The real way to become a successful musician: advice from Andrew W.K.

Photo of Andrew W.K. taken by Andrew Strasser.
Photo of Andrew W.K. taken by Andrew Strasser.

On this blog we’re usually sharing practical, actionable advice that can help you move your music career forward one step at a time: creating better Facebook events, booking smarter tours, recording an album on a tight budget, etc.

But there’s something that’s often more important to defining and achieving success as a musician: your mindset. In that department, Andrew W.K. has done my job for me this week, and I thought we could all crash his soul-deep self-help party!

In his advice column for The Village Voice, the “Party Hard” singer fields this question:

Since I was very young, I’ve always wanted to be a successful musician. I have practiced and played in many bands and done everything I can to get my music out there, but the dream of making it big just seems to get further away and more impossible. I feel like I should just give up, but I love music so much and want to succeed at it. How can I get there? How can I be a really successful musician?

Striving For Success

Here’s how Andrew W.K. begins his response:

The traditional modern concept of success — being the measurement of monetary income as the primary indicator of effort and mastery in a certain field — is essentially a scam, a con, and a lie. To equate success with an amount of money earned, or an amount of fame achieved, is at best an unfortunate miscomprehension of the very nature of success. At worst, it’s a malicious distortion.

To truly succeed at something is to devote yourself to what you love, and to allow that devotion to bring out the best and most admirable qualities inside of you, so that in the end, you ultimately succeed at the only effort that really matters: becoming a better person than you were.

What about artists who pursue music to get rich or famous?

The musician whose efforts in music only add to the size of their bank account is really just a businessperson — a successful banker, not necessarily a successful musician. If music is the means to an end, and that end is money, the music might as well be real estate investment, or commodity trading. Individuals whose primary interest in music is positioning themselves to impress others with their style and wealth may be successful marketers and salesmen, but they’re not successful musicians, or even successful human beings. They’re just rich.

The idea that making money is the best indication of success is fundamentally flawed. Far too often the individuals who make the most money are the biggest failures in every other area of life, most notably those related to personal integrity, kindhearted values, and quality of character. Many people think that achieving material success is worth total sacrifice in every other part of their life — but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Success in one area of life should enable further and more meaningful success in all the other areas, too. Success materially and failure spiritually is no success at all.

OK. So that’s his take on OTHERS. What about the self? Here goes:

Furthermore, success is not power over others, but discipline over oneself. Success is not doing whatever one wants, but doing what one is truly meant to do. Success is not fulfilling one’s most immediate desires, but fulfilling one’s true purpose — and fulfilling it despite obstacles, inconvenience, or how much it differs from what one otherwise feels like doing.

At best, the typical material conception of success inspires the shallowest and most superficial type of selfish ambition, and at worst, it keeps one hopelessly locked in a cycle of perceived failure, vicious competition, and unfulfilled lustful desire. It’s set up from the start as a losing game, so that no one can ever really succeed, because in the contest to see who is “biggest” or “richest,” no one ever really wins. You just keep scheming and clawing and battling, getting closer to emptiness and further from the truly worthwhile things in life.

So here’s Andrew W.K.’s ultimate advice on becoming (or simply being) a successful musician:

Music, like all the arts, is a sacred pursuit. It is an end in itself. The reward of playing music is in the joy of experiencing it, and a successful musician is the person who becomes so connected with that spirit of music that he or she becomes inseparable from it. The successful musician aspires to be music itself.

So, for you to be a successful musician, all you have to do is really, really love playing music. Really, really, really love it. Worship it and adore it and turn yourself over to it. And then allow the music to make you a better person from the inside out, not just a richer person or a more famous person, but a more valuable person to the people around you and to the world, and to yourself.

Now go put all the energy you’ve spent worrying that you’re not successful enough into just playing and loving your instrument. If you can say that you’re in love with playing it, you can say that you’re successful. Never give up on what you love. It’s what makes life worth living.

Your friend,
Andrew W.K.

What do you think of Andrew W.K.’s advice in his Village Voice column? Let me know in the comments below. 

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