Build Your Own Fire
When I begin to work on a new piece and I’m unclear of what direction to take it, I’ll scan my weekly conversations with artists for a little spark to light my path. I listen for reoccurring questions asked, phrases or keywords, pain points, and any commonalities floating in the emotional undercurrent of our conversations. In the last few weeks, this particular topic came up with multiple artists, and, reflecting back on my career, I can see its evidence everywhere.
Have you ever felt that, once you finally stop chasing opportunity and attention — and just focus on you — that the very things you desired begin to magically manifest in your career? Why is that? Let’s explore.
I’m sure many of you know the feeling of chasing the industry. You find yourself spending very little time being an artist, and a disproportionate amount of time sending emails and updating profiles. You try to connect with labels, curators, managers, and agents, hustling to mine contacts and carve out shortcuts to put yourself in the right position or make the right connection. Yet it can be hard to make progress, and your artistic self-worth takes a hit from the perceived lack of interest or rejection from people in the business. It can feel like you are running on a hamster wheel covered in honey.
The appeal of chasing the industry can be all consuming. You rationalize that if that one person hears your music, they will “get it”. Years of hustling can be shaved off your timeline and you can leapfrog other artists — if only that one individual quickly pulls you up the ladder and out of obscurity. Surely, that one co-sign will be all you need to “break”.
Here’s the truth. Yes, there are outlier scenarios where this is in fact what happens (or at least that’s the story that is told). These are often the stories we hear about, “overnight successes”. But focusing on these mythical stories is actually a trap that pulls you into the chase and puts your craft out of focus.
Reality tells a different story. The vast majority of the “breaks” or major opportunities I’ve personally witnessed among artists have materialized somewhere between the 7 and 10-year career mark (and sometimes longer), after much hard work and persistence. In the early 2000s when I was managing a recording studio in NY we did some writing and production sessions with Rachel Platten, of “Fight Song” fame. She was about 20 years old at the time and had clearly been at it for years already. She was savvy, professional, charismatic, dynamic and hungry. When was her big international break with the release of “Fight Song”? At the age of 33.
Let that sink in for those of you who are anxious or disempowered by your own trajectory and timetable. The truth is, this is a more typical experience of how things unfold over a life in music. What was the turning point for her?
“I decided I needed to stop trying to warm myself at everyone else’s fire, and just focus on my own, in building my own. That gave me the focus that I might have been lacking.” — Read more about Rachel’s break here in an interview with Idolator.
Maybe that’s the key word here: Focus. Some synonyms for focus are: heart, core, and cornerstone. When you focus on the core of who you are as an artist — that which makes your heart sing — and on the elements that you can control (rather than throwing yourself at the mercy of “the industry”), that’s when career-changing milestones can begin to unfold. On an unconscious level, people will start to take notice when you have reached a level of true fluency in your craft and when you believe wholeheartedly and passionately in what you have created. When you turn your attention inward and make yourself excited about your music,your genuine excitement will be infectious. People will sense it, feel it, and hear it, and everyone wants to get aboard a moving train. The x-factor is the focus.
For those of you who have been doing this a long time, try to find some perspective. Look at how you have grown artistically from where you began your journey, and give yourself credit for your commitment and hard work. Keep in mind that stopping the chase should not be confused with giving up. In reality, it’s the opposite of giving up. It is a conscious choice to redirect your focus towards what you can control. It is a step towards freeing yourself from caring about the judgment, whether real or perceived, from the industry, other artists, or from anyone really. It’s you putting the chase in it’s place, and putting yourself and your artistic integrity first.
It’s better to build your own fire than burn out trying to warm yourself at someone else’s, don't you think? Stop chasing. Create something undeniable and unique, do it for you, and make this the year you build your own fire. With focus, dedication, discipline, patience, timing, and a little luck, there will come a point in your music career when it will all come together. And it will be by the light of your own fire, not anyone else’s.
Soundtrack courtesy of Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony, a cinematic and soothing listen to ease your mind.
Patrick Ermlich is the CMO of Gramophone Media and author of the forthcoming book The Compass Method -“The navigational guide to an artist’s life in music”. If this resonated with you please share it with other artists who would find it valuable.