Musicians, It’s Time to Rethink The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Success

By GoGirlsMusic Co-Executive Director rorie kelly
May 31, 2017 · 6 min read

I know too many musicians who seem to accept it as a given that their music will never bring them financial recompense. In fact, they cheerfully laugh off the idea of making a living with music. "What do you do when there’s a folk musician at your door?" "You pay him for the pizza."

Ha, ha, ha. We spend so much time and energy getting good and improving our craft but no one cares and it reduces us to menial labor and struggling to pay the bills! What a laugh riot.

Let me say something important. It’s real that we do get undervalued and it’s also real that this needs to be addressed on a societal level. But we need to drop the long suffering attitude ASAP. We don’t need to drop it because it’s a turn off or because no one likes a complainer, or anything like that. We need to drop it FOR US--for our personal well-being and for our chances at success.

I have been delving into my thoughts and feelings about money recently, and I’ve realized how attached I am to the beleaguered worker archetype. I feel good when I know I’ve worked hard — and there’s no problem there, unless it’s overwork. When I work hard although I know I am being undervalued by the people around me, I feel self-righteous. But at the end of the day, I really don’t want to go down in a blaze of self-righteous glory--consistently working hard only to be devalued. In fact, as a real human with a mortgage and bills and a personal life to consider, when I think about it that way, it sounds flat-out awful.

It may feel good to joke around about how no one’s listening and no one pays us. Maybe it blows off steam in the moment. But the more we talk with great certainty about how devalued we are, the more we write our own bleak future. And it seems that it’s musicians more than anyone else who perpetuate this cycle. Want to get discouraged from pursuing a career in music? Your fastest bet is to go find some musicians. They will tell you their long-suffering tale of how nobody wants to pay the band and no one cares about original music and you’re better off with a day job. While they’re at it, they’ll tell you the joke about the musician who puts a $4000 guitar into a $400 car to drive 40 miles to a $40 gig.

These stories are not harmless. They become our personal mythology. They set us, and the next generation, up to fail. And--here’s the important thing--this negative mindset is really not "just reality." It’s actually just the burned out sarcasm of a disappointed human who is tired of pushing constantly with little to show for it. That’s understandable — but ultimately unhelpful.

Let's stop wearing our exhaustion and disappointment and devaluation like badges of honor. They do not make us cool. They make us miserable.

Let’s stop espousing the "temporarily embarrassed millionaires" mindset, where either you make millions or you’re dead broke & a failure. That black and white point of view is ridiculous. There is room in this world to be a middle class musician if we choose to forge that path for ourselves.

Let’s stop placing the only bar for success at the level of basically winning the career lottery — because that sets us up to always fail.

Let’s stop dropping names like they’re hot potatoes, and let’s stop blindly listening to music biz "influencers" over our own ideas and values. We have brains too, and we can use them for more than coming up with clever jokes about how broke we are.

Let’s stop associating "famous" with "successful" & stop associating the 1% of the music biz with "correct". We didn’t get into music to be unquestioning worker bees who do what we’re told, so why are we willing to do JUST THAT when Big Music says to? Why do we willfully walk around ignorant, making guesses about what it takes to "make it" instead of educating ourselves & thinking independently?

I’m not writing this blog to tell you that we should all buy "The Secret" and embrace the power of positive thinking, or whatever. But let’s acknowledge that the stories we tell ourselves & each other all the time can literally change our beliefs. If we tell ourselves daily that we are undervalued and that only a magical and highly specific opportunity can save us, we are dooming ourselves. We need to create our own opportunities in order to thrive — and there is just no good way to do that when we think everyone hates us.

When I put out an article a couple of years ago about how I doubled my annual music income, many made jokes like "twice nothing is still nothing" or "you must have gotten married". I’m sure those people thought they were just being funny, but what they were really doing is walling themselves off from the possibility of success. It’s not funny and cool to talk about how broke we are, and how we suffer for our art that no one cares about. It’s actually heartbreaking. Furthermore, the fact that many people literally can’t IMAGINE that I upped my music income just by applying basic thought and effort is very telling. Folks literally thought of “get married” as a way to increase income before they thought of “negotiate higher pay” or "stop doing free gigs." Spoiler alert, if the idea of making more money as a musician is so absurd to you it’s laughable, you’re laughing yourself out of success!

This doesn’t mean there aren’t people who devalue us or try to exploit us. Guess what, though? We need to get a collective clue & stop working with those people! If we truly think there’s "nobody" to work for who won’t devalue/exploit us — then it’s time to woman up & go to bat for ourselves!

In no way am I saying that we don’t need to raise consciousness about the value of art, especially indie, female and minority art. But on a very personal level, if you and I want to succeed we need to at least stop programming our brains for constant recurring failure. We can’t moan, "no one pays musicians, it’s such a crime!" and then cheerfully book and promote gigs where we don’t get paid. If we are feeling devalued and exploited by a venue, we need to do 3 things ASAP:

  1. Stop playing there.
  2. Tell other musicians in the area (no one deserves to find out the hard way).
  3. Find or create a different gig.

Music is an entrepreneurial business and, to be honest, it always was. The 1% success stories you hear about in the media are a lot like lottery commercials. "Hey, you never know!" Let’s move on from a mindset that places our chances of career success in the realm of one-in-a-million odds.

We have to get thoughtful and go after our success, not just show up at places and hope an A&R guy in shining armor "discovers" us. But most especially, we have to stop telling ourselves and others that we are broke and a joke and that nobody cares about art. Please, stop giving power to these really damaging ideas by repeating them as though they are universal truths. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Listen to the story coming out of your mouth, and adjust it to one where success is possible.

Written by is the oldest and largest online community of indie women musicians. Our mission is to promote, support and empower indie women in music.

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