Why Do So Many Musicians Fail?

Here’s what I think. The answer is psychological.

Most musicians fail because they want to remain teenagers forever.

(The definition of failure, of course, will be the first thing everyone wants to debate. Have fun with that.)

Regardless, the few who achieve a long-term career in music are those who, at some point, grow up and become adults. Meaning: they take responsibility for themselves, they do their homework, they plan and prepare, they follow through, they show up. So many musicians are flakes — it’s as if there’s no competition if you treat your career, at minimum, like any other day job in the world.

The fact remains, the music industry is a terrible place to earn a living, especially if you’re a musician. It’s the law of supply and demand. Too many musicians and no demand for them.

There is, however, demand for a few remarkable musicians. And even if their original creations can’t find their way to a general audience, they can usually achieve base financial survival by doing clinics, lessons, recording sessions, instructional videos, and playing in sophisticated bands for 20 drunk dudes eating potatoes in a barn in North Hollywood.

And it still won’t be easy, even for the greatest among them.

The rest of the so-called musicians are NOT motivated by survival in the adult world. It’s hard to do rational, everyday business with them. Go ahead and try. They have such a strange relationship with money that even the mention of it can trigger spasms of paranoia and self-sabotage.

Yet… musicians are motivated by money — but only large, lump sums of it.

It’s easier to seduce them with these things:

1.) Freedom. They don’t want to care what time of the day it is, or even what day it is. That’s where the large, lump sum of money helps.
2.) Fame / Glory. They’ll only do things that their heroes did. “Paul Gilbert went to Musicians Institute, therefore, if I go to Musicians Institute, I am Paul Gilbert.” It’s called the Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle, and it applies to everything in the music industry: venues, record labels, magazines, joining established bands, etc.
3.) Sex. Because they figured out way back in high school that playing music was the only way they’d be at all tolerable or attractive.

Yep, they’ll take action for those things, but not much else.

They won’t take a job or gig that requires sustained action or steady commitment. They don’t want to work. Meaning, they don’t want to have to trade goods and services with other members of society in order to support their own survival. They think they’re special. They expect to have all of their needs met by the world in return for playing, which is a convenient term to use here.

In a lot of cases, they either hated or were, at the very least, disappointed by their parents. And often subconsciously, they made the choice that being an adult would automatically make them like those people. Those miserable alcoholics, those losers who never followed their dreams, those boring mowers of lawns.

Musicians are often those teenagers who used their guitar as an escape pod. And they were lucky. At the time, it was their only hope for not becoming their parents. They just don’t realize they don’t need to spend the rest of their life in it.

Puer Aeternus is Latin for eternal boy, used in mythology to designate a child-god who is forever young; psychologically it refers to an older man whose emotional life has remained at an adolescent level. The puer typically leads a provisional life, due to the fear of being caught in a situation from which it might not be possible to escape. He covets independence and freedom, chafes at boundaries and limits, and tends to find any restriction intolerable.

Later on, it manifests as needing to prove to their parents and everyone else that they can have a job that’s “cool.”

In extreme cases, they move to Los Angeles, The Peter Pan Syndrome Capital of the World. Hollywood itself is a big, dirty Disneyland for perpetual teenagers. Kinda scary to see how many people are sucked into and drown in the “making it” quicksand. So many poor choices they make…

But they do have the choice to learn and grow, to continue along the natural path of maturing as humans… to become powerful, wise, strong adults. The secret is to try something new: overcoming the fear of responsibility. To avoid that is truly pathetic.

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