It’s easy to get stuck. It’s hard to get lucky. Most of us find ourselves somewhere in-between. We all want to believe that if we make the right moves, check the right boxes, meet the right people and follow the correct protocol we will achieve success. This is what we’re told over and over. Unfortunately, it simply isn’t true. The reality is that plenty of talented people go unnoticed and a handful of lucky bastards rise to the top. There are no rules in this game, no matter what people tell you. It is a shape-shifting beast, driven by the fickle passions of an unseen force. It is a sweet and terrible mystery.
But before you give up and start crying in the corner of the coffee shop as you delete all your Bandcamp demos, let me try and give you a little hope. Because it does exist. While there may not be any guarantees, there is one thing: hard fucking work. And if you can manage your expectations while refusing to be passive, there is at least a LIKELIHOOD of SOMETHING. Not saying you’re going to be Madonna. But nothing beats the taste of hard-earned success, at any level.
I grew up in a small town. A loner kid without many friends. So I wrote songs every day in my bedroom, just trying to get the feelings out. The songs were all terrible, but I kept writing. Songwriting is like anything else: it takes practice. There are no shortcuts. Eventually, they slowly but surely got better. And as soon as I noticed that girls liked my songs, I was hooked. There was no going back. I was going to be a MUSICIAN.
I started playing shows in 2005, mostly small cafés and bars around Washington and Oregon. My friend Evan got me my first gig at a coffee shop in Centralia. I remember it was the best day of my life—sitting up there in front of 30 people who wanted to listen to what I had to say! I felt like I could have died happy.
Things were different back then. While MySpace is sometimes scoffed at now, it did provide very useful resources for young bands: direct access to fans, venues and musical peers. You could book an entire tour via MySpace. You could meet other bands and collaborate. You could get your songs out there without a label. I don’t know what I would have done without MySpace and good old Tom.
Between 2005 and 2011 I wrote loads of songs, played a lot of crummy shows and learned a few things. I formed a band and began discovering the complexities of collaboration. I had some wonderful people come alongside, supporting and believing in me. Some of those same people ended up burning me pretty hard, but again, I was learning. “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves...”
In 2011, I had a song placed on a TV show and was contacted by a manager, booking agent and a few labels. The money from the TV show allowed me to quit my day job and pursue music full-time. I signed with the first manager who contacted me, but not long after, we parted ways. It just wasn’t the right fit. I was introduced to my second manager by my booking agent. We went on to release two albums together and shared a lot of great times. He was a good friend and believed strongly in my work.
In the early days of 2016, I found myself at a crossroads, both musically and in my career. I was writing a new kind of record, for me. One that took time and patience (and a lot of editing and rewriting). I was at the beginning of a new chapter, a new season. I loved my manager dearly but felt like we had reached the end of our time together. The same with my label. The body needed new blood.
This is where things become blurry. There’s very little criteria for what defines someone’s success in music. There are so many factors involved in succeeding in the music industry and many tiers of defining what actual success is. You can have the best manager, but if people don’t connect with your music, you’re screwed. You can be the most talented artist in the world, but without the right people working with you, it can be difficult and sometimes damn near impossible to make your mark. Often you have to just roll with your gut. You have to sit with the feelings and let them sort themselves out. So in 2016, I did just that. I also talked to people I trusted. I got a lot of different opinions and perspectives. But at the end of the day, all I had was my own intuition.
It’s hard to split with people you work with. It’s not unlike a breakup. You come to trust someone and care about them as a close friend, but it just doesn’t work out for whatever reason. It’s sad and it’s heavy. But staying in a relationship that’s not working is unhealthy for both parties.
Change requires risk. Progress requires risk. And you’re not always going to get it right. I feel very fortunate that it worked out this time. My current manager, Mark, is grounded, super hardworking and forthright. There is no bullshit. He is completely sober (not even coffee, so he might actually be a psychopath) and a dad. We sometimes go cycling together.
Over the years I’ve found that so much of doing this thing is putting yourself out there. I often tell people that the music industry is about being in the right place, at the right time. So, be in many places at many times. Treat your fans with love and respect. Treat your team with the same.
And don’t be afraid to take risks. You’re going to fall on your face occasionally. That’s okay. The floor is a great place to get some perspective.
NOAH GUNDERSON is a musician based in Seattle, WA. The Emmy-nominated rocker will be heading out on a North American tour in 2018 in support of his third studio LP, White Noise, out now on Cooking Vinyl America. Follow him on social media: @NoahGundersen