"The ultimate victory in competition is derived from the inner satisfaction of knowing that you have done your best and that you have gotten the most out of what you had to give.” ~ Howard Cosell
In music, the idea of winning vs losing is nebulous at best. How do we gauge success? Is there truly a top dog? #1? Who’s more relevant, Taylor Swift or Adele?
The idea of ranking popular recording artists makes as much sense as the dang BCS does in determining college gridiron supremacy:
Who wrote a better song of empowerment, Katy Perry’s “Roar” or Sara Bareilles’ “Brave"? The sales numbers and radio charts would argue that Katy won that battle, but I personally prefer Sara’s melody and message.
It’s subjective at an individual level. Sometimes you like one. Sometimes you like the other.
But what if the one, or the other, is you? This is the artist's dilemma regarding success.
Whether consciously or not, every artist is in a state of perpetual self-evaluation, certainly some more than others. Even if an artist can silence their inner critic long enough to complete a song or an album, that album is then evaluated mercilessly by the press and via social media. All that said, it can be very difficult for an artist to determine their own value in the marketplace. How does an artist know if they’re winning?
Music is not a contact sport, but can one artist truly be pitted against others to determine a winner? Radio stations frequently run “battles” to see which new song is most popular in a given marketplace – at face value it’s a fine idea, but usually those battles are won by the song signed to the biggest record label / mgmt company because that label / mgmt co has the resources to organize street teams or fan clubs to vote for a specific song in a specific market.
There was also this abomination last year from Billboard: http://www.billboard.com/articles/best-song-bracket-2014/6406051/best-song-bracket-battle-2014-main-page
If anyone could even muster up the give-a-shit to evaluate all of the pop music from last year, I fear they would find themselves in a halcyon trance, staring vacantly into space, having lost their will to live to a point where they would poke out both eyes and stick their head in a bucket of rancid meat. K, Diplo?
Back to my point: is an artist winning if they top the charts?
Maybe. After all, selling tonnage is a major indicator of success, and very hard to do. But what if that success is fleeting, and perhaps only built around one song? Is the artist still relevant if they only have one hit song? Or two? Or twelve? And what does topping the charts mean in the grand scheme of things? It’s not as though every artist is singing “Happy Birthday”, and the public merely buys their favorite version…
Is an artist winning if they sell tickets?
Maybe. Touring is a wonderful way to find validation for one’s music. It’s hard to argue with a room full of people singing along to your jams. But what if the rooms aren’t as large as they once were? Or what if the tickets just aren’t selling this time? Or, what if the rooms are too large for the artist to truly connect with the crowd in a way that pushes that artist forward? That last one sounds a bit crazy, but believe me, I’ve heard it all. Twice.
Maybe it’s taking a winning approach: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/252245
Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s radio play. Maybe it’s critical acclaim and press coverage. Maybe it’s television appearances. Maybe it’s endorsements. Maybe it’s publishing. Maybe it’s ticket sales. Maybe it’s streaming numbers, advertising revenue, vinyl, 8-track, cassettes, blahbitty blah blah fucking bliz.
Yes. These are all constructs, however fleeting. Good. Bad. Worthy. Relevant. Stuff. Things.
In my experience, artists at every level of success tend to feel more successful when they are happy with their lives outside of music. Better yet, those who truly enjoy and celebrate performing, touring, recording, writing, and expressing themselves creatively feel the most successful from day-to-day.
There is joy to be found in all of it. Find the joy, and the ups and downs of the modern music business will fade away. For me, finding the joy is as simple as sitting at the piano and playing whatever I feel in that moment. It was the feeling of my hands on a keyboard that first inspired me to pursue music as a career, and that activity is an evergreen wellspring for me as I go forward. What is that thing for you? GO. Do that shit. And worry less.
With love -