Can you give up on a dream?
July 14, 2007 4:14 AM   Subscribe

Is it possible or desirable to talk yourself out of a big dream (music) and do something else with your life?

For about 14 years now, my ambition to have a career in music has been underlying my life, but now I'm suffering from a conflict about whether or not I can drop the idea.

From when I was about 11 I wanted to be a classical performer, and studied at a conservatoire. From about 18 that started to change, and I have wanted to create/compose electronic music.

I'm 28 now, and on paper there are good reasons to give up on the idea.

I haven't developed a good day-job career, and I feel like I should be using my creativity and drive to gain some freedom from the daily grind e.g. starting a business, rather than being stuck on some statistically unlikely dream.

I've suffered from bad RSI from playing and using a computer so much, and while I'm better and can manage it, it feels good to be doing things that are healthy for my body. The RSI has also given me the chance to get happier in social situations, and enjoy things in life apart from sitting in a room, obsessively repeating motions.

On the other hand, making music is the only thing that deeply fascinates me and that I can get absorbed in. It feels painful that I haven't been doing it, and the idea that it won't be the focus of my life is a bit scary.

I think the reason why I can't give up on the idea is partly because I've wanted it for so long, and it's tied up with my self esteem. I don't want to play any violins, but I got an inner city kid scholarship thing to study music, and it was always the thing that I was good at even if other things weren't going so well.

I don't know if I can resolve this and find peace with not being a musician, or whether it's part of me and I'll regret not giving it my best shot.

Has anyone given up on a dream and found happiness in an alternative way, or stuck with it despite all practical reasons. How did it work out for you?

Email: z4khp1402 at sneakemail dot com
posted by London Irregular to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I say don't give it up, just adjust it. Find a way to profit from what you have already learned, and then do your music on the side.

Sometime a job is just something to put food on the table. A calling and a job are not synonymous. If you want the music stuff badly enough you will find time for it even as you provide for yourself in an alternative manner.
posted by konolia at 5:55 AM on July 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I got an inner city kid scholarship thing to study music, and it was always the thing that I was good at even if other things weren't going so well.

Maybe music was just the first step for you. Maybe your scholarship let you see and imagine things, even beyond music, that you wouldn't have thought would be possible otherwise. Maybe the people who gave you the scholarship would be thrilled to think you might, as a direct or indirect result of their generosity, start a business that would benefit lots of people.
posted by amtho at 6:19 AM on July 14, 2007

Is it possible or desirable to talk yourself out of a big dream (music) and do something else with your life?

Sometimes, making the thing you love into your job ruins it for you. You're blessed that you have something that you feel passionate about, it would be a shame to lose that just because you're worried where it's going to bring you your next rent check. Don't let reality steal what you love from you.

I've got a career. But I don't live to work. I work to live. I pay my bills, and then I do what I'm passionate about. I learned long ago that my passion isn't going to keep me in the lifestyle I'm accustomed to. So I do it in my spare time. And I still love it. And the bonus is that with a regular paycheck coming in, I can afford to buy fun and interesting things that cater to my passion. (Caveat - I'm an incredibly practical and rational person. YMMV.)
posted by librarianamy at 6:44 AM on July 14, 2007

Have you ever read How To Be Creative? If not, please do, there's a lot of pratical advice in it on being a creative in the real world. No 7, 9 (especially 9!), 12, and 30 seem to apply to your current situation.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:27 AM on July 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

You don't have to give up what you love, which is the music. There is no shame in making a living another way. And there is no time limit on when you love can also be your career.

So, no, don't give it up, but yes, you need to make a living. You can do both. And as mentioned above, maybe there are non-obvious ways to make a living with your music.
posted by The Deej at 7:28 AM on July 14, 2007

Nthing what these people said.

My dream was to be in theater (acting, writing), though admittedly it was also always my dream to become a teacher. Upon graduating college, I decided to put off teaching for a few years to be an actor. This lifestyle -- four part time jobs, no health insurance, surrounding myself with other young actors who only cared about being famous -- made me crazy.

Now I teach full time, and I have my summers off to do theater projects. One discipline informs the other -- having a regular schedule devoted to something bigger than myself gives me material for my theater work, and doing theater stuff with adults during the summer gives me ideas for what to do with my high school drama students during the year.

I ultimately found, then, that I enjoyed theater much more once I took all the "must a make a living out of this" out of it. Granted, theater is something that lends itself to short bursts of intense work, and with music YMMV.
posted by HeroZero at 7:36 AM on July 14, 2007

No, I don't think it's advisable to talk yourself out of your dream. It's possible and sometimes necessary, but I think much depends on how rigorously you've pursued a career in music. If you can honestly say you've done all you can do to become a performer, composer, what have you, and things haven't work out the way you've imagined they would, then I think you can make your music your avocation or hobby without regret. Keep in mind, though, you aren't even thirty years old yet, so you're hardly washed up. You may be experiencing the on-set of the navel-gazing and tea-leaf reading that happens to us when we move from our twenties into our thirties. I don't want to patronize you; that was my experience, FWIW.

I think making yourself your business is the challenge of any career in the arts. I'm an actor and a fledgling writer, and I understand this conflict all too well. I've worked a few other jobs along the way, and all of them were satisfying and certainly more lucrative to greater or lesser degrees. Still, it wasn't until I got serious about setting and pursuing my artistic goals that I started to cobble together a satisfying career as an artist.

First of all, consider what it is that you really want to do with your music. Do you want to perform? Compose? Teach? Whatever it is, identify it concretely and then ask yourself some questions. Who are your contacts in the music world? What's your training? Would more training at a better school be a good use of or waste of time? Who are your role-models or people whose careers you'd like to emulate? How did they get where they are, and what did they do that you haven't? What resources are out there that deal with the business side of music? What can I learn from those? Once you start giving structure to your dream by turning it into a set of attainable goals and milestones you've already achieved toward it, you can address the aspects of it that may be too overwhelming to think about when taken altogether. "Your dream" will seem less like some magical orb dangling out there in space just out of your grasp, and more like a satisfying way of living you come to after a rewarding, if at times arduous, journey.

Then I think you may ask yourself about the practical considerations of your life - do you have debt you have to pay? What kind of rent, bills and expenses are you responsible for? What's your standard of living? Can you live more humbly without feeling deprived? Do you want to struggle for a time, or could you be happy living with my music as a side project to your other, more lucrative chosen career? Once you've got both sides of the equation mapped out practically, then you can start to make choices. Whatever you do, choose because of what you know rather than what you fear.

Good luck.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 7:55 AM on July 14, 2007 [2 favorites]

I didn't exactly abandon such dreams, but my experience might be of use to you. For me, my dreams hit a creative wall of sorts, and I realized that much of the driving force behind them was ego, not joy. I was working on music recording projects, which is a bit different than your performance dream because it is more divorced from the act of making music. I also have a lucrative day job, which is different from you.

But the bottom line is: I realized that if I was going to make music, I had to do it for the joy/pleasure/whatever or making music, not the drive to produce a great recording. The end result is that I'm not doing much musically right now, but I'm listening to a lot more music and when I do play it's fun. I'm hoping that I have the interest and opportunity to play more in the future.
posted by jstrater at 8:15 AM on July 14, 2007

What exactly IS your dream of having a career in music? You don't specify, which causes me to think the worst - you wanna be a star.

For every music "star", there are 10,000+ other jobs in or around music - performing, teaching, scoring, producing, arranging, recording, editing, selecting, broadcasting, selling, buying... have you had any success in those?

I too had aspirations in music. I'm not much of a musician but I've allegedly got an ear and I have technical chops, so I was aiming at recording engineering. To make a long story short, I had a decent career in broadcast and recording technology, but I never made to a creative position like engineering. There's a couple good reasons for that: I didn't make the right sacrifices early on to pursue engineering, and it turns out that as much as I love it, I kinda suck at it (alot). It did take forever for me to realise this.

I now work in another technical field, but I still amuse myself by messing about with synthesizers, desktop music apps, MIDI, etc. This is the right mix for me.

Moral of above - at some point you have to assess OBJECTIVELY whether you have the right stuff to have a career in music. Are you regularly performing publicly? Is the feedback positive? Are you receiving requests to work with other people? Are you regularly collaborating and jamming live with other musicians? Are you always doing freebie scores and recordings for your friends films, exhibits etc? If the answer is no to all the above...

If you are genuinely "out there" as a musician, you still have to weigh your musical ambitions with your other goals - house, family, other interests. We can't always have it all. Part of maturity is knowing when to hold'em, knowing when to fold'em.

Whatever you do, you don't ever have to give up music. You may find a new enjoyment in it when it's done purely for pleasure, not as a job.
posted by Artful Codger at 8:28 AM on July 14, 2007

If you can talk yourself out of it it wasn't something you were meant to do. IMO anyway.
posted by dobbs at 8:44 AM on July 14, 2007

Thanks for asking this.

This question is an active part of my life on a daily basis, I don't have the objectivity to offer any kind of global response (and, with such a personal topic, I'd be wary of anyone who suggests that they have THE answer). I can tell you that, when I was in my late 20s (I'm 37 now) I hit a crossroads musically, I found myself at a place where it was easy to step out of it for awhile, so I took advantage of it, and it was a fantastic experience. (This was in the heady days of the internet boom, when you could walk right into a decent-paying, interesting job with inspired and inspiring people.) At the time I was quite content to never do music again as a full-time occupation - and, in fact, initially I found that my interest in music was energized for the first time in a long while. But as is always the case, I went through ups and downs with it: sometimes I had the sinking feeling that I was giving up, other times I felt liberated because I wasn't stuck dealing with the bullshit anymore. Most discouragingly, I found that some of the bullshit of being a musician applies to other occupations as well - so while you may think that you've traded your dream for stability, in fact not every "career" or "real job" automatically gives you stability.

Eventually, after 9/11, internet work dried up for me, and I started getting more and more cooler and cooler music gigs, found some musical projects that I cared about and that would put bread on my table, so I went for it. 5 years later, I'm still going strong, still energized by music (and still feeding myself ;-) ), although I am at another crossroads, and wondering what to do all over again.

From which I conclude that the answer to your question about what place music can/should/will have in your life will change over time. So try not to be afraid to explore opportunities that are available to you, check in with yourself alot about how you are doing, and be grateful! Don't listen to the voice that may visit you on dark days, convincing you that music is just an obstacle standing in the way of your REAL life, your REAL happiness. Music is a gift - just ask anyone who WANTS to play music but can't.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 8:55 AM on July 14, 2007

I ain't buying it, dobbs - the life of a musician requires copious amounts of patience, talent, work, luck, insight, perserverance, and sensitivity - anyone with all of those attributes is bound to start asking "What else is there?" - it'd be unnatural if s/he didn't. Sure, there are your 99.99th percentiles - I can't imagine Paul McCartney doing anything else - but the good news for London Irregular (and me, by the way) is that it's quite possible to have a gratifying life as a musician even if you aren't the one-in-10-million who gets the recognition, validation, and renumeration that you deserve.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 9:00 AM on July 14, 2007

I think the most important thing is to actually work out what your dreams are more specifically, and then figure out how to make them work, or if they won't work, what will. Do not just 'give up' on something because it hasn't fallen into your lap or something, though. First of all, many of us when we're young have vague dreams about being rich & famous as a result of some talent or other - if this is intertwined with your dreams of being a musician, you should probably try to disentangle that component from your actual trajectory of life. That's not to say you won't achieve some sort of enormous success or anything, but working with that as the aim is ultimately not the most fulfilling way to go about things anyway, so leave it to the side. Still interested? Ok.

So if you're still interested as a fundamental focus of life, you should look into careers that focus around music: teaching music, performing, mixing, recording, etc - a lot of musicians work in the industry and do their own projects on the side, e.g., which keeps them in contact with everyone, hearing new stuff all the time, etc. If you think it's more of a personal relaxation thing than the center of your life, then you can look into other areas to earn a living in, and return to music as a free and unbridled hobby, without the complications of industry & career.
posted by mdn at 9:00 AM on July 14, 2007

You say there are good reasons on paper to give up your greatest passion - but I haven't read any yet. All I read is you saying that you should do this or should do that.

You are lucky to be good at something and love it so much. Many people in this world never find that within themselves their entire life. If you give up on that because of any objective idea of what you should be doing, I would think that very tragic! Do what fulfills you.
posted by loiseau at 9:00 AM on July 14, 2007

And remember that what you DO can always change... you don't need to carve your career goals into stone. Follow your heart.
posted by loiseau at 9:01 AM on July 14, 2007

2 friends of mine are part of moderately known underground band in France.
To give you an idea, if they sell more than 5000 records on one of their release they're really happy.
It's not enough for them to live off their music so they still have to work on the side. Small jobs with schedule flexible enough to go on tour occasionaly and accept any gig that could come their way. It's a pretty scary situation, they're both in their early thirties, one of them is married and just had a kid.
They would never abandon music though no matter how tight their situation get. Their band has been going on for almost 10 years now.
Outside their day job they only do music, either making it, performing it or promoting it.

Even though they're not big i consider them succesful.
They're not the only friends i have who were into making music for a living but they're the only one that kept actively doing it. The others either stopped alltogether, or are not trying to promote their stuff anymore just doing it for themselves basically.
They're the only one that got a good record deal, and noticeable press coverage.
The thing is you're either driven or you're not. At this point talent is not a factor, dedication is. Their music acitivities have always been making it, performing it, promoting it in equal parts.
They didn't explode, they grew. Each of their record selling more than the last one, it's hard work paying off.
They still don't know if they ever will be able to live of their trade but they just can't stop.
I can relate to them because even though i'm in a different branch i have no idea if i will ever achieve what i want to do professionaly.
In my industry i'm at the lowest level, i have a shitty salary and i work like a dog and maybe all the efforts i'm doing now will never pay off. But doing something else would make me even more miserable than i am now so i can't quit.
posted by SageLeVoid at 9:40 AM on July 14, 2007

I got a Masters Degree in Directing and Moved to New York City to become a theatre director. Many of my friends and classmates also moved here to work in the theatre. A tiny percentage have made it, but I watched the others drop out, one by one, yet I'm still doing it.

Just to make matters impossible for myself, I came to see myself as a classical director. I really have no interest in directing new plays at all. Just (totally out of fashion right now) plays by Dead White Males. Even worse, I can't stand directing these plays with any sort of conceptual twist. I'm bored by "Hamlet" on the moon and "Macbeth" set in the Middle East. I avoid infusing my plays with any social or political content. Oh, and I hate flashy sets/costumes (mostly I direct plays set on a bare stage with actors wearing street clothes) and I don't like to cut. So most of my productions are three-and-half hours long.

In short, I have an intense passion for the most uncommercial sort of theatre imaginable and I refuse to compromise in any way to make it more commercial.

About seven years ago, I gave up the idea of ever making money at this (in fact, I accepted the idea that I would lose money doing it). I gave up the idea of ever not-having-to-have a day job. Who knows, maybe some day a producer will come see one of my plays, love it, and transfer it to Broadway, but that's not even in the back of my mind. And it once WAS. Now I just direct for the love of doing it -- and because I have to. It's who I am.

When I came to this decision, it was like a HUGE weight was lifted from me. When I create art, I'll just be creating art -- not trying to create art and sell myself at the same time, which are not really compatible activities.

Meanwhile, I watch all the young actors and directors I know scrambling to send out headshots, get agents, entice casting directors, etc. I'm so glad that's not part of my life.

Some friends have clung to the business by appearing in bit parts on "Law and Order" and commercials, but they're not doing the sort of meaningful, complex theatre they meant to do back in college. But most have gotten discouraged and dropped out. The got discouraged because they never became famous or made a living acting or directing; meanwhile, I'm thrilled because next year I'll be directing "Romeo and Juliet."

It helps that I have a day job that I love -- and that pays well. It has nothing to do with theatre. I work as a programmer. But I can't stress strongly enough that I have this day job BECAUSE I made the decision I made about theatre.

When I moved to NYC, I had no marketable skills. When I made my decision to separate my artistic endeavors from my career, I realized that it was important that I find a bearable day job (so many people I know burnt out waiting tables). If you want marketable skills these days, there are endless ways to get them: books, websites, training videos, classes, etc.

My way is not the only way, but it is A way.

I sometimes wish that it was impossible for anyone to make money as an artists. I've convinced that the need to make art is basic and here to stay. If people couldn't make money doing it, they'd do it anyway, and art and commerce would be forever divorced. Which would be a great thing.
posted by grumblebee at 9:42 AM on July 14, 2007 [5 favorites]

I had a similar dilemma. I've always loved making music, but I've also always been an intensely idealistic person. As it became clear to me all the compromises one must make in order to "make it" in music, it became impossible for me to pursue music as a career. So I pursued a career as an activist - first as a consumer-rights advocate and now as a union organizer. For much of the last few years, I played in a band, and really felt like I was getting the best of both worlds: a day job that was inspiring and a second life as a musician. I guess the moral of the story is not to limit yourself. You can do other things besides music, but that doesn't mean you have to exclude music from your life.
posted by univac at 11:52 AM on July 14, 2007

Thanks for all the replies. Obviously, I can't say I've come to a decision right now, but it's really helped.
posted by London Irregular at 1:55 PM on July 14, 2007

Count me as another who has (had?) the same question.

I worked passionately on music throughout my teenage years and beyond, but the pressure to get a "real job" led me to other things. I still do music - in fact, the times I work on it the most are when I ought to be doing real work. I've never considered the two mutually exclusive

I still wonder "what could have been" or "what could be" if I focused more on music, though.

As for my advice to you, which I really also ought to follow myself:

1. Grumblebee has an excellent point. "Giving up on your dream" might be the best thing that ever happened to the dream. You might find you accomplish more with music when it's strictly a passionate hobby instead of a career.

2. Maybe what you need is closure. If you're like me, you have a hundred songs that aren't finished (i.e. aren't perfect) and fewer final recordings than you'd like. Try finishing "good enough" versions of a bunch of tracks and publishing them. It might not get you an instant record deal but at least they'll be "out there".

3. Scale down. I'm not sure what you imagine as "success" in music, but try a smaller success--publish some MP3s on your own site, or participate in the wonderful Mefi Music, or license some tracks for use on commercials or indie films or Youtube videos. Do music for videogames or remixes for other artists. All of these can lead to a bigger success, but more importantly they might give you a bit of that closure.

I personally posted some MP3s way back to the now-defunct I had a small audience listening and commenting on my music, and licensed a couple of tracks to very small businesses. I was surprised how much this limited success met my needs.

4. The other thing you seem to need is balance--it took a serious medical condition to get you to limit your musical activities and let other things in. Maybe you can find ways to achieve that balance without injury, and without giving up the dream completely. Getting a "day job" or starting a business and splitting time with music might help you have a more balanced life while taking away some of the pressure to make money with music.

[I get the impression that you currently have a "9-to-5" non-music job and are considering starting a business. Do it! I run my own business and I have far more time to work on music than I ever had in a regular job.]

Good luck! Don't give up on that dream. Judging by your conservatory experience and your passion for electronic music, you could easily be the next BT... and I'd love to hear some of your tracks.
posted by mmoncur at 11:50 PM on July 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Hey thanks mmoncur. It's really good to get your perspective on it. I'm going to check out some BT tracks...
posted by London Irregular at 1:02 AM on July 15, 2007

From personal experience: yes you can walk out on a 'dream' of being an artist and yes you can do something else useful fun rewarding with your life. I would go further: don't sacrifice your life to what is in any case a fairly dubious activity, art-making being a self-aggrandizing and egotistical pursuit (look at me! aren't I clever! etc). Above all: money in the bank beats dreams in the garret any day, and this only becomes truer as you get older.
posted by londongeezer at 8:14 AM on July 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

don't sacrifice your life to what is in any case a fairly dubious activity, art-making being a self-aggrandizing and egotistical pursuit (look at me! aren't I clever! etc).

I agree with this, and the more I think about this, the more I think this question can answer itself without any third-party advice: make art because you have to.

In other words, if quitting art means quitting yourself, don't quit art. That's probably stupid to say, because if quitting art means quitting yourself, you won't quit art.

Maybe it's good to stop for a while. It's the old "if you love something, set it free..." paradigm. If you stop making art and art is something you have to do, you'll start again -- because art is something you have to do.

I think many people fear quitting because they're afraid they'll be able to live without it. "If I quit and become an accountant -- and I'm HAPPY being an accountant, that means I was never really an artist to begin with!" Most artists (or would-be artists) secretly feel that artists are superior (or more interesting) than non-artists, and of course everyone wants to be part of the superior crowd. So if you've defined artists as superior, qutting (and finding happiness through quitting) means you're ordinary.

I totally reject the idea that artists are superior (in fact, I think this idea tends to damage art), but even if it were true, sticking by art because it makes you superior is not about making art -- it's not about making your art the best it can possibly be -- it's about ego.

I'm not saying that everyone who wants to do creative things must feel the urge to do so as a DEEP, COSMIC part of themselves all the time. I'm saying that the bests artists -- the people who first and foremost self-identify as art-makers -- feel this way. There are tons of other people who get immense pleasure making art as a hobby. In fact, I suspect these people often have more fun making art than then artists. (I hate doing theatre about half the time I do it. I feel compelled to do it, so I do it, but it's rarely about fun.)

So maybe if you stop, you'll find that you HAVE to do it. In which case you'll do it, regardless of whether or not anyone's paying you to do it; or maybe you'll find something else you like, but you'll still get joy out of music-making on the weekends; or maybe you'll quit making music altogether, but still feel happy. In which case you'll be happy, so who cares about the music (unless making music wasn't about making music -- unless it was about fame or sex or ego-boosting).

Finally, I think a bad reason to be an artist is because you don't know how to do anything else. I sympathize with this, because I used to think I was that way. And I have tons of friends who are that way. These people don't necessarily love making art. They just found their way into art-making early in life and never leared any marketable skills, so now they're stuck. The don't necessarily feel stuck (though they may feel poor), because they don't dislike making art. But you can tell they're not super-passionate about art, either.

People think they can't master new skills. They're wrong. It's never too late to learn a marketable skill. I learned how to program in my 30s, and now I'm a professional programmer.

About a year ago, I put theatre on hold. I didn't intend to quit. It was just that I got this new programming job, and it was keeping me really busy. It was also really fun and intellectually stimulating. I thought it served all my needs.

But I gradually started feeling antsy. I felt like something was missing: something that made me more me. It was a vague feeling, and I didn't really know what was missing. But I started making plans to direct another show, mostly to please my wife, who is an actress.

At first, I did this grudgingly, because I felt I was too busy with my job to direct a play. But one day, in the middle of casting, this great feeling of warmth fell over me. I felt like a peg slotting into its groove. Like I was coming home. And I realized what it was that I was missing.

Now I'm into production, and, as usual, I'm not enjoying it. I'm anxious and overworked and really looking forward to it being over ... when I know I'll start planning the next one, because... because I HAVE to.
posted by grumblebee at 9:02 AM on July 15, 2007

Here's a recent answer of mine about seeking grant money for creative work. That was in response to a straightforward question about ways a young painter could get money for her work. In your situation it might be worth considering that more straightforward, pragmatic mindset (how can I start getting paid to spend some percentage of my time being a composer... and can I eventually increase that percentage?) as opposed to an all or nothing mindset (will I have to "give up" being a composer?).

In a conservatory you're allowed a very pure relationship with music. Conservatories have famously (even proudly) ignored any practical-world training until very recently. Too often, I've seen the culture shock of leaving the conservatory environment lead to attitudes similar to londongeezer's. (People who probably wouldn't argue for a world without art still hold interestingly negative attitudes about artists.)

You don't mention your genre, but the CEC-discuss list is an excellent community of working/adult electronic music composers -- no specific genre focus, but a leaning towards experimental/academic. Also broad but leaning more towards glitch/IDM/beat-oriented is the microsound list. Check out the Electronic Music Foundation's workshop and opportunities listings (almost all workshops and summer programs offer some scholarships), opportunities blogs such as Sabrina Pena Young's or others specific to your genre, and the general arts funding databases I mention in that linked answer.
posted by allterrainbrain at 5:39 AM on July 16, 2007

« Older On ur laptop, making ur still frames into a movie.   |   Lonely iPaq Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.