5 music career lessons borrowed from gardening

I finally get gardening. I mean the appeal of it, not the green thumb part. Over the past few months I’ve been building and tending to my very first vegetable garden. Naturally, this made me think of… DIY music careers!

It’s one of the oldest cliches, the metaphor of life as a garden (or visa versa). But I’m about to go there. So take out your self-help trowels and dig with me a while.

We’re all wrestling with the big things — mortality, a lack of control, finding a sense of purpose — whether we reveal the signs of that struggle on the surface of our lives or keep them buried way deep down.

In that light, I think gardening is a game, a little model of existence, and an expression of how we try to shape, fight against, or accept the variables that are at play in our world. Plus, contestants get some tasty veggies for playing.

On a good day, a garden is a parcel of peace within the chaos, a place from which you can enjoy the literal fruits of your labor. On a bad day, it doesn’t feel so peaceful. Like life. And yes, of course, there’s the whole cycle from birth to death made evident in the microcosm of a garden as it moves through the seasons.

So obviously there are lots of parallels to draw between gardening and life. I figured we could take a look at a few as they pertain particularly to your musical life.

1. Start with good soil

I’ve got some sandy soil in my backyard, so I built a raised bed and filled it with a mixture of compost, peat, loam, and vermiculite. A good foundation for my garden. I didn’t want to have to fight with the native soil just to get the seeds to sprout. Ideally, you can prepare a similarly fertile place in your life from which your music career will grow.

What is your source of inspiration and strength in life? Is that source solid enough that you can keep drawing energy out of it for long stretches? If so, great. Time to plant! (Which could be the recording of a new album, launching a tour, etc.)

But if you’re struggling with anything serious — substance abuse, relationship problems, mental/emotional health issues — it’s often wise to postpone any “heavy lifting” (album launches with coordinated PR and radio campaigns, touring, etc) until those things have been addressed with the full attention they deserve.

Of course you can’t just put life on pause until you’ve got everything perfectly straightened out, so by all means, work towards your musical goals a little bit every single day. Just don’t sabotage your efforts by trying to grow the world’s juiciest tomato miles from a water source.

2. Make it a daily practice

As I said above, your music career, like gardening, should be a daily habit, even if you only spend 15 minutes a day on it. Watering the plants, turning the compost, weeding — there’s always something to do. Just like music: writing, recording, booking, promoting, practicing, etc.

And on a day when it rains (so I don’t have to water the garden), I’ll find something else gardening-related to do with that time, such as reading about various plant care practices, or thinning the lettuce. If a gig falls in your lap, what else can you do with those minutes or hours you’d have spent emailing venues?

3. Keep watering, even if you’re starting to lose faith

We recently posted an article called “7 signs your music grind is finally paying off,” and it points to something very common with musicians: the inability to tell when your efforts are leading you to the next step in your career.

In Maine, it stays cold into April, and then we have a cool May and June. So when it’s prime growing season in many other states, things are still a mystery up here. Are those seeds sprouting? Are they taking extra time for the roots to grow downwards before I’m going to see anything break through the soil?

The simple answer to these questions is: who knows; keep watering!

The answer isn’t quite as simple with your musical life, since it requires more than just water. But the point is the same: stick with it.

And this can often be true even in the face of data. For instance, you could arrange for a monthly residency at a local venue; the first month, all your fans and friends come out; the second month sees a slight decline in attendance; the third sees an even bigger decline; then on the fourth month you suddenly see numbers even higher than the first month, and it grows gradually from there.

Or you decide to post a new cover song video on YouTube every week. Analytics might be depressing to look at for the first six months — then suddenly you release a cover song video that strikes at the right time and people start sharing it. That drives your views for previous videos AND builds audience expectation for your upcoming videos too. What if you’d given up after 5 months?

So, even when you don’t see anything breaking through the soil, keep watering.

4. Be protective, and prune

Your music career — consisting of your music, your band members, your fans, and the partnerships you’ve forged with booking agents, publicists, radio promoters, managers, directors, designers, and other bands — it took time to build, and it should be guarded from squirrels… umm, I mean people (or other forces) that threaten its health.

You can’t just throw up some chicken wire and call it good, though. You’ve got to check the leaves for blight, look at the soil for signs of digging, and so forth. The good news is that the more regularly you’re involved with the management and direction of your music career, the more easily you’ll detect threats because you’ll have that hands-on familiarity with things.

Sometimes the garden is threatened from within and you need to do some pruning. The same can be true of a music career too. If a band member, or manager, or someone affiliated with your music just isn’t working for the health of the whole, it might be time to sever ties (though it’s always good to talk about this stuff first and see if a little extra water and sun can do the trick before you reach for the scissors).

5.  Acceptance! Get some.

I’m in my first year of gardening. There’s a learning curve. I don’t expect to have a giant harvest. Similarly, you should have realistic expectations when you’re starting off in music. You might not be able to quit your day job after the first twelve months, but so it goes.

Learn as much as you can, and then realize that even as you gain experience, you’re still subject to chance: foul weather, down spells, bugs, and blight. Or rather: the bad tour, the saxophone player quitting the group to go back to school, the time you played in Boston when the Red Sox were in the World Series, etc.

Aim high. Expect setbacks. Accept what you can, and keep making the music you need to make.

Are there any other music/garden parallels? Let me know in the comments below.

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