New York is an incredible place, brimming with drive, ambition, originality, and power. Many people come here year after year to "make it" in their artistic endeavors. There is, however, a cloud of smoke and mirrors to get past before one meets their truth, authentic self as an artist in NYC.
I have been here for eleven years of my life. Yes, there have been times when I kicked myself and said: "what in the world were you thinking, leaving your family and your music career in San Francisco only to come here and get sucked up and used by the next person who needs something from you?" Then again, there have been more times where I stop for a moment in the middle of the chaos around me and think, with gratitude, that I can't imagine my life thriving anywhere else as it has here.
With all of this excitement and drive, though, a person is still a person first. We need to eat, we need to sleep, we need to have a roof over our heads to hide away from that rain, snow, and wind, or that godawful humid, sticky air in the summer. We need to take ourselves out once in awhile for a nice dinner and a drink. We need to maintain active connections with other people, which involves paying phone and internet bills, going out on Friday nights for social gatherings, and having a laptop and a phone that work properly. Obviously, this takes money. Where does one draw the line between being pragmatic enough to survive in the world, and making music in the world about which they can feel good and proud?
Without a doubt, this is one of hardest lessons I have learned in the arms of New York.
Being a musician for a living means making sacrifices. It means taking work that doesn't necessarily appeal to one's own aesthetic preferences. It means serving someone else's vision for awhile, putting your own dreams aside in order to be fully present and fully musical in each moment; and if you want to make money making music, you simply have to do this. There's no way around it.
The words of Maya Angelou are coming into my mind at this moment:
"People Will Forget What You Said, People Will Forget What You Did, but People Will Never Forget How You Made Them Feel."
And The Rev. Jesse Jackson said this:
"It's your attitude, not your aptitude, that determines your altitude."
Playing or singing gigs for pay is a literal means of survival for musicians. If you want them to call you back for the next one, you have to do great things for them with a smile on your face and some sense of genuineness. In the food chain, there is always someone right behind you who is ready to take your place. It doesn't actually matter if that person is "better" or "worse" than you. The attitude around here tends to be "There are 8 million people in New York. Everyone is replaceable."
THIS. IS. NOT. TRUE.
Not everyone is replaceable. Music is a joyfully imperfect thing and without the nuances brought to the table by a widely varied tapestry of hands, feet, and voices, everything we listen to would sound like a midi mock up with little or no air to breathe between the notes. Real Music doesn't live in a vacuum like that. It depends on the conditions of living, breathing people, and it thrives on what they bring to the table from their different points of origin. That said, it's very hard to "be yourself" and not to want to "try to be what you think they want."
I think the confusion comes in knowing when do take each of these stances and when to take both at the same time.
Sometimes, you have to temporarily be what someone else needs you to be for that project. Sometimes you have to make momentary creative or interpretive decisions as you play or sing. Sometimes it's both at the same time.
The first real enemy in all of this, though, is that awful feeling of resentment. You know the one I'm talking about or you wouldn't be reading this. Shall I remind you? See above...
"what in the world were you thinking, leaving your family and your music career in San Francisco only to come here and get sucked up and used by the next person who needs something from you?"
We tell ourselves that "if we had stayed there" or if we "moved here" or if we "had gone to that school instead" or "pursued this genre more than we did," we would be or would have been more successful that we are. Then, we look around at the people who have invited us and are paying us to make music with them. We often compare ourselves to them in a knee-jerk reactionary way, and we resent them for being the one on the other side of the checkbook.
This brings me to the second real enemy in all of this: greed. It's hard to stare into the face of greed, especially knowing that most of us are taught from a very young age that the amount of money you make in your work and in your life at large is the primary indicator of success.
When you put these two things together, resentment and greed, it makes a deadly elixir. What's deadly about it, you ask? I'll tell you.
It goes down so easy when you drink it and it tastes so good. It makes you feel like you're "in the know," "more experienced," "in control," and like you're "the cool kid on the block and everyone wants to be in your gang." It's a way of reminding yourself that you are a diamond in the rough and are just waiting to be found by the right person - you know, the person with all the money and power who's going to thrust your career into overdrive.
The problem is that this poisonous elixir also poisons music-making. It alters your ability to think clearly and it takes your mind out of the game, rendering you useless to the people who are signing that check - the money that will pay for your rent, your bills, your food, and your other life needs. It also makes you forget your own essence and why you gave your life to music to begin with. If you forget these things, how can you share your uniqueness as part of that tapestry of hands, feet, and voices when you come to the table?
Resentment and Greed Kill Music.
I have a very dear friend who is an organist. He is one of the best organists I have every worked with. He studied in major conservatories for both undergrad and graduate work. He was taught by some of the foremost organ teachers of our time. His innate musicality and his professionalism are rather unparalleled from my perspective. We were working on a Choral Chameleon concert together. One day, after rehearsal, he told me that he was going to delve further into his "day job" and go back to school and get an MBA. I was absolutely stunned. I told him he was crazy. His response was amazing. He said:
"Well, I've learned that I just don't want to make any and all music that comes my way. I want to be able to choose which music I engage in and which I don't. I am tired of playing gigs around lots of people I don't know and with whom I am very disconnected just to be able to pay the bills. I am tired of feeling resentful. I find what I do at my day job interesting enough, and so when I'm there, I want to do that well. What's two more years in school? It will be done before I know it and I don't have to stop playing while I do it."
What all of this amounts to is a vital choice that professional musicians must make. It comes in the form of these questions to ask yourself: