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The Tortoise and the Hare: Pitfalls of Instant Success [2012 In Review]

As today we wrap up our month-long look back at some of MIMO’s more intriguing pieces from 2012, we wanted to highlight this gem written back in June, “The Tortoise and the Hare: Why Instant Success Could Be Bad For Your Career”–an interesting take on the pitfalls of instant stardom. DIY musicians, take note, and learn. –Ed


As kids, many of us heard the fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” (thank you, Aesop), in which the two animals have a race, and the tortoise wins the race by slow and steady plodding while the hare, overly confident of his victory, takes a nap after a short sprint. The moral of this story, “Slow and steady wins the race” can easily be applied to your music career, as well.

So many of us DIY musicians wish for instant success—for that one event to happen that quickly propels us to the top, making us immediately rich and famous, and getting our songs played all over the world. We hear about the occasional unknown band/artist who gets “discovered,” gets signed before ever releasing a record, or sees their debut record topping the charts while we are plugging away at our third DIY project (because we had little success with the first two). It’s easy to get jealous of these overnight successes who apparently didn’t have to work very hard for what they have. We feel like the tortoise, plodding along slowly while all the hares blow past us toward the finish line.

But the truth is, if we’re not ready for it, that kind of success could be the worst thing to happen to us. In short—we’re wishing for the very thing that could be our undoing.

Music Think Tank recently posted 10 Reasons You Shouldn’t Wish for Overnight Success. This concise list says in a few words what books could be written about, and is one of the best summaries I’ve seen on the topic—so I won’t rehash it here; go read it for yourself. But the gist behind this list is that overnight success can throw you into a whole new arena where the rules are completely different. It’s a set of dynamics that can chew you up and spit you out if you aren’t prepared. The music industry can be a greedy S.O.B., a shark tank filled with unscrupulous people who wouldn’t think twice about milking your fame dry and leaving you by the side of the road when you’re used up. Then there are the stresses and demands of constant work, the scrutiny of a fickle public, and numerous other pitfalls that can leave you in far worse shape than you were in when you began.

Most musicians long for success, but no one wants to join the growing list of “one-hit wonders.” Yet instant success (the very thing we covet) is the quickest and most likely way to become one. (Think about that.) It’s kind of like the lottery. Everyone dreams of becoming an instant millionaire, but the truth is the lottery produces more bankruptcies than anything else. Why? Because when people are handed huge sums of money they are completely unprepared to handle, they end up losing it. For DIY musicians, a rapid climb to the top can be even worse, because the wealth that comes with it is only part of the package; there are many other dynamics that can literally undo someone who isn’t ready for it.

But here’s the thing: instant success happens. It might feel like your odds of winning the lottery are actually better than getting discovered, but the fact is, people still do get discovered. Unlikely as it might seem today, if your music is out there, all it might take for your life to change is the right person happening upon your music and listening to it. So if you do find instant success at some point, how do you avoid all the pitfalls that come with it?

ANSWER: Don’t wait for overnight success. Get prepared now.

You don’t want to be a flash-in-the-pan; you want to be a musician with a long, happy career, whether or not you ever get famous doing it. That takes a tortoise mentality, rather than a hare mentality. So take every experience as it comes, and let it give you wisdom. Every time you play a show where only your aunts and uncles show up; every time you book a gig; every time you plug a demo; every time a local venue tries to screw you over for payment; all of it is useful experience that will give you stamina, wisdom and a solid work ethic, if you let it. The indie music scene is such at this point that you don’t even need a quick ticket to the top in order to succeed. It might take years, but you can do it. There are plenty of great musicians living and working in relative obscurity who die richer and happier than any of a number of one-hit wonders I could name. These are the tortoises who win the race by steady plodding and slow growth.

And here’s the cool thing about it: if you adopt this mentality—if you become one of these tortoises—then IF instant success comes your way, you’ll have the wisdom and maturity to deal with it without falling off the cliff.

Don’t waste your time and energy wishing for the very thing that could ruin you. Instant success will not build a solid career. Slow and steady wins the race.

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About the Author


Jeff McQ is a songwriter/composer/musician with a diverse resume that includes everything from directing music in church to scoring short films. In addition to his role as chief editor for Music Is My Oxygen (and writing our DIY Musician Channel), Jeff also covers the local music scene for Examiner.com in his hometown of Denver, Colorado, and maintains The Developing Artist [http://artistdevelopmentblog.com], a blog dedicated to offering advice and encouragement to indie musicians.

When he's not tinkering in his home studio or blogging for hours on his laptop at the local coffee shop (to the annoyance of the baristas), Jeff McQ enjoys taking in local shows, going on road trips, wandering aimlessly, and talking to himself.

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