I recently had a good, long phone conversation with a singer-songwriter about that grand old subject, Getting Started in the Music Business. He’s recorded an album but hasn’t yet taken the leap into full-time music and was asking me for some advice on the matter.
I’m not the best person to ask, methinks, because from my point of view everything good that’s happened in my career has been a result of what seems to me now like divine intervention. It might just be all that Calvinism I hear from the Presbyterian church we attend, but I get the sneaking suspicion that God has guided me, opened certain doors for me, allowed both the windfalls of success and droughts of financial struggle; the seeming meandering nature of the path was, in hindsight, a carefully navigated journey that led me to clean water and safe lodging at just the right turns. But I grew up in a Restoration Movement Christian Church, which means that all that Sovereignty doctrine is always duking it out with a healthy dose of Free Will, which makes for the kind of holy paradox that Chesterton just loved. I love it too.
You see, I don’t know what kind of practical career advice I would give, because what worked in my case might not (and probably won’t) work for you. I loved a pretty girl in college. I also loved to make music. I was deeply frightened that I had to choose between her and the songs, and late one night my old friend Adam said, “If God wants you to play music, dummy, you’ll play music whether you’re married or not.” So I married the girl.
On the other hand, I gave similar advice to some guy many years ago and a few months back after a show his heartbroken ex-wife told me through tears that he finally left her because he thought their marriage was holding back his music career. It’s a good thing I don’t know where he lives, or I’d have a mind to throttle him. “If you marry the girl, dummy, God wants you to stay married, music career be damned,” I’d say.
I tell folks that they don’t need a record contract to serve God with their gifts. You don’t need to move to Nashville. You just need to stay where you are and play wherever you can. One of the most fortuitous meetings in my life (my old buddy Gabe Scott) happened because I said yes to a 3 am, $40 gig at a youth all-nighter. Gabe was my musical compadré and best friend for five years after that.
But in the end, what did I do? I moved to Nashville. I got a record contract. It wasn’t because I was some wildly successful indie bard, but because one guy named Derek Webb heard my songs and believed in them enough to let me open for his band. What on earth do I know? The doors open, walk through them.
I say the best thing you can do is to keep your nose to the grindstone, to remember that your gift takes a lot of work to hone into something useful, and that you have to learn to enjoy the work–especially the parts you don’t enjoy. Maybe that’s the answer to a successful career. But I know far too many hard-working, gifted singer-songwriters or musicians who work their fingers to the bone and still have to moonlight at Starbucks to make ends meet. Every waiter in Nashville has a demo CD in his back pocket, just in case. Me, I waited tables at the Olive Garden for three months before suddenly finding myself on a tour bus wondering how on earth that happened.
So do you wait tables? Uh, sure. Do you make the demo CD? Maybe, but don’t bother carrying it around. Do you work hard at your craft? Definitely. Do you move? Quit your day job? Marry the girl? Borrow the start-up funds? Sign the deal?
Here’s what I know, in a nutshell: Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.
Early on, I didn’t always seek God’s kingdom first, and Lord knows his righteousness was only on my mind for a minute or two a day, max. Now I’m up to three, maybe four minutes a pop. I’m growing by leaps and bounds. That simple scripture draws into sharp focus the only thing that will satisfy us in our desperate seeking for what it is that we think we want.
We may want something harmless, but if it’s out of place, if it comes before the right thing, what’s benign becomes malignant. We want the wrong thing. So boil it all down. Chop off the fat. Get rid of the pet monkey you’re feeding, because you can’t afford to take care of it anyway. Wrench your heart away from all the things you think you need for your supposed financial security, your social status; set fire to your expectations, your rights, and even your dreams. When all that is gone, it will be clear that the only thing you ever really had was this wild and holy Spirit that whirls about inside you, urging you to follow where its wind blows.
If you can put aside your worry long enough to feel that wind and to walk with it at your back, it will lead you to a good land. It will remind you that righteousness is more than pious obedience, but is letting a strong, humble mercy mark your path, even when–especially when–you don’t know where it’s taking you. It may not take you to an easy chair in a Nashville mansion with a Grammy on the mantel; it probably won’t lead you to some head-turning fame, and it probably won’t even lead you to a feeling that you’re a righteous, kingdom-seeking saint–because if that’s what you are you’ll probably feel more like a sinful, desperate cur who can get out of bed each day only because you’ve managed once again to believe that Christ’s mercy is made new every time the sun ascends. You’re a sinful, desperate cur who dances for joy. Your heart is so full it must be poured out. You see the world as a dark place that needs rearranging, and with all that light shooting out of your pores you’re just the person to do it.
See how the questions of career choices and demo CDs and relocating diminish in light of God’s kingdom? Sail by the stars, not the flotsam.