Today I want to talk about something near and dear to my heart. I want to talk really quick about the F-word.
No, not that F word
I want to talk about FAILURE.
Failure is a hard thing. As humans, we’re hard wired to want to be good at something, so it’s easy to get frustrated when we’re actually terrible at it. Failure is seen as the opposite of success. If success is heading in one direction, failure is headed in the complete opposite direction. For a very long time I viewed failure as a bad thing. Not only did I fear the act of failing, but when I did fail, I took it personally, as a sign that I’m a lousy person.
Here’s an example. When I was 13 I decided that I had mastered the bass and that it was time to move on to other things. I’m not exaggerating, I’m pretty sure I audibly said that at some point. My uncle owned a trumpet but hadn’t played in years, so I convinced him to let me borrow it. As I pressed my buzzing lips into the metal mouthpiece for the first time, my entire face vibrated so forcefully that I immediately sneezed. It was a horrible sensation, and that was the end of my trumpet career. I was horrible, so I quit. I failed at the trumpet.
I was still a cocky little 13 year old though. I figured since the violin is similar to the double bass, how hard could it be? My parents refurbished my Dad’s old violin and gave it to me for Christmas. My violin career lasted longer than my trumpet career, but still ended by New Year’s Eve.
Looking back on these failures, they really don’t seem like much. OF COURSE I was terrible at the trumpet and violin. I was a 13 year old bass player who thought he was ready for the LA Phil. I may have “failed” but there wasn’t really much at stake. I kept heading down the path of the bass, and I’m sure glad I did. After all, the only thing worse than a trumpet player is a violin player, amirite???
* * *
But none of my past experiences could have prepared me for the biggest failure of my entire life.
In 2012, I had a brilliant idea. An idea that had the potential to change the way many musicians worked. I thought to myself, “surely, this has been done before,” but there was nothing out there that did anything like it. I started doing some research and it turns out no one had made this yet. So I decided I was going to build it myself.
To make a long story short, me and a few friends started building an iPad app that uses handwriting recognition to turn your handwriting into printed sheet music. We partnered with a company based in France for the handwriting software and decided to take to Kickstarter to raise funds.
To promote the Kickstarter project we shot a great looking video. It showed many different people in different situations, handwriting different bits of music, and converting that into printed sheet music. The video was polished, sleek, and the score echoed what was being written on screen. This video was our dream for how the app would work. It had never been done before and was possible with current technology, but no one had put the pieces together. Our plan was to release the video as a teaser ahead of the Kickstarter launch, create some buzz, and launch the crowdfunding campaign to much fanfare.
The app wasn’t built yet, and in order to build it, we needed money, and the support of musicians who wanted to make this happen. The video that we made featured a mockup of how the app would work, when fully developed. It didn’t say anything other than our website url and “coming soon.”
We released the video and it EXPLODED. The video racked up 100,000 youtube views in a week. We were getting new email signups every few seconds. Everyone was excited about our app! You may have even seen the video we made and gotten excited yourself. I was personally on Cloud 9! One of my big ideas was actually happening! (unlike Ellington’s. Still wish that was a thing)
I convinced the professors at my old college to let us do a handwriting capture event with all of the music majors. We got several hundred students to write out a variety of music symbols to aid in the development of the app. It felt great being able to go back to my old school with something this big. Everyone was excited about it. It was an exciting time with so much potential.
But… I’ve already spoiled the ending for you. You know where this is going.
Next came the backlash. In the time after our video was released, but before the Kickstarter launched, one blogger made it his personal mission to shut us down. He figured out that we didn’t have a working app yet and was convinced that we were scam artists (Why someone would scam musicians is beyond me, but whatever) and was determined to let the world know.
What followed was a barrage of hate from all over the internet. People calling us frauds, scam artists, and liars. I’ll be honest: this was a really tough time. In a few short days, I had moved from Cloud 9 to Cloud… whatever the worst one is. We were trying to make an app that would help musicians, and we needed help from the musician community to make it happen. But those same people were furious that we were trying to scam them.
It was all downhill from there. The Kickstarter launched and raised only 12% of our goal. We cancelled it before it ended because it was clear that it wasn’t going to get funded. But we couldn’t let this thing fail! We talked to many different individuals who were interested in investing in the company, but none of them were a good fit.
For a time, we had an amateur developer working with us for free. We managed to get an incredibly basic mockup of the app going, but after several months of working with him, he stopped returning my calls, texts, emails, and any other form of communication. So I guess he quit?
Still determined to not let this be another failure, I decided I was just going to have to code it myself. I started taking classes from Code Academy and TreeHouse (online coding schools that teach you various coding languages, including how to build iPad apps).
After a couple months of trying to learn to code, we eventually faced the truth: this app was not going to happening.
From start to finish, my friend Diego and I worked pretty much full time on this app for over a year and had nothing to show for it. My friend Ryan worked hard recording audio samples of many different instruments, one note at a time. The handwriting company eventually delivered very basic software, but nothing we could work with.
Worse than that, some people still hated us. And even worse than that, I had to now tell my family, friends, and former professors that this project was dead. I’ve never experienced a bigger failure in my life. It was a really tough, embarrassing time. But since the dust of the failure has settled, I’m glad I went through this experience, and glad that I failed as hard as I did.
This massive failure taught me a few things: You can still learn even though you failed. I learned a ton through this experience. I learned about how to take criticism, the importance of authenticity, the brutality of the internet, and in the process I learned a little about coding. In my coding classes, I learned about html and css, the basic launguage of websites, and that sparked my curiosity with building things for the internet. That in turn led to me starting a blog called Startup Musician, a podcast, my upcoming book, and this very article right now.
For this reason, I don’t look at failure as a bad thing at all. I view it as a necessarystep on the way to success. Failure is a pothole. When you fail, it doesn’t mean you’re going in the opposite direction of success, it means you’re on an unpaved road and hitting some potholes. But you’re making your own path. There are inevitably going to be potholes on your own road, that’s a guarantee. What matters is how you recover after tripping and falling.
So whether it’s learning how to play the trumpet, coding a complicated music app, learning ProTools, songwriting, playing with click, or practicing your double diminished melodic minor phrygian scales, don’t take failure personally. You’re still learning through the process, and you’re still on the road to your own success. Hang in there, you just might be surprised where your road takes you. I know I certainly am.