There are those who would have you believe that, in order to be successful in music, you must have or get certain things, but this is only true to a degree. Sure, if you want to learn how to play a guitar or the drums, having or getting a musical instrument is undoubtedly a must. And if you want to crush some live performance, having a quality rehearsal space is key to preparing for that. Yet beyond such simple, practical matters, success often means giving up some things.
Here are seven things you should give up to help improve your odds of being successful in music.
Give up on the idea of having to be perfect
“Imperfection clings to a person, and if they wait till they are brushed off entirely, they would spin forever on their axis, advancing nowhere.”—Thomas Carlyle
Not too long ago, I watched a young band win an important music competition in downtown Kitchener, Ont. They weren’t the best band on the list that night. They didn’t have the best instruments. Their timing wasn’t prefect, and they even flubbed the odd chord. So, by technical standards, they weren’t perfect.
However, they were enthusiastic. They showed visible joy and passion about what they were doing as they bounced around the stage. Their energy engaged the audience and drew them into the performance, and that translated into thunderous applause and a trophy. So, give up on the idea of having to be perfect. Focus on the joy of playing and performing music and other things like winning competitions will take care of themselves.
Give up on whatever picture of success you may have been sold
“Success must never be measured by how much money you have.”—Zig Ziglar
Success will always be a matter of personal perspective and definition. The problem is, it’s easy to lose sight of this in a world that commonly measures success in dollars and things.
Yes, it would be fun to be driven everywhere in a stretch limo or have room service deliver exquisite meals three times a day. Yet if someone has sold you on such ideas as the only measure of success, the pursuit will likely work against you, planting the weeds of unhappiness and infecting your joy of playing music.
Success is far broader, situational and more personal:
- If you can pay the bills and keep a roof over your head by playing music, you are successful.
- If you have the time to spend one or two nights a week playing at clubs or small festivals, you are successful.
- If you have the freedom to spend one afternoon a week jamming with friends, you are successful.
- If you finally manage to record that song you love, you are successful.
- If you give yourself permission to love what you’re doing, you are successful.
There are many different definitions of success. You alone know which one is right for you, and you’re right in whichever definition you choose.
Give up thinking you need to know how to read and write music
“Music is a language that doesn’t speak in particular words. It speaks in emotions, and if it’s in the bones, it’s in the bones.”—Keith Richards
Musical notation came after musical creation. Here’s what I mean.
Long ago before the invention of musical instruments, no one walked up to their fellow villagers and said, “I’ve written down all these strange symbols called notation. I have no idea what they mean but we should invent some musical instruments to find out.” After instruments were invented, people played what came to them or what they heard others playing. Only much later was musical notation created to record music, and the systems were many and varied between cultures.
From fragmentary, instructional-based notation discovered written on tablets around 1250 BC to the text-symbol notation of ancient Greece, early music notation also included medieval plainchant, Korean jeong-gan-bo, Indian sargam, Russian stolp notation and Japanese kunkunshi.
Today, musical notation still exists in a variety of forms. While sheet music using staves and note heads stands as a fairly universal method of notating music, country musicians still rely heavily on the numeral-based Nashville Number System created by Neal Matthews in the late 1950s. And thousands of musicians worldwide still use informal tab systems to capture their music as effective instructional material for other musicians.
So, give up on the idea that you need to know how to read and write music to enjoy performing songs (either yours or songs by other artists). Guitar legends Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen and Stevie Ray Vaughan never learned to read or write music. They simply played by ear and followed inspiration and passion. So, follow yours and always remember.
Back before recording software, musical notation was originally created to record music, because that’s all the technology anyone had. So, if you really don’t know the names of the notes or chords that you’re playing and all you do is record your music, you can relax knowing that you’re writing your music down.
Give up believing everyone should like you
“Happiness can only exist in acceptance.”—George Orwell
Few would argue that the Beatles aren’t one of the greatest bands the world has ever known. Yet that’s exactly what legendary record producer Quincy Jones did.
In a 2018 interview with New York Magazine, Jones called the Beatles “the worst musicians in the world” and singled Paul McCartney out as “the worst bass player I ever heard.” Jones also slammed Michael Jackson and Bono but refused to acknowledge his own character and talent as anything but pure unfailing gold.
In other words, you’re never going to please everyone with your music (or anything you do). No one is capable of that. So, abandon the migraine-inducing, soul-debilitating, self-flagellating idea that everyone should like you, especially if someone leaves a negative comment about you or your work on some comment string somewhere. Yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but don’t forget. That includes you and your opinion that someone else’s opinion doesn’t serve you and is best put out with the trash. And then you move on to play and record more music and connect with people who do like your music.
Give up thinking success has a cut-off date
“It’s never too late for a new beginning in your life.”—Joyce Meyers
Before releasing her 1993 breakout hit “All I Wanna Do” at age 31, Sheryl Crow worked as a music teacher, wrote advertising jingles and worked as a backup vocalist for Michael Jackson in the 1980s. At age 47, Susan Boyle won over cynical judges and the audience on Britain’s Got Talent and went on to release six albums and garner two Grammy nominations. Singer Michael Fitzpatrick was 32 before he started taking piano lessons, and was 38 when his band, Fitz and the Tantrums, released their first album in 2008. Debbie Harry was 31 when Blondie released their self-titled debut album in 1976, but wouldn’t see worldwide success until the band’s third album, Parallel Lines, in 1978. Guitarist Andy Summers was 35 when he was asked to join the Police, and Bill Haley (described as the greatest musical pioneer of the 20th century) was 30 before Decca released his recording of the Max Freedman-James Myers song “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” in 1955, earning Haley the title of the man who first brought rock ‘n’ roll to the mainstream.
So, give up on the idea that you have to “make it” in the music industry by a certain age. The only cut-off dates that exist are those that you create in your own mind.
Give up believing you need expensive gear
“Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old f—king drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck too. And then they’ll f—king start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives, and then all of a sudden, they’ll become Nirvana.”—Dave Grohl
If you’ve ever encountered the musician who sneers at you as a “lesser artist” for playing a Squier guitar or CB drums, you’re not alone. Just like people have long shopped for the same clothes as their idols to feel cool, musicians have long emptied their bank accounts in the belief that owning an expensive name-brand instrument instantly makes them “real musicians.”
While top-end instruments certainly have a lot to offer, no price tag trumps artistry, passion and the most important element of all: a good song.
- Joan Jett played a budget Gibson Melody Maker with the Runaways and later with the Blackhearts on their hits, from “I Love Rock N’ Roll” and “Bad Reputation” to “I Hate Myself for Loving You.”
- When asked why he seemed to favor the low-end Fender Mustang guitar, Kurt Cobain said in his last interview with Guitar World, “I don’t favor them. I can afford them.”
- Jimmy Page and George Harrison started out by playing a Resonet Grazioso, the Czechoslovakian option to the pricier Fender Stratocaster.
- Seasick Steve made it big playing his trademark Three-String Trance Wonder guitar.
- And in the opening of the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud, Jack White plays a riff on a guitar made from a few hunks of wood and a strand of wire before turning to the camera and asking, “Who says you need to buy a guitar?”
So, shoot for the stars in your musical aspirations, but don’t let the lack of any name-brand instrument stop you from hitting the launch button.
Give up thinking some single performance will “make or break” your career
“Life is not about how many times you fall down. It’s about how many times you get back up.”—Jaime Escalante
The halls of rock ‘n’ roll are filled to the rafters with artists who lost competitions or suffered frighteningly embarrassing experiences, and still they went on to do awesome things. A few examples:
- In season three of American Idol, Jennifer Hudson lost in the semi-finals but went on to enjoy a successful musical career, earn an Oscar for her role as Effie White in the 2006 movie Dreamgirls and earn a judge’s seat on The Voice.
- Similarly, Chris Daughtry placed fourth on season five of American Idol but went on to huge success with his band, Daughtry, and stand just behind Idol alumni Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson for album sales.
- In February of 1992, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist John Frusciante deliberately sabotaged the band’s performance of “Under the Bridge” on Saturday Night Live, but that didn’t stop the band from releasing six more albums.
- Taylor Swift has been criticized for giving performances where she sounds out of breath and pitchy, but that hasn’t prevented fans from flocking to her concerts like it’s Black Friday.
- Billie Joe Armstrong threw a toddler-worthy fit in 2012 after Green Day’s performance was cut short at the iHeart Radio Music Festival to make room for Usher, but Green Day’s 2016 album Revolution Radio nonetheless debuted at number one on the Billboard 200.
- And Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose pretty much devoted himself to being an arrogant tool between 1988 and 1993, and both critics and fans villainized him for being late for shows or walking off stage in the middle of them. Yet AC/DC still asked Rose to stand in as frontman at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena in 2016 after singer Brian Johnson had to quit AC/DC’s Rock or Bust tour for health reasons, and critics heralded Rose for delivering a killer performance.
I think you get the point.
No matter how critical you may think some performance is to your success, it might not be.
So, enjoy each performance for what it is, and if some show doesn’t go as you’d imagined, step back, shake it off, work out any kinks in rehearsal, and look forward to your next show.
Written by Xristopher Bland