Posted Oct 13, 2010
First two things you’ll need are a sturdy notebook and a pen. Take yourself seriously and get a good notebook and be sure to use pen and not pencil so that you can’t erase what you’re gonna write down.
What I’m writing about today isn’t sexy. Art is supposed to be effortless. That’s part of the myth, part of the beauty, right? When we appreciate art, isn’t it partly for the experience of seeing something difficult done with grace? Isn’t it a perfect metaphor for how we wish life would be?
Well, to quote one of my favorite authors, Pete Dexter, you don’t need grace to push. And if you want a life doing what you love you’re going to have to decide between grace and grit. Swinging wide the door so that opportunity can waltz in is graceful, but wrestling a blood-hungry, world-champion fighting rooster to the ground is awkward as all hell, and certainly a much closer parallel for the career you should expect.
I can find two main reasons why talented, hard-working people can’t make a life in music. The first is that they confuse what happens on-stage with the work done backstage. The second is that they conflate aspirations with goals.
The concert or the recording is performance. It’s the show. It’s the canvas, the painting, the final product. It is what people take time out of their day to see. For the musician it’s almost surely the most fun part of the day. The two hours I’m on stage are better than (most) parts of the other twenty-two. It’s fun, and although I’m sweating and falling down a lot, it’s not something I think of as work. The work is what happens the rest of the time. The work is scheduling shows, driving, standing in line at the airport, making sure my show clothes are ready, doing setlists, eating sandwiches, waking up early, going to bed late. All that happens so that the show itself is smooth and done well.
But the life is not easy. As you know with any job, to do something well requires a lot of hard work, and music, for all its tight-pants and prancing around, is hard work. So forget about your time on stage for the next fifteen minutes. In order to make a life in music, you have to do a little hard work right now. You’re gonna have to concentrate on your goals.
Goals are very different birdies. Even the words sound different. Aspiration, that airy puff of breath, is such a suave word, soaring high above its stolid, plunkier cousin, goal. You can even tell, by the sound of the two words, which one gets the work done. A lot of people want, for some reason, a tour bus. They dream about it and never sit down to figure out, actually, how they are going to get that tour bus. Aspirations are good, nice things to have, don’t get me wrong, but they’re the pie in the sky, and if you want pie, you’re gonna need goals.
Now comes the notebook part. Get it out, write your email address in the corner of the cover and offer a reward if it gets lost. Say $25. You’re going to be using this book a lot for a lot of different things, but, as a kind of christening, I want you to spend the next thirty minutes writing down your goals, starting from ten years in the future (whoa, Ted!), five years in the future (I know, Bill!), one year, six months, next week, and tomorrow. Five goals each for each period of time.
This is not a drill! You’re constructing, in the next thirty minutes, the plan for the next decade of your life. It will only work if you’re honest with yourself. You know what you want to accomplish in ten years. Your ten year goals are your aspirations, the things you dream about. Getting on the cover of Rolling Stone, getting a song in Bill and Ted’s Part III, playing to an audience of a thousand, whatever. Don’t put down the aspirations you think you should have. Put down the ones you have.
This is the first place people shoot themselves in the foot. This statement of goals is for you to see and no one else. If you choose to write down things you don’t really care about, you’re not going to work towards them all that diligently and chances are you won’t achieve them, or if you do, you won’t be as happy as if you were completing one of the ten year goals you really have - singing on horseback as you ride down the streets of your hometown as part of a parade in your honor.
Thirty minutes may not seem like a lot of time to come up with thirty goals, but you shouldn’t think about this stuff too hard. As your life changes so will your goals. In the next ten years there will be a spare minute or two to give thought to your goals and with more experience you may wish to refine them slightly. This half hour is to get you started down that path. So, in the immortal words of 38 Special, “Hold on loosely, but don’t let go.”
Your goals are insane. Be honest about that and write them down anyway. I wanted everyone in the world to know one of my songs in ten years. Has it happened? Well, ever hear of a little song called “This Land is Your Land?” Just kidding. No. It hasn’t happened, but a lot of other cool stuff has, as a result of working toward this crazy goal. Be honest about the insanity of your ten-year goals. Just go for it and write them down.
Now, move on to your five-year goals. These are the goals you feel that you’re going to need to complete in order to move toward your ten-year goals. This shouldn’t take too long to think about either, as your five-year goals should simply spring from what you think you may need to work towards completing your ten-year goals. So, if you want to play your own show at Radio City Music Hall in ten years, then one of your five year goals might be playing a venue half that size in five years.
Why work backwards if you’re going to be working forwards? I just feel the next immediate steps are easier to ascertain if you can see your larger goals in the distance in front of you. Picture yourself trying to find a coyote by its tracks in a field of snow. You know he’s somewhere off over the edge of the horizon, but you don’t know how to find him. Just follow his tracks. You don’t have to know a great deal about the music business to do this exercise. Over the next ten years you will learn, trust me.
So, at the end of thirty minutes a sample goal sheet might look like this:
• Play my own show at Madison Square Garden
• Have a number one hit on the radio
• Write the state song of Wyoming
• Release a greatest hits album
• Win Grammy Award, interrupt Kanye with remarkably clever comeback
• Play my own show at Radio City Music Hall
• Break into the the Billboard top fifty
• Release third album
• Play internationally to 100 a night
• Begin to tour regionally
• Get a manager
• Get a booking agent
• Complete second record
• Quit day job
• Finish first record
• Play two sell-out shows in hometown
• Play shows in three towns near by
• Play support at someone else’s show
• Get a song played on the radio (any radio)
• Have played fifty open mics
• Have played 10 co-bills with artists met at open mics
• Have dedicated website linked to all pertinent social network sites
• Have email mailing list of at least 100 names
• Play one sold out show in hometown
• Research open mics, call for info
• Choose two to play over the next week
• Find someone who can help set up a website
These are sample goals that I wrote in a few minutes. They’re not mine and they’re probably not yours. They’re just to show that by working backwards from something big, the steps that lead up to it grow progressively smaller and easier to handle from one day to the next.
Now. You have your journal and you have your goals. Your job now is to take the first steps and complete the goals you set yourself for tomorrow. Keep everything written down in your journal. If you’re getting open mic info, write down the number of the place the open mic is happening, call the place and write down any info pertinent to the open mic. The magic of keeping a journal like this is that you’re recording your steps. In six months, when things are feeling hard and you’re not sure you made the right decision, a notebook full of your work is sitting on your desk, positive reinforcement of how far you’ve come already. Plus, the notebook keeps your goals in front of you at all times.
Finally, the journal is central to my fishing line theory. As you work to complete your goals day-to-day, you’re going to find that you end up having more than just the five you’ve written down. Some goals will end up taking several days or even weeks as you wait for people to call you back or you decide your website needs better pictures before it can go up. I call these fishing lines, and the beauty of them is that if you keep good track of them, they keep you moving forward each day. When you get up in the morning you’ll see with a glance at your journal what fishing lines you have in the water, what needs work today.
Remember, the big goals are out there, and they’re easy to forget about when you’re in the weeds. The journal, if you continue working toward your six-month and one-year goals, will keep the big picture in front of you.
You’re probably feeling overwhelmed right about now. Well, that’s just fine. You’ve taken an enormous step in your life and that is usually overwhelming. Don’t expect anyone else to sympathize either. Our culture is inured to stuff like this. I once sat down at a friend’s wedding next to a beautiful girl whose father knew I was trying to be a musician. The father asked me to move. I knew it was because he thought I was a whimsical hack on the long road to nowhere. He was a doctor and he’d learned that life progressed in a certain way, validated by certain easily recognized, board-certified guideposts. I could have shown him the wacky goals I’d written for myself, but I still don’t think that would have gotten me any farther with his daughter. That guy watched me like a hawk all through dinner.
Goals are never going to seem glamorous. Goals are hard work. Only you can formulate them and only you can complete them. You can do it, though. Just take them one at a time and be proud of yourself. You’ve just started making a life in music.
Next week, “Open Mics and the Glamorous Bottom.”