If you want to be a successful musician, you’ve got to take risks. No guitarist ever blew up by being derivative; no cover band ever topped the charts. But once you’re successful, risk-taking is also the best way to screw yourself over and ruin your career.
Taking risks is easy (and necessary) when you’re a nobody with no record deal and no money and no fans and no mortgage and no kids. But once you “make it,” there’s so much at stake that it sorta makes sense to not take risks. Because if you’re at the top, the only place you can go is down.
Suppose, for example, you’re an unkown musician who wants to bring a dog on stage during a performance. (I know it’s a silly example, but stick with me.) If you’re playing to a single-digit crowd in a poorly-lit, badly-ventilated stage in the middle of Cleveland, you’ll be able to pull off the dog-on-stage thing no sweat; just call your friend who owns a dog and tell her to swing by at 8 and you’ll get her some free beer.
But if you’re famous, the whole dog-on-stage thing is a logistical nightmare. You need to find the right dog and make sure it’s properly trained by some obedience expert (your label/manager is still uneasy about the whole idea). And you’ll need insurance too, in case the dog jumps off the stage and bites a quick-to-litigate spectator. Oh, and don’t forget to give PETA a heads and make sure they’re OK with it, lest the whole event turn into some PR nightmare. Then maybe put some flyers around the venue explaining that yes, there will be a dog on stage, and if you’re allergic to dogs here’s who to contact about a refund. Ugh. All of a sudden something as simple as bringing a dog on stage turns into one enormous hassle. You’ll probably just say “forget it” and nix the idea altogether.
But risk-taking doesn’t just get harder and more complicated with success. It also gets, well, riskier. Because with success comes a new mentality of “don’t mess this up.” You realize you’ve been pigeonholed as, say, a punk band, and that people like you because you’re a punk band. So if you want to start playing polka your fans will feel alienated and angry and cheated. (“False advertising, man! Play your old stuff!” yells someone in the front.) Now you feel like you’re stuck doing whatever you started doing, whenever you started doing it. Which totally sucks. Because your fans are in the creative driver’s seat, so to speak, and you’re trying to please other people.
That explains why a lot of musicians eventually turn into weird parodies/imitations of themselves and release the same album every 1-5 years (or maybe take tiny steps in a new direction but never stray so far as to actually risk upsetting any old/current fans). I get it; but I’d still rather see my favorite musician try something new and fail than do the same stuff from two years ago. The old album isn’t going away.
So here’s my advice to any aspiring musicians: once you get to the top, don’t forget how you got there. Take chances. Risk pissing people off. You don’t owe your fans anything. And if you’re not gonna do something new, don’t do anything at all. There’s something really ugly and profoundly sad about a musician who does the same stuff over and over.
Rockstars don’t sell out; they bitch out.