pondering failure (pic by Erin Donnelly Volbehr
This weekend I went to NYC to play a show and hang out. It was really fun. We drive the 4+ hours to the city about once a month to play. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s not.
Last month we played a show in the city. It was supposed to start at 9:30pm. We got there, did a sound check, and were ready to play at 9:30pm. The room was empty. By 10:00pm, there was still no one in the room. It was empty. Scratch that, there was the sound guy. He was there. So we waited. Shawn, with an attitude that literally never wavers, suggested that we just play for nobody (except the sound guy) because it would be ‘fun’ and ‘good practice.’ I decided to go into the adjoining bar area, instead. I walked through the room and told everyone there that we were playing in the performance room and that the show was about to start (one good thing about being in a field where you get rejected often is that my level of embarrassment at doing pretty much anything has diminished dramatically). People seemed interested. They were being polite, at least, asking what kind of music it was. And I felt productive. Then I approached a man at the end of the bar who was sitting with some friends. ‘We’re about to start playing in the other room,’ I told him, ‘it’s going to be good. You should check it out!’ He looked up at me and said ‘maybe another time but I’m kind of eating right now.’ And that pushed me over the edge. Apparently, his falafel was more important than the pure expression of my soul.
That moment shattered any illusions I had that if only more people knew about what I was doing, then they would care. Apparently not. This guy knew. He just didn’t care. After that, I cried in the bathroom. After a few minutes of feeling really bad, I put on some lipstick, walked out of the bathroom, and went into the performance space. It was 10:15. There were six people there. It was better than no one. Shawn and I started playing. We decided to do a kind of acoustic show because of the small size of the audience. I talked a lot in between about the songs. I answered questions. It was fun. It was a really good show. All six people told me afterwards that they loved it.
It doesn’t go like that all the time. This past weekend, for instance, we played a sold out Sofar sounds show in NYC to a full house of 85 and killed it. Afterwards, people came up to us and told us we had inspired them to pick up music again. They told us that my words moved them to tears. We sold t-shirts, we connected to the crowd. We felt good. I felt wanted. It felt right. That’s the kind of experience I want to have all the time.
But it’s not.
Sometimes it’s just really hard. Sometimes it feels like no one wants you. Sometimes it feels like people don’t care. The more performers I talk to, the more I realize that this is a pretty common experience. I recently spoke with a good friend who has been doing music professionally for longer than I have. I asked her if she ever feels like a failure. She told me she feels that way all the time. You wouldn’t know it from looking at what she’s done. She is highly accomplished. She is well-respected. But feelings of failure don’t discriminate. Everyone feels like a failure sometimes. Everyone goes through ups and downs. As we spoke, she gave me some great advice. Advice I think about all the time. She said, ‘when you’re on an upswing enjoy it. Because there will be a dip. When you’re down, know that it won’t last forever.’ I think about that a lot. It helps me when I’m crying in a bathroom. And it helps me when I feel like I’m on top of the world.
This journey is not linear. There are ups. There are downs. There are successes. There are failures. There are moments when you feel like a boss. There are times when you wonder if you should just quit and become a lawyer. Failure is part of the process. There are times when you will feel like a failure. But that’s just part of the journey. Don’t let feelings of failure stop you from moving forward. From doing what you love. Any time you’re down, know it won’t last forever. It’s true about music. And it’s true about life.