I woke up early this morning, as is often the case on weekdays. I’m a morning person at heart, with a job that has me working nights and weekends. On my days off, I start reaching for that first cup of coffee a little earlier. Today, I found myself pondering the idea of success; what it means in general, and specifically, how it relates to my line of work. I make my living from music, and there seems to be a pretty narrow definition of what it means to be successful in that arena.

That leads to a lot of questions along these lines. “Why don’t you try out for The Voice?” “Why do you live in Indiana? Have you thought about moving to Nashville or Austin?” “Have you ever tried to get signed to a record label?” “Can you really make a living at this?” Whenever I get asked about things like that, I know that it comes from an innocent place. Most people don’t know the music business, and that’s okay! I think it’s fair to say that success in music is most commonly defined as fame and fortune. Radio airplay, and sold-out shows. Tour buses, backing bands, and groupies. There are three interesting things about this particular kind of “success.”

  1. It’s only available to a minuscule portion of the music biz. 99% of people making a living from music are normal folks like you and me, working in a field that just happens to be understood less than others. Unseen are the middle-class independent musicians, the songwriters, people working in publishing offices, studio guitarists, orchestra violinists, etc. Equating being a pop-star with being a musician is kind of like thinking that working in IT means you’ll become Bill Gates.
  2. Those who do achieve it are often unhappy. I don’t think human beings are meant to be famous. The isolation that comes from that type of lifestyle often leads to depression, addiction, and a downward spiral that we’re all too used to hearing about.
  3. It doesn’t last. Unless you go in as a savvy businessperson, the majority of profits from that kind of success go to the record label. The glitz and glamour of fame is a bit of an artificial creation, and the trappings that go along with it are often supplied on the label’s dime. Only the musicians who were able to negotiate to retain their publishing rights achieve the kind of wealth we associate with stardom. Otherwise, they probably aren’t doing much better than the rest of us. When your 15 minutes of fame are over, it’s back to the real world.

All that glitters isn’t necessarily gold. If what others view as achieving success isn’t the goal, then what am I working towards? For me, success means doing your best. It’s that simple.

It means trying your hardest to create great music. It means establishing good relationships on the business side of things. It means paying the bills and providing for your family. For me, it means traveling on the road to play music for people all over America and beyond. For others, it may not. It should always mean treating people with kindness and integrity, the way you would want to be treated. In my case, it’s my wife, our dog, an Indiana small town, a little blue house, our church, and our friends and family.

I’ve been making a good living from music for 8 years, and that is thanks entirely to the AMAZING people who support me. From the music-lovers who buy the CDs and put money in the tip jar, to the venue owners who pay my salary, to the people that start out in the audience and end up as lifelong friends. I LOVE my job, especially now that I get to sing and travel with my wife. I hope the only thing that changes with time is that we get to play music for more people, and in more venues where people come to listen to music. That’s it.

If you asked me to nail down an example of what success really looks like, it’s the Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band. Josh, Breezy, and Max play great music with integrity, and they travel the world doing it. When they come back home, it’s to a cabin in Brown County, Indiana. They love their community, and they rep it everywhere they go. If you don’t believe me, just watch this video.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve found ourselves crossing paths with this band at venues from the Telluride Blues Festival to Australia. But back when I was just starting out, only 18 or 19 years old, I went to see this band play a show in a record shop in Cincinnati. I didn’t know much of anything about how to make a living in music, so afterwards, I went up to the Rev himself and asked if he had any advice for someone just starting out in the business. He didn’t have to, but he took 5 minutes to talk to a kid about his journey and give some pointers. The advice boiled down to this; work hard, keep grinding, and don’t compromise who you are.

It may not fit the standard definition, but that’s how I define success. God willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll keep doing it ’til we’re singing in heaven.

About Brian Keith Wallen

Singer-songwriter and guitarist from Indiana. Proud dog dad.
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