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What I've Learned From Failure - Don't Play the Game of Excuses

J.G.Thwaits, 26 June 2016

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I've been on the fringes of the music industry for nearly two decades as an outsider eagerly peering through the windows, making failed attempts to get a foot in the door. I now know a little better why some of those attempts failed and I know it's all too easy to try to justify them with excuses. Pick one from the standard list: it's just a game of luck, the ones that make it just fall into the right connections almost as if by accident, it's not about real talent, big time record execs just take any pretty face and put their A-list producers behind them to make instant sensations. These excuses are a load of rubbish. The real reason why you didn't make it is because you didn't work hard enough with the correct focus. I didn't make it because I did it wrong, nobody else is to blame. Most people who find success, have relentlessly persisted through failure and difficulty towards a well defined goal taking specific and deliberate steps along the way, learning from mistakes and adjusting the approach as needed.

Of course I didn't come to this realization right away, I've been learning it slowly and painfully but now that I'm wholeheartedly pointing the finger at myself it's a revelation and an opportunity anew. Imagine the relief actually of realizing it's not just a game of luck, if there is an explanation for failure then with the proper corrections, success can be had. So before you start to expect a golden formula from the mouth of someone "on the fringes", I'll assure you I don't intend to provide such a formula, if one even exists. I believe there are general principles to follow that are more likely to lead to the desired outcomes, I can certainly tell you the things I've done that didn't work, why I believe they didn't work and what I'm doing differently that I think will work better. Learn from my mistakes.

A common complaint among hopeful musicians is that success in the business isn't all about talent, and that's completely correct. In fact, talent might even be one of the smaller factors to some types of success. There's no need to let this be disheartening, art is art and business is business and if you want to mix the two then you need to get real about what that means. If your goal is to be the most talented rock guitarist, you should realize that goals like winning a Grammy, or making a gold record, or making $200,000 from concert ticket sales are all completely different goals and don't just follow from being the most talented rock guitarist. It's important to define what your goals are, recognize how they are related (or unrelated) and start taking steps necessary to accomplish those goals, all while expecting to fall flat on your face multiple times along the way. I got into this mess of a business probably in a similar way many of us do: I loved music and loved playing music so I thought "I want to make a career out of playing music". It turns out that's a really vague goal that can lead to a lot of floundering around. Segment your goals out between artistic, technical, and business and have separate plans of action to meet specific goals in each area.

You need raw musical talent, don't get me wrong. Some artists make it look so easy, that's a talent in itself but behind it all is something invisible to us that makes all the difference. We don't see all the failed attempts, we don't see all the time spent writing songs that got cut, we don't see all the emails sent that never got a response, we don't see all that artists have given up to commit themselves to this way of life, we only see the successful finished product, and to us it seems to have just popped up out of thin air. News flash: it didn't. It's the result of dedication which could be classified as borderline crazy, but it's beautiful and amazing so it's worth it. I believe that it is the norm for successful music careers to have been built through long hard work and struggle after going through trials and risks that would cause the rational person to re-evaluate and change course.

So I call for us, as musicians, to stop indirectly downplaying the achievements of other musicians by creating excuses for ourselves. It's as if we're saying, "I had these unforeseen hardships that kept me from succeeding, but all those who were successful must have had smooth sailing" - No, they didn't, they met hardships and fought back, they kept trying and didn't let failure keep them down, you can do that too.

3 Lessons Learned:

1. Hunker down for the long haul

We hate the truth of this next statement but you can take it as a general rule that things take time to gain momentum, sometimes a lot of time. If you really want to get from point A to point B then realize that point B can be a lot farther away than it looks so be prepared to take necessary steps for survival, like taking a side job, while you are finding your path to the goal. I know how this can feel like it hurts the soul and you worry that once you go through that door you'll get trapped and never find your way back to music. In truth, yes, those are valid worries; many people do go through that door never to return, but I say, those people just didn't have the burning drive needed to make the necessary sacrifices. That's fine, they changed their goals or just decided it wasn't worth it to them in the end, it's definitely not the right thing for everybody. I speak to those who do have that burning drive, if you take 1 step back to keep up with life then you must take 2 steps forward so you are making progress to your goal. Find something you can do during any free time you get to keep the dream alive. It will be hard and it will be exhausting, but we've already determined that you are of the stubborn breed that does not give up, so it's what you must do.

I started making home recordings many years ago, they usually had some great qualities but also some aspects that just didn't quite work as well. It was easy to get frustrated about it, after spending a long time working on a recording then to realize it's not good enough, it was hard to scrap it and start over from the beginning. Recording time was precious, arranged beforehand with other members of the household, scheduled around a full time day job. When I felt I gave it everything only to find it flawed in the end, it definitely make me want to quit a little bit. I kept coming back to it though because I wanted to make it better and I couldn't stop thinking about it. Over the years I developed a lot of new skills on multiple instruments and in studio production techniques that helped make improvements to my recordings. At the time it felt like I was moving so slow and it was very hard to see the progress, the progress was indeed slow, but it's true what they say about the tortoise and the hare. The recordings started sounding better and better.

2. Identify your weaknesses and overcome them

I am fortunate to have been brought up in a musical household that helped me think creatively. Ideas were flowing and I used that inspiration to start writing songs. What I lacked was confidence and leadership skills, this prevented me from being able to organize successful projects although at the time I didn't recognize right away why I wasn't able to form a successful group. I tried multiple times with the same results, the bands ended up dissolving after only just getting started. Granted, it's hard to start a band, but I wasn't stepping up with confidence and laying out a clear road map.I hardly knew what to put on the road map in the first place. I was hoping for quick success, naive to the level of investment needed to establish a solid group. It makes sense to me now why I failed, I was also not in a stable financial position so it just added extra stress on top of it all. I ended up joining a few cover bands which gave me some real experience but in the long run wouldn't get me where I wanted to be. Life teaches you lessons if you take the time to look back at yourself critically, I eventually learned a few things about my weaknesses and started correcting them. Once you know your weaknesses, either find a way to fix them or partner up with someone who can fill in where you lack. Collaboration is not a bad word in this business.

3. There are opportunities all around you, spend the time to find them and make a to do list

You can get complacent in an attitude of waiting for something to happen, it's easy but it's dangerous. Anytime you've done a task there's a feeling of accomplishment and then you can get tricked into thinking that the next step is to wait for the response and reaction. The problem with that is that the response is usually less than what you hope for and sometimes altogether nonexistent, so you've just wasted time waiting while you should have been working on your next move, and there are lots of potential moves to do. If you want to do this as a job then realize that you've got to do the dirty work, you've got to not only play awesome music but you've got to build an audience, make contacts, and find venues to share your music with the world. It all takes a lot of work, every job comes with grunt work. Find a balance between spending time working on nailing the perfect guitar solo and doing the accounting, PR, and marketing tasks that will help you even get an audience to hear that solo in the first place. If you spend a little bit of time brainstorming opportunities, you'll find there is plenty to keep you busy. Make a list, prioritize it, put down estimated dates when you plan to complete tasks and hold yourself accountable for it. Always make progress down your list and remember to keep adding things as you check others off, if you get to the end of your list then you might find yourself waiting for something to happen instead of making it happen.

Be one who makes things happen, no excuses.

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