Reframing Success

April 27, 2021

(I wrote this piece in mid-2020, after thinking a lot about making and releasing music, and talking with friends about the difficulties. Digressions in italics are my notes now, in 2021)

Releasing music is the last step in the creative process. If you never share your music, it will never be ‘done’ in your mind. It is essential. Releasing the art is essential but it is also very difficult for the artist.  

When you release music, you lose control of it. You can package it however you want, but ultimately you cannot control what other people think of it. Losing control of your art is hard, especially when you’ve had control of it for so long. 

Most of us are releasing music under the existing institution of the music industry. Our music is ending up on Spotify and Apple Music and it is usually released through a distributor or a label – same as it ever was. That is the music industry.

The music industry is not usually a kind place to artists. It is built on profit and it has deep rooted issues with race and gender. The music industry was not built to support your music.  

Our institutions are not set up for artistic success. Artistic success comes with freedom, collaboration, rest, free time, experimentation, radical ideas, and general disruption of ‘regular life’. It is hard to make room for that in your life.

Commercial success is another thing entirely. Commercial success does not always equate to artistic success and artistic success has very little to do with commercial success at all. 

Certain classes of people are more likely to thrive in any institution; that is reality. This includes the music industry. Whether it is Elvis being more marketable than Otis Blackwell (who wrote ‘All Shook Up’) because he was white, or the countless sons and daughters of famous artists who get a huge boost from their parent’s career (Tal Bachman, Hank Williams Jr., Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, Rosanne Cash). 

The playing field is not even. Everything from where you live, to your race, to your financial background – it all affects how your art reaches the world. 

When I released my first solo album, I put it out through DistroKid, entered Spotify’s pre-written digital ‘pitching’ mad-lib, and sent 100 emails to 100 blogs at about $1.00 a piece.

And that is exactly where my influence over the institution ended. A week after it was on Spotify, there was not much more I could do, other than play shows and make more art. It wasn’t a commercial success at all!

The institutions of the music industry exist to fill this gap. Labels exist to finance the production of new music and then lobby the industry to give this music attention. The industry revolves around getting art to people, one way or another. 

I hope this doesn’t sound too dark and gloomy – sure it sucks – but the truth is, artists have power. Nobody else would make money if artists weren’t making art.

If a label was full of artists making music that didn’t affect anyone – didn’t bring anyone to tears or make them tear off their clothes and dance – there would be no influence to wield. The power is in the music.

The power is in the music, but the music exists outside of the system entirely.

Songs are an infinite resource. They live outside the laws of supply and demand. Check for yourself – write a gut-wrenchingly good hit song with mass appeal, RIGHT NOW – that is just not how it works.  

The music that makes hits and changes lives is almost always created by someone who had something to say. Something to add to the music tradition. Something they needed to do. A craft they needed to hone. A feeling or an idea they needed to express. Songs come from somewhere in there.

Music can be created with a pure heart, a pure mind, and a sense of freedom and fun. In an ideal world, that is how we’re all making music. As soon as it released, you are relinquishing that creative pursuit to the power of supply and demand. You can be creative and artistic in the way you present your release, but when it’s out, the artistic endeavour is over.  

That is why it is important to focus on artistic success. Catering to whatever you think will be ‘commercially successful’ will usually just result in a compromised work.

Your song could be pushed from coast-to-coast, or it could be pushed on street corners, or it could sit in your merch bag at shows for years to come. It all depends on the music and where you exist within the institutions. If you have a label, you have a key to a door. If you have money, you have another key. If your dad owns a label or is already famous, you probably have a bunch of keys. 

(When I first wrote this, I had some keys. Now I have more keys – I am grateful for them. )

Artists must disassociate themselves from the release of their music. If you center success as ‘success within the institutions of the music industry’, you will be disappointed. 

Even if/when you eventually achieve some measure of success, anyone with a sense of self-awareness will realize that their success has a lot more to do with luck than it does with their song. If you make a hit, it is essentially just luck that you happened to write that. 

(This is why I encourage quantity over quality when you are trying to write new music. You can encourage the Spirit by regularly committing to writing – but that is for another post.)

This is inevitably disappointing.

Stay with me now, we’re going to learn a little country music history. 

Bobbie Gentry – a singer from the 60s who wrote the song ‘Ode To Billy Joe’. Go check it out, it is a classic. This song was a massive hit. It won four Grammys and was number one on both pop and country charts. 

Bobbie Gentry was an exceptionally talented writer, writing songs that nobody had heard before, and beyond that – her massive hit was almost entirely self-produced. She had help from a string arranger, Jim Haskill, but in recent interviews he downplays his role in the production of ‘Ode To Billy Joe’.

The music industry (and the whole Western world) had a very bad case of misogyny in the 60s. Nobody thought that Bobbie could really be both a great writer and producer. Even when her self-written, self-produced song was top of the charts and winning Grammys. 

Over the next two years, they stuck her in the studio to make four new albums. They put company producers in the control room, made her sing all sorts of songs she never wrote, dressed it up with over-the-top production, and guess what – the result is a bunch of poorly produced music that was never commercially successful.  

(I will note that The Delta Sweete is a cool album, you should check it out. The production on it is totally wack, and it was never a success, but it has some good moments.)

The public lost interest. They had no idea who Bobbie Gentry was, because what started out as honest, Southern, delta folk songs, turned into a giant mess. 

Bobbie’s next big hit was ‘Fancy’, which was later covered by Reba McEntire, and it was a huge hit. It was the only song on that album written and produced by Bobby herself. 

Bobbie Gentry is now famous for having retired into obscurity. The press hounded her with lies, the music industry squeezed every ounce of artistic license out of her, and she retired and has hid from the public ever since. 

The framework that the industry had set up for Bobbie Gentry did not produce her best work. On top of that, it didn’t even produce commercial success.

The music industry is not the arbiter of good art. Most of the time, they can’t even predict what is going sell, which is what they are supposed to do. 

The act of spending your time making music and art from your heart and for the soul is revolutionary. It’s awesome. 

If the institutions like it or don’t like it, that has no bearing on the merit of the song or the way it makes you feel. 

If your friends like it or don’t like it, that has no bearing on the merit of the song or the way it makes you feel. It literally doesn’t matter. 

How a song is received does not make the song any better or worse and it does not make your next song any better or worse. 

The idea that artistic success is directly correlated to commercial success, is wrong. That would be an insult to every artist who was passed over for being the wrong race or body type, shelved for not selling enough, or forced into uncomfortable situations and barely legal contracts.

You, as an artist working today – doesn’t matter how old, experienced, new, successful, or unsuccessful you are – need to reframe your idea of success. 

“Sometimes the catharsis of creating is the success” – Rick Rubin 

The catharsis, the work, the craft, the practice, the patience, the bursts of inspiration – that is the framework for success. 

I am not trying to bash the music industry – although the industry does have huge problems. 

The truth is, most people in the industry are in it for love. Generally, it just doesn’t pay enough to be in it for the money. 

This is especially true of those that are working your local scene. Your local promoters, labels, agents, studio owners, and producers are all a vital part of the ecosystem, and they are in it for love. 

You must trust that, with work, you can forge a path through the institutions that release your music, and make a life and a career. 

The more music you release, the more connections you will make, the more people will be affected by your music. Some of these people will be in the industry, and I hope for your sake that they love your music and love and respect you as an artist and person. I hope they are super chill and really into your weird ideas. 

There is an opportunity for this ecosystem, this scene, to be healthy and collaborative. In a tight music scene, a rising tide lifts all ships. 

The institutions tell you to compete for plays, compete for shows, and compete for opportunities – and that may be the reality sometimes, but that does not mean you have subscribe to competition as a mindset.  

We all need to work towards a healthy global music scene and more importantly, a healthy local music scene. As artists, we need to take care of our peers. We need to applaud their accomplishments as wins for all working artists. 

We need to give our business to labels, agencies, clubs, studios, and personnel that stand for the same community values. 

You should make music - so much music - and you should keep pushing yourself to new heights of creativity, joy, and expression. You should put that music out, to the best of your abilities. 

You deserve to hustle your songs and to have people hustling for you. Serve your songs! Do it right! They deserve it. 

But while you are doing that, do not lose sight of real success – writing a song that just comes pouring out of the universe, playing a show with your best friends, showing someone your brand-new record (which is of course the best one yet) – that is real success. Consistent work is real success. Mastering a craft is real success. Hell, enjoying something is real success. 

If your art is not ‘received well’ by the institutions or the public, don’t let those systems define your success or the way you feel about your art. Work towards creating with intention, collaborating without ego, and making great art.  

This is how I strive to live at the Church of Better Daze. If you want to discuss any of this or disagree with anything, feel free to start the conversation by emailing me. 

- Boy Golden

Written by Boy Golden - Minister and Principal Songwritter @ The Church Of Better Daze.