It’s December, Trad Awards season and the time of year where typically people look back on the past year and evaluate it. And it always gets me thinking – how do we define ‘success’ in our industry? As someone who balances an active performing/composing career with teaching up-and-coming musicians at the RCS, I’m frequently asked ‘how do you know when you’ve made it?’. And more importantly, ‘how do we measure that?’. Is it the number of gigs you have? The number of Facebook followers? The amount in your bank account?
One of the hardest things about a career as a musician is that there is never really a linear career path. In most other professions, you’d have an annual pay rise, perhaps a promotion, maybe even an end of year bonus for good performance. Each year you’d climb the career ladder a little higher. But musicians don’t have that. Some years are great for gigs, others not so much. Sometimes you’re frantically just trying to stay on top of a crazy schedule, and then other times the diary is dead. The best gigs are sometimes the worst paid. ‘Success’ musically often has very little relation to success financially.
In some ways, I’ve had the most ‘successful’ year of my career; I got my PhD, I had a piece performed at the BBC Proms, was composer in residence with two world-class organisations, had a load of great gigs all around the world and I have a teaching job I love. On paper, it looks amazing. But somehow that feeling of not being ‘successful enough’ persists. The problem is that for every gig I’ve played, there have been another 10 I didn’t get. For every opportunity I got, there were probably many other rejections. Each award I’ve won comes with countless I didn’t. One of my good friends who has a hugely successful composition career once made her ‘failure CV’ to show the true extent of how many rejections there really were for each ‘win’ that was seen.
With Facebook and Instagram, it’s impossible not to compare our careers to others. And someone else will always be doing something that seems better than you for whatever reason. I had a bout of the blues just the other night because The Outside Track had ‘only’ 200K streams on Spotify, compared to the higher numbers I was seeing from friends. As a band, we’ve always felt ‘less successful’ compared to our peers, and yet the irony is when we actually speak with them, they say ‘wow you’re so busy, we wish we had as many gigs as you etc, etc’.
And that’s the thing I’ve realised – nothing’s the same looking from the outside as it feels from the inside. And almost everyone feels the same when you talk to them. Being self-employed is hard. Being a musician is hard. Talent or hard work doesn’t necessarily equate with success. And success is totally relative depending on what matters to you.
So, what are the most successful things in my year? What has made me happiest? For me, it’s the fact that I’ve made a tonne of new friends this year, and become closer with the ones I already have. It’s been about being able to support other people, and help them out. It’s been sharing information about gigs and fees and giving advice when asked for it. In short, it’s been about building community. Because at the end of the day that’s really why I’m a musician – because I love connecting with people. And one person telling me my music really moved them means more to me than all the Spotify streams in the world. And maybe that’s the key – to remember why you became a musician in the first place, and measure your success based on that.