Here are a few strategies that can help you cope with the ups and downs of a long music career, for anyone who has bravely (or foolishly) committed to this life of music to the end.
The music business is tough. If we were all David Bowies and Tina Turners (or Bruno Marses and Adeles, whatever floats your boat), we wouldn’t need to read helpful how-to blog posts like this. Someone I greatly respect in this business, Ariel Hyatt of CyberPR, reminds her blog and book audience frequently how musicians and other content creators are incredibly hard on themselves and recommends finding strategies to “quiet your nasty” (the critical voice in your head).
Sometimes life kicks our butts hard, though. Gigs fall through, record deals fall apart, marriages end, and loved ones die slowly or suddenly (happy holidays, by the way). Sometimes it’s not nearly that dramatic, it’s just an accumulated sense of blah after sending out 100 demos with no response and the frustration of trying to rally the troops for another gig, only to end up playing a spirited set to the bartender and your significant other.
Whatever the circumstances, we all get burned out. In that fatigued state, it’s easy to think that this is the end. We might as well apply for that job at the shoe store now and sell the guitars on Craigslist. Screw it. It’s too hard, we’re too old, we never had the support, we don’t have enough money, etc. Our minds will give us 1,001 reasons not to do something, and especially will attempt to kick us when we are down.
You might also be burned out from the good stuff, too: it doesn’t have to be all negative. I played 150 gigs between Memorial Day and Labor Day in 2015. A “good tired” is still tired! It used to be code in show business for rehab when performers were hospitalized for “exhaustion,” but sometimes it’s not a euphemism. After 20+ years in the music biz wearing a variety of different hats (performer, producer, sideman, merch seller, songwriter), I’ve been burned out more than once in my quest for a long music career.
Here are a few strategies that have helped me cope with the ups and downs of a long music career, since I have bravely (or foolishly) committed to this life of music to the end.
Hit the pause button
It’s very easy in the hustle and bustle of our busy modern lives to lose sight of what’s important, and that includes giving ourselves downtime. Time with no goals. Resting and relaxing with no agenda, whether at home or on vacation, is a necessary part of the grind. Using the free time to clean the house or going on an action-packed, every-moment-booked super vacation is not what I’m talking about. You must pause and be still. Pretty much all spiritual and religious traditions emphasize the value of stillness, meditation, and contemplation. Hell, even atheists know the value of stillness and meditation.
Before the comments fly fast and furious about how I am telling you to give up your music career, please remember that a rest in music is not a stop: it’s a silent pause which gives emphasis to the notes around it. So give yourself a break! If you can’t take a week, take a day. If you can’t take a day, take an hour. Free your mind and the rest will follow. We try very hard, us self-employed go-getter modern musicians who are unafraid of the entrepreneurial side of what we do. There comes a point, though, where we are trying and trying and getting less and less back. This is what’s known in economics as “The Law of Diminishing Returns.” The solution is to pause and reflect.
Schedule it! Don’t assume that because you’ve made the decision to pause that your packed schedule is going to magically part like the Red Sea. You will have to plan for it. Use your calendar. Make it happen. Even five minutes of meditation/quiet a day and a focused intention away from creating can begin the healing.
Evaluate, reward, and learn
After you have quieted your busy mind and physically rested, it’s time to take a look at where you’ve been. Honest self-appraisal is a tricky thing.
When I am picking songs for my records, I often haven’t a clue. Sometimes I think they are all brilliant and other times I think they all suck. I road-test them at gigs and usually will give great weight to the most popular ones. As time goes on and with great practice, I have learned how to step back and honestly assess from a distance. Honest assessment includes strengths and weaknesses! If all you are doing is tearing yourself down, you are doing it wrong. If all you are doing is basking in your own glory and thinking your stuff is all un-editable genius, you are mostly likely doing it wrong, too. A solid self-inventory lies in the middle of both of these.
If you are “good tired” from a run of successful gigs or a tour, think about what worked and what went right. Allow yourself a moment to be proud and savor that “look-Ma-top-of-the-world” feeling. Hard work that receives a reward can be rare in our business, so don’t undercut its importance.
If you are burned out and feeling like you’ve been banging your head against the wall, ask yourself what you could do differently. The ability to learn from failure and not wallow in it is a hallmark of most successful people. I think you have to allow yourself the wallow, though. Eat the pint or two of Ben and Jerry’s, dig into the Netflix binge, lick your wounds properly before you move on; all failure is but a door to a brighter future. Skipping over the feelings will only extend your burnout period. Set a time limit on feeling crappy; be it an hour or a week. Once the time is over, you are no longer allowed to wallow and it’s time to move on.
Writing can be a great way of reflecting, but don’t push yourself to be focused at this point. Think more of journaling and loose free-writing than pushing yourself to churn out something coherent.
Refill the well
I highly recommend the work of Julia Cameron and Mark Bryan, who wrote and developed the book and program The Artist’s Way, and have written further books further expanding the original concepts. One great image they use to describe creative recharging is “filling the well.” Cameron compares it to a trout pond: in order to have source material to draw on for our creative work, we have to keep the pond stocked with “fish.” If we overfish it, the well will be depleted and we will feel exhausted and frustrated. Refilling the well is then the last phase of healing from burnout.
The Artist’s Way program has a tool called the Artist Date, a weekly solo expedition to take you and your muse out to do something fun together. The idea is to add fun, spice, and whimsy to your life; in essence, learning how to play again like a child. The idea is that this will replenish your inner well by stoking the fires of inspiration and enthusiasm. You start with the question “What sounds fun?” and then go from there. Maybe your artist likes bowling. Or maybe your artist wants to go to a museum. Maybe you just want to stay home and listen to Motley Crüe records. Whatever sounds fun to you, you are encouraged to make some time to go for it.
I mention this tool because what you need to heal from burnout (especially the kind of burnout that comes from overwork) is a recovered sense of play. Also, a weekly “date” of two hours or so is manageable for most people. Another way to recover your kid-like sense of wonder: go back to the albums, movies, and books you loved as a kid. What did you love about them? Do any of them still resonate?
Often when we are burned out, we have lost the reasons why we do the things we do. Revisiting the very things that ignited our passion and desire to pursue music as a career can reawaken the sense of purpose that got us started in the first place. The Beatles, Talking Heads, The Police, U2, The Kinks, David Bowie, Robyn Hitchcock, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan – these are my personal musical touch points that inspired me as a kid to pick up a guitar and start writing songs. Revisiting their music from time to time helps keep my own mojo from dissipating, because I remember the reasons why. Even if I can’t articulate it, the reconnection activates a certain kind of cellular memory and I feel more energized.
And when you have recharged and refilled your well, jump back into it! Often people are afraid of stopping because of the energy it takes to get started again. It does take energy but it often takes an equal amount of energy to stay stuck than to get unstuck. Like Duke Ellington said, “I just took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues”.
As a final note, if you are feeling truly awful and think you might be depressed, don’t hesitate to get some professional help and/or reach out to friends. If you feel the burnout not receding after adequate rest, you might want to consider this. Blogs such as this one are no substitute for actual connections with family, friends, and therapists. You don’t have to do this alone!
Happy Holidays and a joyous, productive New Year.
Image via ShutterStock.com.
Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 20 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and has two full-length albums of original music available on iTunes.