It doesn’t matter if you’re a musician, an actor, a filmmaker, a poet, a novelist, a standup comedian, a choreographer…at some point in your creative life, you’ve bullied yourself about where you’re at in your career. You’re unsatisfied with the tangible evidence of “success” that you can call your own. You were supposed to have accomplished more when you reached a certain age. People your age (and younger, goddammit!) are getting more acclaim, and making more money, doing what you’re doing. Will you achieve what you wanted? Is this a sign that it’s time to throw in the towel and join the real world?
If you haven’t gone through any of these emotions, then congratulations; you’re eligible for the Most Stable Hoity-Toity Motherfucker in the World Award. For the rest of us mere peasants and serfs, however, this is extremely common, but unfortunately, sometimes it can get in the way of actually creating great art.
It certainly did for me. And when you’re a musician, you’ve got a lot of pressure from the get-go. Bob Dylan wrote Blowin’ in the Wind when he was twenty one. Brian Wilson wrote and produced Pet Sounds when he was twenty three. The Beatles broke up when they were thirty, after ten years of making music. Shit, Mozart had some pretty fucking respectable symphonies under his belt when he was eight.
I started playing in bands in Chicago back in 2007 when I was nineteen. Yes, you can do the math. I’m twenty six now, so all of you old farts can mutter “what the hell does this kid think he knows??” and stop reading, and all of you youngsters can feel free to e-mail me any questions about the long forgotten days of yesteryear when you had to use a landline telephone to access the internet.
Anyways, regardless of how young or old you think I am, I was of the first generation where the internet really played a huge role in being in a band. Instead of just going out and playing shows and selling records, your success suddenly became a fixed digit. The amount of Myspace friends you had showed the world how popular or unpopular you were. Then came the rise of Youtube, music blogs and Facebook. Pitchfork reviews declared an artist’s worth or lack thereof down to the decimal point. Local blogs posted the 15 bands to look out for in 2011. How many “likes” did your band’s Facebook status get? If you’ve got less than 100,000 views of your video on Youtube then you’re a nobody and everybody knows it! Buzzfeed’s 29 Reasons HAIM is the coolest band of twentysomethings around.
Suddenly we’ve been catapulted into a world where just by clicking a button, we can constantly be reminded of how fast we’re rising or how badly we’re failing, and who’s doing better than us. Now the equivalent of playing a poorly attended gig and then passing by a sold out show by someone who you swear is a no-talent hack can literally happen every time you use your iPhone.
This feeling - this fear of not achieving, of falling behind, of others getting the acclaim that I felt I deserved - it completely took ahold of my life. I had a day job, so music was my designated recreational time, but it was never fun. It was a frenzied effort to prove my worth, before it was too late. Every band practice would end with headaches after I’d throw a fit when we we hadn’t discovered “the sound” in two hours. We’d play a show. People would come out, have a blast and even sing along to the songs. But it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t sold out. That other band posted a photo online of a “sold out” sign. We would put out albums. People loved them. But it didn’t get the online attention I wanted. I was getting older. Nineteen year old kids were getting rave reviews on Pitchfork, getting millions of views on Youtube, playing on talk shows, touring Europe. I was so bitter and dissatisfied that I couldn’t even listen to music if it was made by someone who was younger than me!
When I turned twenty three, I decided that I had to quit my job. I’d been making music long enough, and felt that even if my career wasn’t where I wanted to be, if I could at least tell people that I was a “full time musician,” then I’d be making progress. So I hit the road, left my band behind (sometimes they came along, poor bastards), and toured ten to twenty days of every month, for about two years. I booked my own tours, so I would play in basements, coffee shops, ratty dive bars. I’d peddle CDs and do what I could to make gas money. By the end of the month I would have about enough money to pay rent for the apartment that I barely stayed at. I was too worn out, sick and exhausted to work on any new music when I was actually home, and too broke to go to any shows or go out and build relationships with people who lived in my city. I didn’t feel like I was making any progress building a fanbase or getting better at performing, but I was too proud to go back and get a regular job, so I kept the touring cycle going, even though the shows were getting worse and worse and I was getting more miserable by the day. It would go from one nervous breakdown a tour to one nervous breakdown a day.
Then - something happened. I was home from a tour, and for some reason, I decided to watch Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog’s documentary about the Chauvet Cave in France where human paintings were discovered that were made over 32,000 years ago. Now, I never watched stuff like this. From the first time I picked up a pair of drumsticks and listened to Tommy by The Who when I was thirteen, my interests were pretty one track. I coasted through high school in a weed-smoke haze and only graduated because I aced the music classes (and made the principal laugh), and then I dropped out of college after one year (art school no less). If you wanted to know anything about the history of music, which local bands mattered in Chicago, what business models have worked for successful careers in music, songwriting techniques, what good records just came out, I was your guy. That’s all I cared about; it’s all I ever wanted to spend my time knowing about. When I would go on tour with my band, I couldn’t believe that they would want to play a podcast about science in the van instead of listening for how The Rolling Stones constructed hooks. As far as the rest of the world went, I pretty much knew that Hitler was a dick, and Mitt Romney was a dick, and that was about it.
But for some reason, this movie really struck me. To look face to face at the chain of time, to think about humans that lived 32,000 years ago, all of the generations that lived and died between then and now, I was shaken by my own mortality (read that in Herzog’s voice). I suddenly fell into a deep existential crisis, lying awake thinking about death, worrying about the insignificance of my life. To make matters worse, I watched the entire Cosmos television series by Carl Sagan in about two days, and was consumed by reminders of how small Earth is in the scheme of the universe. Remember when he showed a cosmic calendar of the universe in one year and the recorded history of our planet only occupied the last few seconds of the last minute of December 31st? Holy shit!
I was then overcome by a hunger for more. I read Origin of Species by Darwin in one day, taking in all this imagery of animals, islands and ecosystems slowly evolving over millions of years. When I had my share of that, I dived into human history. I picked up The People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, and read about all the injustices that have been thrust upon people in our country since Columbus’s time. I watched documentaries about the Civil War, World War II, the westward expansion. I started following politics closely. Then, Chicago had the hottest summer in recorded history, and Hurricane Sandy annihilated the Jersey Shore. I anxiously read everything there was to read about global warming and became obsessed with humanity’s doomed fate.
O.K. Phew. Let’s take a breath…calm down. Let’s get away from the inner workings of my brain for a minute and fast forward to the present. Right now I’m the happiest and (more importantly) the most calm that I’ve ever been, and nineteen year old me probably couldn’t be more puzzled. I stopped touring. I work at a recording studio part time where I engineer and produce other people’s music. From time to time I’ll also take part time work at a bar or a retail shop if I’m strapped for cash. I haven’t been praised by Pitchfork. I haven’t sold out a show. I haven’t put out a viral video. I’ve surpassed the age that David Bowie was when he put out Ziggy Stardust and I haven’t even gotten a record deal. However, I’m slowly taking my time and enjoying the art that I’m creating in my free time, and the pride that I take in my work now overshadows all of the other bullshit.
Because it is all bullshit, by the way. Internet numbers, tastemaker favorites, who’s doing better than who…It’s all diversions, and they enflame our insecurities. For me, since I’m an emotionally unstable man of extremes, I literally had to come face to face with an existential crisis where I groveled at the improbability of my very being to snap me out of a vicious cycle and work on living a life where I can focus on my happiness in lieu of the now [admittedly-petty-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things] desires for achieving “success”. But it doesn’t have to be an existential crisis, it can be anything - falling in love, having a baby, running an unrelated business you enjoy…anything that pulls us back to reality, to remind us that there are other things that matter.
If we really want to be happy and create to our satisfaction, we need to ignore these pressures of the modern world, and we need to recognize that most of these pressures are brought upon ourselves. We create because we’re born to be artists. We have urges that we can’t shake off. We do it because we don’t want to do anything else. We sang and made music before we shed our hair and became humans. We painted on caves 40,000 years before museum showcases and magazines. We told stories, acted in plays, embroidered hats and adorned buildings before there was capitalism, because it’s a part of our culture and it’s a part of what makes us human.
If our art doesn’t come from a place of joy, then it’s just another part of the cold capitalist machine that demands endless toil, output, and climbing up a ladder of success (read that in Herzog’s voice too.) In ancient Greece and Rome, most of the artists had other occupations. Virgil leisurely worked on the Aeneid for ten years. He’d wake up in the morning, write a couple lines, go about his day, come back in the evening and then spruce them up. (In all fairness, he died before it was finished, so maybe he’s not the best example).
Now, when you take the plunge to making a living with your art, then that complicates things. It opens up a new set of issues that put a strain on your creativity. Instead of the stress that you put upon yourself to succeed, you’re suddenly relying on it to support yourself, maybe a spouse, maybe a kid. When you start to worry about how you’re going to make your rent and how you’re going to feed yourself, you begin to resent your art. To quote W. Somerset Maugham from his novel Of Human Bondage:
“Without an adequate income half the possibilities of life are shut off. You will hear people say that poverty is the best spur to the artist. They have never felt the iron of it in their flesh. They do not know how mean it makes you. It exposes you to endless humiliation, it cuts your wings, it eats into your soul like a cancer.”
I ran into an old friend who used to write and sing beautiful songs. I asked her if she was going to perform any time soon, and she said “I don’t think so. I’m just not marketable.” What a shame! Music that would have been joyfully played to a village in the 19th century is now denied to the world because her Facebook numbers don’t impress club owners.
Do it for the right reasons. Work hard, sweat it out, get frustrated, but do it for the reason my third grade teachers met up after school every day for three months to write the school play (where they punished my bad behavior by casting me as a dead tree). Do it for the reason people wear costumes and tell dumb jokes at empty dive bars and have the time of their lives, creating stories and memories to hold on to forever. Do it for the wrong reasons, and you might end up like this guy.
"I’m chained upon the face of time
Feelin’ full of thoughtless rhyme
There ain’t no dark ‘til somethin’ shines
I’m bound to leave this dark behind”
Townes Van Zandt, Rex’s Blues