Last updated on January 25th, 2022
You know how in movies when characters ask the question, “Is it better to be feared or loved?” Normally, the conundrum pertains to some powerful overlord caught in the crosshairs of how to garner loyalty from his/her subjects, but imagine for a moment that the overlord is music and we are said subjects. If you’re pursuing a career in music, you definitely love it, but have you ever really thought about how much you FEAR the colossal governing force that is music? It towers over us and makes outrageous demands that often seem too strenuous and intimidating to meet. It is tyrannically possessive of our time and resources. Competition abounds, the threshold for talent and ability is high, and the promise of success is hardly promising. Yeah, it’s scary. Nonetheless, artists are stubborn and are not easily deterred from chasing their dreams despite the pressure – at least not until that pressure becomes real. When the pressure does become real, however, how will you react? Well, I’ve heard fear described in two ways:
Since moving to Nashville in 2016, I’ve spent a lot of time building relationships, playing gigs, writing/recording songs, etc., and I do have a lot to show for it. I’ve released an entire album and multiple singles to follow, appeared in a few different music videos, co-written songs that have garnered some decent success, and I’ve started booking shows across the city for a couple different companies. I’ve also spent a lot of time WASTING time because I was too unsure of myself when it came to certain things. Days that added up to months, months that added up to years… putting off doing something because it “wasn’t the right time,” or I “didn’t have the proper money to invest/ the right band members arranged.” The list goes on. In hindsight, the reality of it all looks very simple: Like a deer in headlights, I was too afraid to move. I’m sure you know what that’s like. However, bear in mind that those headlights aren’t coming at you – they’re moving away from you. It’s up to you whether or not you’re going to chase them down.
Here’s a few instances in which you’re likely to encounter bouts of fear that have the potential to cripple you into a state of dreaded stagnation.
Writing a song
Let’s start simple. For some weird reason, even us “seasoned” musicians get very self-conscious about approaching the songwriting process. Sometimes it comes easy. You put pen to paper or fingers to strings and, abracadabra, in what seems like a matter of minutes, you’ve got yourself one helluva tune to show your friends and family. Other times, it feels like mental constipation and you convince yourself that you’ve lost “it.” FEAR NOT, MY FELLOW SCRIBES. The truth is that nobody is looking over your shoulder when you’re writing, so there’s no one to judge the often rocky and awkward evolution of even the best songs. It’s important to bear this in mind when you’re doing that whole “your own worst critic” thing. You have NOTHING to lose, so if something sounds silly or certain lyrics don’t flow, let yourself off the hook. Write as much nonsense as you need to until you feel comfortable with whatever comes of it. Patience is as pivotal to the songwriting process as creativity.
The same more or less goes for cowriting. Yeah, it’s a little different when there’s someone else there in the room with you – maybe even multiple people -, but not even they are flawless writers, and they’re certainly not judging you nearly as harshly as you’re judging yourself. Cowriting isn’t just about getting a song out as quickly as possible – it’s about learning. If you’re new to it, PERFECT. Your teeth are ripe for the cutting, and you have to start somewhere. We tend to assume that if a cowriting session goes awry, our reputation as a collaborator is fatally jeopardized, but as long as you’re open to learning, remain patient with the other person, and have enough humility not to force your ideas on the situation when they don’t fit, then you’ll be fine. In fact, there’s a good chance that the other writer(s) will learn something from you as well. Go meet some writers, set a date, and have some fun.
This is a tough one. If you’ve ever ventured into the recording process, you know full well how astoundingly expensive it can be. Even when fear has nothing to do with it, the means by which to go about recording a song, let alone an entire album, can be a major hinderance (my nine track record alone cost me just under $2,000, and that’s considered reasonable). Nonetheless, the fear of never harvesting the means to do it shouldn’t stop you. Lots of spots offer sensible payment plans, and being that a lot of studios are now in-home, there’s less bureaucracy convoluting the relationship between you and the producer. If this is an issue you’re quarreling with, start setting aside some money now. Maybe make a schedule by which you can begin saving, committing a certain amount per week to your vinyl-shaped piggy bank.
Finances aside, what else keeps you from stepping into the sound booth? Maybe you feel the song isn’t ready, but the truth is that you have no idea how it’s destined to turn out. It’s bound to grow and take on a life of its own after bringing it to a professional you trust, and that’s okay. More often than not, whatever I had initially envisioned for the song doesn’t hold a candle to the final product. There’s no need to tremble when you’re in good hands.
Stage fright. The term sounds so cliché and juvenile, but it’s a cliché for a reason. In some form or another, it endures. Whether it’s timid first time performers as green as the Iowa pastures from whence they came or ironclad rockstars about to take on Madison Square Garden for the first time, everybody gets nervous. It’s understandable too. I can’t think of a single musician who hasn’t at one time or another suffered a grueling moment of awkwardness in front of a crowd. I know that because I’ve been that guy. All the same, the best part about recalling such times is being able to laugh at them, and the ability to laugh stems from the fact that they don’t define you. You also learn from those moments, so try to cherish them in hindsight.
And then there’s the band. For some reason, this is the major step that stifled my feet for longer than it should have. When I’m on stage alone with my acoustic guitar, I’m accountable to myself and myself only. That’s my comfort zone, but comfort is the death of growth. When I don’t have to grow, I’m in control of things, and when I’m in control of things, I have no reason to be afraid. However, when I’m relying on others to ensure a tight performance, I’m no longer in total control, and that’s scary. But again, it’s a matter of cutting your teeth. You have to start somewhere. When it came time to showcase my original music in a band format, I asked trusted sources for reliable players. Facebook is also an excellent way to network with people who are good at their craft (if you live in Nashville, check out ‘Nashville Musician Finder.’ I have yet to be let down by anyone I’ve encountered on this page). Remember that these are professionals. It’s their job to learn unfamiliar music quickly and effectively, so don’t get too caught up in worrying about whether or not they’ll be able to learn your song. Just like studio work, odds are they’re going to add something to it that you otherwise wouldn’t think to.
In addition to any number of tips, pointers, and survival tactics, I think that the major antidote to fear is simply to have fun. Everything I just outlined, no matter how scary it looked from an initial point of view, has brought me more happiness than I know what to do with. It doesn’t come easy, but it’s bound to come if you maintain the proper attitude and seek advice when you need it. This is MUSIC. We do it because it’s exciting and unique, so don’t lose sight of the joy and fulfillment that made you fall in love with it in the first place. Maybe that’s our answer: music prefers to be loved rather than feared.