Failing and the Creative Process
Seven New York City musicians confront failure in a one-of-a-kind Soundshop salon.
What happens when we gather as a community to discuss our failings? This was the question that Soundshop founder, Akpanoluo Etteh, and I arrived at after a conversation on the subject in early October. Initially I imagined we would organize a survey or series of interviews, until Akpanoluo suggested we make it a salon: “Failing and the Creative Process,” an in-person group conversation (novel in its own right, in recent times) on what is arguably one of the most taboo subjects among artists. The event/experiment was held on Saturday, November 6th at Soundshop Headquarters, a.k.a. Akpanoluo’s Williamsburg apartment. Fifteen minutes in, when it was still just us and one other participant, he wondered aloud if his event about failing would itself fail. We laughed cautiously, waiting for the doorbell to ring.
Including us, seven people participated. A low turnout for a Soundshop event which could be between 40 and 60 “in the pre-pandemic days,” Akpanoluo confirmed. I couldn’t help but wonder if the subject matter had anything to do with it. With such a small group, both he and I found ourselves equally participating (which was admittedly inevitable, considering our mutual interest in the topic had led to the event). It took about 45 minutes and quite a bit of cider to get the conversation rocking. But once we did, it rolled. We investigated the reasons failings occur, dissected failure as an identity, the blurred line between failing and success, and, in some cases, discovered failings we didn’t even know we had.
Andrew Feyer, a.k.a. Feyer for his classically influenced and theatrical brand of electro-rock, broke the ice. He spoke of how his debut album did not succeed as he had hoped. And while he didn’t specify how he came to this conclusion, the implication was: not enough plays, not enough press, not enough… In examining this failing aloud, he probed, “should I have learned more first?” Specifically, about marketing. “Maybe, if I’d gone to a different college…” He mentioned Berklee and New York University, the latter being the alma mater of Elisa Winter — sitting next to me — who also offers her own unique brand of theatrical art-rock, and the former being where I studied and later dropped out (a possible failing I neglected to mention at the time). Elisa and I looked at each other, communicating that neither of us felt any more prepared by the colleges we attended than Andrew. NYU alum and teacher, Jamie Ehrenfeld expressed the same sentiment.
The discussion turned to the failings of music education institutions to prepare their students with a roadmap for the industry, and the possibility that any roadmap would be misleading because the landscape of the industry undergoes rapid tectonic shifts. An industry releasing more music every day for free, Andrew added. Like spitting into the sea, I thought. Becca Fox, frontwoman of the psychedelic Afro-soul band, Gentleman Brawlers, would later echo the word “industry” making air quotes. The group murmured in understanding, agreeing that the music industry is more akin to the “Wild West.” But this didn’t appear to offer much solace to anyone. “I am still proud of the record,” Andrew said. It may have failed his expectations, but he did not see it as a failure. In fact, no one at any point mentioned a work of art that was itself a failure.
Failing is rarely so simple, Jamie suggested. A singer-songwriter as well as an educator, Jamie described once working within a failing music education organization, what she described as a “sinking ship.” While she felt that she bared part of the responsibility for its fall, she said that she “chose the relationships” anyway, even while she knew the organization would fail. With her students, she focused on small successes. I considered the possibility that a failing could itself be a patchwork of small successes. Then Jamie spoke directly to those of us who had already shared, “Don’t wear disappointment as your identity. You can’t live in that.”
You may have noticed that I have resisted using the word failure thus far. This is why: Jamie’s assertion demonstrated how a failing can be a single act or an event made up of different acts. Failings come; they go. And we move on. Failure, too easily, can become one’s identity. Perhaps the same is true for works of art. Once labeled “failure,” there is no longer the possibility to learn from it, to grow through it. Elisa would later add, “None of us are failures or else we wouldn’t be here.” “Because if we were,” I said, coming to understand her point, “we would have given up already.”
Even though I had given up music school I never considered it a failure. In fact, I have often thought of it as a success in that I recognized the path I was on was not right for me and I chose another — many others — even though they often appeared less certain. All rivers reach the sea was a mantra of mine for years. River or sea, with or without a music degree, I’ve always felt I am here, participating in a community, a tradition.
Before the salon, I wondered if I had any experiences that I could wholly identify as a failing. It wasn’t until Jamie spoke about “chos[ing] the relationships” that I realized I had one. After leaving Berklee I put together my first band on my own. A few months into performing together, I received a message from one member telling me that I had forgotten to pay him for a concert early on, and that, essentially, he felt used and was quitting effective immediately. I replied, apologized, mailed him a check right away. But it was too late. He didn’t reply and we never spoke again. I may have felt I am here, but I wasn’t there for him.
The failings we shared often came down to relationships. Via Perkins, the folk-rocker known as VIA and accomplished essayist, spoke of failings that occurred while building a relationship with a past collaborator. Becca shared similar experiences of failing to find the right people to trust with production and booking. And Akpanoluo opened up about the challenges of building a core team to help run Soundshop. These failings, small and interpersonal, made up the majority of those we discussed. I think of them in large part as “micro-failings” that hinge on communication, personalities, and money, even when there is none to go around just yet.
As the conversation went on, I noticed the participants relax in their seats, joke, and laugh more. Talking about failing appeared to be getting easier the more we talked about it. Three days later, while writing this story, I saw that Becca had posted about the event on Instagram and wrote in the caption, “Call it a music therapy session if you will. I would call it GODDAMN NECESSARY… In the end I think we all breathed a little easier knowing we weren’t alone.”
Like me, Elisa didn’t think she had a failing to share until hearing Jamie’s story. For her, it triggered the memory of a musical theater program she co-founded. While it isn’t a failing in the sense that it is still running, it never took off in popularity as she had hoped. Another case of the all-too-familiar not enough’s. “The things you love the most,” she said, “are not always going to be the things that are most successful.”
Thus far the conversation had centered around failure and overcoming the fear of it. At this point Elisa suggested something else that can be an equal if not greater obstacle to overcome: “The weight of success.” After a recent performance of her show titled, Elisa Winter and the Subconscious, a narrative concert with a distinct set of songs, the audience reaction was so positive that she found herself anxious about offering anything different, including music from her upcoming album. This immediately resonated with the group who spoke empathetically about success making it harder to take risks, about the fear of not living up to past achievements. So, all rivers may reach the sea, but seas too feed back into rivers. It’s a cycle. Success isn’t a place we arrive but periodically pass through.
Elisa Winter has an upcoming residency every second Tuesday in 2022 at 11th Street Bar, exploring new music other than The Subconscious. Via Perkins is working on her first full-length album with a new producer, who, she said, “loves the songs as much as I do.” She is taking her time to build the songs and the working relationship. Becca’s Brawlers’ single “Permanent Waves” is now available, and there’s at least two more on the horizon. Jamie Ehrenfeld is teaching a new songwriting course at NYU that she says emphasizes “one-on-one consult time… for each student.” And Andrew Feyer has a new single out called “Anything Better to Do” in which he sings:
Ignoring the fears that my brain has sent
Let’s conduct an experiment
Anthemic lyrics for this one of a kind Soundshop salon.
“It’s about being in the process,” Elisa said. “None of us are failures or else we wouldn’t be here… or else we wouldn’t have a voice in this room.” Now I find myself wondering about those voices. The voiced that are missing. I feel that we have just begun the conversation about failing and the creative process, how it shapes our art, our capacity to communicate, and what can happen when we come together to talk about it.
In the meantime, I offer three takeaways: Any endeavor — and any one of us — can fail without being a failure. “Choose the relationships,” as Jamie said, they are so often the key to success. And if a failing can be a patchwork of successes, then the opposite must be true. Our successes too, when we look closer, are stitched together with many little failings.
— Noah Evan Wilson
Noah Evan Wilson is a writer and musician from New York City. Recently his story, “The Fading,” won second prize in the 2021 Prime Number Magazine Flash Fiction Contest, and his latest record, The View from the Ground — EP, is now available on all major streaming platforms.