Artists, Embrace Your Descent

“Everybody wants to reach the peak, but there is no growth on the top of a mountain. It is in the valley that we slog through the lush grass and rich soil, learning and becoming what enables us to summit life’s next peak.” -Andy Andrews

I often look to the outdoors and nature for lessons that might be applicable elsewhere in my life — and in the journeys of the artists I counsel. Whenever I feel lost, for me, the answers I seek are brought into focus by being in the woods.

In June of last year, I took a trip to New Hampshire to conquer the highest peak in the northeast, Mount Washington. I was really looking forward to summiting this formidable mountain despite, or maybe because of, it’s reputation and branding as “Home of the World’s Worst Weather.” The ascent was my single-minded focus and what I prepared myself for. I knew it would be a physical and mental challenge going up and beautiful yet unpredictable at the top. The hike to the summit was approximately 3 miles of rapid change in altitude, steep rocky terrain, and unwelcome rainfall during the last 100 yards. It was a challenge, but I was ready for it.

I gave little thought to the return trip to the bottom, which caught me off guard as it was the most grueling part of the experience. The path took me on a new route: more than 6 miles of long and winding paths across multiple ridge lines and a seemingly never-ending series of sharp drops and plateaus. It was brutal terrain, unforgiving on the feet, and I would walk for hours without feeling like I had dropped at all in elevation. I was unprepared mentally and physically for the descent, for what comes after the peak, and I let it sour my experience of the full journey.

In today’s cultural climate, there is a hyper-focus on winning, achieving goals, finding happiness, being consistently fulfilled, and grinding and hustling until you land somewhere or gain some sort of status. We are all constantly chasing goals, chasing peaks. There is an unrelenting pressure, as an artist, to make something better than the last release, to keep elevating. It feels crucial that you keep the attention of fans and the industry, and that you grow your numbers across multiple platforms. This pressure to always be ascending can dampen the artistic spirit and create significant anxiety.

This pressure and anxiety are often born in the moments of reflection after you attain or work towards a goal, during the descent. The descent — that critical, and often overlooked space between the peak and the return to the valley — is what I want to address with you. It’s the most overlooked part of an artist’s journey, and it’s often where you can feel the most lost. As an artist, you don’t go directly from peak to peak. The peak is a moment, not something that is sustained, and you can learn to anticipate and embrace the descent as a natural part of the cycle, not a failure or loss in momentum.

For artists, achieving goals can often feel anti-climactic or incredibly fulfilling yet short-lived, quickly followed by an empty feeling, a not knowing where to go next or exactly how to process the feeling after the euphoria. Perhaps you just went through the two-year process of creating a new record, including endless hours of songwriting, the often lengthy recording process, and the endless editing process. You avoid the temptation to immediately put this new music out and instead plan and strategize for its release, sitting on it for months in an effort to get the timing “right.” You start releasing content, working to create a palpable build, and you are in climbing mode. It finally arrives. Your artistic masterpiece is released to the world and very soon after, it is all over. Where to go from here? Do you even have any new ideas left in you? Will they be as good?

You may question what all that work was for if it didn’t meet your expectations. It can leave you rattled, empty, frustrated, or feeling like no one really cares or listens. Your baby has been lost in the ether. We often define ourselves and our sense of self-worth by how we think others perceive us in these moments. If your latest release fell mostly on deaf ears and gained little traction, you might take that as a reflection of who you are. It can feel painful, humiliating, embarrassing. Have you ever felt gun-shy about your next release based on the PTSD of the last release?

The point is not to avoid this pain. That pain is your guiding force in these moments, it’s there to teach you something about yourself. It is not something you need to suppress, you are allowed to feel it. It’s a key counterbalance to the joy and happiness you experience in music. You simply can’t have one without the other. It’s how you process it and use it that determines how high you can climb.

Or maybe you just built up to a big performance, your release show. The venue was packed, people you cared about were there, people you didn’t think would show up, did in fact, show up. You might feel that post-show high for a day or two afterward; you might feel motivation and perceived momentum if it went well. But soon after, you are left with the “now what” or “how can I get that feeling back quickly.” That moment can feel like a depression or a withdrawal. The next day you are likely going back to your day job, back to a “normal life.” A life of anonymity after a night of feeling like the star.

For those of you who didn’t see it coming, it can be quite a shock. These are often valid feelings, but they are not helpful feelings to take with you on your journey. Sometimes, the awareness alone of the descent and it’s natural place in the artistic journey is enough to soften the tendency to go down a darker path in these moments. Ascending in your music career can be incredibly hard, but descending is what can really beat you up. You can begin to shift your relationship to being an artist by letting go of any attachment to the outcome of whatever peak you are chasing and anticipate and accept the necessary feelings sure to come up during the descent.

This moment is an opportunity, a self-exploration point. A time to not only emotionally process, but to be appreciative and grateful for the privilege of living a rich and multifaceted artistic life. The descent is merely a return to the valley. The valley holds the genesis of new ideas, new inspiration, and is where the next climb is born. The descent is the place where you can choose how you treat yourself, where you can reflect on your accomplishments and learn something. In these moments you must not only be kind to yourself but maintain the belief that you are onto something as your relationship with art and creation gets more intimate. The quality of your thoughts at these moments is critical in its contribution to how your future will be shaped.

If you are just starting out in your music career, it’s coming. If you have been at it a long time, you may be in that descent phase right now; you have been here before and will be again. You are going to be ok. Keep going and embrace the descent. Your choosing to climb and keep taking the next steps is what truly matters. Onward.

Soundtrack courtesy of “Canyon” by Joseph, included on The Compass Method Spotify playlist. 20 songs -updated monthly with a mix of new discoveries, the underappreciated, and songs I generally obsess over. It pairs well with a cup of tea or coffee, a glass of wine, and long stares out the window plotting your next move. Explore and enjoy! If this piece resonated with you please share with other artists who might find it valuable and check out my previous stories.

Patrick Ermlich is an artist guide, creative director, and CMO of Gramophone Media. Click the link below to be notified about the release of my upcoming book:

The Compass Method -“The navigational guide to an artist’s life in music”.

Bringing Clarity and Direction to the Artist Journey

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