What defines success as a human being is very dependent on an infinite set of variables, the same principle obviously applies to the arts world. The social context in which you were born, your culture, your values, your life experiences, your pursuits (or lack thereof), and definitely, how much time you have spent thinking about it, and the conclusions you’ve reached – they all contribute heavily to what you consider or not being successful.
Artists are an interesting kind. I feel like more often than not, students who are getting serious about being musicians usually lack some kind of long term plan for what to do with the skills they are developing. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that these things have a way of correcting themselves and the inherent meaning of our choices eventually is presented (is it?), and so being a bit lost or a bit loose on our purpose is okay, for a while. But there is definitely a difference between taking charge of the direction of your life or letting life decide for you and then adapting in some way. Sometimes it might be hard to discern between the things you’ve brought upon yourself and the things life itself forced you to figure out in order to adapt to a new circumstance. Don’t mistake going for a nice relaxed swim on a sunny beach for being caught in a tsunami. Out of context they are one and the same thing – you in the ocean – but the reasons that brought you there and what you get from it are very different.
From my short experience in a non-artistic career (yes, I have a degree in sociology), it seems like once a person starts studying a subject deeply, they start having a feeling for what would be the best outcome as a professional in that area, maybe working for X company, or maybe doing some specific kind of work that fits their preference, or making Y amount of money. Sometimes even going as far as planning their whole lives around that path, as in “I’m going to finish school, get a job at this company where I’m paid Z$ a year, buy a house and start a family”.
I don’t actually see these narratives that often in the arts world. Of course the highly uncertain nature of being an artist contributes to it, but I also feel like we get carried away by this uncertainty and use it as an excuse to have no clear path.
So what exactly is happening in the arts world? I’ll talk particularly about my field which is jazz music. I’d say one of the few branches in music where being financially stable isn’t solely dependent on a lucky shot.
Visions of success
First of all, what it means to be successful in the arts world is way more complex than in a non-artistic career. Of the top of my mind and in no particular order, here is a series of situations artists have deemed “being successful” throughout the times:
- being respected by the community (artist’s artist)
- being respected by the public (cult artist)
- being respected by the critics
- being inspiring
- being inspired
- making life better for others through their art
- contributing to the very exclusive and invaluable vault of great human masterpieces
- being an inspiring teacher and pass on your knowledge
- being a keeper of the flame for the old masters and movements
- pushing the boundaries of their specific artistic medium or art movement
- being able to make art until they die
- being able to present their art as much as possible
- being able to produce as many possible pieces
- being part of artists’ circles and the lifestyle associated
- being financially stable
- making money
- making lots of money
- being more appealing in some way to their gender of preference
- having the lifestyle they desire, in whichever form it might take
- living life to its full extent and experiencing what the world has to offer
- escaping the corporate cubicle life
- being in touch with the sensitive, spiritual side of life
- pursuing the death of ego and the total unbounded immersion in your art
- God or religion
This is definitely not an extensive list, it’s instead a 5 minute exercise that provided enough food for thought. If you think that each of these purposes can multiply into various sub-purposes and reasonings, and that you can definitely have some kind of combination of a number of them, you can probably deduct that there are no two equally ideal successful career paths among artists.
The money job
Money is a big issue so I’ve decided to take a moment to reflect specifically on its influence as an artist. Furthermore, money is just a placeholder here, you can definitely switch it for other materialistic visions of success that might not be directly related with honest innocent production of art pieces. This is only an opinion so it’s totally ok if you disagree, please don’t take it too personally.
Music and particularly jazz music is too much of a niche world to net any above average type of financial revenue. This means that if you’re going into jazz music with the same money driven purpose that a person goes into finance, then you’re probably not making the best of decisions. I know this and I’ve said it many times: “I’m fine with not making a lot of money, if I wanted to I would have chosen a different career, I’m happy with the financial sacrifices I’ve made in order to pursue different meanings from life” (like writing about these things, that gives me a lot of purpose). And, you should too probably! Jazz is hard, if you’re going into it because of money, you sure as hell have the stubbornness and drive to make it in a very financially rewarding and competitive career.
Almost inherent to the artistic world is the concept of the lucky shot. The person who has some initial talent and by doing the right thing, at the right place, at the right time, in front of the right people is able to have a big break and to attain disproportionate amounts of success (in whichever form) compared to the average artist. Make no mistake, lucky shots are a part of the artistic mind, and when I started thinking about this I realised how much more common this mental process is than what we usually (want to) believe. Artists think that lucky shots are an inherent feature of those who use a more popular or entertainment-like approach to the creation of art but what I found out is the following: If you’re an artist and you’re sitting around waiting for something external to happen in your life that will push your career to the next level, you are definitely relying on a lucky shot. That can be, being called to perform in said gig; becoming bigger as a side person; waiting for your amazing last album to get media coverage; waiting for the world to find out about you; relying on an audition for an orchestra, group or school; relying on a possible grant; etc.
Now don’t get me wrong, these things are all important to pursue as a musician but, depending on the actual probability of them becoming true, there is a limit to how much centered on them your life should be. If the next clear step in your career is to receive a specific grant and the base probability of getting said grant is 1%, you’re setting yourself for failure in a big way. And the consequences are legion. Once the results are in and you don’t make the list, you’ll be back where you started, with no plan and with a bunch of negative feelings of failure and inadequacy as companions.
If instead the next step in your career is to compose an opera about the tragic life and death of fabric softeners around the world (now there’s a winning idea) and you’re keeping this grant thing on your peripheral vision – something that would improve things but is not exactly your main life goal – then whatever the outcome is it’s fine, since your main goal is still untouched and dependent solely on you.
The way up
In most success stories, one of the characteristics that is recurrent is the presence of a vision, a plan, an objective so strong and deeply felt that the person had no choice but to pursue it fully until it became reality (and this last part is the subject for another post). Pop culture is filled with these stories:
- Jim Carrey wrote a 10 million dollar check to himself a bunch of years before he was famous
- Louis Armstrong wanted to play in King Oliver’s band almost since the first time he picked the cornet
- JFK put men on the moon 7 years before it actually happened, with his famous moon speech
To put it simply, if you choose to pursue one of the toughest careers there is, why not do it with a clear vision and purpose? By all means be an artist, but please have something really strong and meaningful to back you up, and if you don’t have it then go ahead and find it, and play around with it, and turn everything upside down and tear your plans and ideas a hundred times if you have to. But be mission driven. Otherwise what’s the point? To just mindlessly practice scales everyday? I thought one purpose all artists had in common was the will to escape the boring routine of the corporate world.
So I’d say there’s a couple of self-reflection exercises for you to consider. First of all, in your artistic pursuit do you have a clear purpose? A clear meaning of success or end game to what you’re doing, practicing or developing right now? What does it look like? Write down what the perfect day or week would be for you 10 years from now, and don’t fear any kind of ridiculousness, and don’t short sell yourself. You’re a creative after all, use your creativity to think big and don’t apologise to anyone for it. Most of the time, what I found out is that this exercise shows a very different reality, a kind of a misalignment I would say, with my short term goals or objectives. For example, I might be working on a technical thing on my instrument but my idea of success says that I want to have 20 records released in ten years. So the technical thing I’m working on right now isn’t quite helping me achieve that idea of success, it might be contributing to something in some very indirect way, but unless I’m spending a lot more time writing and playing my own music, then I’d say that I’m not setting myself on the right track to achieve my own personal views of success.
Second, be ready to answer the question “So where exactly are you going from here?”. As a teacher, I help people. I teach yes, but most of all I help problem solving. Now, I can bring students closer to my vision of success, but I can’t bring them closer to their vision of success if they don’t have one or if they haven’t shared it with me. I am also bound to fail in helping them succeed if their idea of success is reliant on a lucky shot, I can up the statistical probability by a tiny bit, but I am no miracle maker.
My influence as a teacher or a colleague is small compared to the people you will come across during your life: label owners, promoters, patrons, journalists, critics. All of these have the ability to change your life in one single moment. And that life changing moment heavily depends on your ability to lay out in front of them where exactly you are going from here, and having years of work done towards that goal to back you up. And yes, here is your lucky shot coming back to bite you, but by focusing on what you can actually do for yourself, you ended up increasing your chances of hitting that sweet success pot without losing yourself in the frustrations of the process, and while building up a portfolio of accomplishments. That sounds pretty successful to me, I’d say.