Why We Indie Musicians Never Fail

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I was just working on an article comparing some out-of-the-box promotion ideas; the ones that were successes and the ones that were failures. The thing is, I couldn’t think of a single “failure.” And it’s not because I think I’m some huge indie music success. It’s simple: When we’re still trying, we never fail.

I’ve had many “failures” in the casual, muggle sense of the word. I’ve tried to raise money for records, to do music promotion to get bigger audiences to come to shows, and made hundreds of cold calls only to hear hundreds of “no’s.” Yet none of these occur to me as a failure. At the same time, I have to fend off this little voice in my head that chants, “you’re not succeeding yet…”

Perhaps I’m a “glass half full” kinda gal, because my only explanation for not qualifying these “misses” as failures in my music career is that every time I haven’t succeeded, I’ve learned something. Perhaps it’s in the semantics of it all: to me, “not succeeding” means I might have fallen short of specific expectations I had. “Failure” is not the same as “not succeeding” to me. I’m on a road, a journey, and I will never really fail until I stop, cold turkey.

It’s not a white-or-black type of conversation. There are plenty of times I haven’t succeeded. None of my three piano-pop records have hit gold or platinum status – I haven’t even sold enough copies to pay my NYC rent. My fan funding campaign didn’t raise enough money to master the record or hire a high-end PR company to help push it out into the world. And no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to pack a mid-size New York venue.

As depressing as that all sounds, there are bright sides to every effort, despite that whatever expectation I had wasn’t met. I couldn’t hire a PR firm, but my fan funding campaign allowed me to pay my band and an orchestra for my record, a dream come true for me.

All of this leads me to believe I have fairly high standards and often out-of-reach expectations. Don’t we all? It’s taken me years to get this, but setting out big goals and “only” getting mini-results doesn’t qualify as “failure.” I had a goal of winning a Grammy before age 30. If you’ve read any of my past entries or my blog, Living On Gigging, you know that when I hit 30, I had massive panic attacks, anxiety, and overall misery. What I was finally able to recognize, thankfully, was that my perspective was focused on the one thing I didn’t obtain, the one failure (as I initially called it). I wasn’t acknowledging all the steps I had taken and the results I did accomplish in my time as a full-time artist and musician.

Eventually, I was finally able to acknowledge the results I created in this crazy life I’ve chosen, and got clear that I was committed to having an impact on this crazy industry. That is when I realized success was not about winning the Grammy, it was about living the life of someone who is out to win a Grammy. I am on that path. If I get there, I get there, if not, I’m living the life of someone who’s on a road they are passionate about.

Cheryl B. Engelhardt is an established pianist/singer/songwriter who has toured the US and Europe, licensed songs to over a dozen TV shows, and who composes music for films, national ads, and CollegeHumor.com. Cheryl is the author of “In The Key Of Success: The 5 Week Jump-Start Strategy,” an incredibly effective, result-oriented eCourse for independent musicians who are serious about breaking through plateaus in their careers. Because you are a loyal Echoes reader, you get a ridiculous 70% discount off the regular price by typing in IHEARTDM in the “discount code” field.

Cheryl’s next workshop will be held in NYC in August 2012. For more info, visit her website www.CBEmusic.com and follow her on Twitter @CBE.

53 thoughts on “Why We Indie Musicians Never Fail

  1. “Find something you love and figure out a way to get paid for it”.  I don’t know who said it, but I have never forgotten it. I’m not sure that you have to get rich, it’s just doing what you love and being able to do it. Nice article I like all of the articles that appear on this site.

  2. Thanks, Cheryl, for the excellent reminder of why we do what we do. I’ve been a musician for decades, and now I’m one of those guys who holes up in his attic with his computer cranking out electronic/organic music for… just me! I don’t perform live, and very few people know that I’m currently in the middle of recording/mixing/mastering an album that has pretty much taken over my life for almost a year now. I used to compare myself to others in order to measure my “success” in producing my own work, but now I have only one measure of success… would I be willing to shell out 10 or 15 bucks for my own album? Hell, yeah! I’d even buy two copies and give one to a friend who I felt just HAD to hear this guys stuff! And it wouldn’t be because it’s my work. It would be because the compositions and arrangements are compelling, the production is top notch, the packaging is beautiful, and the product as a whole is pure class by any standard! If I can be so pleased with my own stuff that I’d be my own fan, then I’ve truly succeeded (and that’s tough, given that so many of us artists live under a perpetual cloud of self-doubt and self-criticism). I want to leave behind a body of work that I’m proud to call my own, and not be embarrassed to share with whoever will listen! If I can do that, I’ve will have succeeded!

    Thanks again, Cheryl… you’re definitely a success in my book!

  3. Failure often assumes we had prior expectations that we didn’t reach.

    Yet the painting of our life is not complete until the final stroke has dried.
    The story of your music career isn’t over until you finish the last page.
    Keep writing your story and make past `failures’ a footnote.

    And remember, it takes a lot of small failures to create a huge success.

  4. Hi!

    I just sent to a Christian musician that was discouraged this one statement.  That if someone is truly called to do something they won’t be happy anywhere else, so in this if it is truly your “Higher Call” you still win no matter what happens.

    I am a songwriter who tried to do anything but music for many years and now I am back at doing music.  If I would have just kept on doing what my Call in life was I could have done much I am sure.  But here I am back at it and should you need any assistance in lyrics or music phrasing contact me.

    c/o A “Higher Call” To Artists

  5. How can u write about the key to succes. The nature of this article is to point out that you don’t believe you have achieved it. So how can you tell some how to do some thing you can’t.

    1.  Reading comprehension isn’t your strong point, eh ?  You missed the point of the article entirely if all you got out of it was someone who had not “achieved success”. 

    2. Hi Pksmusic. The intention of the article is to encourage musicians to eliminate whatever preconceptions and “shoulds” from their conversation about success and consider that success is the journey you are on. It was also a reminder to acknowledge all of the achievements and results you have had. Success is a word that means something different to EVERYone and if you can keep a positive attitude and look at yourself in a different light, the possibilities are endless.

  6.  am Yusuf, a Ghanaian percussionist and bandleader living in  Netherlands.
    With my band Zuluwannsago we play afrobeat, funk and jazz on festivals and in clubs.
    Here http://www.youtube.com/zuluwannsago you’ll find some videos from a Jazz festival
    where we performed.
    And this is my website: http://www.yusufsbeat.nl/.
    I also have a profile on myspace: http://www.myspace.com/zuluwannsago.
    I hope you’ll like my music and that you are interested in booking us.
    Please do let me know what you think about it.
    Thanks and greetings,
    Yusuf Nuweku
    Tel. + 31 684123679 looking for perfromances

    1. Robin… Just read this blog.  Music is very internal. As far as applying it for mental or physical therapy, I have seen its magic work for the aging since playing for nursing homes and the mentally impaired!  Thanks for the blog site info.

  7. Just keep on playin. The music always lives inside our hearts.
    Always make it come out with any instrument we play.
    One of the many things that matter

  8. I Loved the article. Very inspirational. We all have dreams and if we don’t all get to win the lotto we shouldn’t feel bad. We are doing what we love and people get a lot from our music whether it can be measured or not. We are living our truths.

  9. For a brief moment i thought someone had stolen a few lines from one of my rantings dealing with life in the music industry. Alas it was just another of my fellow musicians. I too have been in the music business for over 40 years some good some bad. But through it all I still sit at the piano and my workstation banging out songs thinking” This one is going to make it and i need to sit down and prepare my thanks in my speech for the acceptance of my Grammy award. You never know. If a black man (well half black) man can become President of the United States, then it is truly possible for me a New York puertorican to most certainly win a Grammy award. Although I presently work as a TSO for TSA I haven’t given up. It just isn’t my time yet.

  10. This is an attitude not only for indie musicians but all individual on the journey of life. This burden of failure leads to much of the craziness in the world. Wishing you a long and productive path on your passionate journey.

  11. I am a Musician.  I am a Songwriter.  I know what I am, and as long as I am pursuing my craft, and people are enjoying my music, I am successful.  We all grow, whether it is from our lack of success, or from a real “Success”.   I am really proud and happy when a fan comes up and just wants to talk to me, a Child or an adult it tells me that if only for 1 or 2 at a time, I have been a success!  This is true for all of us. 

      1. am Yusuf, a Ghanaian percussionist and bandleader living in  Netherlands.
        With my band Zuluwannsago we play afrobeat, funk and jazz on festivals and in clubs.
        Here http://www.youtube.com/zuluwannsago you’ll find some videos from a Jazz festival
        where we performed.
        And this is my website: http://www.yusufsbeat.nl/.
        I also have a profile on myspace: http://www.myspace.com/zuluwannsago.
        I hope you’ll like my music and that you are interested in booking us.
        Please do let me know what you think about it.
        Thanks and greetings,
        Yusuf Nuweku
        Tel. + 31 684123679 looking for perfromances

  12. I have been feeling this way lately as well.  Thank you for verbalizing it!

  13. I absolutely love the last line of this article “I’m living the life of someone who’s on a road they are passionate about”

    That’s what matters most

    1. Thanks Rita. That IS what matters most- you hit the nail on the head. That’s what keeps me from getting to inside my negative conversations of what hasn’t been done yet and leads me to appreciating the successes I HAVE had. 

  14. Nobody can tell you that you “failed” except you, as long as you live by your own standards. What the hell is a “failure” when it comes to art anyway? Like you should care what some smug industry prick passes onto you because of his own hangups and self-dissatisfaction. 

    1. Very true, True- and the hardest part is not getting jaded and angry at those industry, um, people, who pass on you, not taking it personally, and just moving forward in your own way. 

      1. If a musician wants to be a ‘musician’ he/she needs to learn how to take critacism. It’s not to
        demean or offend it’s to make ‘you’ better. But if you can’t take it, then you need to Suck it up, and take the advice. Otherwise, you’re wasting the bands time, the studio’s time, etc.
        Take it and make yourself better!

  15. Ain’t that the truth.  Thanks for reminding me I’m OK and where I need to be.  Like you I don’t get heard my thousands, or hundreds, or sometimes even tens but it’s alright, I still get to do what I love.  Thanks for brightening my day.


  16. Sometimes it is good to stop and recognize what you accomplished may be better than what you attempted. I still recall being told as an engineer to erase a saxophone solo that wasn’t what the musician tried to play. It was better, but the artist refused to listen to the playback of the creative accident. 

  17. Success isn’t measured in dollars. The person that sets their sights on being a great teacher and walks that path everyday is a success. The person that wants to be a cop or a fireman and finally gets there is a success. Success is the progressive realization of a worthy ideal. She’s a full-time artist/musician. It seems to me that Cheryl is already a success.

    1. I’m very humbled by your response, Murphy. It’s taken lots of practice, time, and perseverance (and kicking myself in the butt every once in a while) to remind myself that I am the only person who gets to define what “success” means to me. It’s such a loaded word and I’ve finally realized it’s all about the context you put it in. Thanks for getting it!

      1. I’ve been doing music for a living for the past 35 years Cheryl. Just being able to do what I chose to do, is Success. I don’t measure success in dollars. I measure it in freedom. I set my own hours, I set my own rates. I answer to myself. I’ll never fire myself. To me…that’s winning. That’s success.

  18. Success is not measured by the things you don’t acheive, but the things you do.  Never quit.

  19. I absolutely love this article! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It’s always a good reminder to keep things in perspective. From a fellow musician, thank you!

  20. Having a related conversation with my friend Chris Taylor at Actionable Books:


    There’s no word in English for “trying something new which has great chances for success, but which nevertheless doesn’t succeed, but still includes a lesson.”

    Checked Japanese and German and haven’t found one either. We need one. The only failure is when we fail to learn from something that doesn’t go the way we expected. (Might add sudden, instant, and immediate death as a failure, but musical experiments rarely end up there.)

    In my business coaching I show people that it’s all an experiment, and that you usually learn more from the ones that fail than those which turn out as expected.

  21. Yeah, sure would be nice if that road all the way uphill, would at least have a couple coastings or rest stops every once in a while, :).   But that would probably just get boring, maybe more fun with the mystery.

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