Fear of success seems a bit absurd. We’re all trying to succeed all the time, right? Fear of failure seems logical though; we don’t want to fail… Or do we?
My band got into silent film accompaniment about 10 years ago. If you’re not familiar, it’s a show where a live band plays music accompanying a silent film, or imagines their own film soundtrack. In 2015, we chose to write a score to the silent film Nosferatu after many requests and suggestions from people at our shows.
I was reticent at first. In my mind, Nosferatu was so very “done” in the world of silent film accompaniment. Every little art house cinema in a town with a metal band, a community orchestra, or an electronica act has had the idea to show Nosferatu at Halloween with live accompaniment. There are tons of new scores for this movie out there. Not only that, but the original score has been found and a DVD of the movie featuring it is actually now available.
But I spent time brainstorming and found some themes and ideas I thought brought something fresh to the movie — something complementary but not campy — modern, but not anachronistic.
Of course, we decided to do it as a Halloween tour and I spent six months of daily work from March to September in 2015 writing, refining, and recording the music; finding venues; and dealing with booking and promoting and creating all the merchandise and materials to do so (flyers, postcards, marketing language, video previews, a band photo). I didn’t have to do this all alone but I was the linchpin of this effort.
Midway through the summer my van started popping off ignition wires. Mechanics wanted more than the vehicle was even worth to work on it. I was so busy working on the tour that I didn’t have the bandwidth to finance and find a new used van. Alas, I tried to fix it myself. At first, it was fine and I was proud of my new mechanic skills for the six weeks of smooth sailing preceding the tour. I was back to booking, practicing, refining, etc.
There were a bunch of little successes throughout that process. We made a surprisingly good recording that was done before the shows for once. We also had killer (ha!) artwork, and for the first time I booked a tour of nothing but silent movie performances — no rock shows to connect the dots. My friend David Wyatt and I had fantasized about one day doing this and it actually happened!
We’d made the same amount of merchandise we usually make for a tour — not much — about 50 posters (first time we’d done those), 100 CDs, and 40 t-shirts for an 18-date tour.
Then we launched. Three hours into the tour, the engine start misfiring again. We stumbled into Huntsville, TX for our first show. I was pissed and scared. My pre-show time was spent troubleshooting spark plug wires in the engine. At the time I thought, “This day is just a sign of what’s to come… ugh.”
(This engine problem didn’t improve, I just got better at reconnecting the wires over those two weeks. It’s amazing we made it anywhere!)
That night in Huntsville, we were pleasantly surprised to play for a full house and I was shocked that we very nearly sold out of all our t-shirts, most of our posters, and about half our CDs. Crap! We still had 17 more shows to go! Gadzooks! We scrambled to get more of everything made and were barely keeping up with demand for the whole rest of the tour. (Thank you, by the way, to anyone reading this who bought a t-shirt from us!)
That first day did turn out to be a sign of what was to come, but not in the way I’d expected. People were telling their friends and family in other towns to come see us when we were passing through other places. The newspapers actually picked up on it and we were the recommended thing to do that week in nearly every town we played. One night we even we beat our record for single-day merchandise sales! It was amazing.
But I couldn’t get positive about it. I wrote that first full house off as a fluke — it was at a college after all. They’d done a good job of promoting, and it was free admission. The next full house was in our flute player’s hometown near Mobile. Mobile sold out too. It was easy to write those off. We’d played there lots of times. Then Pensacola sold out on a Tuesday. In six nights, four shows were full or sold out, one was the biggest audience we’d ever had in that town (NOLA), and only one was a dud.
The band was in high spirits that night after the Pensacola show when I launched into a negative spiral that must surely have confused and confounded pretty much all of my bandmates. The next day, it occurred to me that I was complaining about good things happening and focusing on the very few bad ones. But recognizing the absurdity of that didn’t squelch my fear.
So I decided to write down everything that had me feeling scared about a tour that, for once, was doing better than just breaking even on costs. Those fears included:
- This string of full houses is going to end and then everyone’s going to be disappointed and morale will be even worse than if we’d had mediocre shows all along. Just as the others praised me for lucking into these successes, they’ll all turn on me as soon as we have another off night.
- Now the bar’s set higher. Not only does our old standard for a “good” night of merchandise sales suddenly look paltry, but everyone’s going to expect it to be this to be the new norm. When it gets back to the old norm, I’ll be the one to blame for not being able to keep it up.
- It’s great that we’re riding this wave for now, but I don’t think I can recreate this again and again. This is just luck.
- This isn’t even all that great. It’s not like we’re making enough money to live on here. We’re all excited because our standards are so low. The disappointing reality that I can’t even recreate this mediocre success will set in soon.
- This movie is the draw, not us. We’ll never see these faces again.
- I’m playing the simplest music I’ve played in years. My chops are going to atrophy out here.
- The van’s going to die out here and all our resources will be pooled into fixing it just to keep moving. No one will be happy to see their cut of the income go to a van rental company even if we keep on having good attendance.
(Out of all of those, the last one is the only one I should’ve actually been worried about.)
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After I wrote all that stuff down, I realized that I was scared of success. What a weird place to be. Failure, by contrast, didn’t scare me. I’ve dealt with that a lot before and feel confident I can deal with it again. Hell, I already had plan B and plan C ready to go. So ready to go in fact, it was almost as if I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to put them in action.
Our luck held, though, and we had 16 fantastic shows on that tour — most sold out or full and only two duds (the only two shows we did in clubs).
Returning home, this success seemed to me like beating a level of Space Invaders: one moment I’d been praying to clear the level and the next standing paralyzed in disbelief as a whole new set of even-faster enemies appeared. It’s as if the reward for winning is simply a chance to keep playing a more challenging version of the same game.
So what did I do about the fear? I made the decision not to let it paralyze me. I booked a tour to the West that was even better than the Halloween tour! Then we went east in October 2016 and it was even better than that. We still had some duds out there, but mostly it was one terrific ride. So terrific that coming off the Nosferatu project is the most difficult “Now What?” I’ve faced in a long, long time.
Good thing I like playing Space Invaders.