The biggest problems I’ve had when thinking about starting a music career is that everyone I know tells me I’m good, or worse, great. That’s a problem because I know I’m not great, not yet anyway. I know I’m somewhere between OK and good, but unfortunately that is a span of a few billion miles-worth of musicians.
The thing that makes it even worse is that I grew up in the church. The church has this problem of not wanting to make anyone feel bad, so they tell everyone they are great at everything even if they suck. This is a major problem for artists because people who have spent their life (time, money, blood, sweat and tears) trying to perfect their craft are put into the same category by the church as someone who believes they were “told by God” to sing their “special song”, even though they have never taken a voice lesson or songwriting class.
The reason music is even trickier is because most people can’t tell the difference between good and great, and everyone’s ear is different so the whole definition is pretty subjective. The problem I have with most churches is that we let everyone sing, but not play instruments. Why is there a double standard there?
I always say to my wife that if they let someone, with an equal lack of skill as the singer we are forced to listen to play drums, that person would be told in the nicest way possible never to pick up a set of sticks again…and that maybe they would be better off serving in the nursery where there is a greater need (which is true so that makes it OK). At the very least, none of the other musicians would be able to get through a song and many white people would be even MORE confused about when to clap.
And I have seen this with singers in every single church I have ever gone to…in almost every single service too.
So instead, I set out to find people who would tell me I sucked, to confirm what I already believed (because in an artist’s mind there is no in between – you’re either brilliant or completely incompetent) so that I could just give up and move on with my life. It had to be someone I didn’t know because only then could I trust their opinion (or so I thought). Surely they’d have no reason to lie to me, so I could believe whatever they were going to say. But going back to that subjectivity thing, it turns out it’s not very hard to find someone you don’t know to tell you that you’re awful and can’t sing in tune and should basically never play music again. Another dead end.
So if I can’t believe friends and family telling me I’m good, and I can’t trust strangers telling me I’m terrible, how will I ever know if I suck?
I get it though, because people have good intentions and want to be encouraging and all that stuff. But please know you are doing a disservice to your artists who are already self-conscious in the church by telling them they are great because we can’t tell if you mean it or are just being nice or because you’re tone deaf.
The other problem is that even if you do have a discerning ear and are correctly telling an artist they are good, we can’t hear you. We have already made up our mind about ourselves and no one is going to convince us we aren’t right with a pat on the back or a “good job” after a performance. That’s just not validation, at least not the kind that works.
I’m sorry that’s the way it is, but it’s not just me. Just about every artist I know or have heard about deals with these issues on at least some level. And sure enough, the ones who are the most successful are the ones who deal with it the best by not really caring what others think, not necessarily the ones who are the most talented. The funny thing is that creative talent is an enormous burden that each artist carries around entirely on their own for the most part, mostly because we just don’t know how to carry it well or that it’s even possible.
What You Can Do
It’s actually a simple, 2-step process if you really want to help validate an artist.
First, buy their music, art, or whatever. You are already buying cd’s and stuff to hang on your wall – why not have the bonus ability to brag that, “I know the person who made that!” to all your friends (they will be super jealous and also think you’re awesome). Put your money where your mouth is, because that will show the artist that you really believe in them enough to actually support them. Notice I didn’t say go to all their concerts. Go to hear them live as much as you can, but don’t feel like you have to just because you know them. I’d rather play for one new fan than 1,000 bitter friends.
Second, stop telling people who suck that they are great. This is harder than the first one but equally as important. If you’re not sure, don’t say anything, especially in front of other artists (since you can’t tell the difference). We are not new parents who want you to tell us our ugly baby is the cutest one you’ve ever seen. The best way to tell if you’re not sure if they suck is to buy their cd and ask another musician who doesn’t know them what they think. They might not always be right, but they are not emotionally involved and will at least be honest most of the time.
Notice I didn’t put a link to my music on iTunes for you to buy? That was on purpose. But don’t worry, it’s coming eventually…
Bonus (for aspiring musicians)
How to tell if YOU suck: if you have never taken a lesson for any instrument, then you probably suck at it. If you taught yourself you are missing a lot. With the voice it’s different, but not really. You might “have a good voice” but you’re not a singer no matter how many solos they let you sing in church. Take a few lessons and find out how much you need to learn. The same goes for songwriting. If you don’t have notepads and random stickies full of lyrics and one-liners in every drawer and every messy pile of crap in your house from the last 15 years, you’re not a songwriter. Not yet anyway.
Then again, maybe you’re that one-in-a-billion person God decided to bless with all the talent in the world without having to do any work (if you’re reading this please tell me your birthday so I can go play the lottery). Yes, everyone hates you, but congratulations. Don’t waste it.