There are countless ways to fail if you’re a serious musician trying to get the world to care about your music. From scathing reviews to sparsely attended shows, few things hurt as much as giving everything over to a dream only to see it go nowhere.
The world doesn’t associate grit and resilience with most musicians, but it should. Failure is part of the DNA of every artist, and music-makers are no exception. In fact, most of us are bound to fail over and over again as creators before we manage to pull something impressive off by making music that truly resonates with audiences.
Big and small failures alike are essential parts of the creative process, which makes them not true failures if you think about it. A bombed live set or boggled album rollout are examples of failures we can learn and grow from. However, there is one example of failure that’s not possible to benefit from. Knowingly or unconsciously throwing in the towel by not trying to create better music is a sign of true failure in a songwriter. It’s akin to raising a white flag of defeat to the constant pressures and challenges we face as musicians. And, weirdly enough, wallowing in predictability and mediocrity from a creative standpoint is often more common than giving up making music altogether.
Why songwriters give up
Music is an astoundingly hard thing to pursue, even if you don’t want it to be your full-time career. Think, for a second, about all the non-musical duties and obligations there are associated with creating and sharing music seriously: touring, promotion, the money it takes to buy instruments and record, etc. Now, add on the immense pressure it takes to make compelling music at a time when there’s already an unfathomable amount of great new songs coming out each and every day.
It’s a lot to cope with, and we don’t talk about that enough as musicians. Some make music for a couple of years, realize how hard it is, and call it quits. On the surface, others seem to forge ahead each year with new music while secretly opting for the easy way out of creative problems. That last album didn’t find an audience because my local music scene is too cliquey is one excuse. Not being able to connect with meaningful inspiration is another. If you’ve been making music for a long time, exploring whether you’re still trying to create your best and most engaging work or not can be scary. It’s a bit like getting punched hard in the face and dreading looking into the mirror afterward. But accepting the truth and inviting change into your creative process is the only way to stave off the failure of complacency as a songwriter.
Getting comfortable with discomfort and embracing risk
Since the only true failure in music is settling for creative mediocrity, perpetually embracing risk and discomfort is essential for succeeding as songwriters. But let’s pause here for a second and recognize just how tough this is to really do. As humans, we’re hard-wired to avoid these two things, so simply popping them into our unique creative processes isn’t easy to do. But making the effort to write dangerously and without the burden of expectations results not just in better songs, but also in an exciting and rewarding songwriting practice you can’t find any other way.
I’m not talking about adding in dissonant modes or obscure time signatures into your songs to keep them interesting; unless doing so feels natural. Instead, embracing risk and discomfort is about exploring the unknown, asking questions, experimenting, and, above all, always trying to write music that better engages our audiences and explores our own creativity. You can do this writing any type of song in any type of genre because it comes down squarely to the relationship you have with musical creativity. If you find yourself failing by writing the same tired songs over and over again, summon the bravery to do something different. Maybe it’s exploring a new genre, or maybe it’s tossing out an entire album and trying to write something that’s truly different and honest. It doesn’t matter what the change looks like so long as it’s authentic and thought-provoking. That’s how you manage not to fail in songwriting.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.