Sweet Sniff of Success

In the days when I used the phrase “making it” without quotation marks I never stopped to consider what it was I actually wanted.

Everyone, no matter how abstractly, wants to be successful (be it professionally or personally) and for many there is a clearly signposted route involving earnings, influence, tax brackets, job titles, rank etc. But what is it to be a successful artist, where so much depends on undefined notions of truth, integrity and other poetic back-patting?

I originally wanted to be an actor but was put off after a few years by the way one’s fortunes are so dependent on factors outside of one’s control. An out of work actor is a waiter. An out of work musician is, whether alone in a bedsit or busking on a street corner, still a musician – still able to physically pick up an instrument regardless of whether anyone is listening – and that is a comforting thing when times are lean.

Success (as a life goal) is a world away from just being able to work in one’s chosen field though. Or is it?

Here is a sentence I have heard from a lot of musicians: “I just want to make a living from what I do.” As a sentiment it seems pretty reasonable but I find the people who say it aren’t typically those that have embarked on a considered path into professional musicianship (of the anonymous MU card-carrying kind), nor are they generally people with any clear strategy of making connections and researching possibilities. They are mostly artists with more ambition than imagination, their sights set on some degree of public recognition, wherein they themselves are the art, not just the songs they write/perform. So suddenly our attention is drawn to the absent words in that sentence: “I just want to make a living from what I enjoy” and the longer version “…I don’t expect to get rich” and then the even longer version “…and I’m not bothered about all the flunkies and drugs and sex and acclaim.”

For there is, whether we like it or not, an invisible context surrounding the work of every singer-songwriter and genre band. We’ve grown up with the iconography of Dylan and Hendrix, the hysteria of Beatles audiences, the self-indulgence of stadium rock and, like the horrors of Pandora’s Box, we’ve never been able to pack all those expectations away again. There is an incredibly glamorous elephant in the room making things just that little bit more difficult for those trying to make a real go of it in the entertainment business.

After all, forgetting the accoutrements of celebrity, who doesn’t want to be able to pay the bills by doing the thing they love? The majority of jobs are soul-destroying and meaningless, the pay being a poor substitute for the self-worth sacrificed. Who doesn’t want to do two well-attended tours a year and on their off days flop out of bed, pen an ode to unrequited love and send it off to whoever puts music into the credits of the Twilight films then stick the spoils into the pension fund? The “I just want to make a living” line is cringe-inducing in its naïveté, especially when viewed beside what most of the world does to make ends meet.

For we now live in a society where one can no longer realistically rely on a job for life in most professions. Like any other craftsman, a songwriter/musician must consider what makes them relevant today whilst simultaneously training a calculating eye on future options. If one’s philosophy centres on the concept of “making it” then keep in mind the fact that all things made are at some point unmade. After years of playing the pub circuit I finally reached that hallowed ground of being a full-time performer (which does wonders for self-esteem) but I took the clown’s shortcut and my act is dependent on a lot of jumping about – the sad truth being that I am already beginning to struggle physically. That’s the reason for extra-curricular activities such as the odd bit of lecturing, panel appearances and reviewing albums for magazines under a pseudonym (well, we must all have our secrets!). I may be self-employed but I am far from self-sufficient, what I do is entirely at the mercy of public demand. Keeping one’s options open is essential.

For Success is a tricky concept, one that seems a little too final for my taste. But it is not a static thing and it is not a destination. So how to position oneself in relation to it?  It is, I believe, vital to have a personal, private and tailor-made definition of the term, not one borrowed off history or the fluctuations of public expectancy. Success should not be boring and yet look around and you’ll find that most people’s definition of it is just that. Ooh, what an expensive car he has, gosh I’m impressed.

But perhaps success is always boring. There are a few set and tested routes that lead to it and an infinite array of colourful and contrasting paths to failure.  Could it be better to fail with aplomb than succeed with a yawn? That’s what I repeat to myself as I slowly rock back and forth, cradling my aborted CV, staring at the unpaid water bill before click, out go the lights…

FIRST PUBLISHED APRIL 2012

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