Let’s face it: being a DIY musician (or an independent artist of any stripe, for that matter) is a lonely business. Not only is there a lot of stuff you have to do on your own besides music (booking, networking, promotion, all that good stuff), but it’s also very easy to get discouraged at rejection or an apparent lack of progress. For most of us, it takes a lot of hard work, patience and perseverance to get where we want to go, and the journey can be long and lonesome.
You don’t have to go it alone completely, however. In most cases, you can find some sort of support in the form of different organizations and networks of other people that are in the same situation as you are. This can provide a much-needed sense of community, and hopefully a bit of encouragement. However, I also feel the need to caution you about an unintended but disturbing trend that can happen in communities like these—something I’ve dubbed the “subculture of mediocrity,” which you should definitely avoid.
While mutual encouragement can be a very powerful thing, there is also the principle that “misery loves company.” Think about this for a moment: a group of DIY musicians (or again, other kinds of artists) are in this shared dilemma of trying to make it and struggling to break through. They find solace in one another. But suppose one of them does make it. Consider the natural sense of competition that is usually found in groups like these; how does that person who does well reflect on the others who didn’t?
In a perfect world, this shouldn’t matter; but we’re dealing with imperfect people with real feelings and desires for their own careers. If it isn’t watched closely, this community intended to provide mutual support can actually begin working subtly against the success of the individuals within that community—through jealousy, passive resistance, and even subtle forms of sabotage. This is what I mean when I call it the “subculture of mediocrity.” Everything’s okay as long as everyone is failing together; if one person starts to excel, it can throw the equilibrium out of whack. And that’s no good for your career.
As much as we wish this kind of thing didn’t happen, I’ve seen it happen time and again. You can see this dynamic at work in various conferences and industry conventions, where the “regulars” show up every year to pitch their songs only to get rejected (but they don’t really take the critiques seriously), yet they take solace in all the other “regulars” who also come every year and experience the same thing. You need to be careful about getting in too tight with this kind of subculture because eventually the goal will be to hang out together “below the line” and never actually break through the barrier.
Here’s another example, one not directly related to music. I have a friend who went to a film school, a promising young filmmaker with lots of new ideas. To his dismay, he found a great deal of subtle resistance from the teachers and administrators in his school. He was offered a summer internship at a major film company; to his amazement, the staff advised him not to go! When he went anyway, he found himself out of favor when he returned to classes next fall, as the staff began working subtly against him while showing favor to other students. His film projects were disqualified from competitions because they weren’t exactly “by the book,” although by many standards his films were on par, or even better, than those of his colleagues. They found creative reasons to stop him from accessing equipment. Icing on the cake—the administration eventually dropped him from classes for being a half hour late with his tuition payment, and wouldn’t readmit him—forcing him to take the semester off. He’s currently still working on breaking into the industry as an independent.
Why would a school supposedly dedicated to the success of its students actually work against their success? Most likely, the film school was filled with teachers who never got their break, who knew some things about the filmmaking process, but had never tasted a level of success beyond the local level. It became apparent to my friend that while saying they wanted success for their students, in actuality they wanted their students not to rise beyond a certain level. The turning point for my friend came when he was offered the internship, when the potential was there for him to go beyond where his instructors had gone. Now considered a threat to the status quo, the school apparently found a convenient excuse to remove him from the community. This is perhaps a more extreme example, but it is strong evidence of the subculture of mediocrity.
Not to shirk from the facts—not every DIY musician is going to “make it,” including some who deserve it. This is why you need to find happiness in what you do, and not rely on fleeting fame for your satisfaction. However, the ones who DO make it inevitably face resistance from the subculture of mediocrity, and if you really want to make it, you need to be prepared to face that resistance. You don’t need to shun community, but you do need to be watchful for those who would subtly pressure you to stay below a certain level. Most importantly, do not allow loneliness to dictate the company you keep. Otherwise, you could wake up one morning completely immersed in the subculture of mediocrity, unable to break out—and even worse, you might find yourself being the one who is trying to stop others from succeeding!
Community is important, but remember that misery loves company. If you have to choose between being miserable and alone, and taking comfort in the community of mediocrity—choose to be alone. You greatly increase your chances for success by simply guarding the company you keep.