant engineer at a prominent studio – back when those two things existed – I worked a short stint with a well-known rock producer. After a long first day that featured band in-fighting, bruised egos, and a particularly shitty lunch, we were relaxing with a beer in the control room when someone said, "Whew, tough day." The producer leaned back in his chair with his feet up on the console, took a swig, and slowly replied, "Yeah, but we get paid to hang out in a studio listening to music all day."
I always keep that producer's comment in the back of my mind and pull it out when things get overwhelming. Perspective like his may not get you more clients, alleviate insecurities, or make you better or more successful in your work, but it will give you a vantage point outside of your own. Especially in those moments when the pressures of running a small business and the challenges of making art in 2019 collide. If you're reading this, there's a 70% chance you've experienced depression and/or anxiety(1). This isn't news to anyone in music today. At some point, we've all had the "why are we doing this music thing" conversation with fellow musicians, which always boils down to value. There are the obvious culprits: The demonetization of recorded music, or the fact that club gigs pay about the same today as they did in the '70s, the passivity with which consumers regard music. But I think these are symptomatic of more acute personal crises that aren't as openly discussed. Furthermore, I believe that by identifying and addressing those internal struggles, we can achieve a state of mind where the little things, and their accompanying immediacy and threat of consequence, don't matter as much.
"Who's the most famous person you've worked with?"
How many times have you heard some variation of that question? "Famous" is the layperson's metric for success in music. Spotify plays, Instagram followers, and proximity to popular individuals are a few examples of how we measure ourselves and each other right now. Buying into this fully means measuring yourself against others, which will almost always leave you wanting. In reality, everybody measures success differently; we just don't talk about it. Yes, you have to be smart and savvy if you want to make any headway, but keeping an honest perspective of where you're at, as well as how far you've come, will do much more for you and your mental health than constantly wishing things were different, easier, better, or more fair. Perhaps your early triumphs – ones that garnered a sense of pride and accomplishment – are routine now. You've moved your own goalposts, and that's great. That's how we get better and stay interested; and, hopefully, relevant.
The problem, at least for me, is losing sight of both the fact that you made those achievements, and the accompanying feelings they produced, while getting caught up in others' ideas of what you need in order to be considered successful. Keep in mind that many people work an undervalued job in a crappy office with fluorescent lights and Windows 10. You get to work an undervalued job in a cool-ass studio and listen to music all day long.
So what do you need to be reasonably content with who you are and where you're at? First off, check in on your mental health. I referenced this earlier, and it's the single most important issue I'll discuss here. I believe mental health services should be as routine and accessible as physical health, and not segregated or divorced from other forms of healthcare. Making that arbitrary distinction only serves to perpetuate outdated taboos and personal insecurities. If you haven't already, ask yourself this question: "If there were someone I could tell anything and everything to in complete confidence – anything, no matter how dark, weird, or scary – and they would just listen without judgment, would that help me?" Wherever you live, and whatever your income bracket, there are resources available. I strongly urge you to look into your options. Do a quick Google search today for sliding-scale therapy in your area. After all, your ears are directly connected to your brain (it's science), so keep that shit healthy.
Define what success means to you. Be brutally realistic and honest, all while keeping in mind that you enjoy the rare privilege of making art for a living. Seriously sit down and think about this. Do you really need to work on huge records and have your picture in magazines? Are you sure? If so, figure out how in the hell you're going to make that happen and work your ass off. For most of us it means doing excellent work and being rewarded for it both internally and by those who matter to us. It seems obvious, but by working hard and smart, and setting realistic goals – goals you allow yourself to celebrate unconditionally when they're met – you not only take stock of what you've accomplished, but you also become more efficient. When you know what you're good at and where you need help, you also know better where to focus your time and energy.
Demote social media as a form of affirmation of your talents. Your pride in your own work and the support of those close to you have to be enough. You're simply not going to get lasting external validation from social media (and I'm including streaming services in that term) because they're designed to be fleeting. I know these are the numbers we're measured by, and we have to play the game, but in the big picture it's not that important. When your grandkids pull out a record you did 40 years from now, you're not going to say, "That one got 8,200 Spotify plays in its first week!"
Don't believe the hype. The handful of super-successful people out there had as much right-place-right-time luck as talent, and chances are their lives are as complicated and tumultuous as yours. The same applies when scaled down to local scenes. Focus on you and what's next, not what you don't have or haven't done. Energy follows attention, and that focus could be channeled into improving your craft.
Recall why you began doing this in the first place. I mean the actual first reasons, like jamming in a garage with friends or recording your first album. It was fun. Remember the excitement and joy you got from doing this before external approval and obligation became factors in your work? Those feelings don't necessarily go away, but they aren't nearly as rewarding as enjoying the process.
Exercise. Yes, exercise. Physical activity has been clinically shown to combat depression(2) and anxiety(3), and among all the other health benefits, it simply makes you feel better about yourself. I play basketball with a handful of musicians every week. I don't particularly like basketball, and I'm definitely not very good at it, but the cumulative effects are astounding. Studies also show that frequency is more important than intensity(2), so find something you can do to get yourself out of the house, out of the studio, and do it on a regular basis.
There is no finish line. There's no arrival or "made it" moment. Not in real life. We're conditioned from childhood to believe that one day we'll be something we're currently not, that only through hard work and sacrifice will we achieve it, and that failing to do so is indicative of a personal shortcoming. I think much of that narrative is outdated and doesn't apply to the world we currently inhabit. If you love what you're doing, you'll always be striving to do more and to do better, but that doesn't mean you have to constantly exist in some awkward state of insufficiency. Short of saying, "Live in the now," keep in mind how far you've come, regardless of where you perceive anyone else to be.
One of the few real upsides to the devaluation of recorded music is that we're freer than ever to express ourselves however the hell we want. What do you care if anyone thinks your song is too long or if they don't like the crazy effects you put on the vocals? If they're not paying for it, why should their tastes and opinions matter? That's obviously a little hyperbolic, but I'm serious. Musicians, songwriters, producers, and engineers have more freedom than ever to assert their intrinsic value through art without feeling beholden to the circumscriptions of financial backing or sales. That said, it can be really hard to convince yourself that you're enough, that you have inherent value, when all the social signifiers may suggest otherwise.
If external validation is what you need, and for most of us on some level it is, show it by constantly learning, improving, and asserting pride in your work. Others won't always see it, and some may remain hung up on the popularity game of name dropping and awards. If that's the case, you need to be able to identify and disregard it, because those markers have nothing to do with you. Most of your best work will go underappreciated or unheard, even when you shout it from every corner of the internet. That's okay; it's always been like that.
Take care of yourself, make great recordings, and have fun doing it. Realize that your process of striving to make great art adds value to this world. Your contribution combats complacency. Now get back to work.
(2) Craft, L. L., and Perna, F. M. "The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed." Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 2004.
(3) Lake, J. "How Exercise Reduces Anxiety." Psychology Today 6 October 2018.