OnlineRock: Empowering Musicians  

What Is Success?

Success means different things to different people, and being a successful musician depends on how you look at it. What constitutes success is based solely on how you feel as there is no objective measurement that determines what success is. It’s purely subjective. So the question is not, "What is success?" The correct question to ask yourself is "What does being a successful musician mean to me?" Since I cannot answer that question for you , for the purposes of this discussion, let’s talk about me for awhile!!

What success as a musician means to me (which for me includes playing guitar, singing, writing & arranging rock/pop tunes and playing improvised music in a band setting) has continued to mutate since day one. When I started playing guitar it was SUCCESS the first time I could finger a chord without the strings buzzing. Then I felt another great moment arrive the first time I could actually put chords together to play a song. It was "Crocodile Rock" and I played it endlessly, because I could.

As I kept at it, my sights continued to be set higher and higher. I took some guitar lessons and that solidified my knowledge of chord forms up and down the neck. At that point I could play a lot of the songs I always wanted to play by my favorite bands at the time( the WHO, The DEAD, Led Zeppelin, Allman Bros.) and it became possible for me to play in band setting with other musicians.

One day my drummer friend invited a very accomplished guitarist to jam with our terminally unwashed band of amateurs. My mind was blown just being in the same room with this guy. He could really play amazing lead guitar and played for me, note for note, an Al Dimeola solo. After that all I wanted to do was play lead guitar! One year (and five blistered fingers!) later I was able to play lead guitar and was the envy of all my friends. Boy, did I feel successful!

And on and on and on it went until I was in my first real band and played my first club gig. The crowd (at the Keystone, Palo Alto) went wild for us that night, and even stomped and screamed until we came back out for an encore. This experience severely upped the ante for what I considered success to be. Shortly thereafter, I quit my day job ‘cause I was certain I was on the fast track to rock and roll stardom.

Once I left "regular life" to pursue music as a career, the only vision I had of success was the ultimate success of becoming a full blown rock star. I wanted it all; the GIRLS, the MONEY, the FAME, the whole nine yards !!!

Well, it is stating the obvious to tell you all that I never got there. I played in some great bands and some terrible ones. I played big club gigs, small club gigs, parties and weddings. I played in packed sweaty rooms with crazy screaming people and rooms where you could hear a pin drop. I had a great time (still do when I play the odd gig here and there) and have no regrets. Except one, I didn’t succeed.

You see, to me success became an all or nothing proposition. It was rock star or bust. But as I was trying to point out earlier, there are many different levels of success. I could have settled for a lower rung on the totem pole. I could have decided that being able to make a living playing music, without being a "ROCK STAR" with a capitol R, was acceptable. Because there are alot of ways to make money with music.

I would like to illustrate this by pointing out some of the musicians who are "successful" on the level of playing music for a living. These people are not rock stars by any means, but I’m sure that you have at least heard of some of them. Let’s start with one of my favorites, John Hiatt. He is a great songwriter who has written many hit songs for other artists more famous than he, he has also written songs for movie soundtracks as well as released many albums on his own. He tours extensively and he has his small following of rabid fans so that he easily sells out large club size venues across the country. Basically, I would give my left nut (ok, ok, an exaggeration!!) for his career.

Similarly, Tom Waits and David Lindley have made many records, both have an avid audience and neither are big stars. Tom Waits also has his actors income to keep him going and David Lindley is mostly known for his incredible slide work as a session man for Jackson Browne. But both make a very comfortable living as musicians. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Two great guitarists that I very much admire, Adrian Belew and Robben Ford have had (and are still having) exceptional careers without being household names, and both have played with an incredible array of awesome musicians. Adrian Belew has played in the past with Frank Zappa, Talking Heads, and David Bowie. He currently shares the guitar chores with another formidable guitarist, Robert Fripp, in the re-formed King Crimson. Robben Ford not only makes his own great blues oriented albums, but he used to play with the jazz ensemble the Yellowjackets and also gigged extensively with the greatest jazz artist of the twentieth century, Miles Davis.

There are many more great examples of the ‘working man’s" approach to music. One is "Little Charlie and the Nightcats" who play sold out shows up and down the west coast. Bands such as "Cowboy Junkies, "Widespread Panic" and "Leftover Salmon" are in the midst of fine careers without having ascended into the ether. But maybe they will, someday.

There are a lot of options as far as being able to make money with music. One very good way to explore the other avenues to "success" is to get involved with music schools and college music programs. These institutions are tied in to the music business in a way that bands playing the club circuit will never be. They offer career advice and have placement programs for people who want to be working in music and are not necessarily tied to the rock star model. It may not be as attractive as being a ROCK STAR (girls,money,fame…) but it sure beats selling electronics for a living, doesn’t it?

Stay Tuned,

The Virtual Musician

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