Recently, I had a group conversation that meandered its way onto the topic of having to continually prove one ’s self – even to people who already know you to be capable. Some of the people felt like they shouldn’t have to prove themselves to their fellow musicians… or anyone. Some of us felt like proving ourselves again and again was necessary –possibly even the whole point of being a performing musician.
I was definitely in the latter group and the whole thing got me thinking some stuff that I thought would be worth sharing here.
There’s real validity in viewing a career as a series of hurdles to jump – regardless of profession. Artists, dancers, software developers, construction workers, soldiers, athletes and even office workers are all constantly having to prove themselves over and over. If the answer to “Can you do this?” is yes, then the next question is either “Can you do this again?” or, “Can you do that other thing?”
In the case of musicians, we’re constantly performing in front of our band mates, our audience, our peers and critics in various formats. We’re constantly proving ourselves to them.
Here’s the line of thought the other side SEEMS TO ME to have: “I can do this thing. I have done it before. Why do I need to do it again in front of these people? I know I can do it and they’ve seen/heard evidence of it. Isn’t that enough?”
No. As a performer, you need to be able to do it – not almost do it – more than once. Otherwise, you’re just lucky.
If you show up to a dress rehearsal and you can’t play your part well , the others don’t think, “She sounds good on the recording, she’ll get it for the show.” They think, “Oh yeah, we had to overdub this on the recording because she couldn’t get it. She probably won’t get it for the show, either.” You can probably make up for this if or you nail your part at the show!
If you have a truly bad show, audiences usually know. They notice missed hits, bad notes, etc. You may get some leeway with a brand new audience that has never heard the material… but how long will that last? Two or three performances in that market? Eventually they start to think, “This band doesn’t live up to the recording. “ It’s a little tougher to make up for this because it might be several weeks or months or even years before you play to those same people again to prove that you just had a bad night that one time.
I saw Dillinger Escape Plan open for Mr. Bungle in 1995 in Dallas. Dillinger was actually booed off stage! I saw them a few times after that in different venues, their fingers were fast but all I ever heard was a rumble of white noise. I never went to see them again and I never choose listen to their recordings, even though they’re good.
(NOTE: It’s important not to confuse an audience that doesn’t like WHAT you do with and audience that doesn’t like HOW you do it. If you’re a boy band opening for a metal band, that audience is going to kill you whether you play well or not. If you are a half-assed metal band, they may not kill you but they probably won’t pay attention. It’s hard to learn anything from this situation. “Why do they not like us?” Dunno.)
If you release a mediocre CD and send it to critics for review, you’ll be lucky to get bad reviews. You’ll probably just get no review from most of them. This is harder and more expensive to make up for because now you need a whole new product to send these same people to prove that you CAN do it right – if they’ll even listen.
And there’s where the coin flips – it’s also possible to prove yourself UNable. If you can’t get your part in rehearsal, if you play badly in front of the audience, if the critics and gatekeepers think you’re mediocre, it’s entirely possible that those people won’t give you another chance. “He never plays it right and he’s not going to.” “They’re just sloppy.” “She doesn’t write compelling songs or make good records.”
Recovering from proving yourself UNable is tough, tough, tough. Sometimes you can’t.
There’s a really not-worth-watching video of The Invincible Czars’ only performance on KVRX’s Local Live in 2003 out there. We didn’t know we’d be video-taped and so we look terrible. We had just lost a drummer and so we don’t sound very together even with the excellent Aaron Lack standing in on drums. When I called to ask KVRX if we could do Local Live again a couple years later, they informed me that they only have bands once ever.
Neat. Now one of our most mediocre nights is preserved forever in KVRX’s archives. When I see that thing, I think, “No wonder no one ever came to see us in the early days.”
I wish that I had understood the perspective of audiences, critics, my fellow musicians and band mates. I see now that the potential I saw in various projects I’ve done didn’t mean anything to anyone unless it was executed well. Potential isn’t worth much to someone trying to hire a band for an event, to an audience that wants to be entertained or a critic who hopes to be wowed. You either do it or not and those kinds of things will only happen after you prove yourself able to harness and use your potential effectively and consistently. Not before. In their eyes, if you can’t prove it, you can’t do it. Can you get on this stage and make this audience that has never heard you actually care? Prove it.
Proving it once doesn’t end the cycle. Now you have do it again for this other audience. Now, again for this audition. Again in this other city. Now in the studio. Now live on the radio. TV. In the dark. In the cold. Again!
It won’t ever stop. Even as aging rockers, jazz singers, classical musicians, etc. near the ends of their careers, they’re still proving themselves over and over again. As I write this, Aerosmith is preparing to prove it once again in Austin during Formula 1’s Austin Fan Fest.
Final thought: proving yourself won’t bring success – only worthiness of it and a sense of satisfaction.