What is success? This is a question I have struggled with in the past. It all stems from a conversation I had with a student a few years ago, he was in his fifties and this was during his third or fourth lesson. He was asking me what I did outside of teaching and I was telling him about the band I was currently playing with. The band in question was playing 2 or 3 gigs every weekend and I was going home with £60-£80 in my pocket after each gig, which although wasn’t going to buy me the Rolls Royce, it did make us one of the better paid ‘pub’ bands in the area. This prompted him to tell me about a person he knew, that was, in his words, “a really successful musician”, which as far as I could ascertain, simply meant that he made his money out of playing music, rather than anything else. But it was the inflection in the word really that troubled me slightly. Here I am, trying to impart my knowledge and experience in the field and my student doesn’t seem to count me as a successful musician. Why would you go to someone that you do not consider as successful to teach you about the subject you want to learn. This is just one of a few similar conversations I have had over the years and I don’t for any minute consider that the comments made to me in these encounters were anything other than well meant, but they did get me thinking, what is a successful musician?
For many, a successful musician is one that earns millions of pounds a year touring the world, recording albums that sell out in record stores hours after release and has adoring fans that follow their every move. Awkwardly, I realize that I have shown myself to be a little out of touch here, I mean, who goes to a record store anymore? If you can find one, and there are still a few around, they are wonderful places. But with the onslaught of digital downloads they have certainly become a rarity. So now success is measured by downloads and instagram followers, but is that really what makes you a successful musician?
Some might say longevity is the key, look at the Rolling Stones, it is hard to argue that they are not incredibly successful musicians, or Elton John, Cliff Richard and a handful of others whose careers have spread across many decades. But then this causes problems too, because these musicians are only successful in certain areas of the population. The vast majority of people I interact with would happily agree that the Rolling Stones are one of the most successful bands of all time, but they mostly wouldn’t be so quick to agree the same for Elton John and they would undoubtedly laugh their socks off at the mention of Cliff Richard being in the same category as either. This is a common mistake of mixing up success or ability with whether you enjoy listening to them. You may be a diehard Beatles fan, but under the banner of longevity they are not, and this may be hard for some to hear, as successful as the Rolling Stones, purely because they split up. But let’s hope this is not the definitive definition of success, because if we all need to be rich having sold millions of albums, have the equivalent to a small country's population of dedicated fans and then keep that momentum up for several decades then I am sad to say that there is really little hope for many of us.
So maybe, we can lower the bar a bit, how about saying that you are successful if you are able to maintain a socially acceptable existence, running a car, having a mortgage and other such rock ‘n’ roll pastimes, by just playing music. I don’t think anybody would disagree with that, but then we are missing out on a whole chunk of the musicians in this world who are living very comfortable lives in the music industry but rarely make much money at all from actually playing. Unless you yourself are involved in the music industry then I suspect this chunk of musicians is far greater in size than you would tend to imagine. You have teachers for a start and yes, I probably am biased on this one. You only have to go back in time a couple of hundred years and teaching music was a noble part of most musicians daily life. Many classical pieces of music, quite a few of the ones you will have heard, were written as exercises for the composer's student. There are sound engineers, who are usually superb musicians in their own right, but use their musicality to make other musicians sound as good as they possibly can, and that is just the tip of the iceberg, throughout the music industry you will find many musicians who don’t spend a whole lot of time actually playing music, but I personally think it would be quite unjust to call them unsuccessful.
So let’s take another step down this poorly conceived hierarchy of musicians to those who earn a good living doing ‘real jobs’. These musicians come from all sorts of industry, from accountants to carpenters, builders and shopkeepers. They work a 9 to 5 job, or something close to it, and supplement their income playing music. This could be anything from a local pub band or wedding and corporate events band, to some busy acts that often play festivals around the world, whilst still holding down a ‘normal’ job. But you can’t count yourself as a successful musician if you're not making all of your money through music can you? Well, why not? For a start, you are probably earning a lot more than many musicians who try to make a living out of exclusively performing. You have still gone through the hours of dedicated practice to get yourself to a confidence level and standard in which people are willing to pay to hear your music. Maybe this is the defining characteristic of a successful musician, if people are willing to pay to hear your music, whether that is a million pound tour or a fifty pound pub gig, surely you can count yourself as successful. Surely you are a successful musician if you have a pound in your pocket earnt from the mere act of playing music.
That really brings us to buskers I guess, they get paid when people like what they hear, and a busker could be a seasoned musician trying to earn a few extra quid here and there, or indeed, a child, a teenager or someone older who is still learning, but is brave enough to put themselves out there for public judgment. It would seem logical then, that as soon as one penny hits the bottom of their hat, then they have become a successful musician. They have practiced, they have chosen to play music and they have gained enough confidence to share that music with a stranger's ear. So maybe, just maybe, money isn’t the important aspect of being a successful musician, it could be that being a successful musician is down to the ear of the beholder. If your music touches someone, makes them feel something akin to what you are trying to portray, then you are a successful musician.
At this point, I feel that I may have opened up a hornet's nest of confusion. Because if the definition of success in music is to make another person feel something, then a six year old, coming home from their first ukulele lesson and proudly showing their parents that they know how to play a C chord has suddenly become a successful musician. No? Or have I taken this too far? Also, music is an art, it is classified as such, and art is there to make people feel, but it doesn’t have to make people feel a certain way, that’s rather the beauty of it I think. One person can look at a painting and get a completely different feeling from it compared to the person standing next to them. All art is personal, from both the artist's point of view and that of the viewer. This is just as true in music as it is in any form of art. The song ‘river’ by Joni Mitchell will always make me well up, not because of the intended story behind the song, which is about the feelings after a breakup in a relationship, but because it was the first song I listened to after hearing that my grandmother had died. Now, you could argue that those feelings aren’t a million miles away from each other, but I think you could certainly agree that my feelings for that song are not what the songwriter intended. In fact, you could say that Joni did not intend for anybody to feel anything with that song, it was personal to her, she was the one with feelings that she poured out into a song. The fact that her music has touched many people in many different ways is non-consequential to the origin of the song. So is Joni Mitchell a successful musician because she has sold many albums over here career, or because her music has made people feel emotions of various sorts, or perhaps what makes her a successful musician is that she played music, honestly and from the heart, whether it touched people or not, her music is a part of her that she has presented out to the world. Most artists with even an ounce of self awareness will agree that the act of producing art is at least partially a form of self therapy. Some people deal with life’s struggles by playing sports or exercising, artists make art.
So is this the key? Is this the definition of a successful musician? To be a successful musician, all you need to do is to play music, honestly and from the heart. That doesn’t mean you have to play a song that you have written, a song that you love and means something to you can still be played honestly. But do it because it is in you, achieve this and then I think you can safely say that you are a successful musician, at least in one way.
Maybe the key here is that success is based on your own expectations. If you set your sights on being a world famous megastar musician, then you will not be a successful musician until you have reached that goal. However, if you set your sights on just being able to play music with friends, then you will be a successful musician the first time you sit down with another musician and play a song together.
Should you still become a world wide megastar, then that will be a pretty awesome bonus.