"The power of negative thinking: why our local music scene sucks (and other myths that keep you from succeeding with your music)"
This Article Originally Published in 1994
by Bob Baker
The best way to start discussing this month's success topic is to relate something that happened recently. A couple months ago my employees and I moved our business into a bigger office space. Along with the move we needed more phone lines and a new telephone system. A phone company rep came by the office to pitch what she had to offer.
During the conversation, of course, I let her know that we publish the Spotlight newspaper, a music monthly in St. Louis, Mo. Unfortunately for her, she was not overly familiar with it. So I gave her a bit of background on what we do and sent her off with a couple copies to take home. About a week later she called again to follow up and mentioned something I've heard many times over the years.
"You know, since I met you and learned more about Spotlight, I've seen the paper all over the place," she admitted. "I guess since I wasn't that aware of it before, I never noticed it sitting at all those locations."
This sales rep was guilty of a trait that's common among human beings: being limited in her view of the world by what she chooses to focus on. But it's no crime. These limited perceptions are always with us.
Have you ever bought a new car and then suddenly started seeing the same make and model almost everywhere you went? What caused that? Was there a sudden swell in sales of your type of car? Had you unknowingly started a fashion trend? Not likely. It was just that you had a new awareness of that particular car style and your mind was able to zero in on those shapes and sizes.
Well, I contend that if your mind works that way with newspapers, cars, shapes and sizes, it also works that way with attitudes and ideas. Your mind does indeed seek out what you focus on.
Therefore, if you're one of those doom-and-gloom people who consistently tells yourself and others how much your local music scene sucks, I guarantee you'll see one example after another to support your limited (and limiting) belief. Every time a club owner doesn't hire your band, a radio disc jockey doesn't play your record or a music editor doesn't assign a writer to cover you, you'll say, "See, what did I tell you? This town blows! Nobody cares, there are no opportunities here. Why bother?"
So what's the solution?
Optimism. Pure and simple, developing a positive attitude and sense of optimism will do more for your musical career advancement then the most expensive piece of new equipment or the most powerful industry bigshot could do in a lifetime.
So stop whining and start considering these ideas to help you stretch and build your optimism muscles.
- Develop balanced expectations. First off, you want to go into
every situation expecting to get positive results. If you expect
to win, your chances of getting what you want greatly increase.
But taking this concept too far can backfire.
"I've met so many musicians who go into it expecting that things are going to be handed to them," says Ellen Persyn, lead vocalist for the band 9 Days Wonder. "And then when they can't just walk into Kennedy's and get a Saturday night headline gig, they're so disillusioned that they get a really bad attitude."
Persyn moved from Philadelphia to St. Louis a couple years ago with her husband, Tony. The two musicians put together a new band that, in a relatively short time, has become one of the top alternative/original music groups in town. Persyn thinks aspiring bands should stay positive, but not expect too much too soon.
"Musicians get this narrow, little viewpoint that they're artists only," she says. "They don't try to understand it from the business point of view and then get really pessimistic."
- Focus on the positivebut don't fake happiness. Russ Hopkins
runs a small project studio, which he calls Kiva Recording, out
of his home in Fort Collins, Colo. He feels that maintaining a sense
of optimism has helped both his business and his hometown to improve.
"I feel that Fort Collins is a rather unique environment and has a good music scene, but it's growing because people want it to grow and care about it," Hopkins says. "[You can make optimism work] by trying to see the positive, by supporting other musicians and always believing that anything can happen. And why not here? It takes people really looking and trying to see the good."
Hopkins has been one of the more visible supporters of music in his community, having produced a couple compilation CDs showcasing Fort Collins artists. But is his city free from negative thinking? "On that level, I don't think this scene's any different," says Hopkins, who believes you shouldn't let the naysayers distract you from your goals. "I feel we have a high level of creative people here. I was just one of the first people to really champion that here and bring people's attention to it."
While affirming the positive, Persyn also suggests you know where to draw the line: "I don't view optimism as: oh, I've got to put on a happy face and pretend that everything's going to be great. This business is really hard; there're a lot of ups and downs.
"And the way I maintain my optimism is taking it a step at a time, setting goals that are realistic and trying to see things from the other person's point of view," she says.
- Embrace the work. Many wannabes psych themselves up with big expectations
for a musical career, but don't associate the work it takes with
actually getting there.
"There are always guys that walk up to me after our gigs and say, 'This scene sucks but we want to open for you.' I'll say, 'Okay, send me a tape,' and they don't send it. So, yeah, the scene sucks for them," says Persyn.
"Some bands think they're going to set the scene on fire because they're so good. I don't care if they really are good, it takes more than that. Even if your tapes are fabulous, it takes a lot of work to get people to listen to them to realize they're fabulous.
"Everybody I've seen who is pessimistic, I've noticed something about them," she continues. "They think that things are just going to happen for them because they exist, and they won't do the hard work or the phone calls and the mailings."
- Small steps and small victories. "When we started out, if I could
get an opening gig on a Wednesday night, that was cool," explains
Ellen Persyn, lead singer for the St. Louis, Mo.-based band 9 Days
Wonder. "Then my next expectation was getting opening gigs on the
weekend. Next I wanted split bills on the weekend.
"This way, I'm still working toward my long-term goals, but I'm not being crushed by trying to leap to that big goal in one mighty bound. So every little victory increased my determination and my optimism, because I had set goals that were attainable.
"The first three months you're out there, nobody even wants to talk to you," she adds. "So the keys are planning, short-term goals and focusing on the small victories."
Russ Hopkins, who runs a home recording studio in Fort Collins, Colo., says that same technique can work for an entire music community. "We have a little bit of local and regional success, and that always helps," he says, citing that Big Head Todd & the Monsters come from the Boulder/Denver area, about 50 miles away. "I remember them at the sports bar across from the college."
Also, Hopkins points out that certain members of the Subdudes make their home in Fort Collins. "It goes to show that it doesn't really matter where you live," he concludes.
But this small-victories approach doesn't end there. Hopkins also applies it to Kiva Recording, his studio business. "My optimism came about as a result of building my business and my confidence slowly," he says. "I used to think, 'If I can get clients with the primitive gear that I have, just imagine if I had a setup that allowed me to offer even more.'" And after a couple years, he did just that.
- Set realistic goals. Again, one of the worst things you can do
is pursue a goal you have practically no chance of reaching. The
key is setting your sights on something that will challenge and
stretch your abilities but not overwhelm you. Also, break your big
goals into small, manageable chunks, and make sure your short-term
activities support your long-range plans.
"With us, we have long-term goals and then we have six-month goals, but then I have a goal for the next two weeks," says Persyn. "I make it a point every couple months to sit down and review long-term what I want to do with my life."
- See things from other people's points of view. "If you go into
this scene expecting that 'Everybody should promote me,' but you
don't expect to give back, you're going to face a tough battle ahead,"
continues Persyn, who prefers to adopt an attitude that allows her
to work as a partner with the people who can help her band the most.
That includes supplying music editors and writers with all the materials
they need in a timely manner, collaborating with club owners on
joint promotions, etc.
"I don't want a nightclub to suffer when we play there, I want them to do great," she adds. "Approach it from their point of view. What can you do for them?"
Hopkins likewise looks at his business from his customer's point of view, which he says includes being able to "record inexpensively, get cassette dupesbands who need to get their music out on a local level and do it cost effectively."
Before he opened his home studio to the public, Hopkins says there was one other recording facility in town. It had been there for some time and was quite successful, but the owner reportedly didn't rate very high in the customer-satisfaction department. "He was the only guy in town," recalls Hopkins. "I felt if he's doing as well as he's doing treating people that way, there must be a strong need for recording services."
Hopkins couldn't compete based on size and equipment but, by seeing things from the buyer's point of view, he was able to compete by offering more personalized service.
- Avoid bitterness through reasondon't take it personally. "For
me, and I'm still getting over this... realize that other people
have down times, too," Persyn offers. "Other bands fight to get
gigs and work hard to get their draw and have bad nights. So when
those things happen to you, you can't let it crush you and turn
you bitter. No one's going to hand you anything, but at the same
time everybody goes through these things and you have to roll with
"I believe there are up times and down times for everybody. Nobody questions it when things are going great. I didn't say, 'Oh God, why me?' when we had 400 people at our CD release party.
"However, my first reaction to a bad draw is pessimism: 'Oh man, this is bad, I should just give up.' A bad draw just devastates me. I'm depressed for three days, I don't understand why it happened," she says. "I'm not saying I don't get down and think about chucking the whole thing. This business is so much work. But if I hang in there, things will spring back around. That's what's always happened before."
- Plant seeds today. More timeless advice from Persyn: "Another
thing I do to cope is something I call seed planting. If you just
sit on your butt and you don't send out any demo tapes or make contacts
or phone calls, then in three months you're not going to have anything
to harvest. And it's only by putting out those seeds that you can
look forward to some fruit in two to three months."
- Keep the faith. "I've definitely created a niche for myself here
that so far is working," says Hopkins. "Part of that comes from
But the faith that he refers to isn't necessarily in a religious context. It stems from the power that any human being can tapthe power that comes from believing in yourself and your ability to make positive things happen.
"Faith is... more of an attitude," he explains. "You can say, 'We're at this level and it can only get worse.' Or you can say, 'We're at this level and it can only get better.' It could get better or worsebut maybe we can have something to say about it."
- Passion: the bottom line. While succeeding monetarily and otherwise
is a goal toward which most of us strive, optimism will be a lot
easier to maintain if you're pursuing a line of work (and play)
that truly excites you.
"For years I wasn't really worried about making money at it," says Hopkins of his recording activities. "Just to do it and gain the experience. And that was a fairly conscious decision. And I feel very successful that I've gotten to the point where I have a lengthy list of paying clients.
"Before it was the typical story: How do you break into something? Initially, I found the opportunity to gain experience instead of a paycheck."
Persyn wraps it up with a similar sentiment. "I guess optimism for me comes down to: I really do believe in our music and I'm willing to do the work on each small step to make it happen," she says. "And that's better than lying in bed, depressed all the time."