Content note: some mention of depression.
I’d be very interested to find a reliable statistic for the proportion of musicians who are introverted. It seems it’s hard enough to get a reliable figure for the population in general without carrying out a census-style enforced personality test. The scientist in me thinks this is a pity, as it might give us a very important insight into people in general. In particular, I recently listened to this excellent TED talk by Susan Cain (or see for a two-minute distillation of the same message), and realised she had a very important point: most of the trappings of the modern, Western world are geared towards extroverts. Business is conducted in open-plan offices with frequent team meetings, social interaction is more popularly carried out in noisy bars and clubs, and many elections seem to depend less on policies than on which candidate is better at shouting down the other.
I recognise that there is no simple binary between “introvert” and “extrovert”: everyone sits somewhere along a spectrum, and not everybody is obviously one or the other. I also don’t wish to draw battle lines with this: Cain jokes that “many of [her] best friends are extroverts,” and I could say the same for myself. But as a musician, I have begun to wonder whether the whole nebulous concept that we call “the music business” is also geared in favour of the extrovert, and the consequences this may have for many of us.
“Introverted” should not be confused with “shy.” The two things often correlate, and they certainly overlap, but they are not the same thing. Many introverts are, in fact, surprisingly outgoing, and can hold court or liven up a social gathering as well as the best extroverts. The key difference is that the introverts find it tiring. They need time to slink away and recharge, whilst extroverts feed on the energy that social interactions gives them.
It’s hard to say for certain without seeing some data, but one might expect introversion to be more prevalent in musicians, or indeed creative types in general. Many musicians who present a larger-than-life personality onstage are far more modest, even withdrawn, if you go up and speak to them afterwards. How many writers or artists have you known who won’t let you read or see what they’re working on until it’s finished? On a darker note, some studies have suggested a correlation between severe depression and introverted personalities, and although this is not necessarily a causal link, every musical era has its share of “tortured geniuses,” from Beethoven through to Brian Wilson.
For many people, the creative process can be an intensely private affair, which is in keeping with introverted thought: we’re unlikely to be yelling out ideas in the boardroom, but give us a bit of time and space to come up with an answer, and the introverts are typically the ones who come back with the more creative solutions. I’ve worked with some groups who wrote their material by pooling ideas and jamming them until they had a complete song. Personally I’ve never felt comfortable in such a setup: when I write, I write alone, and I only bring it to the band when I feel it’s good enough.
And onstage? Well, we’re clearly not being ourselves. In normal settings, many introverts will stay quiet unless they’re confident that other people are interested in what they have to say. But put us up in front of an audience and many of us flourish because, godammit, this is our turn to talk. Many of us will slip into an engineered persona, our closest approximation to the rock god we dreamed of being, and will wear it until we’re catching our breath in the dressing room.
So far, it may seem like it’s all well and good for music. What we’ve not considered, of course, is the business side of things. The conclusion is, increasingly, that one cannot succeed without the other – good musicians must learn to be good businessmen (though, ironically, it seems that good business credentials can often be enough to prop up some pretty dire music). Many of you will have read articles about that person who clearly had lots of talent, but who didn’t succeed because they weren’t prepared to do the hard work. What you don’t see so often are articles about that person who had promising talent, worked hard, performed as far and wide as they could…but never quite “broke through.”
Of course, one explanation for this is that the former type of article is far more enjoyable to read and write because the author can adopt a judgemental tone, and say “let that be a lesson to you,” and their readers can shake their heads in disbelief and say “I’m glad I’m not that person.” Which is not to say that these people don’t exist: believe me, I’ve met quite a few of them. But their case is easily explained: they knew they were good, but they became aloof and arrogant and expected things to happen for them.
The latter case may be much harder to explain. The hardworking artist could be playing as far and wide as possible and still only be reaching a fairly small audience. Let’s ignore the lazy explanation that their music just isn’t any good; after all, the growth of music on the internet has made it possible to find an audience for just about any kind of music. One possibility, which may account for many of these ill-fated stories, is that their strategy is flawed. Perhaps they’re playing in their home town too often, or perhaps they’re only playing in towns where there’s little or no appetite for live music.
Or, perhaps they’re lacking a good “networker.” You see, the “music business” is a relatively nebulous concept: unlike many other sectors, a band does not fill in a form to apply for a vacancy at an institution or company. Instead, the old adage that it’s ultimately down to “Who You Know” has an unpleasant ring of truth to it. And to increase your chances of getting to know these useful contacts, your best bet is to meet lots of people and do lots of networking. But if you’ve got four or five great musicians who are all a bit shy and withdrawn offstage, who’s going to do that networking? Is it any wonder that so many bands eventually come to the conclusion that they need a booking agent or a manager? There’s nothing to say an introverted musician can’t do this, but remember that we find extensive social interaction tiring. We’re definitely into extroverted territory now.
Even that most important bit of networking – talking to the fans – can be a tricky one. Having people slap you on the back and tell you how much they enjoyed your set is immensely satisfying – hell, it’s one of the reasons we keep going back for more! Talking to people before and after your set can be incredibly important for keeping your fanbase close, but it can be very draining for those people who don’t thrive on social interaction. Even regular updates on social media may feel like more of a chore – it’s not just a case of thinking of something to post, it’s putting on your stage persona and thinking “what would my inner rock god post?”
As I said near the beginning, this is not to suggest that one personality type is any “better” than the other, but a lot of this is simply conjecture without some reliable data. I would be very interested to get some handle on what proportion of musicians are introverted or extroverted, or even where they sit on that spectrum. If you are a creative type – and especially if you have some insight into your own personality type – I would love to hear your take on this. Am I barking (shyly and politely) up the wrong tree? Or do I just need more data? I wonder if it’s time to cobble together a survey…