The Achievers: Life in Lockdown Part VII

Staying motivated as a musician

It can be tough at the best of times to keep motivated. Having to stay indoors is pretty hard for musicians to stay creative. Luckily, Steve Ferbrache of The Achievers gives us a little insight into keeping that creative side going, staying true to yourself and finding wisdom at the bottom of a bucket of chicken wings.

Winging it

When I was 17, I started working at a high street chemist. I spent my wages on Bob Dylan albums and guitar pedals I couldn’t use properly. When I moved to a different city a few years later I managed to get a transfer to the local store and took the opportunity to reinvent myself as some sort of cavalier, plays-by-his-own rules type. I still had to hide my embarrassment when someone bought something awkward, but I was totally the cool new guy. Or so I thought.

Fast forward a few months and I’m at the work Christmas party triumphantly winning the chicken-wing eating competition (26 in a minute!) and assuming the girls will now fancy me. For about 20 minutes too long I fist-bumped and sashayed my way around Yates’ Wine Bar in Stoke-On-Trent like Apollo Creed on a ring-walk. It soon became evident that no one cared and that I had a lot of BBQ sauce on my Ben Sherman, but I reigned temporarily supreme.

Living with motivation

How does this relate to grass roots music? Well, aside from depicting me as a deluded triumphalist, there’s an important lesson in there about what motivates musicians to do their thing. Whatever level you’re playing or performing there are always fresh new goals to strive for. I’ve learnt a few hard lessons over the years about ‘motivations’ and how they can affect one’s creative and emotional health.

The traditional way of looking at success in music has mostly been externally motivated: what do other people think about your music? Are they buying your records? Are you selling out gigs? Will you be so successful that in 23 years’ time, you’ll appear on a TOTP2-style retrospective TV show where the children of your once adoring fans make fun of your hair?

We can’t ignore external motivations – they’re an inevitable bi-product of stepping out into the world holding your music in front of you. If you choose not to perform your music for others, then those ruminations on whether it’s ‘any good’ or not can just melt away. I felt like that when I first picked up the guitar aged 15. Sometimes I wish I could go back - minus the acne of course. There’s something very uncorrupted about learning an instrument for the very first time and unless your folks make you feel guilty about how expensive saxophone lessons are, you’re generally beholden to no-one.

Those well-meaning chats

If you’re a gigging musician you’ve almost certainly been asked in the last few years whether you’re going to ‘get signed’ or ‘make it’. It’s often a well-meaning brother-in-law (the one who still dresses like Paul Weller) or someone your Father-in-law introduces you to at a garden party. Typically, I’ll just narrow my eyes and grope for a suitably vague response – something like: “Well, we’re doing okay I suppose, in our own way.” No one ever asks if you’re happy with the level of technical competence you’ve achieved, or if playing your instrument alone still brings you peace, contentment and a sense of pride.

As Staffordshire’s Chicken Wing Eating Champion (1999-00) and with all the responsibility that places on me, I feel a duty to guide you through these challenging dilemmas. It’s a weight I carry each day – literally on the count of all the chicken wings.

But what I learned many years later – after some of the glory had faded – was that in an attempt to impress others with my prowess, I lost sight of my fundamental, internal motivations. I chose the approving gaze of others (or so I thought) over the fact that I had recently chosen to become a vegetarian and hadn’t eaten meat for six months. I realised this on the bus home.