‘Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.’
- Katherine Mansfield, NZ writer
I watched the faces of my online songwriting class blanche when I told them what their assignment for the week was: take another classmate’s twelve bar blues progression and write your own top line to it.
It was an exercise in how songwriters can take the same ‘ingredients’ and write very different songs, plus it was a stealthy attempt on my part at introducing collaboration.
It put the students well out of their comfort zones. Why? They had never worked with each other on a project and all sorts of fearful questions were cropping up, like ‘can I do it? Will I make a fool of myself? Will I have enough time? Will anyone pick my progression to work on?’
Their homework was now perceived as risky. Inadvertently, I’d upped the stakes.
Risk taking has been part of our evolutionary success strategy. Risk taking is an important component of creative thinking, so any artistic practice - including songwriting - is inherently risky.
Being musically literate or knowledgable about songwriting doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll ever write a hit. Songwriting is notoriously asymmetrically risky - oodles of ‘misses’ for every hit. And there’s no set career pathway to a stable income guaranteed by learning anything about songwriting.
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That’s why those dream-crusher words fall out of your loved ones’ mouths when you say you want to pursue songwriting more intensively. You’ve all heard it: from ‘what’s your backup plan?’ to ‘make sure you have a second string to your bow’, or ‘don’t give up your day job,’ ad infinitum.
Yes, there are risks. They come in all shapes and sizes. Like turning up to an open mic for the first time, or reaching out to a potential collaborator. Or releasing your first single or negotiating with a venue for a better guarantee.
Nowadays, risk includes taking your band on tour for the first time (or any time!) and hoping the COVID level alerts don’t change. Or taking a completely new direction for your third album, or like Joni Mitchell, eschewing a live performance at Woodstock in favour of your first television appearance.
But there’s also risk in the opportunity cost of not participating, not creating, not connecting with an audience, not joining the band, not trying because you might fail. That risks you living in the land of ‘what if’ or ‘what I could have-should have-would-have done’.
While the adage ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ makes a great slogan, it only feels risky when we’re actually scared. Remember, it’s your perception that something is fearful that can hold you back. FEAR is an acronym - False Evidence Appearing Real. We’re actually hardwired to overestimate risks and their consequences. Our fight or flight reflex deep within our DNA starts to kick in, but the odds of everything working out are often a lot higher than we think.
Yes, there are risks to pursuing your music, but you can learn to manage them because with great risk comes great reward.
You can learn to move from being risk averse to being risk tolerant, increasing your appetite for risk - for taking different kinds of risk in your songs - artistic, emotional, technical, for being more vulnerable, more experimental, more authentic or for the guts to stick to your knitting and find your own voice.
In risk management practice, there’s an evidence based assessment matrix that I think might be helpful:
*Accept the risk
*Share the risk
*Reduce the risk
*Avoid the risk
The issue stops being 'should I risk?' and becomes 'how do you manage each risk?' It also stops risk from becoming recklessness.
An example of accepting a risk is being booked for an important concert which is being recorded or streamed, working out the best preparation and rehearsal schedule you can, and committing to it.
Sharing the risk can be getting your kit insured before you tour, asking another band to double bill a show with you, or having several songs up for sync.
Reducing the risk can be using a guaranteed gig to partially fund a ticketed show on tour, or developing multiple income streams for your business.
An example of avoiding a risk (positively) happened when I asked an artist to perform at a compilation album launch. She had yet to sing her track live in front of an audience and she had a full schedule - yet she really wanted to perform. She took 24 hours to think about it and came back with a ‘thanks but no’ because she didn’t want to present at a high stakes event undercooked, mentioning she’d got in trouble with that before. Good choice.
These four processes will also help be in better shape to take risks mindfully.
1. Step up your risk taking ability incrementally at whatever level you’re at with your songwriting. If you’re experienced, some form of regular renewal, such as learning a new DAW, going on retreat, or an unexpected collaboration - can revitalise your songwriting. If you’re new to the game, sharing your songs in an online forum can reduce your risk of unwarranted critique, while getting you used to handling feedback.
2. Gain security from other sources to support yourself when you take larger artistic and financial risks - album/tour releases or striking out as a solo artist. Everyone will have an opinion and you can’t listen to all of them. It’s about risk management - protecting your vulnerability when you take high level creative risks like sharing new material with the public. By security, I mean emotional support as well as attending to your health and wellbeing.
3. Don’t sabotage yourself. Fear of rejection and self doubt are extremely persistent and it can be easy to self medicate your way out. The default mindset is usually negative as a self protection mechanism, so here’s a question to write large on your wall ‘ What If Everything Goes Right?
4. Finally, if you find a creative loose thread, pull it hard! If you feel the need to try a different style, or you feel drawn to a particular artist’s influence, follow that vein - even if it’s uncomfortable.
Every single successful songwriter has taken chances, overcome setbacks and at some fundamental level, against all odds, trusted their instincts. It’s too risky not to!
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