The following article is adapted from a piece I wrote last year on The Developing Artist. I think the question of celebrity versus musicianship is one that many aspiring artists grapple with–perhaps because in our culture, success as a musician is frequently thought of as being connected with fame. But as you’ll see in the post below, it doesn’t have to be. Being a celebrity and being a good musician are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. This isn’t about whether you want to be a celebrity or not–it’s about establishing your long-term goals and priorities as a musical artist. Enjoy!
Here’s a question for you to think about:
Would you rather be a celebrity, or would you rather be a musician?
One response that might pop into a lot of people’s minds is: “Why can’t I be both?”
True enough–“celebrity” and “musician” are not polar opposites. There are plenty of great musicians who happen to be celebrities–and as we know, there are lots of celebrities whose only real talent seems to be getting into trouble. It really isn’t an either/or question, although I’ve framed it that way. Rather, the question is actually intended to make you think about your goals. Is it your goal to make a career doing music, and to be the best at it that you can be? Or do you just want to be famous?
This is an important question to ask, because the answer to it will inform your direction as a musical artist. You need to clarify for yourself what you really want, because although there certainly can be overlap, the path to celebrity usually looks much different than the path to great musicianship. Here are some examples of the differences between them.
YOU HAVE MANY OPTIONS AS A MUSICIAN, AND FAR FEWER AS A CELEBRITY. There are many rewarding careers available to you as a musician, including in the music industry, that don’t require you to be famous. You could be a studio session player, instructor, music producer, film/TV composer, songwriter, or just a good indie musician plugging away at it. There are also plenty of niches you could carve for yourself if you’re willing to think outside the box. There are many thousands of highly successful musicians out there that you’ve never heard of–and they are insanely happy doing what they do.
By contrast–becoming a celebrity is much more difficult, and a lot of it depends on dumb luck rather than skill. You have to come across the right people at the right time, not once but multiple times–and if someone wants to make a star out of you, you’re probably going to be asked to make compromises for the sole purpose of making you into a marketable product. About the only other way for the average joe to get famous is to do something so monumentally heroic (or stupid) that the action itself defines you to the public, and makes you famous for the wrong reasons.
BECOMING A GREAT MUSICIAN IS ABOUT SKILL; BECOMING A CELEBRITY IS ABOUT IMAGE. True enough, your public image is an important part of your persona as a performer. However, when your goal is simply to be famous, you care less about how well you play/sing, and you care more about how you look while you’re doing it. In other words–celebrity is overwhelmingly about image, and far too often there is no substance behind the style. On the other hand, with a little self-effort, you can always become a better musician, and that’s a tangible commodity that will serve you well, regardless of how famous you become.
FAME IS FLEETING, BUT MUSICAL SKILL STAYS WITH YOU. Think about this for a moment: what would it be like for your entire measure of success to depend at any given moment on what other people think of you? Welcome to the life of the celebrity. If all you want is to be famous, you might succeed–but once you’re at the top, staying on top becomes the greatest challenge, and it’s a slippery slope at best. The public is fickle, and there are absolutely no guarantees. Your fame could drop in the toilet over something completely out of your control, and your career right along with it. On the other hand, if your primary goal is to be a musician, then you’ll focus on developing yourself as an artist in tangible ways, and those skills will stay with you always, regardless of the ebb and flow of public opinion. If you do get famous and it all goes away at some point, you’ll still have something to fall back on.
Now, I’m not trying to say that celebrity is bad (although never having been a celebrity, I can’t really speak from experience). I’m not here to tell you it’s wrong to want to be famous. Rather, the idea here is just to put the idea of celebrity into perspective. The fact is, you can be both a great musician and a celebrity; they’re not mutually exclusive. And fame can certainly be your friend–obviously, you’ll sell a lot more records and make more money if you do happen to get famous. Just know that there are huge risks involved with fame, and if fame is a goal in itself, your success or failure rides on that slippery slope. On the other hand, if your primary goal is to be a professional musician, you can embrace fame if it comes, but you won’t be completely reliant on it–and your life can go on without it. The truth is, you’ll have a lot more control over your options, and over your ultimate success, if your goal is to be a musician first and foremost, as opposed to just becoming a celebrity.
And for what my two cents are worth–I personally feel life itself is better lived when it isn’t completely dependent on the opinions of others. Just saying.