The Sobering Effect of So Many Good Bands–and Writers


Tell me if you recognize any of these names: The Antlers. Real Estate. Tune-Yards. M83. Beirut. Wye Oak. Feist. Tom Waits. The Head and the Heart. James Blake. Radiohead.

If you do, then I can probably predict this about you: you prefer music on the margin over music in the mainstream.

And you had your ear to the ground in 2011.

If you don’t, and prefer mainstream over the marginal, then you at least recognize two names: Tom Waits and Radiohead. I tell you why that’s important in a few minutes.

This Music Project Has Depressed Me

Lately I’ve been building playlists of the best albums of each year. Here’s how my process works.

I sort through the annual “best of” lists at Paste, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. I scan the lists, read the short descriptions of albums that look promising, listen to a few tracks, then dump all the albums I think I might like into a Spotify playlist.

Over the course of a week or more I start to delete bands I don’t like. In the end there might be ten or twelve bands left. Or less.

After starting in late November with the year 2012, I’ve only made it back to 2010. This is time-consuming. And an interesting side result of this project–especially as I reach back to later years (three years ago is really not that long ago)–is a feeling of despair.

Where are these bands now? Have they fallen apart? Are they working on a new project? Are they even alive (overdosing on drugs is an occupational hazard)?

The despair comes from the sense that if you do not have a new album–then you do not have attention. True, some bands spend their time in between records touring, which is just another form of promotion.

But the activity has to be endless.

This Music Project Has Depressed Me–Part 2

Another effect of listening to all these bands is that I realize how good they are. Clearly some are better than others, but for the most part they are all very good.

For example, in my 2012 bucket of albums the stand out is alt-J’s “An Awesome Wave.” Almost every single song is good–and some are just simply great.

Most records, on the other hand, might have six good songs, maybe less, one great. Still, they are all really good songs by talented musicians. Otherwise they wouldn’t be on a best album list.

It’s no secret competition in the music business is stiff. How many bands recorded albums each year? Easily hundreds, if not more. There is no way to keep up with them. And some bands may be great, but simply get lost in the clutter.

Isn’t that depressing?

A Book Project Should Depress You

This situation is identical to writers and books. Thousands of books published each year–only a handful are stand outs. Furthermore, only a handful will have ten thousand readers. The rare will sell hundreds of thousands. The rarest, millions.

Switch “blogs” for “books” and the problem goes supernovae.

The making of books indeed causes sorrow, especially for those who get lost in the clutter. It is threatening seeing all of that competition–but even more sobering realizing how easily books or music can be forgotten.

This is where Tom Waits and Radiohead come in.

One of the reasons that singer/songwriter and that English rock band are recognizable (in other words, popular) is because of their legacy. They have a long track record of getting it done.

Some of it is sub par, but as a general rule most of it is good. And then there are the exceptional records.

What You Should Learn from This Post

Four lessons here.

  1. Keep producing. More than likely you won’t create the perfect album or the sublime book the first time around. Nor the second. Or third. But maybe on the fourth or fifth you strike gold.
  2. Stop comparing yourself to the charts. Or you’ll get depressed. See the above 600 words.
  3. Put fame in perspective. In one or two generations JK Rowling and Stephen King will be footnotes in literary history. If they are lucky. You and I, if we are lucky, will be the footnotes to the footnotes of someone who was semi-famous. The lesson in a lesson is this: be a great lover of people at the expense of writing. Not the other way around.
  4. Enjoy. And I say it again, enjoy. If you suffer from an intractable drive for supremacy as I do, then on occasion you’ll have to slap yourself. You’ll have to slap yourself to bring yourself back to your senses and live in the present. To live in the moment of creation. And relish the people around. Because it doesn’t last.

Let me repeat: just keep on trucking, because even if you never strike gold a reliable track record might get you the lifetime achievement award. And that’s nothing to be ashamed about.

In the end you have to ask yourself this question: would you prefer to be remembered as the one hit-wonder or the one with a substantial body of work?

I vote for the second. You?

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Image credit: Hot Pink Turntable Vintage Art Style


  1. says

    Right when I opened this High and Dry came up on my playlist. :-)

    As someone who is relatively unembodied as far as work goes I really appreciated this post.

    When I sit down with the lap top I get a little sad. There is just so much awesome out there. It’s a little intimidating. I often wonder if I am good enough to find a place.

    But I keep on typing. Maybe someday someone will read my writing. Maybe someone will even buy it. But even if I die and everyone forgets what I have done I will look back on my disembodied work and be happy.

    Sometimes all we need to be happy is a little perspective and a slap in the face.

    Thanks for the slap.

    • says

      That is awesome. About the Radiohead playing. :)

      This post, your comments, and my general experience proves to me more and more that probably the single greatest indicator of success is perseverance. Talent is important, but the longer you stay in the game, the higher your chances of opportunity striking and you getting noticed. Hang in there. I am. We are in this together.

  2. says

    It’s much easier to quit then to continue. It’s easier to criticize rather than create. It’s easier be you then to be someone else.

    I want the body of work.

    I want to inspire.

    I want to help, change, and improve others… I look forward to a time where it’s a clear breakaway, but for now, the few I help every year is sufficient. And for now, I’m ok with that.

    Good post sir.

  3. says

    I am not competing with all the other book and blog authors, I am competing with myself. No, that doesn’t pay the bills yet, but it’s how I stay same in the overwhelm. No matter what happens, I am guaranteed to improve. That’s how I see it anyway. Maybe this is #5 on your list?

    • says

      That should be number five…because it is indeed relevant. Failure is up their as one of my greatest fears, so I’m utterly motivated to keep getting better so that I can say I’m a lot better than the Demian of ten years ago. This is true in all aspects of life by the way.

  4. says

    I vote for the second too. But let’s be honest, many of the folks who make it big (in blogging) have serious talent but also a tremendous ability to market themselves. They just sell it really well. I read blog posts all the time from bloggers I admire and scough (because I know they were chuckling as they wrote the nonsense).

    The reason I love CopyBlogger, now that I think about it, is all the words are solid. The advice is heartfelt and actually no BS. I think CB is a good example of how the second approach in your conclusion will lead to greatness.

    • says

      True, they’ve got serious talent, but I’d argue they didn’t start off that way. Just sticking to bloggers, Darren Rowse, Brian Clark, and Chris Brogan didn’t have a clue what they were doing early on (Copyblogger was not Clark’s first foray into web marketing). That great talent we see now was forged in the fire of years of hard work, experimentation, study, and perseverance. What do you think?

  5. says

    I’m with all of you on this one and in that thinking we’re all voting for #2?

    Points 3 and 4 remind me of a quote “Use money, not people – not the other way around”

    Truth be known I was one of the lucky few (depending on your taste) to rehearse in a room next door to Radiohead many moons ago here in the ‘shire of Oxford. That’s my footnote on a footnote in my son’s generation. They were, however, exceptional.

    Many bands are good, relatively few are great.

    Perhaps the difference between the stars and the sky is both tiny and massive. Tiny in trajectory yet massive in the work/shift/insight/body of work required to keep aiming higher.

    “if you do not have a new album–then you do not have attention” echoed of a recent interview I read with a live sound engineer working for a group called “Phish” – I don’t know their material myself yet they release a live album *every night* – a fan can listen to it on the way home right after the show…that’s one way to create a body of work and stay relevant. That’s a ridiculous amount of work. Maybe blogging is the publishing equivalent?

    Btw, Rob, I feel too that there is so much awesome out there.. if nothing else – perhaps we can enjoy the journey and the company people we’re riding with – everybody contributes something no matter how great or small :)

    • says

      All that awesome out there…there was a time when I used to want to be a DJ (even further back there was a time I wanted to be everything, like a singer, guitarist, illustrator) but realized I couldn’t be a great DJ and a great writer (at least not at the same time). So I decided to let the masters do the DJing and enjoy their work. The same goes for rock music. Once I come out of my pity party I realize what a privilege it is to listen to such talented people (like Radiohead). That’s where the true reward comes–the satisfaction in the here and now while we dream about the there and tomorrow.

      • says

        That point about true reward, Demian, reminded me of this Voltaire quote,

        “Appreciation is a wonderful thing; It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.”

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