Welcome to Ask a Failed Musician, in which I will help struggling musicians make sense of their careers and even offer some advice. Whether or not it will work, who knows? It obviously didn't work for me. But then again, I was on Kimmel once, so there's that.
Black Flag: Very influential, not always critically praised
A musician responded to my previous column by asking what success in music is. They wrote:
"I gather your discussion really focuses on commercial success, which I don't think is everyone's view of success. I think some of us are just happy to put out music and have a few people enjoy it. Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to turn down a million dollars if it came my way but I never expected that in the first place.
So, my definition of success is just, 'Hey, we made a good record,' and, 'Oh, look, some small genre-specific zine in Europe likes us. Well, that's nice.' But more often than not, success isn't simply a rehearsal space fridge filled with beer."
I think the answer to your question can be found in the following key phrase in your email: "Some of us are just happy to put out music and have a few people enjoy it."
Are there musicians who say "I want NO people to enjoy my music"? Doubtful. Sure, there are musicians who openly and genuinely don't care if they never make a dime as long as they get to continue making their art. So, by that logic, success isn't defined by money.
Though, like you mentioned, it wouldn't be such a terrible thing to have. That Kimmel performance in front of millions in Times Square on New Year's Eve earned me just enough money to buy a new iPod and a steak dinner. And that was at the height of my career. The iPod is now dead.
But, getting by on so little wasn't a big deal to me. I was driven by another thing, and I believe other musicians are, too. Influence is currency musicians value more than money. If you have the respect of fans and your peers, it tells you that what you are creating is good. In few other industries do you see people who are living like animals and conversely earning the most praise.
Take a look at the world outside the rock and roll bubble for a moment. People are respected for their earning potential, their financial security and by how much responsibility they can handle. In music it's the opposite. You can be the most irresponsible, broke slob and be at the top of the heap.
It's amazing how well you can get by with no money as long as your band is popular.
I guess this leads to a new question: What defines influence in music? Having countless other bands try to imitate you? Probably. Earning praise from critics? Probably not.
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As you wrote, some people might feel successful in simply putting out an album, no matter how bad it is. If you make a bad record and only you like it, does that make it successful? In the end, no. If the music isn't influential in some way, it simply doesn't matter.
Write to Ask a Failed Musician here. Ask anything you like. I will do my best to help you not fail also.