5 Ways to Deal with Setbacks (as an Independent Artist)

Published by nedmortimer on

It is one of the axioms of our twenty first century world that failure is the best friend of success. A casual browse through TED Talks alone is enough to illustrate the popularity of this theory, with dozens of talks exploring the idea from various perspectives.

We are taught to learn from our mistakes and not let them get the better of us – but while this mature, philosophical approach is workable after the dust has settled and you’ve had time to process the actual damage (often less than we think it’ll be), it is infinitely harder in the moment. You are caught up in the emotion of the setback – whether it’s a mistake, a logistical nightmare or a rejection of some form – and being logical and positive minded is much easier said than done.

With this article, I want to explore different ways you can manage these setbacks from the point of view of an independent artist. I’ll take some of the best thought processes and techniques from other spheres and apply them in our industry, giving real-life examples of how they work.

Technique #1 – analyse the actual impact of the setback 

Tim Ferriss, the world renowned coach and author of the 4-Hour Work Week, is a big proponent of what he terms ‘Fear Setting’; basically planning for worst-case scenarios as a way of overcoming your fears. He first discovered the idea in one of the letters of the Stoic philosopher Seneca, writing a couple of millennia ago. (Incidentally, you should totally read the Letters from a Stoic – you can glean some interesting ideas around lifestyle that are still applicable today… they’re short, bite-sized essays and extremely easy to read/follow!)

We can glean some of the logic from his ‘Fear Setting’ technique and apply it to situations where something bad happens to you.

Let’s say you’ve had a really important show go totally wrong – lots of sound problems, you froze on some lyrics, and there were some A&R people there to cap it all off!

You’re probably feeling really gutted. People emphasise all the time about the idea of a ‘big break’ and you feel like you might have just wasted yours… 

[For a start, you should read our article about ‘big breaks’ and why it’s a bad way of looking at your career]. 

But also we can use our technique – analysing the actual impact of the show going wrong – to help manage your emotions and work out what to do next.

You should approach it in 3 steps:

Firstly: define how bad the setback actually is.

What practical, negative effects will come out of the thing going wrong?

Write out a list of these effects and use it to score the setback out of 10. 1 is basically no impact whatsoever and 10 is the WORST THING THAT COULD POSSIBLY HAPPEN, so basically the end of the world (or Radiohead breaking up perhaps).

E.g. it might be:

  1. The A&R people will not want to watch you play again
  2. Some of your fans might complain and ask for their money back (this is very unlikely, you would think)
  3. The venue might not book you again 

You might look at your list and actually rate the bad show as a 5/10 on the BAD scale, and cheer yourself up a bit 🙂

Secondly: write out ways you can stop these negative effects from happening, or at least minimise them.

For each of the negative consequences, write out one of two things you could do to dampen or completely remove these negative consequences.

This step is CRUCIAL because you’re moving from the hyper-emotional ‘everything is lost’ mentality and thinking practically about how to deal with the problem.

For example:

  1. A&R people won’t want to watch you again → write to them and ask them for feedback on the show. You could explain why the sound went wrong and what you’ll do to fix it so it won’t happen again. This could even be a positive; shows you’re serious about your music and quick to learn from mistakes – as well as keeping the dialogue open with your A&R contacts
  2. Thank everyone for coming to your show and apologise for technical difficulties, but promise you’ll be back soon with a bigger, better show!
  3. As with the A&R people, explain to the venue how you felt the show went and what you would improve next time. Any good venue will respect the fact that not everything runs smoothly all the time.

Thirdly: next to each negative effect, write out what you could do IF it happened.

If things do go wrong and your setbacks lead to more setbacks, at least you won’t be caught out; you’ll have a plan for dealing with them and will feel much more in control!

  1. If the A&R guys aren’t interested, move on (see below techniques). Sometimes things aren’t meant to be – if you’re focused and constantly improving your music and growing your audience, more, even better opportunities will come along soon
  2. If your fans complain and want a refund, you can instead offer them a free ticket to your next show and promise it’ll be a special night. (This could also be a good thing as you might get some extra people in the room).
  3. Same as point 1 really

Technique #2 – what would you do differently next time?

Imagine you’ve spent a whole week sending out the press kit for your new EP to music festivals and bloggers and radio producers. You then realise a few days later when you get a reply that – SHOCK HORROR – one of the links is broken and so all those people can’t hear your track when they click on the link.

Apart from sending a polite follow-up email to all the people you messaged explaining that something has gone wrong with the link, it is also important to take a step back and learn something from your mistake (assuming it was even your mistake).

You might decide that, before all big send-outs, you double check each of the links in your press kit is working properly. A simple lesson learned the hard way, and a mistake that won’t happen again!   

There are two reasons why this technique – stepping back and looking at the future – is important.

Firstly, it’s obvious, but mistakes are great opportunities to learn and grow.

Secondly, and less obviously, once you get into the habit of not living in the moment, you’ll take  a lot of the emotional pressure off yourself. Do not underestimate the power of stepping back and looking at things objectively! 

Technique #3 – limit the amount of time you feel bad about it

This is a technique I developed with one of the musicians I’ve been coaching, who specifically asked for advice about dealing with setbacks, especially when they would take up his mind space for a whole week or even more.

The longer you feel annoyed at yourself (or the world) that something went wrong, the less time and energy you’re spending on improving things and getting back on track.

If you start measuring roughly how long you feel bad about something going wrong and even setting yourself a limit (I can feel annoyed about this for two hours, then I have to move on…), you will feel happier and get more done.

Even being aware that this is a real number – time spent thinking about the setback – can really reduce the impact of the setback. As you can see from Technique #1 above, often something seems a lot worse at the time, until you step back and realise that you have massively increased the scale of the problem in your mind and it’s not such a big deal in real life.

With the example above, maybe give yourself NO MORE THAN 1 DAY to reflect on the show and think about all the ways it went wrong, then try to flick a switch and move on.

Try to shorten this time period each time something goes wrong, and you’ll soon see yourself accepting setbacks almost in real time – literally as they happen you’ll accept it and focus on the next thing.

For Techniques 4 and 5, read on in Part 2!

And leave a comment if you have anything to say so far 🙂


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