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The Artist: 3 Common Struggles, and 3 Solutions for Success

July 10, 2012

If you’re an artist of any kind, you know how much of a struggle it can be at times. Financially and emotionally it can be draining.

I’ve been a self-employed musician now for over a decade and I’ve learned a thing or two the hard way. Sometimes despite the best of intentions and advice, you can feel lost and confused at best in moments of anguish.

This post is an attempt to break down some things that seem complicated, into some semblance of balance. A problem/solution, cause/reaction type of reasoning. It’s really a reminder for myself, but here’s hoping it’s useful to you, too.

Common Struggle 1:

A plan based on hope/ego/other people’s vision/things outside of your control

Everyone falls victim to this to some degree, on and off throughout their lives. Not just your artist life, either. The key lies in not living in the future. Yes, plans are good, but they need to be manageable and flexible and more importantly – yours.

Solution 1:

Be your own leader AND manager

You know that leadership, and management are two different things, right? Some of us are better at one than the other but if you’re an artist – you have to be good at both. Avoid time and energy doing the wrong tasks by establishing what YOU want first. This is critical. If you want to be a hit songwriter, you’ll have a different management process to get there than someone who wants to be a live rock drummer. Maybe you even want to be both. The point is to know that – and to know that BEFORE. In a lot of ways, this is the hardest part of any plan. I’m continually surprised by what I think I want vs what I discover I want after starting something, or actually getting it. This is why you need to be aware and flexible enough to modify your management processes and projects as required to align with your goals. If you’re looking for a great book that encompasses both of these areas – pick-up Ariel Hyatt’s, Music Success in Nine Weeks (you can read my blogs about it here, too). The first chapter is all about setting goals – the leadership side. And the rest is your management process. Along with this comes trusting your own instincts. This can often be in conflict with listening to others’ advice but if you know what you’re trying to achieve – trust yourself first. You can do that without being disrespectful to someone else. The other plus with taking ownership of “your baby” is there’s nobody to blame if the results aren’t what you wanted (hint – they hardly ever are, but often there is something unexpected and better that arises).

For me, I entered the independent recording artist world at the end of 2002 when the smaller labels were just starting to get swallowed up by the big players, the industry was in turmoil about downloading, and iTunes and the like weren’t major players yet. It was a giant void. For me, that didn’t matter. I only had one plan – to write and record a cd of my own songs. That was it. I wasn’t sure if it would be any good, or if people would buy it. I wasn’t making it for them. I was making it for me. I didn’t know if I wanted to pursue the business as a performer, or songwriter, or at all. I had only performed in public a few times, and found it very nerve-wracking every time – I wasn’t sure I was physically or emotionally up to the task. I decided to take everything one baby step at a time to avoid freaking myself out about “the future”. My biggest problem was that the people around me – my producer, my band – they had a vision and a plan for me based on the old business model of record, release to radio, tour, repeat. I had a hunch that things wouldn’t go that smoothly, so I just kept progressing at my own pace and comfort level. It is after all “my baby”.

Common Struggle 2:

Over-estimating your abilities and experience

This one is huge. A lot of people are unprepared at best for many projects they undertake – not just artistic ones. They lack the skills and experience, but worse – they lack the awareness of even knowing that. They outright refuse to take the advice of people who know more, and often disregard someone’s experience. I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by professionals throughout my career and my life in general with many years of experience and I listen to them. Even if I don’t agree, or follow their advice – I know enough to know they know more than me, and have good reasons for sharing the information. It’s really a “respect your elders” kind of thing and I know some of you will object to what I’m about to say but – I’ve seen an increase in this particular problem over the years in people. Maybe I’m just getting older, but if one more hipster freak with no experience tries to tell me something about what I’ve been doing weekly for a decade (or longer), or more importantly what they’ve *not* been doing or never done – I just might put my fist through their bowler hat. It takes years, if not lifetimes, to become good at something. Reading one book and a few blogs – if you even did that – and calling yourself an “expert” after a week is bullshit. But seriously, the bigger problem that is created here is that you “fail”, because you compare yourself to others and end up “competing” in a game you don’t even know how to play yet.

Solution 2:

Keep learning and don’t be a jerk!

Do I need to expand on why? I don’t think so. You get it. Small steps will get you where you’re going. Be patient and persistent. Be kind to others. You’re playing your own game anyway if you’ve set your goals – so it’s all good.

Common Struggle 3:

Quitting when the going gets tough

And here’s where even the most talented and experienced artists can fall apart. Even the ones that do respect their elders and have carefully planned and orchestrated every detail of their projects – a cd release, a radio promotion plan, whatever – often fall victim to inactivity and negativity. This is one that I struggle with all too often. In my early years, I was emotionally over-whelmed by almost everything (Generalized Anxiety Disorder is the medical term, although it took making my first cd to become aware of it), and my natural response was to sort of fold-up/curl-up/avoid any proactive activity. And of course, off and on (often more on than off) financial issues can be overwhelming when steady gigs fall apart with no notice (no two weeks termination, no severance pay) along with your teeth, your shoes, your guitar…  It usually happens all at once, and if you’ve been actually working as an artist, you normally find yourself in quite a pickle. I love pickles incidentally, but not that kind. If you are not resilient enough to take the lows, (or take a “regular” job as required) this is when major depression kicks in on top of it all. Enter fetal position and negative comments like “if only…” and “people just don’t like music/art/whatever anymore”, or “so and so should have a/b/c or d”, or “I should never have…”, etc. DON’T DO THIS! It’s a sure-fire way to kill your career, along with your mental health. I’m telling you this as your more experienced elder. 😉

Solution 3:

Stay positive and enjoy the journey

Avoid all negative self-talk. Practice saying nice things to yourself and others if you’re not good at it. Mind your mind – it’s consumed with itself. It’s insecure and easily distracted. It wants you to pay attention to it so it finds ways – often negative – to do so. I’m getting better at watching myself, as it were. Sometimes I outright laugh at some things I catch myself thinking! But, without delving too much into the spiritual, the point is The Universe/God/Gods/Whatever you believe is built on polarity. There is always balance, and there is always a reaction to every action. You reap what you sow. That’s not religion – it’s physics. So what’s the point of staying within it and getting all caught up in dark bits. Be here now. ENJOY your work. This should be easy, because you’re following YOUR goals for YOUR life. If you’re not enjoying it – revisit what you really want. You’re missing something.

Now obviously, there are going to be times – and many of them – where you slip and find yourself out of balance. I’m learning to really enjoy these times – they help define and crystallize my dreams and thoughts into actions – clear and specific things that are within my control. Then I find myself getting back on track, and things once again fall back into place. And so it goes.

A side benefit to enjoying your life and the things and people in it is that you do experience less struggle. Even if it’s because you no longer identify the “problems” as problems. You’re too busy living your life to get weighed down. You see the other side – the opportunity – more easily.

And there you have it. Easier blogged than done? Maybe. But trying in itself, over and over, does make it easier.

I’m sure some of you have noticed the same in your lives. What do you think?

Please share in the comments below, or direct me to your blog. I’d love to read your thoughts!

gigs – cds – mp3s – news – blog

notes: I would like to acknowledge Stephen Covey’s – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for reminding me of leadership vs management and inspiring this post

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Monique Barry permalink
    July 10, 2012 6:44 pm

    Great Blog Kim. Thanks! Mo xo

  2. May 9, 2013 2:31 pm

    Good article. I agree the most difficult thing to do sometimes is figure out where you really want to go. I spent many years working as a professional jazz drummer before eventually deciding that I really wanted to be a singer/songwriter. That’s also pretty vague. A singer/songwriter with a big independent following, or more of a commercial songwriter writing hit songs for other artists? Decisions, decisions….

    • May 10, 2013 4:04 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Brad!
      But I wonder- why can’t you be both (or all three if you include your drumming)?
      I find that I satisfy my inner singer/songwriter with songs I write alone, and my more “commercial” side when I co-write, although there is definitely cross-over.
      And my musician is happy backing up others.
      It’s win-win-win!

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