How to Survive as a Solo Musician: Disappear, Annoy Fans, and Paint

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Performers who go it alone tend to die sooner than those in bands. But the ones who live a long time—think Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and Patti Smith—have a lot in common.

bob dylan old ap solo 615.jpg
Chris Pizzelli/AP

For 10 years, Keith Richards topped the list of stars most likely to die. "That was the only chart on which I was number one for ten years in a row," he wrote proudly in his memoir, Life. Yet he stayed alive, despite his notoriously self-destructive life style. What saved him—a superhuman liver? Blood transfusions? Turns out it might have been his band.

According to a recent study of 1,489 rock and pop stars, bands can save lives. The study found that over the course of 50 years, solo performers were twice as likely to die than stars who were part of a band. Why would this be? We know bands are full of strife, including Richards's own. But they also provide a support system that helps stars cope with the difficulties of fame. Getting a lot of money and attention may not sound too trying, but the rock n' roll lifestyle can be chaotic.

Being part of a band eases the stress and isolation of fame because you have a buffer between you and everyone who wants a piece of you: needy fans, pushy press, hostile incumbents, hurtful critics, greedy record labels, or unscrupulous managers. You can face these constituencies as a united front, hiding behind your cool sunglasses or private in-jokes.

Solo rock artists, on the other hand, have no such buffers. They expose their inner pain and desires, face the criticism, and deal with the sharks in the industry, all on their own. And as their fame rises, they become increasingly isolated from friends and family. Think Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston. In contrast, band members have their support of their bands to help them fight their demons, like Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose band kicked him out for his drug use and later participated in his rehabilitation.

Bands also allow you to separate the private person from the public persona. You can give Nine Inch Nails to the public and keep Trent Reznor to yourself. You can be a loyal family man in a band notorious for its sexual exploits (like Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones) or become a practicing Buddhist in a band that sells irreverence for a living (like Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys). An upshot of this group identity is that setbacks belong to the band, not to you. Not so for the solo artist.

Yet if going solo is so much more stressful than being in a band, how do you explain the longevity of solo acts such as David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Patti Smith, all of whom are over 60 and have released new material in the past year? Take a close look at the careers of these artists, and a few common themes that can account for their long-term success:

Take breaks

Leonard Cohen spent five years in a Buddhist monastery. Bob Dylan used his motorcycle accident in 1966 as an excuse to stop touring for nearly eight years and have four children with his wife. Patti Smith moved to a Detroit suburb to start a family. And Bowie had been lying low since 2004, in what everyone assumed was permanent retirement.

We know from psychological research that a long leave of absence can alleviate job stress. One study of teachers by Professor Haim Gaziel of Bar Ilan University in Israel found that sabbaticals reduced teachers' feelings of job burnout and intentions to leave their careers.

Why is a hiatus so important? First because it asserts the artists' independence from their audience. In his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan recalled being introduced at the Newport Folk Festival: "Here he is ... take him, you know him, he's yours." Dylan was outraged. "What a crazy thing to say!" he wrote. "Screw that. As far as I knew, I didn't belong to anybody then or now." Taking yourself out of the public's view is a way to remind everyone exactly whom you belong to: yourself.

Second, time away is a time to connect with loved ones. By surrounding yourself with family and old friends—people who do not seek your company because you're rich or famous—you strengthen your support system. You feel known, understood and affirmed for who you really are. You don't feel so isolated and lonely.

Mess with expectations

Don't give audiences what they want. Like taking a hiatus, this tactic is a subtle F-U to your constituency. Take David Bowie's new single, "Where Are We Now?," which has some bloggers scratching their heads and asking why he didn't come back with a more engaging and upbeat song. It's a way to buffer yourself from failure. Audiences want consistency, but they're easily bored. Chasing their approval by giving them what they think they want is a setup for failure. Which is why Vanilla Ice's second album tanked (or, well, at least part of why).

Leonard Cohen is a poet. David Bowie paints. Dylan has a book deal. Psychologists refer to this as having high identity complexity.

This doesn't mean that solo artists don't cater to their audiences. Clearly you have to please your audience enough to sell downloads, CDs, video views, and concert tickets. So you cater to the desire for the familiar by playing old hits at live shows. But you also offer high-quality new material. It's a risky tactic, but at least you know that up front. If the audience doesn't like more of the same, you're in trouble, but if it doesn't like that you've gone country or EDM, that can't be as disappointing. At least you had some fun and maintained a sense of integrity along the way.

Have a backup plan

Leonard Cohen is actually a poet. David Bowie's paintings sell faster than he can paint them. Dylan has a six-book contract to keep him busy. Patti Smith has an upcoming museum exhibit of her photographs and is working on a mystery novel. If tactic No. 2 backfires, these artists have contingency plans. Financially, the contingency plan may not be as lucrative as music. Without their fame, plan B would probably just be a hobby. The important thing about the backup plan is not that it provides alternate income, but that it provides an alternate source of positive self-worth. It's another way to define yourself.

Psychologists refer to this as having high identity complexity, or defining yourself in more than one way. A complex identity, like a band, provides a way to recover from failure. If audiences don't want to buy your new songs or come to your shows, you have a graceful path toward another career. People may not be buying Ice T's albums, but they're watching him on TV. Multiple gigs are also a way to connect to different sources of social support, since each identity connects you to its own community.

These methods allow artists to ease the pressure of fame that may otherwise overwhelm them. They can preserve a positive identity that is free of the whims of a fickle audience. They can build a supportive network of family, friends, and professionals so that they are not truly alone. Ultimately they can keep doing what they do best: writing and performing high-quality music.

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Ruth Blatt is a writer based in Chicago. She is working on a book about teamwork lessons from rock bands.

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