Secret to success: the ‘P’ word?
Updated: Jul 3, 2019
Music can at times be a truly horrible thing to be involved in. There must be something that fires you up, that keeps you doing your songwriting or your performing. For me, it is the joy of creating a new work that I see through to its end - to a fully polished and studio produced mix and master. But for others it could be the thrill of playing live or of scoring orchestral parts. But anyone in the business that tells you that the process of making music and the life of a musician is anything other than a roller-coaster of emotions and failures is being economical with the truth.
I'll be brutally honest: I write this after a recent concert we played that nosedived. Thankfully this is a pretty rare occurrence for us now, but it is something that happens to all performers now and again. Musicians need to feel their careers are moving in the right direction, that it’s an arc upwards, however slow the climb might be. But there is nothing more levelling than a gig where no one turns up or everything goes wrong with the sound, your performance or the audience's reaction. It just reinforces to you that you’re unsuccessful and will never amount to anything. We even wrote a song about it in 2012: 'Validation'. I won't go into the specifics of why our gig didn't work, but it didn't, and we left feeling very disheartened.
Unless you’re a super strong or arrogant person, such an experience cuts to the quick. Overcoming that feeling, that niggling self-doubt that is very much the centre of gravity of the average creative person - after all, we create art because we feel a deep need to express our feelings about the world and ourselves and that often comes from a place of profound insecurity - is probably the greatest battle we face as musicians. Our worst enemy is us ourselves, not some imagined enemy in the form of a public that will laugh at us or judge us. Or not fill the seats in front of us at all.
If others don’t like what we do - and by law of averages many won’t - they simply take their ears elsewhere. People’s tastes aren’t binary. They like or dislike an act for a number of different reasons: their humour, their fabulous voice or instrumental skills, what they stand for politically, their witty banter on stage, their look and so on. But few artists have a full complement of all the above talents. Some have a great vibe despite the singer lacking what might be considered a classically brilliant voice. Or someone might perform the most amazing guitar licks but be totally inept at the whole art of stagecraft, of entertaining an audience.
The fact is, and this is well documented through the history of music, people forgive a deficiency in one feature of a performer if they have a magical combination of other elements that connect with an audience. Think of Dylan’s voice, or Shane McGowan's unconventional look or Nick Drake’s desperate fear of live performance. All are considered legends despite their shortcomings.
But in our darker moments we can find ourselves sinking into “perhaps inherently I'm just not good enough” as if there is some accepted universal gauge for such things, which of course there isn’t. Quality and taste is objective. There is no right and wrong thing to like. There is no good and no bad. There is just taste in music. How often have you heard a song enjoyed by one of your friends which has done nothing for you? It doesn’t mean your friend is wrong to like it. Whatever reason you might ascribe to you “not being good enough” I could list a hundred acts who were far less talented than you are in that particular area who have made a successful career for themselves in music.
Many readers will probably be too young to remember the Kit Kat advertisement from the UK in the 1980s, but it involves a young aspring pop group being auditioned by a label exec, who at the end of the ad says “you can’t sing, you can’t play, you look awful… you’ll go a long way!".
Success on X Factor or similar mass culture TV shows may depend on having every element, from looks to talent, exactly right. But being someone that chimes with the general public and stays the distance in terms of longevity of music career involves a far more complex game of psychology.
So what does this all mean? It comes down to this. The only thing that will gain you an audience over time is hard work, self belief, overcoming the myriad obstacles that you’ll find littering your path through a career in music and - primarily - the “P” word. Persistence.
Coupled with organisation and a clear plan.
Of course persistence involves not allowing your brain to get in the way. Not giving up in those dark moments described above. Easier said than done. And I do know that as I’m writing this at a time when I’m struggling with such things myself.
But what other choice is there? “You have music in you”, as a gorgeous friend of ours and incredibly talented musician himself, Francois Daloz, once said to me. “You have no choice but to do it because although it might make you very unhappy at times, not doing it will make you doubly unhappy.”
I hope this Lifelines Music Collective will become a community which will allow us musicians to support each other in our dark moments and also in our positive times. And I feel very strongly that when we’re having our successful moments, when we’re riding the crest of the wave, we must share as much of that as possible with those who are trying to get catch the same wave, to climb the same ladder as we are.
We should playlist each other on Spotify. We should invite other artists to open for us at live gigs. We should keep discovering other new artists who are themselves just starting out by googling and scouring magazines such as RnR (in our sphere of music) or the equivalent for your style. We should follow other artists on social media and interact with them. Share, share, share. It’s no longer about trying to get one up on our rivals. It’s about giving each other a leg up. Remember, someone else who we consider to be lower down the ladder of success than us might just overtake us one day, and will remember that we helped them as they climbed the first few rungs. They might just return the favour later - you never know.
So don’t just tweet about your own music but share others’ material too. Mention other new artists to your gig promoter and media contacts. That in turn keeps you fresh and fired up.
We are more powerful when we work together. Strength in numbers. And now I shall read my article back and attempt to take my own advice!
The Portraits are Somerset Acoustic duo Jeremy and Lorraine Millington, who have played six Glastonbury Festivals, and had songs championed on the UK's biggest radio station, BBC Radio 2. Recently described by BBC 6 Music's Tom Robinson as "Irresistible and Irrepressible", The Portraits release their new album 'For Our Times' in the Autumn of 2019 and say it will be an upbeat call for unity during these turbulent times. It will include their March 2019 single, 'Harmonise', built around video selfies of dozens of members of the public singing the word 'harmonise' to camera. The Portraits storytelling song style, a worldly mix of Anglo-Irish harmonies and upbeat catchy tunes, provides the backdrop to a recurring theme of unity and peace.