Welcome to Ask a Failed Musician, in which I will help struggling musicians make sense of their careers and even offer some advice. Whether it will work, who knows? It obviously didn't work for me. But then again, I was on Kimmel once, so there's that.
Black Flag: Very influential, not always critically praised.
A musician responded to my previous column by asking what success in music is. He wrote:
"I gather your discussion really focuses on commercial success, which I don't think is everyone's view of success. I think some of us are just happy to put out music and have a few people enjoy it. Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to turn down a million dollars if it came my way but I never expected that in the first place. So, my definition of success is just, 'Hey, we made a good record,' and, 'Oh, look, some small genre-specific zine in Europe likes us. Well, that's nice.' But more often than not, success isn't simply a rehearsal space fridge filled with beer."
- Ask a Failed Musician: Go Where the Successful Musicians Go
I think the answer to your question can be found in the following key phrase in your email: "Some of
us are just happy to put out music and have a few people enjoy it." Are there musicians who say "I want NO people to enjoy my music"? Doubtful. Sure, there are
musicians who openly and genuinely don't care if they never make a dime as long as they get to continue
making their art. So, by that logic, success isn't defined by money.
Though, as you mentioned, it wouldn't be such a terrible thing to have. That Kimmel
performance in front of millions in Times Square on New Year's Eve earned me just enough money
to buy a new iPod and a steak dinner. And that was at the height of my career. The iPod is now dead.
But getting by on so little wasn't a big deal to me. I was driven by another thing, and I believe
other musicians are too. Influence is currency musicians value more than money. If you have the
respect of fans and your peers, it tells you that what you are creating is good. In few other industries do
you see people who are living like animals and conversely earning the most praise.
Take a look at the world outside the rock 'n' roll bubble for a moment. People are respected for
their earning potential, their financial security, and by how much responsibility they can handle. In music,
it's the opposite. You can be the most irresponsible, broke slob and be at
the top of the heap.
It's amazing how well you can get by with no money as long as your band is popular.
I guess this leads to a new question: What defines influence in music? Having countless other bands try to
imitate you? Probably. Earning praise from critics? Probably not.
As you wrote, some people might feel successful in simply putting out an album, no matter how
bad it is. If you make a bad record and only you like it, does that make it successful? In the end, no. If the
music isn't influential in some way, it simply doesn't matter.
Write to Ask a Failed
Musician here. Ask anything you like. I
will do my best to help you not fail also.
-- Daniel Hopkins