When should one change his mind And jump the fence, oh Lord, for the dollar sign? It's a sad thing, it's a bad thing, but so necessary That this cold world holds your values to become monetary ...Oh, If you truly believe should you try over and over again, And live in hopes that someday you'll be in with the winners?
In the song “What is Success?” songwriter Allen Touissant asks: “When should one change his mind and jump the fence, oh Lord, for the dollar sign?” The question remains relevant today. “This cold world” still “holds your values to become monetary.” It’s inspiring when someone “truly believes” and tries “over and over again,” “living in hopes that someday [they’ll] be in with the winners.” Such ambition can be contagious.
Nevertheless, careers and relationships make it hard to carry musical dreams into adulthood. Compromise chips away at the hope of success. Sometimes it also sculpts a deeper desire to master a craft for its own sake -- compromise can feel like how to live, but creativity often feels like why.
In the end, some musicians (like Touissant) do find themselves ‘in with the winners’. They receive invitations money can’t buy. They make friends with people whom reliability and kindness alone can’t grant access to, and they find opportunities open to them that are bestowed only on a select few.
How do successful musicians win those invitations, court those friends, and find those opportunities? What support do they need?
Perhaps success is defined by the very people whose invitations cannot be bought; who overlook or embrace the eccentricities of the artists they support, and who create opportunities for dreams to remain unfettered by practicalities.
Compromise, however, dogs all artists. The pursuit of craft itself can consume time, leaving little for self-promotion and all other tasks of selling music. It would seem fair if the pursuit of craft was consistently repaid with success in the long run, but that is not the case. At least not by the standards many artists hold for themselves.
The song “What Is Success?” is genuinely a question. What should an artist do? Toussaint recognizes that compromise doesn’t make a musician less talented. Neither does it make their work less meaningful. Opting out of a career in music simply trades chops for insight, depth of knowledge for breadth. Indeed, the world outside music draws musicians closer to the soul of their craft, albeit while distancing them somewhat from the notes on the page.
How, then, can we build a music community? Whom shall we lift up? Whom shall we support? Much like the questions faced by artists themselves, these often answer themselves in practice. Famous musicians cost more to book and draw larger audiences, whereas local musicians support one another in small ways and enrich the communities where they hide like gems. Looking beyond logistics, all musicians need our attention to project their childlike dream onto the walls of grown-up houses.
Michael Dickerson is an Anchorage composer, writer, and educator. He is a board member at Northern Culture Exchange and a 2020 Rasmuson Individual Artist Award recipient.