By far the most common question we see put to anyone generally viewed as being successful is “how did you do it?”, “what advice would you give to other aspiring artists” or something similar. The subsequent answer given to this question is almost always frankly, a bunch of well-worn cliché platitudes along the lines of; “Hard work pays off” (my personal favourite), “keep working hard and it will come”, “stand out from the rest/be unique”, “Just be yourself” and so on. For the most part bullsh*t, why? Because these platitudes are then taken as axioms and open secrets to success without much question or realisation for the reality. This leads to aspiring artists potentially missing the point and becoming frustrated, disillusioned, and sometimes bitter – I know most will have seen or even experienced this in some form or another.
So what is the secret to success then? Before we go on, let’s look closer at some of those clichés and platitudes for a moment.
“Hard work pays off”/ “keep working hard and it will come” – what does that even mean? If someone spends every single hour god sends, working as hard as they can on something, their success is a forgone conclusion, regardless of their talent, the efficacy of their work or whether people even notice what they’re doing? Really? Hard work pays off, but some must work harder and still might never reach their goals for any number of reasons. Many people reading this will know this for a fact, at least up to this point in their journey.
“Stand out from the rest/be unique” – Really? In what way? Your image/branding? (seems to be important these days), your “style”/ “sound”, even the genre you work in or purposely don’t conform to? The equipment you use? There are so many ways people can be unique as artists. But the reality is, groups (genres, “scenes”, sub-cultures etc…) seldom welcome change when it arrives and even more so when it isn’t brought on by already established leaders or influential people within that group. So this begs the question. How useful is this statement for someone, like most people, who is trying to be successful without already having some level of success in becoming known, established or influential?
“Just be yourself” – Which self are we talking about? Bear with me for a minute. Let’s put all the cliché nonsense people say like “I am who I am”, “I won’t change who I am for no one”, “love me or hate me, I don’t care” etc. You know, the stuff that features on endless memes and social media statuses either verbatim or in spirit. Usually shared by someone who is either feeling rejected, has hurt someone and refuses to accept responsibility, has been hurt by someone else or simply wants to appear deep, meaningful, and confident. In reality, if you are a fairly conscious and well-balanced person there will be several versions of yourself. The awkward person who sits quietly on the bus to work minding their own business and then serves people at work all day with a happy, confident disposition. On the evening the same person hits the club with their friends and winds up doing backflips off the bar until 3 in the morning behaving completely irresponsibly, then goes to their parents house the next afternoon with the kids and behaves like a pillar of respectful responsibility. Don’t worry this is natural and shows you have at least some level of self-awareness which demonstrates more positive qualities than any cliché ever could. These are examples of the same person adjusting to different situations and behaving accordingly and these different versions change and develop over time. So which one of them do you choose to be when chasing your dream of being a successful artist? In reality, the best answer is you must create another version of yourself that is appropriate to the situation you face… “just be yourself” they said… Helpful.
As you can see looking at these statements alone and taking them as a divine truth throws up some serious problems for a developing artist.
So then, none of the above could ever lead to success? Let’s not be too hasty. I’ll explain why. If you ask the same artist mentioned at the beginning of this article a slightly different question; “how did you get your first break”? The answer given is quite different to the above and almost always explains a specific moment; a situation, person or event (or sequence of events), a turning point that toppled the wall between them and the success they enjoy today. More often than not this moment or situation happened by chance mixed with luck (opportunity). Sometimes artists even claim they weren’t looking for success at the time, “it just happened”. Like the up and coming DJ that was there at the precise moment the club needed someone to cover due to traffic or an unforeseen situation preventing the main DJ from performing. The young producer whose mum happened to work cleaning the house of the big-name artist which created a back door to getting their music heard by the right people. The song writer who wrote a “B-Side” song, that they wouldn’t even name if you asked them about their best work, but somehow the song resonated with some many people at a particular point in time making the track a massive hit for no apparent reason. The list goes on and I’m sure you can think of other examples of how successful artist got their first break.
‘Chance and luck’. I use those words on purpose because no matter how many chances you create for yourself through hard work, being unique and talented or how well-crafted and appropriate your behaviour, image and attitude is, without at least a bit of luck the possibility of success is very slim indeed.
I call this theory the “Success Lottery”.
Think about it for a moment. A lottery is firmly based in a mathematical reality which at its core cannot be argued with. So many people hoping to hit a single jackpot with a limited amount of draws in a given time period and no matter how vast, a limited number of combinations to choose from. Some people have hit the jackpot with the first ticket they have ever bought, while others have played their whole life and won next to nothing. Is the person playing their whole life not working hard enough to win? Of course they are, in fact based purely on effort this person is working by far the hardest and mathematically should have a better chance of winning, yet they still lack one of the key ingredients in luck. Of course, if this person lived long enough and continue playing they would inevitably hit the jackpot, eventually but obviously the limitations of time is all too clear for us a mortal beings.
So a person can only be successful if they are lucky? Of course not. A person can get lucky and become successful without much effort (like the person who hits the jackpot with their first ever ticket), that much is true, but there’s usually more to it than that and using the lottery analogy helps to explain adequately that creating chance is just as important.
In a lottery, there is only one action you can take that will give you a guaranteed outcome and that is to not participate i.e. not to buy a ticket. Not buying a ticket is an action you usually have full control over, and the guaranteed outcome would obviously be you don’t hit the jackpot (or win anything for that matter). On the other hand, deciding to buy a ticket doesn’t guarantee you will hit the jackpot either, but at least you are in with a chance. People in the UK may be familiar with the old slogan from the UK National Lottery “you’ve got to be in it to win it” – perfect concept.
So how does this translate to the question of success in the music industry? Well, the whole music industry can be viewed as a success lottery. This is why you see seemingly lazy artists who lack integrity and even talent sometimes becoming super successful (hitting the jackpot) while other super talented hard-working artists get left behind. However, this shouldn’t put anyone off. Why? It’s quite simple; hard work, creating and sharing your own art, creating the best version of yourself and all of the other things that alone with no context amount to nothing more than platitudes and clichés are actually chances you create for yourself and when mixed with the right amount of luck result in a successful career (or jackpot win). It also stands to reason that the more chances you create (lottery tickets you get), the more you increase your chances of being successful. If you haven’t spotted the foundation of this theory yet; the saying “success is preparedness meeting opportunity” is the same idea.
Remember, success is never guaranteed, but failure is if you don’t act, so keep creating those chances for yourself - “you’ve got to be in it to win it”.