How I Sabotage My Music Career - And Why
Updated: May 26
"Man, what are you doing here? Why aren't you famous?" - I hear this now and then.
My answer? "I've sabotaged being famous."
First of all, I should define what I mean by “sabotage."
I don’t mean the ability to make a living with the guitar. Between gigging and teaching I’ve pretty much done just that. No sabotage there. I’ve been very fortunate in that my love for the instrument is such that if I’ve got a guitar in my hands in any capacity - gigging, teaching, writing, recording etc. - I’m a pretty happy guy. It took awhile for me to figure that out. I had to go through some real crappola (and put some other people through it too) to realize that I wasn’t motivated by fame and money - i.e. “success.” I just love to play the guitar, plain and simple, and have worked hard at it - because I love it. That’s my primary motivation.
On the subject of playing the guitar, Eric Clapton has said, “It is good to be good!”
In other words, being good at playing the guitar has intrinsic value, whether anyone else hears you play or not, and whether or not you achieve any fame or money doing it. It is an end unto itself.
“It is good to be good.“
I heard that quote when I was a young guitarist trying to figure things out and it resonated with me instantly. I’ve never forgotten it and, even at that young age, I committed myself to being good, or at least as good as I can be, even if I got no "success" out if it.
So what I mean by “success” is the most common definition - fame and money. It’s that kind of success that I have sabotaged.
How, and why?
Well, the big picture is that achieving it takes everything. Nothing can be more important. Nothing can stand in the way. Nothing. And I wasn’t willing to sacrifice everything on that alter. And even if you do all that, it's still a crapshoot and the odds are ridiculously against achieving it.
I’d be hard-pressed to name a super-successful superstar musician who hasn’t left a trail of human debris in his wake - broken marriages, broken relationships of all kinds, broken physical and mental health, substance abuse etc. ad nauseam ad infinitum. Maybe there are some but I can’t think of any right now. (Remember “Behind the Music?” Same story, over and over.)
Yes, no one is beyond redemption, it can all work out - but still, there are consequences, karma and scars.
The first thing I did to sabotage my success was get married at a fairly young age - and stay married.
Don’t be shocked, I’ve never regretted it. It was absolutely the best thing for me. She’s been very supportive and gone through a lot of crap because of me and my career choice. Most women just can’t do it. She's one-in-a-million. I’m pretty convinced that had I chosen the different path - shooting for fame and money come hell or high water - I’d be dead by now. She's literally saved my life, probably more than once.
Our mutual commitment to the marriage is such that divorce is not an option. She has accommodated, compensated and changed a lot of desires and expectations to make it work. I also have done the same thing - it takes two; if one is unwilling, it won't work.
On the other hand, it was my music that was one of the initial attractions. I even had to play my own wedding! So the thing, well, one of the things, that attracted her to me in the first place is the very thing about me that's the most difficult to live with.
Think about it; I work nights, weekends and holidays. I miss ball games, dance recitals and extended family gatherings. Not to mention the aspect of my job that involves being a public figure with all the stresses and potential booby-traps that entails!
The first thing I changed as a result of getting married was a decision to play cover music for immediate money rather than pursue some kind of big-time, long-shot deal based on any kind of original music. The bird-in-the-hand mentality.
Actually, there were other reasons I did that besides the marriage, reasons that had to do with getting as good as I could be on the guitar, but the marriage was one of them.
In general, while some cover artists achieve great success, they are not players per se but usually singer-personality types. Think Tom Jones, Rod Stewart et al or any number of current country and pop celebrity-artists. Emphasis on “celebrity” - and they pay the same price.
The next thing to sabotage “success” was the decision to get off the road. This decision was directly related to the marriage - to save my family - my wife was at home with 3 kids under 5 and I was gone; sometimes for weeks at a time (she was not happy!). I had to ensure that my kids wouldn’t grow up with an absent father - with all the issues that can cause. I could see issues developing with my first 3 kids before the oldest was 5. And those issues were rooted in Dad being absent a lot of the time. My thought was,
“The Music will never know if I don’t play it but my kids will be screwed up for life if I don’t change something.”
A swift kick-in-the-ass from my father-in-law was also helpful.
It was the decision to get off the road that was the impetus to get my teaching business going.
I was already off the road by the time children four & five came along.
Concurrent to that was the decision that, since I was going to stay local, the key to survival as a performer/player was versatility - and no one becomes rich and famous by being versatile. So the thing that enabled success on a local level sabotaged it on a national level.
When I had offers and opportunities for more-than-local success - and there've been quite a few over the years - I had parameters in place that effectively sabotaged those opportunities. Parameters that involved money, the amount of time I was willing to be on tour and the unwillingness to relocate to LA, Nashville, Atlanta, New York or any number of other places that were supposedly necessary to whatever the situation was at the time.
Now that my kids have grown up and are out of the house I’ve relaxed some of those parameters but there is definitely ageism in the music biz...and I ain’t getting any younger! Not many big-time industry types would be willing to take a chance and invest in someone my age - especially when they sense I’m not that hungry - which means I’m more difficult to manipulate.
"Success" is not success unless it's on my terms.
This process of sabotaging the “success” of my career I’ve written about elsewhere in a different context with more specificity. If you’re interested in a few of the gruesome details start with the blog, I Used to Love This! What Happened?
Commensurate with the age issue I've concentrated on genres that have no age ceiling - Jazz, Blues & acoustic-oriented singer-songwriter genres. As a musician/performer, I'm determined to age with dignity. No one wants to see an old rock/pop guy strutting around onstage, acting like he did when he was young, hot and nasty. I've opened for or backed plenty of guys like that who shall remain nameless - the nasty's still there but without the young and hot it's just...nasty!
Now I’m going to redefine “success.”
My definition is based on my primary motivation; the love of playing the guitar. Remember; “If I have a guitar in my hands I’m a pretty happy guy.”
My primary way of making a living for the last 40+ years has been with a guitar. My marriage has endured, five kids are raised who are now raising kids (14 grandchildren so far with two more on the way!). And I did it with a guitar! I love what I do - I get to play the guitar all day - every day. That’s success!
I've had people tell me they used to come see me play at such-and-such a venue and that going there and listening to me really helped them through a rough patch of their life. Success.
That was reciprocated at a time when I needed help (see that story here). And that experience taught me that I never know when, how or why I'm going to affect somebody's life in a major way. So I just keep doing what I do, whether there's immediate reward or not.
Every once in a while, I'll run into somebody I gave guitar lessons to, say, 20 years ago. They'll say something like,
"Dude! I took lessons from you when I was 15. You changed my life, man! I'll never forget it!"
I had no idea. I was just giving guitar lessons to another kid (check out the Testimonials Page on the website). But I get it because my life was changed by a couple of music teachers. Aaaand again: You never know when, how or why you're going to affect somebody's life in a major way - all from 30 minutes a week. Success.
Financial security - who is ever really secure? At this stage of my life I'm debt-free and have been for over 20 years. That's a pretty comfortable feeling. The key to being able to make a "living" as a local musician is to keep your overhead down! Secondly, and related to keeping a low overhead is, live below your means! Not always easy, but you have no chance if you don't have the discipline and restraint to do it.
This was one of the areas where, the first few years of our marriage, my wife was right and I was wrong. I used to say, "If there's something I really want or want to do, I'm not going to let lack of money stand in my way!" It took me years of working 80-hours-a-week to climb out of the hole I dug myself into - I learned the hard way. I've changed. See, Can You Afford to be a Musician?
Ok, granted; I have little to no retirement. But what is retirement? Not having to work so you can do what you want? By that definition I’ve been retired all my life! I’m not going to stop doing something I love just because I reach a certain age, no matter how independently wealthy I might be - which I'm not. Working and doing what I want aren’t mutually exclusive categories. When dad loves his work they are the same thing! That's success!
Besides, I personally know plenty of guys who’ve lived the dream; they made the sacrifices; marriages, kids, health...they had the fame, the money - the “success” - and they lost it all and are lucky to be alive.
Some friends are not so lucky, the “success” killed them. Even worse, some fell victim to the traps and pitfalls of merely chasing the success - they died in obscurity without achieving it.
"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." - Hunter S. Thompson
I look at a lot of my peers that took one or another of the roads I turned away from and now, decades later, I find that I’m better off than they are - even financially in some cases, as unlikely as that might seem given that I am not that well-off.
A very few have done really well and are in a good place - kudos to them! - but there was still a price paid. Whether it was worth it or not - only they can say.
Perhaps I am being judgmental, presumptuous or justifying my decisions after-the-fact, but that's the way it seems to me.
Yeah, there are plans; there are always big plans, dreams, strategies, angling for a BIG score - but you know what? If I get to the end of my road and haven’t done anything more than what I’ve done already, and continue to do, I will consider myself a success in the best sense of the word. I've worked at something I love to do and have enjoyed life with the wife of my youth. What more could one ask for?
Hopefully at least 20 more years.
“So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot.” (Ecclesiastes 3:22)
Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life which he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life; and enjoy your work at which you toil under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 9:9)
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