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Three Myths About Art and Success

My five-year anniversary of professional musicianship passed in August, and I was too busy making a record, touring, and driving back and forth to New Orleans to notice until now. I guess that’s as it should be.

Five years of doing this thing - and I mean REALLY DOING IT, pouring in all of my time and energy and passion and night-and-daydreams - has given me a whole lot of thoughts, feelings, and surprises. Below are some of my favorites, and the myths that begot them.

Myth #1: Being Good will Make You Successful.

The reality: being good and being successful: no correlation.

This has been the number one biggest shock to me over the past five years, and even though I “get it” now, I still wake up every week or two in a panic/depression/rebellion against this idea. I spent literally ten years of my life, ages 13 to 23, focused on only one musical goal: becoming a great songwriter. On the tail-end of that ten years, just as I started to think I might be reaching my goal, I got a wicked-bad feeling that it might not matter. It reminded me of Joseph Campbell’s description of a midlife crisis: you spend half your life climbing a ladder, you finally get to the top, and you realize it’s up against the wrong wall.

I woke up one day and had this chilling thought: I could be the best songwriter alive, and it wouldn’t guarantee any sort of external success. Not fame, not fortune, not even rent money.

I think the greatness = success myth grew out of a combination of bio-pic mania and the rags-to-riches fairy tales that Americans are particularly fond of. The myth goes something like this: if you’re really good at what you do, someone will come along and “discover” you, make a few phone calls, and before long, you’ll be a star.

I am not saying this to be bitchy, but here’s the stone-cold fact: the people who are most successful in the music business are not always the people who are best at music. Conversely, the people who are best at music are not always successful in the music business.

This principle, unfortunately, trickles down from platinum-selling mega-stars to the street musicians of Manhattan, and seems to be equally prevalent in the other arts, sciences, and even business. Contrary to popular belief, I think it’s been more or less this way for the last hundred years. Yes, Louis Armstrong was incredibly great, and incredibly successful. But have you ever heard of Cleo Brown? How about James Booker? And I won’t go into the less-than-talented artists who have been extremely successful, that would be rude… *COUGH* Rebecca Black *cough, cough*. Excuse me.

The first follow-up question, which I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to, is this: if being good doesn’t make you successful, what does? Some common suggestions are: 1) money 2) good looks 3) dumb luck. A less common but equally probable suggestion: 4) persistence.

The next follow-up question is a doozie. If being good doesn’t make you successful… why be good?

Myth #2: If You’re Not Successful, You Should Probably Stop.

The reality: your success is none of your business.

Before I got out from under this myth, I had to spend many months crying into my cereal about the fact that I had probably wasted ten years of my life honing a skill that the rest of the world considers about as important and interesting as making sculptures out of pencil shavings. So why be good? Why make music at all?

Finally, it dawned on me: success is not the point. Furthermore, it’s none of my business. My business is, in fact, being good.

Little-known fact: the most important and satisfying rewards one gets from being good at something are not external rewards. They don’t always include money or fame or gold stars. For example: nobody ever got a trophy for being in a happy marriage. At best, your spouse will buy you flowers, or do the dishes, occasionally. Does that mean it’s not worth the effort?

Obviously not. My goal of being a great songwriter is partly selfish and partly altruistic: I want to write great songs because doing so makes me happy. And how do I know I’ve written a great song? Because hearing that song makes somebody else happy.

I have to assume, somewhere deep in my heart, that the world will take care of me if I keep on doing what I love, and throwing my pleasure and joy and enthusiasm for it all around me like birdseed at a wedding. I have to assume that, put my head down, and write more songs.

Myth #3: Making Art will Drive You Crazy

The reality: success, or lack thereof, will drive you crazy. Making art may be the only thing that will keep you sane.

I blogged in detail about this a few months back, and here’s a follow-up. People (including me, until recently) seem to think that being an artist is a little like being a paranoid schizophrenic. You’re born that way and there’s nothing you can do about it, but with lots of meds and a decent institution, there’s still hope of an okay life. More likely, you’ll end up ODing at 27 in a basement green room, having spent your twelve illegitimate kids’ inheritance money on hookers and blow.

I’ll be 27 next July, so it seems like the time to take a long, hard look at this one.

I can’t say this will always be the case, but here’s what I’ve found so far: my relationship with my “muse”, that creature/spirit/part of my brain that brings me songs and melody and great performances, is the most satisfying relationship in my life. Creating art is a beautiful, magical, endlessly-gratifying experience.

My relationship with my ego, however, that creature/spirit/part of my brain that brings me fear, bitterness, and endless late-night monologues about my failures as an artist, is by far the most destructive and abusive one in my life. If I ever end up ODing in a basement green room (still looking pretty unlikely, from here): blame my ego, not my muse.

And yes, I blame Robert Johnson’s, Janis Joplin’s, Kurt Cobain’s and Amy Winehouse’s egos, too. Their muses were brilliant and kind and good to them. They didn’t have to die to make those records. Let’s all stop talking that way, for the good of the artists who are still with us.

In Conclusion…

I always hope that my little essays will be interesting to other artists, as well as to computer programmers and doctors and stay-at-home-dads. In case this one is a little too artist-centric, here’s a big-picture summary.

We humans, these days, put way too much emphasis on the kinds of success we can quantify, measure and compare (why? Probably a lot of reasons. I mostly blame the school system. And American Idol). Unfortunately for us, that kind of success has no inherent personal or spiritual value.

The kind of success that we need, that we ought to be concentrating on, cultivating, and encouraging from our kids, is the kind that brings us joy and satisfaction. It’s success that we need to work hard for, but the work makes us feel strong and smart and a little bit giddy. Chances are good that this kind of success brings the people around us joy and satisfaction, too; but how much, and whether they pay/thank/praise us for it, is none of our business.

I think Howard Thurman said it best, when he said…

“Do not ask yourself what the world needs. As yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

PS. Actually, all kids already know this.


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Playing Pointlessly

My favorite favorite book, if I had to pick one, is called “Finite and Infinite Games”. In the opening pages, the author James P. Carse puts forth the notion that there are two types of games, and that everything we do in life can be identified as a “play” in one of these two categories.

The first type of game is called a finite game. A finite game is defined as any game which is played for the purpose of winning. Things that we usually call “games”, such as Yahtzee and WWF wrestling, are in this category, along with things that we don’t usually call games, but which are indeed played to win (at least, most of the time), such as war, college scholarships, and politics.

The second type of game is called an infinite game. An infinite game is a game that’s played for the purpose of continuing the play. If someone starts to “lose” an infinite game, the other players will conspire to keep him in the game, either by helping him somehow, or by changing the rules.

The concept of changing the rules is what makes this idea really interesting to me. In a finite game, the rules are static, because rules are what determines who wins. If you change the rules, it becomes unclear who the winner is, and thus it’s no longer a finite game (imagine you’re playing Monopoly, and one of the other players declares a new rule: that he can take money directly from the bank whenever he wants. If this guy “wins”, has he actually won?). In an infinite game, you make up the rules as you go along, and you change them whenever they become inconvenient. If the point is just to play, and not to win, then rules are only worthwhile as long as they make the game better, longer, or more fun.

Music is an infinite game. Although some people are fond of the misconception that music has “rules”, such as time signatures and keys, even a limited investigation of the scope and history of music will reveal the shortcomings of this theory (free CD to anyone who can tell me the time signature of this Angola Prison Spiritual). Music theory is a way to describe music, and a language with which to communicate about it. Like any language, it’s imperfect, and creates some distinctions which are lousy with exceptions.

I will say that a given song starts with a set of rules, but that those rules can be changed by the composer or the players whenever they agree to change them. Modulation is an easy example of this - if “play in the key of G” is a rule for a given song, the players or composer may choose to change that rule in order to make the song better. Dig the intro to my favorite version of “Honeysuckle Rose” if you have any doubts.

We human beings have a nasty habit of trying to turn infinite games into finite ones. Just think about the Guinness Book of World Records. Building giant replicas of things was definitely not a contest before that. The ugly business of trying to turn music into a finite game started longer ago that I can possibly determine, and is still going strong, with contests like the Grammys and American Idol leading the whole ridiculous pack.

I’m only saying all this to remind myself, and anyone else who’s guilty of the same habit, that music is an infinite game. There are no rules, there are no winners, and we play it for only one purpose: to play.


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