Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys

Why do people discourage young artists from pursuing a career in music? Usually it is for reasons they can’t fully explain. Maybe they know someone or heard some of the stories of the tragedies and broken lives this business has left behind. Most likely it is because they just care about the person and want to help steer them away from the potential pain. This perception of the music business is not that far off, it is definitely a tough business, I have passed on the following quote to a lot of friends:

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side “ –Hunters S. Thompson.

And then there is always those who want people to stay in the box with them, being careful to not even getting close to the edges of that box. ☺

There’s a difference between wanting the best for someone and wanting what’s right for someone. Family and parents especially want to see their children live a secure life. They don’t want to see them exhausted, broke, and frustrated. All of those things at some point will probably be true if they choose to pursue music as a career.

I grew up in the business so I was well aware of the odds of actually becoming a successful artist, the odds were very slim. Back in the day, it was 1 out of a hundred, today it is even less.

This doesn’t mean you can’t do music. Far from it. You certainly can do it, and you might be very successful, I have seen it happen many times. What It does mean is that you should be prepared for the reality, not the myth.

The myth is that if you’re good enough, persistent enough, and smart enough, you can do anything. This is a modern mythology that’s pervasive in many areas of life in our culture, not just music.

The reality is that many of the factors involved in what it takes to be a successful musician of any stripe are pretty much entirely out of our control. Being talented, persistent, and smart can get you far, but not necessarily down the path you want. There are constraints, and obliging them and learning to navigate them doesn’t make you weak or mediocre any more than pretending they’re not there makes you a hero.

As a teenager, I started out as a guitar player with the dream that my band would make it to the top. We had reasonable success as a regional band and opened for a lot of well known groups like the Yardbirds, Kingsmen, etc. back in the day.

Just as we were starting to climb up the ladder, a number of things happened that were out of our control. We lost our lead guitar player in a traffic accident, another guitar player was killed in Vietnam and I started to lose my ability to play guitar, due to the onset of multiple sclerosis. It was nothing like what I once envisioned. Here is where destiny kicks in, I ended up working as a stagehand after the band folded and discovered I could mix sound. I went on to work as sound engineer and production mgr for some of the biggest acts in the business, later becoming a tour director that has taken me around the globe over 20 times. Chances are slim that I would have ever hit that level as a musician.

One of the things that is in your control to some extent, but is often overlooked, is who you hang out with. This isn’t just because “it’s all about who you know,” although there is some truth to that. The trick is to surround yourself with people who are just a little bit better than you and a little further along than you in whatever it is that you want to do. Assuming you have the skill, inspiration, and dedication to getting better.

What ends up happening in most cases is that over the years of grind and struggle, people end up managing their expectations a little better than when they were young. They keep making music, and they learn to be happy and healthy living in a picture that is much different than what they once imagined it would be. And, that’s completely okay. 95% of the world’s music is made by those people.

So if you love music, then do music and don’t listen to anyone else — but also don’t think them stupid, because they’re not. It’s just that you shouldn’t pursue it with dollar signs in your eyes. If you do, there’s about a 99% chance that you’re going to get a rude awakening some day.

The music industry is oversupplied , undercompensated, and the ability to earn a living is not strictly correlated with talent , qualifications or ability. Note that I have not mentioned ability, background, proficiency on your instrument, passion, dedication, hours spent working on your craft, photogenic looks, demeanour, or many, many other possible factors.

The reason people are so hesitant to support you is that in many other fields, study, talent, dedication and passion are enough to guarantee you a living based on your expertise. In music, even people with all these things sometimes do not make it, though no fault of their desire, preparedness, training or hard work.

Most of all, your advisors want to make sure that you see your dream with eyes unmisted by your hopes, and that you make your decisions fully understanding the risks you will take, the potential paucity of the rewards, and the haphazard nature of success.

If you can understand the current reality, and are willing to accept the possibilty and the price of not finding success, then bring on the hard work and see where it takes you!

Not taking a career specifically in music is not giving up on it in my opinion. I say it is approaching it from a different angle. No matter what you do in life (travels, work experience, etc), it changes the way that you view the world around you. In my opinion, it also can help you with your musical abilities in ways you wouldn’t believe.

Remember, people will discourage you in order to validate their own worldview. That worldview is one that allows them to excuse their own shortcomings. When a talented but unsuccessful musician says “you have to get lucky” it is a red flag to be wary of what that person is saying to you. It’s often code for “I wasn’t successful, and I need to blame fate in order to sleep at night”..

The issue here isn’t that the odds are bad or the odds suck in lots of fields. The issue is that the bottle-neck for these people took place after they had already invested a decade of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’m very blessed that I made the career choices that I did, and they worked out for me, but when I look back I realize, that as Eric Clapton so aptly put it, “music found me, I didn’t find it”. Again, it is that pesky little destiny thing.

That is what the adults in your life are trying to tell you. It has nothing to do with your talent or skill or passion. Making a steady living as a musician is an incredibly difficult thing to do. If you think you can go a lifetime without wanting or needing a comfortable living, and living with tight budgets is something you can do, then maybe putting all your eggs in one basket might be okay, however, remember this could be for the rest of your life. But if you want the house and family and other things out of life beyond mere sustenance, then you might want to rethink it-a music career may not yield the financial ability to attain those things that most people desire in life.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not advocating materialism as a guiding principle here, but the truth is most people don’t want to struggle financially all their lives- and if you bank on music as a career, that may be exactly what you are in for.

You can work in other fields and pursue music on the side. Many people do just that. Not studying music does not eliminate the possibility of it being a part of your life. As my father said to me: If you study medicine, you will always have music. If you study music, you probably won’t have anything else.

While I can’t really encourage you or discourage you without really knowing you I can help you understand why other people discourage you from pursuing a career in music.

The truth is, the music industry is extremely competitive. You should only do it if you must do it. If there’s a voice inside you that keeps you playing and writing and working hard despite all obstacles, maybe you should do it. If you can’t imagine doing anything else, and nothing else seems be fulfilling, maybe you should do it.

Keep in mind that the music industry has it’s own lower, middle, and upper class. You don’t need to be a household name to be a career musician pulling six figures. You just have to be talented and work hard.

I think music, being such a subjective field, scares a lot of people who prefer to have a steady paycheck and regular work that isn’t dependent on the public’s whims. I think you’d get the same response if you told them you wanted to be a painter or a sculptor or a poet. Any artistic endeavor will likely garner negativity rather than support from older, more “experienced” (ie. less willing to take risks) adults.

The world isn’t perfect, and that’s all there is to it. But in chasing your dream, you’ll never look back and regret giving it your best shot.

I’m sure you understand it’s a tough business, it is notoriously full of egos and dog-eat-dog attitude. But if you feel moved to do this at a deep level then why not try? If you try, and it doesn’t work out, you’ll have given it your best shot, you can be satisfied with that, and you can move on. (The real art may be knowing when to move on if it’s not making you happy.) if you don’t, it’ll probably always be gnawing away at you.

Thing is, you don’t have to choose… it’s not either or. Nothing stops you taking a traditional job while you do your music part time in the evening and weekends. Plenty of people do this while they build up their career.

Once you make progress and even start earning money with your music you can transition slowly into doing it full time.

As soon as you start earning money and can see a clear progression, you’ll find people around you start taking your dream more seriously.

It’s less to do with making a choice, and more to do with taking clear steps towards what you want.

Because you can do music well and love to do it, this does not mean you can run a business doing music — and since most musicians are self-employed, that is exactly what they need to do: run a music business. If you are a musician, you are a self-employed small business owner.

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