On Being An Unprofessional Musician

Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 5:46 pm

When I started writing music in high school, selling it was the last thing on my mind. I just thought it was cool, and I had fun doing it — I love to make things. I didn’t care if what I made was good or bad or marketable or whatever. However, as high school turned into college and college turned into rent and bills, I found myself mulling over being a “professional musician” — trying to support myself through music.

In that spirit, I set about trying to promote myself on MySpace for a year or so. It was draining, demeaning, and ennervating. Of the people I pitched to, 50% didn’t care, 25% pretended to like my music in order to promote their own, 15% hated it, and maybe 10% had a genuine, positive reaction. It made me feel like crap, and filled me with doubt about myself and my tunes.

Eventually, I started reading up on marketing techniques more. I found that there was a term for what I was doing — “cold-calling.” Cold-calling is essentially telemarketing; going through the phone book and calling everyone. Most of the people you call will just hang up, as they don’t know you and don’t give a shit. It doesn’t matter how amazing your product is — very few take the time to listen, and even fewer buy. It takes a lot of grueling work to make a single sale… and when what you’re selling is something you’re emotionally involved with, it hurts. I could probably manage selling insurance as that’s boring and corporate, but not my music. I don’t have the skin for it. I took the lack of care very personally. It dragged me down, and the music I wrote that year was crap. I’d been pandering to other people, when I should have been focusing on pleasing myself.

I realized I’d been doing a bit of pandering before I’d even thought about trying to sell out, in posting my tunes to forums and mailing lists to show off. When a tune got showered in praise, I naturally wanted to repeat that success. On the other hand, if a tune got a bashing, I’d develop doubts about it, even if I previously had none! It’s an insidious carrot-and-stick that drives you to repeat yourself and discourages personal growth.

Consequently, I’ve become much less cavalier about sharing my work. I’ll mull over tracks and let my own opinions solidify before subjecting them to the opinions of others. I still dream of becoming the next Aphex Twin (who doesn’t?), but I try and keep that out of the studio. If you seek to be Aphex Twin, or Chris Clark, or whoever amazes you, you’ll always be playing catch-up — watching what your idols are doing, and trying to copy it. If, on the other hand, you focus on being yourself, you’ll always stay ahead of everyone else, as no one can be you better than you. It’s a much more satisfying way to go about things.

I’ve also done my best to put being a “professional musician” out of my mind. If Warp or Ninjatune plonks me on the head and says, “We want you!” I’d be stoked, but I’m not holding my breath. I just write the best music I can and leave it at that.

Categories: musical development, philosophy, productivity

3 Comments on “On Being An Unprofessional Musician”

  1. Good post, and hits close to home.

  2. Absolutely true, every word. Great post.

  3. like the 1st 2 commenters, I’m totally with you on this. I wish I didn’t hate working so bad.

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