Izzy True (they/them pronouns) is a musician and artist living in Chicago, IL.
(Photo Credit: Andi Carbaugh)
March is creeping up on us. Already, I am inundated with tour announcements and soon enough I will start seeing kick off shows, showcase schedules, and photos from the road. Friends will pass through town on their way down to Texas and ask me if I’m coming too. SXSW season can be a weird and sad time for a working musician: Despite a widespread fundamental disagreement with the principles of the conference, as well a general agreement that it is not any fun at all, many hard working people go to great lengths to make sure they’re part of it once a year, and I have been one of them.
I’m not sure how, but for me SXSW has come to represent a kind of external validation for the work I do as a musician. Lofty ideas about the inherent value of art aside, most people want to feel like they are doing a good job at whatever it is they do. When you devote your life to a craft whose market is saturated, whose prospects for ever supporting you in a meaningful way are grim, whose industry is twisty and fickle and cruel, it is difficult to know when you are doing a good job. Every milestone seems diminished when you reach it. Things that seemed sure indications of “success” from afar, when accomplished, often reveal themselves to be empty and devoid of meaning. Maybe that’s true in all fields, maybe that’s the nature of goals and achievements, maybe that is my bad attitude. Still—any musician who has been plugging away in the music world for over a decade is drawing on an incredible reserve of strength and will and is worthy of admiration.
I’m not going to SXSW this year. Not for any particularly brave or moral reason. I mean, I don’t even know if I would have been accepted in the first place. I’m not going because I found last year to be demoralizing and humiliating. Hanging around attempting to network with industry people feels an awful lot like being a teenager and trying to tag along with older, cooler kids. It’s not nice to be in spaces where you have to prove you are worth people’s time, and those situations have never brought out the best in me. In fact, I have spent a good deal of my adult life cultivating an environment where I can avoid being in that position as much as possible.
Still, I feel pangs of regret about not going. Am I not pushing hard enough? Another record under the radar; another piece of hard work glossed over by a press cycle. YES—this IS whining. But this IS hard and sad sometimes. There is an expectation for artists to be above giving a shit about recognition. Certainly complaining about it is unflattering: It puts the complainer closer to failure, it is an ADMISSION of failure. And yuck to that. Certainly no one wants to hear about it—complaining is boring—and certainly if we were going to hand out the right to complain, this soft-handed, thoroughly therapized and coddled white person would be at the very back of the line. And yes, certainly we should be satisfied in our art, it should be enough. And it MUST be enough, because the vast majority of us will not have the opportunity to be satisfied in our success.
But. Everyone wants to hear they are doing a good job. It’s normal. We all want to take home a good report card. We all want to be told we are rare and wonderful. Humans need validation, and humans who become musicians REALLY need validation. So, if you are not going to SXSW this year, I wanted to tell you that you are doing a good job. If you have never been to SXSW, you are doing a good job. If you are going to SXSW this year and you follow your more famous friends around until they ditch you, and you know it wasn’t personal because they have to hustle too, but you still feel like an idiot, and nothing comes of the whole thing—you are doing a good job. If you are going to SXSW this year and you become the INDIE DARLING OF THE YEAR, and you still feel like there will never be enough prizes in the world to make you feel alright about yourself—I am jealous of you, perhaps I hate you, and you are also doing a good job.
The only thing that makes a musician successful is continuing to make music. If you are continuing, you are doing it. By keeping on when you are no longer eligible for the title of “young genius” and, in fact, you realize that you are now the oldest person in the room; by keeping on when you, from a dark place, have sent a desperate, despairing letter to a famous acquaintance about your feelings of inadequacy, which causes your entire body to seize with shame when you accidentally remember it; by keeping on when the elation and pride you feel at finally being recognized in this or that publication dissipates five minutes after it arrives and you begin to wonder why they didn’t write about the whole album, not just the single; by keeping on when you realize that while you have gotten by for years with a “naive” approach to your instrument, you would greatly benefit from formal guitar lessons; by keeping on when you see in the full light of day your low, slimy ambition and you feel ashamed; when you are pulled down by your reptile needs and infantile desires, and your higher half drags you up and reminds you that to play is a joy and an end in itself—you are doing a good job. You are getting a gold star. Sometimes, these things will get you down.
(Photo Credit: left, Andi Carbaugh; right, Danny Matson)