music motivation

Three Keys to Regain & Fire Up Your Motivation to Make Music

So: you’ve lost some motivation in your music career, and you want it back. What do you do?

If you haven’t read Part 1 of this article, I’d recommend doing that before reading any further. In that piece, I described losing my own motivation when I went to college. I started writing music for my classes, or for other artists, and fell out of love with the process. I ended up changing majors and didn’t write music seriously again for nearly three years.

Eventually, though, I got my love for the art back. The way that things shook out for me won’t be the same for you, but I hope that the remainder of this article can help you understand what’s going on and how to get that motivation back.

Understanding Why Motivation Shifts


Daniel Pink often describes three core tenets of motivation:
  1. Control: we hate to be controlled or pressured.
  2. Meaning: we want to believe that what we are doing matters.
  3. Competence: we are neither too bored nor too overwhelmed by our tasks.

The most common way that musicians lose motivation is loss of control. You started out making music because you loved it, but now you make music because you need to. Perhaps that’s because you signed an album deal, or a publishing agreement; maybe your fans expect you to put out another rock album, and you feel pressured by their expectations.

But you might have lost motivation because you no longer love the music you’re making (a problem with meaning) or because you are bored or in over your head (a problem with competence).

Before you read through some of the solutions that friends of mine in the business have shared with me, you should understand which of these problems applies to you the most.

In my own case, it was a combination. I became strained by a music program that taught formulas and recipes for writing successful popular music. I felt like I was writing music because I had to for the program, not because I wanted to be writing that music, and I no longer felt passionate about what I was creating.

Ways to Solve These Motivation Problems

The Feynman Response / The Radiohead Response

You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.” – Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist

When you feel obligated to create a certain kind of music, you can burn out quickly. Maybe it’s because of a deal you signed, or maybe it’s the expectations that fans put on you or that you place on yourself. Regardless of the source, that pressure moves your motivation from internal to external and, as we found in our last article on the topic, this can destroy your motivation.

Most of the artists I know who have overcome the problem take the Richard Feynman approach. He continues to say:

Now that I am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything, I’ve got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.

Basically: you refuse to accept external motivators or expectations. In fact, this is the result most obviously suggested by cognitive evaluation theory.

In Part 1, I described how this theory explains why we lose motivation when we get rewarded for our work. But an interesting finding of the theory is that if you choose to create art, and then are rewarded for it spontaneously, you don’t lose motivation at all. It is only when the reward motivates the art — and not the other way around — that you are lost.

I also think of this as the Radiohead response. When’s the last time they felt an obligation to anyone? They make the music they want to make, and they’re fortunate that they make money doing so. The money does not motivate the music.

Yet I was never able to use this response myself. There are two ways that it breaks down.

The first way is that it becomes impossible to ignore the rewards and pressures of the art you create. You know that fans are expecting you to come perform in their city and to release new music for them. Maybe you got behind on rent, and you know if you put out a new album, then you’ll make up the cash and you’ll be OK. You don’t know if your new music will satisfy fans, or if you should stick with what you were making before. You come to care about your fans and it matters if you let them down — it’s not so easy to shrug off their expectations of you. You are now an artist who creates music knowing that rewards are waiting for you if you match your fan and label expectations.

It’s easy to claim purity until you actually find yourself in that situation. It’s never so clear from the inside. And so while I believe this advice is sound, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to take and it will not work for everyone.

Some artists can completely block out external motivators, but I think it’s an exceedingly rare quality. It may not be a quality you wish to cultivate in yourself. Is it such a good thing to discard the expectations of your fans so easily?

The Discipline Response

Writers use discipline more often than musicians, in my experience, and it may be they’ve got something right.

As Stephen Pressfield writes, every creative person struggles with internal resistance. You start a project; halfway through, it isn’t living up to your lofty expectations, you get confronted by doubt and your demons, and you abandon the work. Or you can’t muster the energy to start and find yourself procrastinating, even though you know that you’ll be fine once you begin.

All of us suffer from days when we don’t have the willpower to create. On those days, we can rely on discipline. This isn’t just an answer to problems with motivation — it’s actually a fantastic way to have more and better creative ideas and is the best predictor of creative success. We’ve written about the subject before.

Using discipline can help you through long stretches when you simply fall out of love with creating music. But it’s not necessarily a cure for the motivation problem. Instead, it offers a way to ignore the motivation problem and keep going. Kobe Bryant didn’t win 5 championships and become one of the all-time greats because he always loved the work. No one loves being up at 4am every day. But he was disciplined, and motivation wasn’t the question anymore. Motivated or not, he was up.

The only real way to use this solution is by having a rigid schedule. This means choosing a set time, every day, that you allot to your art. As long as you don’t miss your schedule, you’ll be fine.

Removing Motivators Entirely

Some artists use a related response to Feynman’s. They don’t just ignore external motivators — they remove them entirely.

The get a job. Maybe it’s in music, but maybe it isn’t. They don’t derive their income from their art; they make music because it’s what they love.

I did this. I created a music company that let me spend my days working in a business environment and derive my income that way, while still being involved in music. I wrote music entirely for myself, and I collaborated with artists I met during my days spent with the company. And I’m far from the only one who found satisfaction this way.

Tycho did this, too. Tycho didn’t become a full-time artist until his mid-thirties; he was a Software Developer and Designer before, and make electronic music as a hobby. But he slowly gained popularity until he was playing sold-out venues, signed a deal with Ghostly, and quit his job to do music full-time.

I can’t speak for his motivation, but it’s clearly possible to create music aside from another full-time career. For some artists, this is the way to go. I found greater freedom in my own music when it was not my livelihood, but for others, it may be unacceptable to spend eight hours a day on a job and work on music after hours.

There are tons of other careers in music (just take a look through our information on the subject!) that can be your primary source of income while you continue to create.

In fact, pretty much all artists before the modern music industry developed in the mid-20th century had other jobs. Creative ability has long been supported by, without being limited by, other sources of income. You may find that decoupling your income from your art may leave you more free to indulge in the reasons you love creating in the first place.

The Question Is Still Open

Of course, these answers aren’t the whole story, just as the theories in Part 1 aren’t the whole story. Truth be told, no one completely understands motivation yet — it’s still a mystery, even to the scientists.

So while the theories from Part 1 can help shed light on why we get demotivated when we are paid to do work we otherwise love to do, or how external pressures like building a fanbase or signing a deal can kill our motivation, they don’t actually provide any answers. All they can do is clarify the question and offer some signage to put you on the right path. It is still you, at the end of the day, who must find your own answer to the question of motivation.

And if you do find that answer — or if you have already found it! — then please share below or in the Facebook comments for this post. There are a lot of people who would like to know.

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