Who Defines Success?

Or someone else will do it for you?
Or someone else will do it for you?

Several years ago I was approached by my then-boss, the President of a respected independent record label. He asked me what I’d thought of something that was said to him by a powerful artist manager who had been a co-owner of another label that Pres and I had worked for earlier in our careers. The manager had said something to the effect of, “you guys are doing fine, but you’ll never be taken seriously until you have a gold record.” This was the early 2000s, when, and in the mind of the manager, that was the bar by which record labels “arrived” – an award for sales of 500,000 copies of an album.

“What do you think about that?” I paused and thought a second, and replied, “well, that’s an interesting question. I guess my thought is whether you accept the definition of success that our friend is talking about. Almost all of our artists are recouped and are earning royalties; that’s not the case at most labels, and many of that manager’s clients. And our artists have almost full creative control. Also not the case at many other labels. We’re solidly profitable. Our staff likes each other, we all work hard, and we also have sane lives. My understanding about the origins of the label is that all of those things were goals of starting this venture: to be different from much of the grind that we saw in other places. So by that criteria, I’d reject the gold record marker and say that we’re absolutely successful in what we set out to do, and that we should be taken seriously.”

We had a couple of artists that could have played the industry game better, sacrificed some of the things that made their lives normal, and probably scored gold records. But the price of that would likely have been to burn them out to the point where they’d just stop. And they knew that. So we kept budgets and expectations in line with what we knew was going to happen, and in most cases, everyone was pleased.

Gold records and sales awards are fine markers and great symbols of the hard work, passion and dedication that many people put into the process of supporting an artist or an album. I’m proud of the gold and platinum awards I have for what they signify about the artists and my co-workers on those projects. But I’m just as satisfied by other projects where we met or exceeded our goals even if they didn’t hit those benchmarks, because frankly, they were never the goal.

If we spend our time chasing other peoples’ ideas or definitions of success, we can often lose sight of why we set out to do something. It’s a classic case of keeping up with the Joneses, and we all reject that mode of thinking. I’m not so sure that people are cognizant of that, or just used to having someone else set the agenda for them? but as we start on any project, it’s important to define what the goals are, and how we are going to measure the reaching of those goals. Because if we’re comparing ourselves to other projects, products or companies that have different goals, it will take you off your game. And that leads to being lost in the woods with no idea of how you got there.

So define your own success, and then make that happen. It doesn’t matter if others don’t understand. You do, and you have reasons for that.