What Does It Even Mean To Be a “Successful” Musician?

Widowspeak’s Molly Hamilton talks unemployment and creating art under capitalism.

Still in the hopeful phase of unemployment, I’m putting effort into my job applications. Positions I’m at least minimally qualified for (but it’s not like there are a lot to choose from). I’m one of the luckier sometimes-musicians who qualified for traditional unemployment when my day jobs dried up, and drier still are the chances that we’ll be able to tour to support our new record. So I have a million browser tabs open at all times, a million more PDFs that I edit slightly to suit the open position. Pandemic Assistance won’t last forever, but always the student loans and the rent come calling. I have a hard time focusing on the endless Indeed scroll sometimes; I google “can you drink too much mint tea?” I’ll mention the day I wrote this piece on my weekly claim. 

I’m writing songs still, should I be mentioning those days? Will there be another Widowspeak record after this one, will there be any shows to play? (That couplet was accidental, I promise.) I write emails, sometimes making plans for when things pick up again. I write what I consider to be clever cover letters on maximalist letterhead and list the reasons why I’m hirable. I’ll admit that I use some buzzwords (don’t you have to?), and for now, still devote a paragraph to a bite-size explanation of being in a band for the last decade, spinning it as project management, marketing. A bulleted list describes accomplishments and accolades, as if a band could ever be summarized that way or added to a LinkedIn profile. It sits at the top of my resume because I don’t know what else to put in there with the short stints as a barista, server, shopgirl. My band is the most significant project I’ve devoted my adult life to, though perhaps it’s a stretch to pretend it is relevant to other work. Has it given me mostly hard or soft skills? I consider the wording of a job description’s required qualifications: “real world experience.”

I haven’t gotten any interviews. But then, it’s a global pandemic and everyone else is applying too.

What does it even mean to be a “successful” musician? More specifically, an “indie” musician, if that distinction even holds water anymore (but I guess it’s just a variation on a theme). I used to think the answer was mostly some ephemeral combination of expressing yourself honorably, writing good songs, and finding your audience. Building on your output over decades, getting to the heart of something, being part of some brief shining zeitgeist moment? Or maybe none of those things. “Success” never felt like the right word, even.  

There’s a statistic that 80% of restaurants close in their first five years. Probably a lot more bands break up. You operate in the red for so long, you put everything else on hold; there’s a lot of risk involved in both ventures. At a certain point, you have to decide if it’s worth it to keep sacrificing your other goals in life. You scale back your expectations.  After 10 years, we’re already a rare restaurant.  

I nurture overly simplistic thoughts about the value of music as a practice over a cultural artifact, to put things into perspective and soften the blow when things don’t go as planned.  It’s not like any other small business. Hard work doesn’t always pay off.  If you create something you are proud of but the algorithms bury it, did it even happen? It happened. People do sometimes reach out and tell you that it matters, too. A fan in California sent handmade magnets, referencing Widowspeak songs. Someone in New Orleans gave me a crystal. The band has soundtracked true love and heartbreak, we’ve been told. 

Still, I wonder sometimes if I’ve done a bad job. If this band should be more successful by now, if it could ever be my only thing. Whether my financial situation would have been different if I’d adopted different “business practices” and leaned into self-promotion, if I had tried harder to network, posted more selfies. Written better songs? Been better at “selling” them.  If having to have other jobs is, actually, the main thing that holds us back. Or is it the thing that allows us to keep going? 

With a normal job, you’re paid by the hour or the year. The salary increases, you get a raise. You get more responsibility. But with music, the usual metrics (selling out certain venues? number of streamers? album sales? followers?) don’t necessarily lead to a pay increase, and that wouldn’t tell the whole story anyway. Success can be ephemeral, a feeling. At some point, the upward trajectory will become a more gentle curve, or maybe your best record is 10 years in the future. The tree still fell in the forest.

I’ve never been willing to do everything for music, not things that made me uncomfortable, maybe because I’m not convinced the industry would value my contributions any more if I did. I admit my relationship with success and money and self-promotion has always been complicated (I could write a whole other thing about that) but in the last few years I’ve had an especially hard time reconciling feelings about social media and streaming media with the actual writing, recording, playing of songs. We took a long break for that reason. I’ve tried to make peace with the fading of traditional media, the increasingly capitalistic asks, and then the counter-intuitive devaluing of one’s own “product” in the interest of greater exposure. You hope that some who stream will come to a show, buy some merch? Except for now there aren’t even shows.

I know that so many of our listeners have come to us through a more capitalist inroad, and in some ways it does validate these avenues. I definitely don’t think we are entitled to attention, fans, and appreciate anyone who somehow stumbles upon us, however they do. And I’m not that rigid: I know that sometimes there are concessions one can and should make. Sometimes they are actually insignificant, and sometimes I make them. Play a sponsored show, take the free sunglasses. My aunt texts to say she heard our song in a perfume commercial, in between episodes of The Voice.  The rent gets paid.  

Except, it’s not just the normal music-as-product balance anymore. Sometimes it feels like even existing as a band now requires the same pay-to-play we used to rail against, with the payment being more of your time, more of your self. More hours than you are probably able to work on songs. I think about those mass emails we used to get when we were first starting out, a mailing list we didn’t ask to be on. “Looking for five bands than can draw at least 100 to an Irish pub on the Upper East Side.” A band has to prove that they can generate clicks, likes, content before they are taken seriously, even if those metrics are besides the point. You should arrive fully formed, a cohesive brand.  But, now we’re also all competing with every other type of person who wants to reach an audience using the same tools: The rock stars are now unboxers, whisperers, dancers, and also still, some musicians. It’s a crowded room and everyone is shouting.  

I don’t know, do I sound like the old man yelling at the cloud? I’m only 32. I’m not sure what would solve whatever the problem is, and maybe it’s my own reservations that are the problem. The younger artists don’t wring their hands the way I do; they post every day, thank the playlisters by name. I worry that if I don’t, they’ll consider me ungrateful. Last week we got added to one called “Happy Stroll.” 

Things were always changing, “the scene was always dying,” but in a lot of ways, music is more equitable and just and explosively weird and varied than it ever has been. I have to remind myself that there is so much good happening. We made another record we’re proud of, we’re happy to release it, we’re trying to help it stumble into this new world on the best possible legs. With the pandemic, it’s a whole new landscape, and maybe it will lead to even more sustainable practices, more support for people who do this sort of “work.” The bands are getting creative about how to reach people, with subscribers, with live sessions. The restaurant switches to take-out only.  

You take risks and hope it pays off. Sometimes it sort of does, or enough that you stay in business another year. You were never in this for the job security, anyway. 

Plum is out August 28 via Captured Tracks. 

Widowspeak is singer-songwriter Molly Hamilton and guitarist Robert Earle Thomas. Their fifth album, Plum, is out August 28, 2020 via Captured Tracks.