The Performer Dilemma

So long as I can remember, I’ve been a people pleaser, a performer. It’s such a deeply ingrained part of me that it’s hard for me to believe that other people don’t operate on this exact same paradigm. In many ways it’s done me well but, as all performers know or are about to find out, it has its traps.

Four years ago, I ditched my day job to become a full time musician. I had managed to achieve a modicum of success in that role playing for the swing and blues dance communities, and was truly enjoying the validation I felt with that success. The year prior to quitting my job, my bands had been invited to headline many of the major US-based Blues events. It helped that I also hated my job and, moreso, the context. In summary, it seemed like the time was right to jump ship and try out this whole being-a-musician thing.

Shortly after I made the jump, my safety nets started falling down; the major events I had played for the past 2-4 years decided to headline other bands. I was bummed. To be honest, I was a mix of frustrated, angry, and scared (and, let’s be honest, the first two were probably just different manifestations of the last). I was worried about money, and found myself feeling isolated, unloved, and unappreciated. I felt this way even though I was still well supported by my audience and friends. Staking your sense of self-worth on yesterday’s validation can surely leave you in a precarious place.

I began thinking about making music for the listening music audience, not just dancers. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that, in some part, my pivot was inspired by an “I’ll show them” mentality. When I become a famous musician, I dreamed to myself, they’d be sad they let go of me… Some inspiration came from the (misguided) hope that the music listening audience would be a better place to stake my future music business.

I also came to realize that I had built my musical personality on the needs and wants of this community. When I sat down to practice, I worked on learning the Blues and Swing styles that were in vogue. When I selected songs to add to my repertoire, I made sure they were songs people would want to dance to. Even when I wrote songs, I did so wondering “is this danceable?” It was a completely foreign concept to me that I might write a piece of music simply because I was inspired to do so. It was an epiphany that I could study an artist I liked simply because I liked their music.

Thanks to these realizations, I began to see my losses as gifts. I had been blindly following a path that I had stumbled upon and only thought to consider it when I found myself at its end. How fortunate I was to come to that end sooner rather than later.

A couple months ago I released my first original album. It comprises  music that, with the exception of 1 song, were conceived without constraint aside from my own skill as a songwriter. I am extremely proud of the product. I find myself at an impasse, however, as I began this journey a very different person than I find myself towards its end.

When I began, I needed to prove myself. I no longer feel that need or, at least, I prefer to tend its root. When I began, I hoped for fame. Now, the pursuit of fame seems at odds with what I’ve come to recognize as my true needs and wants. I have seen in me the patterns of “the performer” and, though I surely haven’t escaped them fully, I can identify them.

I no longer see myself touring — at least not much. I can’t imagine myself pouring precious time into promotion, at least not much of it. There is part of me that simply wants to appreciate the accomplishment, to share it with friends, and move on. One thing’s for certain: I want to avoid unintentionally trodding another path just because my feet found it.

At the same time, I feel a sense of responsibility to the people who helped make this album happen: the musicians, the studio, my producer, and many others. Beyond that, I want to share what we’ve done; I want people to experience the emotions that have been imbued into these songs, to dance and, perhaps, lose themselves altogether.

As I read back on my previous blog posts, it’s somewhat laughable how many were tied in a pretty bow— a convenient list of steps to follow to move past the presented problem. Unfortunately, I don’t have that here and I’m not sure that such a list of steps exist. My desires and constraints are somewhat at odds with each other and, while I believe there’s a path forward that satisfies both, it will only be discovered through constant and careful reflection of each step; by simply asking myself the question: what do you want right now? It’s odd that such a simple query can be so difficult to answer.