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The Devil's Lottery

The devil doesn't come dressed in a red cape and pointy horns...he comes as everything you've ever wished for.

- Tucker Max

A while ago an email arrived in my inbox with a link to an interview Joe Rogan did with Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan (check it out below). As Rogan grilled Corgan on his long and successful music career, you could sense the weariness in the singer’s voice; as he spoke it was almost as if he was recounting a long and arduous battle more than a couple of decades of success and fame.

He talked about his long-estranged bandmates, about how their sacred connection over music had been spoiled by industry “hounds” who saw music as a commodity. He spoke of the isolation he felt at the top of his game and his inherent distrust of the industry men whose advice he had come to regret.

“We were surrounded by people who were giving us wrong information” he admits at one point, “very few people tried to sit us down and say ‘this is going to be a problem, trust me’...you’re in there with the hounds.”

Corgan’s story is nothing new – the perils of fame and the industry have been so well documented they’ve become a parody. It’s widely known that the top of the music industry ladder is as steeped in contracts and paperwork as the corporate world, requiring a massive amount of navigation and know-how. However, listening to Corgan, you become acutely aware of what a personal cost fame can bring, and how unprepared a musician can sometimes be for it.  

Besides the swathes of contracts and paperwork we’re told to be inherently suspicious of, there’s something that stands to cause us even more heartbreak than a business deal gone awry. Researchers in the corporate field speak of Psychological Contracts, an unspoken arrangement in the workplace that carries implicit promises or expectations about the job. Psychological contracts are a picture we build in our mind about what we deserve, or what we’re entitled to – no one has promised us these things, but we feel we deserve them at a fundamental level, and when these expectations aren’t met, we struggle with disillusionment and resentment.

You can bet that there are psychological contracts at play for musicians; an implicit expectation that with success comes mutual respect, friendship, integrity, financial security, and a supportive network of like minds. All too often, the opposite is true; musicians can find themselves exposed for a quick buck, cut off at the knees by Tall Poppies, or hung out to dry by fairweather fans.

The intent here is not to paint a bleak picture of stardom, or to carpet-bomb the music industry, rather to draw your attention to the psychological contract of the artist. The truth is, we make a lot of assumptions about the things that come with success, and by the time we’re successful, it’s too late to find out those assumptions aren’t going to be realised.

My friend Joe Faris jokingly calls it “winning the Devil’s Lottery” – it’s an apt analogy. Truth is, no-one’s ever ready to be a millionaire. The internet is replete with stories of lottery winners who ended up ill-prepared for the difficulties that came with overnight riches: they thought money would bring them happiness, instead it brought them pain, relational brokenness and confusion – some winners have admitted they’d have rather been broke. So it is with fame and the ill-prepared musician.

So how do you prepare for fame? The hindsight of Billy Corgan is a good wakeup call, but you don’t have that right now – what you need is foresight, like the athlete who incrementally builds their capacity for a future race.

Be realistic about those expectations.
You won’t succeed without aspiration, but your psychological contract also needs a good dose of reality. The odds are against you in the industry – don’t make fame your yardstick, ground success in something that doesn’t rely on the fickle opinions of others, like the satisfaction of your creative input, or the high from making something out of nothing. If you can find a sense of success in that, chances are you’ll be a much more grounded person when fame comes knocking.

Find a community.
The antidote to suspicion, the antidote to ego, the guardians of perspective. If you’re serious about being in the public eye, you need to find a community of people who keep your feet on the ground, and you need to do it before the fact. Mentors, real friends, people who have gone before. Bats for Lashes says it well:

“Mentorship is really important. I really like to talk to people who have been in the music industry much longer than me about artists' block, things I'm struggling with, or the music business. It's really important for artists to have a community. Sometimes you can feel quite isolated.“

Keep relationship first.
Perhaps the most tragic aspect of Corgan’s story is the 16 year-long rift it created between him and his bandmates. Don’t be naïve enough to think that your friendships will survive fame – instead, make relationships a priority, and let it be the filter by which you deal with anyone in the industry. If anyone you deal with doesn’t treat people with respect at the fore, they’re not worth your time.

Watch: Billy Corgan on the realities of being a rockstar (Warning: strong language):

Luke Oram