success

For the Under-Discovered Artist (inspired by the sad tenor at the bar)

I started writing this for you nearly two weeks ago but keep hesitating to post it.  I'm afraid it sounds a little too strong or too soap-boxy or maybe defensive. As the years roll on, though, I'm coming to know myself and believe that along with being a singer/songwriter, I'm a determined encourager.  Maybe, as Kris Camealy so thoughtfully put it, I'm meant to be a door-holder for other artists.  So if the title of this post caught your attention because it sounds like you, then hear these words as me cheering you on.  Because that's what I came to do.

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For whatever reason, he can focus better at the cool Irish pub down the street than at home.  So he goes out some late nights and writes.  And not infrequently he finds himself in friendly conversation with whatever interesting characters populate the suburban bar at those hours.

So as we stood waiting for morning coffee to brew, he described the group of musicians he’d passed some time with the night before.  In particular, he told me about the 62-year-old tenor plagued by discontent and frustration toward the music industry – or toward his own perceived lack of success.

Standing in the kitchen, this guy who fell for my emotional, 19-year-old songwriting self a long time ago and has supported my work in multiple ways these years since, looked at me and said how he never wants me to feel that way, like a failure.  He said he’s had a taste of that himself and would hate to see me suffer the disappointment of not reaching my dreams, to live with late-life regret.

You don’t feel that way, do you? he asked.

I considered, then said I think there are some key differences between that guy (we’ll call him “Dave”) and me.

Clearly, we both love making music.  I LOVE songwriting.  And it feels pretty amazing to see others respond to that music.  I have goals I’m working hard to reach.  BUT. In the end?  The outward “success” of my music doesn’t define me or determine how successful my life has been.

After releasing an album with my sister in 2006, we thought, “It’s so fun to just be able to be two of the many people making music!”

I do not want to be a superstar, and I don’t think anyone owes me their attention.  I do want to be a part of the whole thing, a color on the wheel. What a privilege.

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Maybe Dave fell in love with the idea of becoming an acclaimed artist, where I fell in love with the Original Artist and the idea of being a part of what He’s making.

Dave, like many hard-working people, wants to be a SUCCESS story, but what I want most is to help tell THE story.

I hate it that Dave is living with bitterness, because every little encounter that says, “Yes, it matters somewhere somehow” brings a smile to my face and deep gladness to my heart.

I know it’s hard to keep your eyes on the distance.  I totally get that.  Sometimes jealousy and sadness creep in here, too.

But when you get your vision right?  The music business becomes the person you make small talk with while your eye is really on the love of your life across the room.

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Our art doesn’t need to be widely recognized.  It needs to be deeply meaningful.

Let’s make something we believe is honest and good and beautiful and true.  Let’s grow and improve and help others grow and improve.  If awards or recognition come, okay.  If money comes through our art, so helpful.

But don’t mistake money and acclaim for an accurate measure of Good Art.  Your work can matter greatly without ever earning you a dime.  YOU matter without any social media followers at all.

I recently read A FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green.  His characters talk about the idea of “the universe wanting to be noticed,” and something in that resonated with me, but it’s not quite there yet.  We DO want to notice everything we can about this intricate, marvelous universe, but not as an end but a means.  The more I notice the universe, the more intensely I REVEL in its Maker.

We’ve grown up in a world of STAR Search, American IDOL, THE Voice…it’d be pretty tough to be immune to the pressure to rack up applause.  We’re well-acquainted with the “Go big or go home” mentality.

But, seriously. WHAT in the WORLD?  I find that to be both self-centered and short-sighted.

What is BIG??

Some of the biggest moments in my own experience have taken place in obscure moments in time with zero humans watching. 

Some of the most affecting people I’ve known have the least name recognition.  

Almost ALL of the most deeply moving songs I’ve loved were never radio singles.

For crying out loud, the most notorious world-changers and culture-makers didn’t emerge from a vacuum but were themselves built on the backs of countless nameless, unremembered, thinkers/artists/scientists/leaders/teachers/parents who hacked the brush out of the way and started the conversation and whose work was every bit as important in the life of the universe.

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It’s who we ARE and WHAT WE GIVE AWAY that makes us a PART of something worthwhile.  If they remember our names 300 years from now (and they won’t), we won’t be here to care about it, anyway, so why not celebrate and honor the fact that we’re alive today and have something to share?

Why not do what brings you so much joy that you do it when you’re NOT getting paid--because you “feel God’s pleasure” when you do it?

Why not do what meets someone else’s need and sends people reeling, thinking “There MUST be a design to all of this”?

Do something that tells the truth and asks good questions and leaves a footprint on souls that won’t wash out when the tide comes for our bodies.

Do small, unnoticed things you’re good at that make a difference to your family and community.

Do it with LOVE.   Do it at a cost to yourself.  Do it in small increments, in the midnight hours, after working your day job, or the wee hours of the morning, if that’s all you’ve got.

Do it because you CAN’T STOP.  (hat tip to Miley)

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I intend to be grateful at 62, regardless of the opportunities that come or don’t come.  Regardless of which circles invite me in and which ones overlook me. And they will do both.

I can choose.  So can you.  (So can YOU!)

The Maker of the universe wants to be noticed.  I don’t want to miss my chance to be a part of that.

 

 

On success & celebrity...

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* My apologies for going long tonight...

Dear friend, so many things I've suddenly wanted to write you about. So many unrelated things on my busy little brain.  I won't hit you with them all at once, but here's a short list.  

Namely,

    1.  Success & Celebrity

    2.  Internet OCD

    3.  Fear

Tonight we'll go with: Success

It's a very strange thing to have to "sell" one's own work, whatever sort of work it is.  

If we find ourselves at a place (finally) where we value our own work enough to want to share it with the world beyond, and hopefully, support ourselves financially, we have to face this beast called "self-promotion."  So awkward.  So uncomfortable.  

But (eventually and with some prodding) we do it.  We put it out there and we wait tense and unbreathing for some positive sign of being well-received by someone other than our mother.  

Oh, the pain of waiting...

    (p.s. If I have ever made you wait for a response to your artistic efforts, I sincerely apologize.  I     know how bad that feels and don't wish you to feel it.)

And when acknowledgment comes...how sweet it is.  Like a water mister at Six Flags on a July day.  Joy. Relief.  Excitement.  Hope!  

It makes possible the next effort. Who of us continues to be brave without being lifted up now and then?

But then...how many accolades are necessary in order for us to take ourselves, our own work, seriously? To give it weight?

Someone said enthusiastically to my friend, also an independent singer/songwriter: "I hope you make it!" 

Of course - it's an expression of love and support and it should be received as such.  (Let's not be easily offended.)

But I do wonder if these words we utter aren't also a subconscious indicator of just how saturated we are in a consumeristic and celebrity-driven society?  Don't they sting because they betray the doubt that's already there in each of us, under the skin? 

The voice that says, "This - what you offer - doesn't really matter."

Afterall, this friend is actively working in the profession of her choice, creating new musical art every day, carving out a living doing what she loves, contributing to the community.  Is this not "having it made"? Do we really need to be featured on MTV or win an award or become a household name before we can feel legitimate in our work, in our very life?  

When pressed, I'm sure few of us would argue the point, and yet it slips out: I hope you make it.  

And then there's the fact that each of us who decides to step out and show something we've created must face that inner ugliness that does actually desire fame and celebrity, or at least, the praise of men.  It's there, under the skin, just a little bit.  

    Because then I'd be a "real" artist.

According to the Christian faith (which is my faith), that's not what I'm supposed to be after.  In fact, just the opposite. I'm supposed to want Creator God to be great - and me to become less.  

I'm supposed to desire balance and right perspective in my life.

I'm supposed to love others as I love myself and desire their good before my own.

To walk humbly with my God.  

How in the world do we self-promote and also voluntarily become less??  I do believe it's possible to grow a thriving business, or to make a living from one's work (yes, even art), and still "become less" spiritually speaking. 

I'm just saying...it's tricky business.

There are hierarchies which become established among artists, and arrogance and insecurity both. We want to be part of certain circles, and pride often follows the connections and acceptance and praise.  It's not pretty.

I'm saying this here because...I want no part of it.  I want you to want no part of it, because we don't need another celebrity.  Let's instead build a community that reminds each other of the truth that we are just that: a community of people, each with something to share at the table.  Doesn't matter what it is.  

I need what you offer, even as you need what I offer.

A few months ago, Matt Bronleewe and I wrote a song called "Sunrise" (not yet recorded).  This is how it begins, and this is my conviction:

    One brings a song and one beats the drum

    One builds a shelter so others will come

    One starts a fire, and one grinds the grain

    We are gathered from the fields and the rain

    Strangers with one strange hope...

written in love,

cnw