On Success

An interesting conversation unfolded on social media over the last couple of days. A musician who has been around for a while and (from my perspective) has an established profile – is playing lots of gigs, doing interesting shows with awesome people, popping up on line-ups that I aspire to etc, made a post talking about feeling both busy and rejected by the local music community.

It hit hard, because most of the comments were musicians who I look up to – all sharing the same sentiment. Strange that I find myself in the same category as musicians who play with Jessica Mauboy and Guy Sebastian, artists who’ve won ARIA and GRAMMY awards, bands who’ve played headline shows on overseas festivals.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week on what ‘success’ looks like, as an artist who might just float along at this level for the rest of my life. This might be it – the pinnacle of my career releasing an album to 150 people in Melbourne then hitting the East Coast for a run of festival dates where we’re either on in the early afternoon before the audience starts moving, or on as a late night closing act after the headline act has played and most of the sensible people have gone home.

I keep reminding myself that we’re lucky to be on festival line-ups at all.

I’ve played in many bands who I thought were suited to larger stages but never made it there, playing tiny corners of pubs and backyards a couple of times then packing it in.

At the other end of the spectrum are the acts who ‘made it’, and even then it seems like success is fraught. You’re one hit away from playing ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ at every show for the rest of your life, even if that comes with selling out stadiums around the world (hard to see this as a negative right? what a song! But the point stands).

My friend’s band were a ‘Triple J success’ in the early 2000s. There was a brief period where they could sell out 500-cap rooms around the country, but as soon as they played the big single the audience would leave. They started putting the single as the final song in the set just to keep the audience there.

The next album they released wasn’t picked up by Triple J, and their audience disappeared.

So is success tied to inclusion on festival line-ups? Selling out shows? Composer commissions? Supporting well-known acts? Radio plays? Playing lots of shows? Touring internationally? Longevity? Releasing a live album with the MSO?

These are all success criteria I have used to compare myself against other people and I keep coming up short.

Part of the problem is definitely social media. It’s really not healthy to compare ourselves to others, at least not in the way social media has facilitated. I have a never-ending stream of photos of friends touring overseas, winning awards, playing with artists I love.

That’s totally not what I need.

The thing I often find most helpful is comparing myself to myself.

If I look back one year, Gusto was about to release our first EP, we hadn’t toured yet beyond a weekend of shows in Bendigo. We hadn’t played any festivals. We weren’t on anyone’s radar. We definitely couldn’t sell out a Melbourne show.

If I look back two years, Gusto didn’t exist.

Some of the songs were written out on my computer, or floating around in voice memo format, and the general idea for the band existed, but we hadn’t played a single show, hadn’t even had our first rehearsal.

If I look back ten years my sole gig was playing background jazz on a Friday night at a pizza restaurant.

Is progress the success measurement I’m looking for? Each year bigger and better than the one before? More money, more gigs, more audience, the unfettered growth approach?

Progress seems fraught as a success metric.

When COVID hit and two years of shows were canned there was a pretty hefty feeling of loss – in income, in growth, in progress. I took some time off, and puzzled it together and came back with something new and here we are now.

A lot of the online conversation was around measuring art in other ways – how you build your community, how much you enjoy your creation, how much fun you have with friends while making music, how much you’re growing as a person through art.

These are all totally valid but wander into mystical un-measurably esoteric territory. How do I measure how much I’m enjoying the music I make? If I have a bad gig with good friends, do I pull the plug on the project?

Even the greatest people have bad days, and tying our self-worth to any of these things feels tenuous. Art itself is tenuous. The artistic process is tenuous. There’s days when making music on my own at home is fulfilling, days when making music with friends is the best thing in the world, and days when playing a festival stage to hundreds of people is terrible. Often there’s no rhyme or reason to it, but the amazing experiences outweigh the terrible ones and we keep digging deeper to see where we’ll end up.

At the end of the day I think we all just want to be included – to be asked to do things, to be recognized for the efforts we’re putting in. Whether that’s through official organisations funded by tax-payers, or old mate Damo who’s running a PA system in the park behind his house, there’s a beauty in the feeling of community, the sense that you’re part of something a little larger than yourself.

I felt this sense of community last week, at Gusto’s EP launch. A hundred and fifty people turned up, different demographics from different scenes, different friendship groups, to celebrate this music that we’d created together, and it felt amazing. It felt inclusive and open and rewarding, a great way to celebrate two years of progress and successes.

Now I need to give back and turn up to other people’s things, so they can have the same feeling.

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