Creative people often have a strong need for approval. After all, their work is intended for the public eye or ear. But historically, many of the most creative musicians had a drive and passion to express themselves was far stronger than their need for acceptance. In fact, all the real innovators I can think of faced rejection countless times before their “sound” began to break through.
Awhile back a band I’d worked with off-and-on for five years called it quits. They announced their decision in a letter to readers of a local music magazine. They were polite, but lightly scolded the powers-that-be in the local media who hadn’t supported them, insinuating that if they had gotten more support they would have been more successful. They’d made it to the finals of a national talent search and been featured at a music industry showcase, but apparently the heartbreak of not being recognized (legitimized?) by the local music media was too much to bear. They went on to say that they would continue to make music as individuals, or in new bands, and then said their fond farewells.
I was ticked off at these guys. They had a small local following and had made some kind of beginning national noise. But they were so discouraged by the lack of local media support that their only solution was to stop playing and give up. So, what are they faced with now? Starting from scratch again, with new bands, new names, new fanbases to establish. After five years of working toward their goal, they threw away everything they had worked for.
Five years is nothing! Five years (or more) is behind many bands and artists who were just getting known but not yet on the brink of success. What if U2 had given up back in the 1980s? It took them many years to become the worldwide superstars they are now. And, a newer act like James Hunter, the English R&B singer, got his deal with the great indie label Rounder records after seven or eight years of playing his unique sound. And think about Spoon. After years of paying their dues they finally have a record out now that was so good they got a gig on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
You can’t give up! If you want a formula for failure, it’s just one word. Quit. That’s the one thing that will definitely stop your career cold.
Are you a musician or not? Musicians play music. Period. That’s all there is to it. If you’re quitting because the people you think are important haven’t properly recognized your talents, then you have your head on backwards.
Look at all the music outcasts who were rejected at first by the gatekeepers of the industry. The media blasted the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, The Sex Pistols, Nine Inch Nails, the Butthole Surfers. Even Lucinda Williams was confined to a small niche audience for almost twenty years. And how about ’70s and ’80s new wavers like Devo, Pere Ubu, and even 90's bands from Mudhoney to the amazing metal label Roadrunner and many of their acts. They’ve all received mountains of negative press at some time.
In the last decade the same thing happened again. Most bands/artists need time to develop, and that is where real commitment from you comes in.
Don’t think the criticism stops when you become successful. That’s when some really scathing reviews will be written by twisted and arrogant music reviewers.
Obviously, there can be legitimate reasons to quit. When inner conflicts within a group prove unbearable, when creative differences within a band become too big, breaking up a band can be the only thing to do. That’s not the issue here. We’re talking about the strange dependence many musicians have on getting acceptance by gatekeepers as a measurement of their success. Anyone who enters this crazy business to seek acceptance is in for a torturous ride.
I believe the only opinion that matters is the audience’s opinion. After many years of listening, I’ve come to the conclusion that taste is defined by the taster. I get requests all the time to review demos and indie CD releases, and I can hear the disappointment in a person’s voice if I don’t like their music.
So what if I don’t like it? I can’t like everything I hear, and that goes for everyone in this business. Stop worrying so much about what the industry Reps think of your music.
The public, your fans, will tell you whether or not there’s something of value in your music. If people react positively to your music by coming to see your live shows, or revisiting your website to get new information on your activities, or buying your CDs, then the public has spoken. Their opinions are the only opinions that matter—that and your own belief that your music is truly unique.
If the fan response to your music is good, but the music business doesn’t seem to be supporting you with glowing reviews, increased airplay, or gigs in the clubs that matter, then you have to assess what you’re doing and what the current trends in music are. You can’t pressure or intimidate or criticize the critics. They are who they are. They have their opinions, their own agendas, their own circle of friends, and they’ll either support you early on or you’ll have to continue on your own until they have to report on you, or support you. That can be the sweetest revenge. By not being discouraged, by not giving up, there may come a time when your popularity demands attention. And the very gatekeepers who wouldn’t give you the time of day will have to cover your concerts and review your records because the public support demands it.
Think about this; inside the word discouragement is the word courage. Sometimes it’s hard to muster up a workable amount of that stuff, but if you don’t, you’ll have only yourself to blame. Keep on keepin’ on. If you’re as good as you think you are, start working today to prove it, and never give up!