Dear Musicians: You’re Not Entitled To Succeed

managing expectations as a musician

I moved to LA a year ago to pursue professional music opportunities as a 34 year old man after leaving my old band, God Forbid.  I gained 15 years of experience writing, recording, and releasing albums, and touring for years on end. Even though God Forbid was never the biggest band around in terms of record sales or ticket sales, our modest success is something most bands will never even sniff. I am not stating these facts to gloat or flash my resume, but as a point of reference to say that I know what it’s like to be in a professional band: a band that gets a substantial money guarantee to perform, a band who hires people to work for them like managers, agents, publicists, accountants, lawyers, graphic designers, merch companies, and web designers, a band who had a record deal with advances to pay for real producers in real recording studios.

Now, that I’m not in that band, I also know for the first time since God Forbid was a local band in the late 90’s, what it’s like to start from scratch. So much has changed in that time period that I’ve had to learn a slew of new methods to build bands like arranging rehearsals, figuring out how to pay for studio time, promote via social media, and that doesn’t even take into account the actual playing side of things, which is easy in comparison to the logistical elements of starting a band.

Personally, I find being back in the trenches fun. There are no expectations really, and since I’ve already played the biggest stages with the biggest bands, I have nothing to prove. It’s just about the playing. I wish I could say the same for many of the musicians I’ve encountered scrapping in the grass roots. There are a few personality profiles I’ve run in to more than once that I find somewhat troubling:

1.) The Jaded Veteran

These guys are kind of like me, in regards to experience, but they probably made a lot more money than I ever did, so their regression back to middle really burns them. This group are usually good guys/gals and very good players, but they got used to the old system, when bands could get decent record deals and advances just based on having a few “name” people involved in the project. Unless you have some real heavyweights in your Supergroup like Maynard James Keenan or Dave Grohl, the advance structure will probably be fairly modest. The “don’t you know who I am?” hubris is quickly losing credibility. Having a name still matters, but in the new era with slim profit margins, labels need to be able to do salient mathematical calculations for return-on-investment. Egos and math don’t mix.

2.) The Jaded Non-Veteran

These are musicians who came out to LA to “make it”, gave it the good ‘ol college try for a few years and realized that the music industry is cold, unfair, and despite being talented and hardworking, you are still not guaranteed to “make it”. They ended up being over it at 25. I don’t blame this group too much. Frankly, to do music for a living, you have to be wired a certain way: a little crazy, reckless, and thick-skinned enough to put up with the hailstorm of shit you have to wade through to have any success. More often than not, just having a regular job and raising a family will be vastly more gratifying than slugging it out in an overheating van tumbling through Nebraska to play for 36 people on Tuesday in the back of a bookstore.

3.) The Delusional Optimist

I almost feel bad writing about this group because they are admirable in their earnestness and magnanimous effort. These guys have average to below average talent, but just grind it out, sometimes for years, playing (overplaying) the same venues, selling tickets to open up for mediocre, propped-up national acts. Their band is stuck in local-band limbo, which lies somewhere between Hell and Detroit. We see them at every show, handing out fliers. You are rooting for them and want them to succeed because they are great people and bust their ass, but you know it will never happen. The problem is they don’t know, and no one has the heart to tell them

4.) The King of the Ant Hill

I first encountered this group in New York City, but found its West Coast counterparts in no time. These bands are much more interested in being rock stars than great musicians. If they spent half as much time practicing or trying to write great songs as they did on their outfits and hair, they would probably be very successful because look super fuckable. Being a rock star is higher on the priority list than actually having a career. Many of these bands become popular enough locally to sell out a 500 cap venue, get their dicks sucked by the hottest scene queens, do blow in the bathroom of rock club “X”, and boom…rock star fantasy complete. They fulfilled their Nikki Sixx L.A.R.P. experiment and all motivation to actually work as a musician evaporates. This group particularly bothers me because they think they are big time. This is also a twisted delusion: sad and repugnant.

music success

I get so many musicians hitting me up for advice on how to break through with their band, or talented people trying to put a band together, and the truth is that the modern musician’s first mode of strategy should be to manage one’s expectations. I am going to say that again for the cheap seats: MANAGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS!!!

It is not 1985 anymore; the days of the million dollar record deal for a new, unproven band are over. These days, less than 1,000 bands break the 10,000 sales mark in the U.S. in a given year. The latest data I have is from 2010, but out of 75,000 albums released, only 1,215 sold over 10,000 copies. God Forbid’s last album, Equilibrium, Sound Scanned around 15,000 copies in the US in 2012. That was half the sales of the previous album, Earthsblood, which sold less than half of the previous album, Constitution of Treason. On our worst selling album since our debut, we were still in the top 1% of all record sales for albums released in 2012, and the band was still not successful enough to continue touring full time. The odds of any musician making a living, solely from making music, are slim-to-none.

I’m not trying to crush anyone’s dreams. I just want the pathway to following those dreams to be more strategic and realistic. The good news is if you are a first rate talent, you can make a living as a session player, hired gun, teacher, etc. But, keep in mind that going to a top music school like Berkley or MIT goes a long way in the real professional world. Image also counts. If you are 300 pounds and dress like Joey Buttafuoco, don’t expect to land the lead guitarist gig for Katy Perry. You have to have chops, great gear, a good look, and know how to perform and show up on time ready to play: the whole package.

If you are in a band, maybe you can quit your jobs and get in a van if you are in your teens or early 20’s. Make the splash while you are young if you really want it, but it’s important to note that time invested in one area of your life is time not invested in other areas like school. You can never get those years back, so choose wisely. If you are older, in your late 20’s or 30’s, I would treat the band like a serious hobby until the scales tip in the other direction where you are making money instead of spending money to be in a band. Professionals get paid to perform their craft. If you are still spending money to do it, than you are a hobbyist, not a pro. It doesn’t matter how good you are.

Many members of successful bands have side jobs, small businesses, and other bands to truly make the ends meet.  This is the new norm, not the aberration. Sometimes having a somewhat successful band creates a new problem of trying to keep your band life while balancing other work you have to do to live. The few musicians who make a very good living from music alone are lucky despite how good they are and how hard they work. They know it, cherish it, and work twice as hard to keep their place. Many of us deserve it, but only a handful will get it. No one is entitled to be in a successful band. That term, “success”, means different things to different people, but I think when it comes to art, success just means that when you create and when you perform, people, however many that may be, lean in; they care.

If people care about your art, you are lucky. Screw entitlement. Manage your expectations.

Doc Coyle FOLLOW >

Ex God Forbid guitar player. Songwriter. Blogger. Know-It-All. Non-conformist. NY Knicks fan. Coffee enthusiast. Agnostic.