I just finished reading Jason Calacanis’s post “You don’t have what it takes” with regard to starting a company. How hard it is to start a company, and how hard it is to keep a company going. And how it is to keep your team breathing financially, and make your company successful. And not just any company; a startup.
I was pointed to the post when Charles Jo tagged me on Twitter (though I would have read it eventually, as I follow Jason’s blog), and posed a thought process to me: “[S]eems similar to what I imagine musicians go through.”
I let that postulation play through my head as I read Jason’s article, and tried to see if any of the advice and realities in it applied to new (most times) independent artists too. I reflected on my ~10 years of experiences in the music universe—as an artist, a journalist, a DJ—and of all the artists I know and speak to. And the finding of my thought experiment regarding those realities, is yes, they do. A lot.
Jason talks very bluntly about the pain that startups cause founders, and what kind of spine you need to have to soldier on through it. Startups are a bloodsport, and not nearly as easy, romantic, or chic as people might think after watching an episode of Shark Tank.
So in an effort to not simply reiterate Jason’s already well-made points, I’ll instead pose a different line of thinking. Before deciding that you have the spine to lead a startup company, take a moment and ask yourself a different question: Do I have what it takes to be in a band?
Do You Have What It Takes to Be in a Band?
Bands are fucking hard. And just like startups, they are way less glamorous than people think. Do you have visions of yourself playing Madison Square Garden, or accepting a Grammy as your song rockets up the charts? If so, you probably don’t have what it takes. Do you look forward to touring and watching as packed clubs mouth the words to your songs? You’re living in a dream.
Chances are most all the clubs you’ll play for the first year (or more) will be near dead empty, and no one will know (or care about) your songs. You’re more than super likely not going to have a “hit song,” and you pretty much for damn sure aren’t ever going to get anywhere near Madison Square Garden except when you’re buying tickets to see KISS play live.
You’re going to have a day job for the foreseeable future (forever?) and when you “go on tour,” you’re going to be sleeping in your crappy van, eating overpriced bar food (which you can’t afford), playing to people who mostly don’t care, and trying to raise a Kickstarter campaign for your next EP release, which again, no one cares about. You’re going to have to deal with being stiffed on your pay many nights, and your van will get broken in to and your gear stolen at least once.
This is just the reflection of the tip of the iceberg, and if any of this bothers you, then pack up, go home, and don’t even think about doing it. In fact, if this doesn’t excite you and make you hungry for more, then you don’t have the spine to be in any part of the music business other than as a fan and consumer.
You Need to Be Somewhat Masochistic
I’m convinced that you need to be severely masochistic on some level to want to be an independent artist, the same as if you want to lead (or be part of) a startup company. There are no breaks, and you shouldn’t want any, other than to eat, and call your parents and friends to tell them you still have a pulse. You should want to be thinking about work all the time because your work should excite you that much.
The real independent artists out there—the ones who you will probably go through your whole life never hearing about—know you won’t ever hear them, care about them, or help them. They do it anyway. They don’t wait for someone to hand them a great contract to get started, and they for damn sure don’t let hardships slow them down.
You Better Know How to DIY It Like a Punk
Just like being in a startup, how do you know if you have the spine to be in a band?
Here’s how: You know you’re going to do it, no matter what anyone else says, or tries to convince you of. You’re going to be a punk about it; you’ll DIY it the whole way through if you need to, but you’re going to do it. You’ll get down and dirty in the muck of all the things that could and will go wrong, and make your home in the palace of adversity. You’ll relish the challenge and ask for permission from no one to take on that next challenge that gives you chills. And that’s it.
Some may say that being too focused on your startup is living too closely to your passion, and can create large blindspots. In general, that can be very true. But you also can’t do a startup without that diehard passion. If you don’t want to tattoo your startup’s logo on your arm—if you figure you can just pivot to something else—you don’t have the drive and spine for either a band or a startup.
But if you can honestly think to yourself, “yeah, I’d definitely go on tour in a shitty van (which will break down), play shows to empty rooms, not get paid, and then spend money I don’t have on recording my next album” then maybe you can do the band thing. It doesn’t matter what kind of music you play; bring out your inner punk and see how stupidly masochistic that punk is, and just how badly that punk wants it.