Minnow Park

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The Day the Music Died

I picked up a guitar when I was in 7th grade. My mom had spent thousands on violin lessons only to have my heart move onto guitars. I went to a Dave Matthews Band concert that year, and I was hooked. I dreamt about being on a stage one day with just my guitar; singing my songs to an audience, pouring my heart out, and connecting with them. It was all I wanted. I spent most of my teenage years practicing in my room, learning riffs, writing lyrics.

In 2004 I was a sophomore in college, and I had a chance to record my first album called, Fourteen Days. My friend, Koo, had started a record label called “Broken for Good” and he asked me if I wanted to join as an artist, and make an album. DREAM. COME. TRUE. It was released a few months later, and that summer Koo, another artist on the label Neah, and I went on tour. It was a 16-city tour through the US. Driving around the country, I remember thinking, “This is what it feels like to be a musician, this could be my life!”

That fall, when we got back home, the investor of our record label, “Broken for Good,” sat us all down for a meeting. He told us that the tour was a musical success, but a financial failure. He then laid out the economics of what it would take to earn a “modest salary” as full-time musicians. This was before knowing YouTube, Soundcloud, and Spotify were viable platforms. It was a business model based on albums sold, number of shows played, and tickets sold.

Koo and Neah were both in their mid-twenties at that time, thinking about doing music full time, and this was the right thing for them to hear. I, on the other hand, was a 20-year-old still riding on the high of the tour. But that night, any desire of wanting to be a songwriter was explained away. My parents’ wary advice to keep music as a hobby was completely validated. I was graduating from business school soon, and I needed to be sensible! John Mayer’s Room for Squares came out three years before, and I knew he deserved to be a songwriter, not me. I was never going to be as talented as him. I left that meeting proud of myself for coming to my senses.

And that “reality check” was what I believed. Ever since that meeting, I haven’t written another song, or improved in my playing. It was a neat and tidy story. The exact story I needed to tell myself so that I didn’t have to put myself out there and risk failure. A few years later when I became a photographer, I thought, “See? This is all the creativity I need. Music was just a phase in my life. Now, I can create images, show them to people, and connect with them that way.”

It wasn’t until going through The Artist’s Way at the beginning of this year, the story I had told myself was completely debunked. Halfway into the 12-week course, I realized I had been lying to myself for 15 years.

I started the book wanting to see how I can become a better photographer and writer, but instead it forced me to exhume the body of my music and breathe it back into life. There are exercises in the book that ask questions like:

  • When you were younger what did you want to do?
  • If you could do whatever you want right now, what would it be?
  • What do you feel like is something you’ve lost that you want to recover?

I became so angry at myself for all the time that was wasted. The anger turned into sadness, and then rotted inside me as shame. What could I do now? I could’ve done so much, but my chance is gone. I hated Artist’s Way for bringing this up; I hated how I fell for this revisionist history.

I have no doubt of the investor’s intentions. He wanted to help and be truthful with us. But what I needed to hear that night was, “Don’t worry about how much these songs can earn for you. Instead, keep going. Learn to see the world. Learn to see yourself. Use your songs as a lens to process and understand what’s happening around you. Write as much as you can, sing as much as you want. Keep going. Don’t stop, keep going.”

Even as I started Upstream, this realization was boiling inside me. But after many morning pages, long talks with Becky, and conversations with my counselor, two words have become an anchor for me to move forward: “it’s ok.” No matter how I told myself I got here, this is the path I took and this is where I am supposed to be. Taking portraits, writing these letters, the career I’m able to have now, all of this is so fulfilling and I'm grateful everyday to be able to do what I do.

But now I am a skeptic, especially with myself. I am so prone to believe the story that I am most comfortable with, as if being comfortable was the most important thing in life. It isn’t. I don’t want to be safe anymore, and I don’t want to settle. It's a battle everyday and I’ll never make a 15 year truce, ever again.

As for what music means for me, its on a slow recovery after being brought back to life. I dusted off my electric guitar and hope to learn some more and have the wonder of music return to my ears. I hope to share with you more about that in the future.