succeed on your own terms

Every so often, in a half-hearted attempt to engage in a conversation, my parents will ask me about “selling out”: “Did [insert name of a band here] sell out when they released this song or this album?”

My definition of selling out had changed quite a bit over the years, but here’s how I’d define it now: compromising your artistic integrity for the sake of attaining a larger audience or more money.

The key here lies in the first half of the sentence–compromising your artistic integrity. Of course this means different things to different people, but as a fan, it’s easy to tell when an artist or musician means what they’re doing or saying.

I’ve seen plenty of bands come and go over the years, some of whom rise to the top with one hit song, then disappear overnight, unable to sustain their creative drive. Other bands, like Bayside, have managed to sustain a measured level of success writing a specific kind of music for their fans.

In an interview with Forbes, lead singer Anthony Raneri talked about the band’s decision to forego major label success:

“There was a very defining moment,” Raneri says. “We were doing all this radio stuff and these weird label things. It was miserable. It was so not fun. We were at a show in like upstate New York. It was us, Bush and Stone Temple Pilots. And I remember looking out into the crowd and seeing a Confederate flag merchandise booth and looking at the people there. We played, but like, who cared about our set?”

“We had just finished playing to like 10,000 people, and I walked off stage and thought, ‘I wish we were playing in a VFW hall in Long Island right now.’”

“I called my manager that day and said whatever the label asks for tell them we say no […] Whatever they asked us to do from then on, we didn’t do it. It felt like for the first time we were begging people to pay attention to us. I realized I don’t need any of it. We make a good living, I’m totally satisfied. We are successful enough.”

I think about this story quite a bit and hold it as a model of something to aspire towards. Success isn’t a destination. There is no point at which you arrive. It’s important to know when to walk away so you can resume the work.

Success becomes something you must define for yourself.