Image by Anirudh Koul under Creative Commons license
"I'd love to go to art school. I'd love to learn how to draw. I'd love to be fluent in Spanish. I'd like to be a brain surgeon."
Billie Joe Armstrong
I've interviewed a lot of musicians (sadly, not Billie Joe Armstrong). Some have never performed outside their home state, while others have traveled the world and played stadiums. What struck me about all of them wasn't just their talent; it was their view of themselves and of the world:
They don't wait for the "right time."
Many of these artists started young, some even dropping out of school. And they took the first chance they saw, even if it was just lending a guitar lead to an established musician. And for those already well into adulthood, they didn't wait until they retired or their kids were out of school -- and they didn't tell themselves they were too old. They performed wherever and whenever they could, even if it was just an impromptu jam session on the weekend or a gig at a tiny coffeehouse no one's ever heard of.
"I may not believe in myself, but I believe in what I'm doing."
Their "job" is also their drug of choice.
I recently asked a hard rock musician what his biggest vice was. Jack Daniels? Sex? Texas Hold'em? Nope. "Rock and roll." After 30 years of performing, music is still his passion. He tours, forms new bands, collaborates with other artists. He hasn't lost that eight-year-old boy who stared at the TV, transfixed by "Black Sabbath Live in Paris." Many of my peers lost that fire five or 10 years into their careers. I think I lost it as soon as I started getting a paycheck. Where's the ache to communicate I felt at eight years old? Back then, it woke me up at 2 a.m., sending me running to my little white desk to compose poems about unicorns with my Hello Kitty pen (pink ink!) and My Little Pony stationary. Now, writing is just another item on my to-do list, along with buying kitty litter and scheduling a dentist appointment.
They know there's more to life than "the biz."
It would be easy to forget there's a great big world outside the music industry. It is a competitive, crowded world, after all, and succeeding there requires everything you think you have and then some. But if you give all that away, what's left? I envy how the musicians I've met give as much to their families and their hobbies as they do to their careers. One singer-songwriter I interviewed is a pinball and crossword addict. Others teach philosophy or sociology. Many also have spouses and children. Like Billie Joe Armstrong, they're fascinated by everything from art to science. Even when their musical careers thrive, they continue to nurture their other interests. No doubt these extracurricular activities provide them with balance and emotional well-being (crucial to surviving in the entertainment industry), as well as plenty of material for new songs.
They don't expect a fairy tale.
We love an overnight success story, don't we? That, and the "getting your big break" myth. The musicians I've interviewed never expected that, even though they liked the idea of fame and fortune. They just realized they'd have to work hard to get there. (That old-fashioned notion of "paying your dues.") They tour relentlessly, sometimes acting as their own roadie, bus driver, and anything else they must. They gladly open for other bands. Some even take day jobs in between tours. And when something goes wrong -- their record label drops them, they lose a band member -- they don't take to Twitter or their website and blame God, or Satan, or their critics. They just get back to work.
Certainly, there are a lot of divas out there. They perform drunk, show up late to concerts, frequently indulge in public rants. I've been lucky enough to meet the kind of musicians who view a music career as a lifelong adventure and trek. They are perpetual students, sometimes learning a new instrument or genre mid-way through their careers. They don't label themselves. They blur lines and break rules. And they've changed the way I view success, talent and creativity.