Sunday, March 24, 2024

Bob Dylan, Maya Angelou, Stuart Smalley, and Why I Don't Have Imposter Syndrome

The TLDR short answer:  You sort of need "conventional" success first, and I don't have any, so it doesn't apply to me.

Welcome (or welcome back) to the blog where I pretend to be a solo artist and claim to be a songwriter...and blog about it.  

I find myself blogging more about the solo artist part than the songwriter part.  You won't find much in the past posts herein about how I write songs, or advice about how to write better songs - those are personal, mysterious, and difficult to explain.  I write songs in many different ways, with many different approaches and techniques and genres and styles and subject matter.  They just happen sometimes, and I'd rather not dissect how they happen, because it's a sort of magical thing you don't want to question or mess with.  

On the other hand, you will find a lot of content about me grappling with my music being in the same streaming services as really famous artists like Bob Dylan, and my struggles trying to do everything myself as inexpensively as possible to get it there.

No one has ever said to me, "your songs are not very good" or "you need to give this music hobby a rest" or "you're not good enough to have your music be on the major streaming services" or "you need to give up on this solo artist thing" or "you're embarrassing yourself and you should hang it up"...nothing like that, ever.  When it comes to music appreciation, your taste is what it is, and certainly mainstream popularity can be a strong indicator of quality consensus.  

The current charts are filled with music that I seriously cannot understand the wild popularity of.  Fortunately, there seems to be a slowly-rising trend with Millenials starting to appreciate acoustic guitar playing singer-songwriters again, so my style might appeal to them if discovered!  Therein lies the biggest challenge for artists like me these days: how to make more people aware of my music without a budget or desire to self-promote. 

"Not giving up" is easy when you're passionate about transitioning a hobby into being part of a commercial industry.  Since I'm not beholden to a record company and don't need to recoup any expenses, my measure of success is little improvements over time that maybe only I notice.  I'm really only competing with myself, and without promotion of any kind, I don't really care that those improvements may not translate to increased streaming stats.

It could be the cream can't rise to the top when there's over-saturation, and with no one telling me I should stop, I'm part of the problem.  So I blog about these kinds of things to make sense of it all.  My music is streamable in all the usual places like Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube Music, and Amazon Music - 11 full-length albums so far, with a 12th in progress.  Just as with book "publishing," technology and the internet now allow regular guys like me to join the superstars, so I blog about this a lot to understand how I feel about it.

Maya Angelou: "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, 'Uh oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out.'"

My daily affirmation:  My songs are real songs.  I am a real songwriter, and I am a real solo artist.  My music is art.  It helps people.  I've been helped by a 12-step program, and I help people.  I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.  (Google Stuart Smalley or Senator Al Franken to understand the humor).  Whether any of my music qualifies as being actual art or not is debatable, and although I include my lovely wife Lenore's accordion playing on about one song per album, the rest of everything you hear I did by myself, so pretty solo.  

I've released around 140 original songs on those 11 albums, and you'll just have to trust me that I've written a few hundred more that I have not chosen to release.  The ones I've released arguably qualify as being actual songs.  So, yeah, you can stream Scott Cooley, then switch over to Bob Dylan, and it's as if we are both offering the same kinds of things in the same places - albums of music featuring songs we've written ourselves and recorded as solo artists.

It's not imposter syndrome that I have, however.  I had to look that definition up:


the persistent inability to believe that one's success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills: people suffering from impostor syndrome may be at increased risk of anxiety.

You need to have success first.  I don't have any (the way most people would define it).  What is success then?  Most people think of fame, wealth, or social status, but there is another definition that I prefer:  the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.  Some of mine have been:

  • Learn To Play Guitar:  As a fan of rock music when I was a kid, I thought it might be cool to learn how to play guitar someday.  I bought a used Yamaha acoustic at a pawn shop in Flint, Michigan over Christmas break during my Senior year at Albion College, then used it when I took Intro To Guitar my last semester.  I learned more from friends than I did from the course, but it was a start.
  • Learn To Write Songs:  After learning covers of popular rock songs I liked, I thought it might be cool to write my own songs someday.  Having also taken Intro To Poetry enroute to my Bachelor of Arts in English degree, I had a bit of a foundation for creative writing.  With a pencil and notebook paper and acoustic guitar, I made an attempt, friends thought it wasn't bad, so I wrote more.
  • Learn To Record Music:  Initially recording on cassette recorders with built-in microphones, then a portable four-track with an external microphone, then continuing multi-tracking on a computer using digital audio workstation software with an audio interface, having multiple tracks available and the ability to overdub brought out some sort of mad scientist in me.  Do a little research, get the equipment, then figure it out through trial and error.
  • Learn Other Instruments:  If you can mix a bunch of tracks together to make your song sound like a band played it, you need other instruments.  Starting with a tambourine and harmonica, I got some drums and a bass guitar, later adding a marimba and a ukulele, and then eventually a MIDI keyboard, which really opened up the possibilities.  The approach was get the instruments first, then teach yourself how to play them.
  • Learn Music Distribution:  The first services I became aware of were TuneCore and CDBaby that offered this ability to get your songs in iTunes.  There was also the burn-CD-on-demand service offered by Amazon.  It was about selling discs and downloads back before the streaming thing caught on.  I read about the services, signed up, and sure enough, they distributed my music after I followed their instructions.
  • Learn Online Presence Establishment:  Initially, I was proud of learning the old-school way of hosting from a computer in my basement that was always running, then got in as an early adopter on Google Sites, which allowed me to move into the cloud absolutely for free for about 10 years.  I taught myself HTML and some of the basics, using my songwriting hobby as website practice.  Blogging and social media would be included here, but anyone can do those.  I've also done some music videos too, which might be part of this.

Somehow along the way, I developed this aim or purpose that I was a songwriter, and that instead of pitching my songs to famous singers to record, I thought I would also try becoming a solo artist myself.  I made it a goal to do as much as I could on my own without spending any money.  I didn't want to pay anyone to help me, didn't want to ask anyone to help me, didn't want to pay for anything I couldn't do myself.  I bought reasonably-priced instruments, recording equipment, and paid for the music distribution service, but that's it.  I did everything else at no cost other than my own labor.

Therefore, I have been successful.  I believe I deserve that success.  I've achieved it legitimately as the result of my own effort and skill.  I've accomplished my goals.  I suppose the next steps would be to play live (memorize my own songs, have a setlist, then somehow get gigs playing in public for money), offer merch (sell t-shirts or whatever), get publicity (solicit music press and bloggers to write about me), and advertise (actually spend money on promotional ads and marketing campaigns for my albums), however, those are not currently goals I have.

I know I'm not the type to ever achieve any sort of popularity or mainstream success as most people define it.  I don't have the singing voice, instrument-playing chops, looks, youth, dance moves, or whatever you'd look for in a new artist if you were a record company seeking profitability.  In a way, my music journey has employed a fake-it-'till-you-make-it approach, but I'm realizing more and more that what I've done is not fraudulent or phony - it's authentic and real.  I feel like I am pretending less as I move forward, thinking I am achieving some sort of legitimacy along the way.

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