(Editor’s note: photo NOT of me!!!)
Don’t be Too Cool for School
Before I worked at CD Baby I was a CD Baby client, meaning– a musician! When I first signed up to sell my music with CD Baby I received an email that contained a few great bits of sagely advice compiled by Derek Sivers, CD Baby’s founder. One of the pithy tidbits that’s stayed with me through the years was a wise metaphor that went something like: “The Music Business is High School.”
What did Derek mean by this? He was giving us fair warning that the music business (and every local music scene that it’s comprised of) is made up of cliques and tribes, in-crowds and out-crowds, cool kids and… well– I’ll say “losers” for now, but please keep reading for my later modification.
In my early 20’s it was helpful to read this advice and to be forewarned that talent is only part of the equation for success (maybe the lesser part). It was clear I’d have to get used to the idea that the music business (like most) is about interpersonal relationships, connections, and that dreaded word– “networking.” I knew my inner-shy-guy was going to have to crawl out of his shell.
I forced myself to go out and get social, to meet people, listen to bands, make friends. I adjusted. I rubbed elbows (and probably the occasional nose) with folks I thought could help me or my music. And the better I did, the more miserable I became.
The curse of “cool” on your music career
Why was I miserable when I should’ve been rejoicing? Because our little egos live under the illusion that “cool” can be defined; we fear that “cool” is a limited resource; we assume being cool requires exclusion.
And so as the great reviews rolled in, as the venues got bigger and the bills got better, my stress level grew too. After all, when you’re a little bit cool, you want more of it; it’s like an arms race. And what stockpile of cool you’ve cultivated up to that point must be defended at all costs, lest you be overtaken. This mixture of anxieties and aspirations is a recipe for burnout.
To be a “blow up” success requires not only a stick of dynamite, but a fuse too (ambition). I had a long fuse. And it burnt up somewhere along the way. (See my article on how envy can kill your music career.) What should have been an effort to grow my career the grassroots-way, by slowly raising a foundation beneath me, instead became a mad-dash climb up a slippery ladder. When you get too far off the ground, the grass withers.
Silver lining– so you can begin again
Here’s the good news: after you’ve burned out, you’ll probably realize that all your metaphors were mixed up, and you can start afresh with a new attitude.
Do you have to be cool to be hot? Are only the hot people cool? No. As I mentioned in the linked-to article above, plenty of the buzz bands in your town will never get past those first few years of hype. Some giant successes have bypassed their local scenes altogether. Some giant successes are also widely disparaged by music critics. Some critical darlings will never sell through their first thousand CDs.
If it’s all relative, then shouldn’t we be focusing on playing shows with our friends, rather than whoever is perched above us on the ladder’s next rung? Shouldn’t we care more about the fans, friends, and family that DO support us, rather than worrying about the imaginary masses?
I thought back on high school, where I’d had friends in every circle– “the sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, d!@#heads” (to quote from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Isn’t it more cool to be comfortable floating between cliques, to have connections with people of all different backgrounds, to share in the enthusiasms of folks whose passions are different from your own? I don’t want to waste my time excluding people or being embarrassed of certain musical relationships.
In my high school and post-high school experience, some of the “cool” kids went nowhere; some of the no-ones became ones-to-know. So while that bit of advice I read 10 years ago from Derek was helpful, realistic, eye-opening, and motivating, it’s good to remember that there’s always a new world waiting beyond the one you’re in today (well, until there isn’t). You’re not stuck in high school forever!
Both personally and professionally, I’ve been able to meet and talk with thousands of musicians. And while it ain’t exactly based on scientific data, I can tell you most assuredly from watching some of the folks I’ve encountered– Don’t try to be a hipster. It’s exhausting.
By all means, make new friends; but remember the old ones, too.
-Chris R. at CD Baby