Why I Love Being a Failed Musician
Long before I worked as a designer, writer, and email geek, I was a musician. Specifically a guitarist by way of bass. Even more specifically, one with hair.
While I never gained even a small amount of fame and have since lost a lot of hair, I had a lot of fun and played a couple of cool shows. Despite not “succeeding” as a musician (who’s to say what that even means these days), failing as a musician turned out to be one of the better things to ever happen to me.
Contrary to popular belief, most of a musician’s time is spent not playing music, focusing their efforts on any number of tasks that allow them to play music, instead. At the time, I never thought any of the things I was doing for the band would come into play later on in life. Fast-forward six years and I’m shocked by just how much those tasks set me up for success.
So, what exactly helped me later in life? Let’s see.
I was introduced to web design through setting up a band website with Apple’s iWeb. That, along with hacking our Myspace profile, got me hooked on the web. It wasn’t long before I was opening up iWeb’s generated site to fiddle with the HTML and CSS myself. It also gave me my first frustrating experiences with hosting, FTP clients, and DNS. Good times.
The first few jobs I got in the web world were a direct result of showing off my band’s website. I owe my enduring love for the web, HTML, and CSS to iWeb, Myspace, and early sites made in a “borrowed” copy of Dreamweaver.
Similar to the web, I was first introduced to email as a mass communication tool when it came time to set up an email list for the band. While I doubt our subscribers ever grew beyond a hundred or so, email was a mind-altering tool. At this point I was still using pre-built templates to “blast” emails via MailChimp. Although I’ve moved beyond that “batch-and-blast” mentality, that early exposure laid the foundation for damned near all of my work since then.
Hell, Marketing in General
It’s very hard to get people to a show. Even your friends flake out sometimes. Dealing with promoting shows, going over ticket sales with the club, and the general hustle of being in a band was a great introduction to what every company deals with on a regular basis.
Although our tools are far more advanced than during my band days, we modern marketers face the same problems as any struggling band. Getting the word out and getting people interested enough to pay for a show. Fortunately, I think I’ve gotten slightly better at this.
I was the visually artistic one in the band, so it was generally left to me to make flyers, CD covers, stickers, and anything else we could use for promotion. This was one of the funnest parts of being in a band, even if most of my printing was done on a home printer.
After a few horrible flyers, you start to pick up on what works and what doesn’t. Cribbing ideas from other bands’ CD covers and posters hooked me on graphic design—long before I realized there was an actual name to the practice of creating those visuals.
Audio & Video Editing
With the exception of one album, I didn’t have the privilege of recording in a proper studio. We were left to our own devices and recorded on whatever gear we could get our hands on that could a) fit in my apartment or b) be hauled to record a show. Digital recording was still in its infancy, but getting comfortable with editing media means I can easily whip together a podcast episode or promo video when needed without hiring it out to someone else.
Working with a Team
Being in a band has its ups and downs. There are members that fall off the map for shows, disputes about how to tackle a song, egos involved in the songwriting process. All problems that force you to communicate, compromise, and work with other people.
I think a lot of my communication skills today are a direct result of spending so much time working through those problems with a bunch of strong-willed musicians with different personalities, work habits, and tastes in music. You’re not always going to like the people you work with (although I’m pretty damned fortunate with my team). But figuring that out while playing music is one of the better learning experiences I’ve had.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Oh, our practice space. A storage shed in one of those U-Store complexes not far from the local airport. It was hot as hell in the summer and frigid the rest of the year, but we worked our asses off in that practice space.
That work ethic has stayed with me long after my days of playing live music ended. I wasn’t the best guitarist in town (and I’ve since gotten worse), but with all that practice I could still hold my own. I’m confident that no matter what I decide to learn, I can learn it with enough practice.
Dealing with Trolls
Some shows sucked. The few people actually at the bar that night either didn’t care that we were playing or took issue with it. I can’t remember how many times someone requested Sweet Caroline—sometimes as abrasively as possible. Learning to deal with the hecklers was a great practice for handling today’s trolls online. It also taught me that, no matter how well you’re playing, there will always be someone trolling along. Deal with it.
Getting Over Stage Fright
I was never a great performer. I was the guy that faded into the background of the band, knocking out rhythm or a solo as the song required, content to give the spotlight to the singer.
While I wasn’t jumping off drum risers and diving shirtless into the crowd, just being on stage forced me to face my fears of being in front of a bunch of people. This is actually great, since I give a few talks at tech conferences throughout the year. Thanks to playing hundreds of shows, I can walk in front of a crowd and speak at length without (too much) fear.
We never made much money from the band. What little we did make immediately went into the gas tank or towards paying off equipment and recording expenses. Being in a band was always a side project. But it’s the kind of side project that is absolutely worth working on even though it doesn’t pay. It’s the side project that taught me everything above. I guarantee that it’s the main reason I still devote a ton of time to side projects today.
I see the value in side projects, hobbies, and learning new skills in my free time. It’s why I’ll keep tackling side projects for as long as I physically can. Hell, maybe I’ll even join another band one day.
I’d hate to be the guy reliving his glory days in a band when he’s 40, but I can’t reiterate enough how valuable it was to me. Not only was it wildly entertaining at the time, but it ended up teaching me a lot in the process. If I had to do it again, I absolutely would. I’ll encourage my daughters to do the same if they’re so inclined.
I’m glad I’m not scraping by any more, dealing with nearly empty rooms of slightly hostile bar patrons, but I’m thankful for all that being a failed musician has taught me.
Me onstage at The House of Blues in Chicago.
P.S. My old band is still playing and releasing a new EP soon. You should check them out, tell them I sent you. Support independent music. If the past Grammy Awards’ closing performance has taught us anything, it’s that indie music is usually the best kind there is.