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Why Are So Many Musicians Crazy?

Charles Mingus, Buddy Rich, Jim Morrison... There's a long, loooong list of geniuses who went back for seconds at the craziness buffet line. Sadly, people have come to accept this from artists.

The same goes for the entrepreneurs that shape our industry. Henry Ford, Jack Welch, John D. Rockefeller...

Yahoo finance just put out an amazing article on how certain types of mental illness (specifically Mania in this article), when present in milder forms, actually help entrepreneurs. Jure Robic has broken countless ultra-endurance events (8 straight days of racing across 3,000 miles) by quite literally driving himself insane. (See also my previous article on artists as entrepreneurs)

Let's think about the parallels and why this is.

Most musicians fail at becoming full-time musicians / getting famous. Most startups fail within five years. A new band is competing with every major label band for attention. A new computer is competing with every other computer business in the same field.

The odds are against you. 

From the yahoo article: "You need to suspend disbelief to start a company, because so many people will tell you that what you’re doing can’t be done, and if it could be done, someone would have done it already,” says Paul Maeder, a general partner at Highland Capital. “There are six billion human beings on this planet, we’ve been around for hundreds of thousands of years, we’re a couple hundred years into the industrial revolution — and nobody has done what you want to do? It’s kind of crazy.”"

And there we have it. It does take a little bit of crazy to think you can do something better than anyone else before.

But that's how absolutely everything we know and use everyday began.


So where does that leave us? Should we make the "rational" choice and just give up because our chances at success are so small? Should we sniff airplane glue until we believe we're the lizard king here to deliver the tastiest riffs ever picked out of a telecaster?

Not quite.

What we do, is balance.

Believe in your music, against all odds. Work, practice, hustle, sweat with the conviction that it will pay off. This kind of confidence inspires others and, more importantly, makes them confident that you actually can do the things you say.

But do not get lost in hubris. Be aware of your place in the world and what you can realistically accomplish. Set goals that are within your realm, don't plan on selling out a stadium when you can only pull 7 people to your shows. You'll get burned out. 

Success is a long distance race, not a sprint. Believe in yourself, but be real.



  1. Derek, this article hits such a sweet spot for me right now. In the wake of buying into a few too many get famous/rich/whatever quick schemes that are so prevalent across the web, I've slowly been realizing that being "discovered" happens only gradually.

    I think that, without a doubt, an entrepreneur/artist/status-quo fighter must have a bit of insanity in him. Without it, (s)he'd fall back in line with the rest of the sleepwalkers who believe that it simply cannot be done. Coming up with big ideas and great music only comes to those who allow it all to incubate... not to those who pull the pie out of the oven while it's still cooking.

    We've gotta be willing to take those small steps with conviction. Thanks for this.

  2. Thanks Mark, I'm glad you like this! It makes me really happy to be showing cool people cool things.

  3. It's really interesting how a lot of cognitive traits seem to be slight degrees away from mental illnesses/conditions (e.g. the Robin Hanson-ish pessimism v. depression, Tyler Cowen's savantism v. autism), last year I read a book series about LBJ that makes him out to be a sociopath, which was how he was able to become President and escape the poverty of the Hill Country. Ludging from interviews a lot of notable musicians seem to be pretty weird people; I wonder how weird they were before they became ultrafamous.

    Of course, the examples you mentioned also took a lot of drugs....

  4. durr, I obviously meant "Judging"

  5. Haha, I hadn't heard that about LBJ but I can definitely see that.

    Weird before famous? I'd put all my money on yes. I think the weirdness helps them get famous actually, as it makes for a better story when describing the artist. More people are going to spread the word of bands when they can say "Whoa, I saw this band that bit the head off a bat!" as opposed simply "I saw this band that was good."

    Although now that you point out the drugs thing, that clearly ups the craziness factor of anyone. So I guess it's a little of both.