To save you some time, please allow me to place a short disclaimer prior to this article’s indulgence. My advice is to never quit making art or music. It’s incredibly therapeutic to create and to play – it teaches us so much about ourselves and the world.
This particular piece is referring to those of us who live with a longstanding passion to succeed as career artists – a desperation to be heard, to build an audience, and to perform as one of the greatest that ever was. We are many, and we are all too often consumed by our conflicting reality.
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Whatever the genre, we’ve all heard a singer who poured the perfect amount of grit and delicacy into a performance that it simply blew our minds. The lyrics and the delivery united faultlessly, promising a wave of euphoric emotion and human understanding that left us speechless. We’ve all witnessed these, most commonly on YouTube of late – age-old performances captured and contained for the rest of time. They inspire us, give us a reason to love music, and often – to believe that we too could connect with people in that way.
Ask any fan or critic what it was about Kurt Cobain that struck a chord. They might say it was the lyrics, or the breakthrough of grunge, but most commonly – they’d say it was the utterly fearless manner in which he performed. Cobain, at his peak, devoted every ounce of energy and emotion into his music, directing it at the audience in a manner that demanded they listen and feel what he was feeling. In short, it was a kind of screaming, only beautiful.
There’s something admirable about that – when it hits just right, this approach and sound screams out on behalf of the audience; it takes hold of your pain and sets fire to it right in front of you, so you’re relieved for a while.
However, it’s not this conviction alone that makes a performance so captivating. There’s chemistry to it, layers of humanity and skill all joining forces at the precise and perfect moment. Many artists and performers hit the stage with equal confidence and earn no such connection or awe. There has to be something else, some talent or skill, ability, allowing that full-throttle delivery, in order to sound so piercingly human and beautiful in the same instance. If these elements aren’t present, we just get an embarrassing moment – someone giving it their all, hoping to hit the mark, but missing by a mile and even causing some level of discomfort. In that case, you become memorable for an entirely different reason; and not one that’s favourable.
This is the fear for many serious songwriters or aspiring singers – we want to perform in that way, but if we do so and get it wrong, it seems so much worse than to simply perform quietly and intimately; at least then it’s not unpleasant, it’s just mildly forgettable.
There have been many examples of both, the Puddle Of Mudd attempt to immerse in a moment, the softer voices who feel like they just need to give it a little more. There’s no apparent science to this aspect, no chemical formula we can seemingly teach. Vocal lessons are of course a necessary thing, and hugely beneficial, but even these have limits for the average person. The fact remains – you won’t know if you’re capable of hitting that peak, that deeply human escapism to grip and embrace an audience, until you try. And most of us don’t have the guts.
Perhaps I’ve made it sound too simple. There are, of course, other intricacies involved. Not every Kurt Cobain performance will have impacted every listener, some may even have been bad. The same goes for Amy Winehouse, Eddi Vedder, Michael Jackson, and any of the great soul and rock singers. If they’d waged it all on one show, and that show went badly, the game would’ve ended.
So, how do we know when to quit? How many critical comments, how many years of limited audience growth, how many rejections or disappointments? Is there some moment of clarity gained for all, perhaps on starting a family or a new creative endeavour or job, that lets us realise – ‘ok, this wasn’t right for me, but that’s absolutely fine. Life is still awesome, and there’s plenty more to keep me busy, happy, and fulfilled’…? Hopefully, to that final question, the answer is yes. We just know when we know. But for some, it can be a lifelong avoidance of the truth, and that lingering passion or desire to make something of oneself in music or art never really subsides – we merely keep it on the top shelf, ready to reach up and grab whenever anyone raises the topic.
To sum up, I think it’s best to refer back to the disclaimer. If you love music, or art, then you should always enjoy being part of it. Life is a brief flash of light that requires nothing too specific from you outside of kindness, contribution, and the ability to grow. If you were the only human left, you could play your music without fear, as loudly as you wanted, and you’d be safe in the belief that it sounded amazing – you’re the only listener, so if it sounds amazing to you, then that’s what it is.
The difficulty, in this and indeed many other areas of existence, arises when we realise that we share the world with so many others. Eight billion, as of this past week. Eight billion humans. Would you be happy and content with singing quietly, or not singing – being the guitarist, the backing vocalist, the drummer, bass-player or dancer? Try not to forget, that this ‘difficulty’ is also the very blessing you were hoping to find.
Music is vast, entertainment all the more so, and there’s plenty of room for plenty of people. The answer is that we should never quit if it’s something we truly desire, but we should almost certainly learn to shift gears or change the narrative slightly, as we figure out the role best-suited to our skills. And don’t forget, those who sing so incredibly well, often don’t excel at things that you probably could.
We’re all in this together. If you want to be successful, that means you need people. Fans, collaborators, promotors, venue hosts, sound engineers, social media teams. The same goes for other artists who want to be successful. They need you. We need you. We’re all part of the same big circle of sound. So don’t quit, please – forget about quitting. Just give your cards a bit of a shuffle, and start the next round with a fresh perspective.
Photo by cottonbro studio.