For a good part of my life I have wrestled with the question of success and achievement and I am certainly not finished with it. In this I am no different from many of my music partners, and many others who struggle in the contemporary art music and visual art worlds. Periodically I judge myself heavily for failure of achievement, “nothing to show” for my long years of playing music and writing, and I often halt right at that depressive thought. Usually however I come to see past this obsession, get a glimpse through the miasma, and reconstruct my self-respect.

This cycle occurred again after my recent 70th birthday, as could almost be predicted. After lengthily bemoaning my fate I came across a tape of myself talking into the machine from back in 1989, which I had intended to send to a friend, but fortunately kept stored away. Better than any letter could, the voice revealed my strong emotion at the time, feeling I had escaped the pursuit of success in the music world (after moving to Boulder), and was quite happy with what I was then doing, reading and writing, without any effort to gain approval. In listening to the tape now I recognize myself as that person who was on the other side of the struggle for achievement, and at the time lived in the thought (which proved illusory!) that I had put all that behind me for good.

“Coming to terms with who we actually are” is usually a depressing business. It indicates we are not meeting our own expectations, and there are few who have not internalized the rule that to have any self-respect one must first of all have dreams. These turn out to be expectations, and we must struggle to fulfill them; without “movement” defined in these terms our lives are stagnant. Even the most radical critics have this cornerstone to their lives, though hidden from view, a conception that is highly ideological and functional to normal society. When you are young you might imagine that you have plenty of time to fulfill yourself; when you are old (which some begin to feel by the time they are thirty) you feel the pressure to “come to terms with reality.”

My relation to this is on the surface quite simple: I have always had dreams of being a successful musician (when I was a kid and again when I came back to music in the 70s), which means at least “in demand” and appreciated for what I want to do musically. But, to put it in the form that would elicit the most negative social judgment, I am unwilling to do my part in bringing about that success. I lack the will to succeed, the drive to do what is almost second nature to those who have successful careers. I am unwilling to do the work, as if I were the arrogant elitist, who considers it beneath him.

There are of course vast numbers similar to me, but mostly they seem to judge themselves as lazy, not caring or motivated enough, or not skilled in the field of self-promotion. Though they might have some bitterness or defeatism they blame themselves for it; or worse, judge their music as unworthy compared to those on the top of the heap. They see themselves in negative terms, as lacking some fundamental value rather than having a value others lack. They buy the notion that people are divided into achievers and non- or under-achievers as a natural sorting-out of types.

I don’t have that excuse or that belief system. I am by no means lazy¸ and don’t deride myself as a non-achiever. For all my self-criticism I don’t see myself in negative terms but musically the equal of the most famous players. I know full well that I have the knowledge and skills to sell myself and my work and achieve the greatest success. But wanting success, even believing one deserves it, is not the same as having the will or motivation to achieve it. Especially for an American, that active will must be woven into everything one does and publicly evident, at least within the categories of avantgarde and popular music. (And unlike jazz; there one can be in demand on the basis of skill and yet not have achieved any public prominence. This topic would need elaboration, but not here). Without the evident will to success, though the music one plays might communicate powerfully to many, it will do nothing for those whose approval is necessary for substantial achievement.

The active will to achieve can be faked enough to convince some, which can lead to a moderate success in getting most (that is, non-paying) gigs. And this is what I have done; my bio and credentials are mostly tongue in cheek, saying what needs to be said, knowing full well that most of those to whom I’m selling myself have little interest in my actual playing or my relative prominence “on the scene.” At this level the one with the gig to offer, the buyer, must simply be convinced that the seller is not pathological, is one of a wide range of “normal” types, including the fanatical, hopeful, self-involved artist, which may be how I’m viewed.

For success, however, you have to go beyond “playing the game.” The game, that is, requires actual full-time commitment to the game, disbelief that it’s a game. You must at least make it apparent that you truly believe that “your” music and merchandise are of high artistic value. This cannot be faked, and this I cannot do. The reason is that I play music as my activity, but to value it, even to think of it as an “it,” is another activity altogether, one that does not come natural to me. To make valuations is to place one objectified music on the scales with other such music, which is what I and others might do as listener but not as the player. Very often I am not happy with what I play, am repulsed by it, but I am not making a comparative value judgment. I play music, I am not the producer of “my music.”

To value one’s music is necessary but even this is not sufficient for success, especially in the current world (not to be confused with fifty years ago, when the current structure of the art career was in its infancy). To achieve one must fully take into account that success depends on other people, whose positive response must be assured, and who are completely free to hold whatever standards of judgment are important to them. As in pop music, these others are not listeners-in-general but very specific people, who may not be listening at all but are looking at who you appear to be. To please the right people—for art music these are especially musicians higher up the ladder and art music bureaucrats–one must fulfill their judgment of what a “good” (that is, successful) musician looks like.

This depends on the category. Musicians who expect to be accepted in the highest avantgarde circles should not behave, talk, present themselves the way free jazz musicians would, any more than managers would behave and appear like scientists or clerical employees. This also affects the music; genres are grounded in the way musicians sort themselves into categories (including those who “transgress genre boundaries”). A success-oriented avantgarde career requires a music that recognizes a boundary to emotive expression; to cross that boundary risks being confused with an “expressive” free jazz player, who has a very different image to project. Whereas a free jazz player would benefit from paying occasional deference to jazz with a display of the knowledge and skill of that tradition, the avantgardist, who must appeal to anti-traditional modernism, would benefit by showing deference only to its specific tradition (such as John Cage, the safest of all references), which has a generalized scorn for jazz and free improvisation.

This sorting-out, and the rules of what to play and how to appear (we might more euphemistically call them “guidelines”), are structural and evident on analysis but are not often found in the consciousness of musicians, consumers, or the music world apparatus. The rules are all but completely behind the scenes, obscured by personal variations, and have no appearance of being calculated. One must not present oneself as belonging to a category, for instance, but rather, “I’m just a musician, playing the music I want to play, and not following any rules.” (Isn’t that what so-called free improvisation celebrates?) In other words, one is transparently the embodiment of what the socially-constructed other wants to see in the contemporary artist, the projection of innocence that is the ideological compensation for the more lucrative professions, now seen as self-serving. Such a statement (“I just do what I want”) might come from the mouths of the majority of musicians and artists, but one doesn’t achieve, in a way that is socially recognized, without covertly following the structural rules.

Those whose effort at self-honesty and integrity becomes serious business can become severely hampered in their worldly work; they belong in the well-castigated category of self-sabotagers, and it would behoove them to recognize themselves as such, though without the self-denigrating effect. It would be highly detrimental to one’s career to conclude that one is presenting anything other than the plain truth, manufacturing any aspect of oneself and one’s music for the sake of success. An accurate view of oneself and one’s public appearance might well contradict and even interfere with the drive to fulfill one’s dreams. Is it the proper function of dreams to take us beyond the reality of ourselves?