Recently someone called me a “diva” as a joke. Even though, literally, “diva” means a successful female performer, that wasn’t really the connotation the person was going after. For a second I thought it was because of something rude that I unintentionally did or said, so I asked them to explain why they thought I was a diva. The answer really saddened me. I was told that I was always aiming for the best when it came to my music and that made me diva-ish… I don’t think I’ve ever been that motivated to write an article than at the moment I heard their response!

Aiming for the best is good! Having a standard below which you’re not willing to go is important! Working hard for the best result possible and standing your ground when someone’s trying to undermine you is what everyone should be doing! None of these qualities make you a “diva” as long as you act politely and respectfully. These qualities make you an ambitious professional who takes their career seriously. However, I’ve noticed that not everybody likes it when musicians take ownership of their art and treat it as their business! I guess partly we have ourselves to blame for it…

Is it your business or your hobby?

A few years ago when I just started my music career, the level of competition among starting out artists seemed crazy. Each and every act I saw was unbelievably talented and, just like me, was dreaming to make it to the top. A bit later down the line, after numerous talks with different professionals within the industry, I found out that, despite claiming that they have serious intentions, only half of those wannabe stars actually aim to build music careers and the other half is either not ready to sacrifice for their music, have other hobbies or simply don’t believe in themselves enough to push themselves further.

Out of the remaining 50% of artists, 20% are totally incapable of self-organisation and love partying too much. Some of them aren’t motivated enough or their act is too far from the commercial format and will probably remain in a specific experimental niche. Some of that 20 % have families and don’t want to travel, some realise that they can’t make enough with their music and switch their focus to something else. At the end of the day, it’s the remaining 30% of artists that are really serious about their careers and want to make music their business.

If only 30% of musicians take their music seriously, I can see how aiming for more can be perceived as out of the ordinary. However, it’s not an excuse to try and shame someone for having ambitions. As a matter of fact, the competition among that 30% is ridiculously high and having ambitions is essential if you want to win your own place in the limelight!

Ambitions or pretensions?

Ambitions play a very important role in this race for popularity. However, there are different kinds of ambition and I’d really like to explore where healthy ambitions end and presumptuous demands begin.

I guess first I should clarify what I mean by ambitions because every person has their own understanding of this word. Google suggests that ambition is “a strong desire to achieve something”.  For me, however, ambition is not only about the desire itself but also about a certain level of assurance in success: I believe that I can achieve something and therefore I will, one way or another!

I’ve come to the realisation that some people perceive ambitiousness as something negative but for me, it’s always been a positive quality! In fact, it’s the lack of ambition that usually drives me up the wall. What I don’t appreciate is pretentiousness and the sense of entitlement. However, sometimes the line between ambitions and pretensions can be blurred and it’s difficult to see the difference. Let’s look into it!

Overall, I think you are ambitious when you sensibly assess yourself and your opportunities and then set a certain goal that you want to reach which is usually higher than where you are at the moment. For example, after performing twice at the same festival, it’s only natural to start dreaming of becoming the festival’s headliner. This is a positive healthy ambition. But what if you formed a band around a month ago and now you wouldn’t lift your finger unless a bar paid you £200 upfront in a town where no one’s ever heard your name? This sounds a lot like pretensions, in my opinion.

However, there are examples where you can’t really tell if it’s ambitions or pretensions speaking. What if you are a young performer, who just started their career and strongly believes that with a serious approach, they can become as big as The Rolling Stones? Sounds a bit arrogant, no doubt, but also dreamy and quite inspiring in a way! How about more practical examples! When a venue can’t provide decent sound equipment, is it fine for the artist who doesn’t want to sacrifice the quality of their sound to refuse to play? Is it their ambition to be the best versions of themselves or their pretension that they are too cool for that kind of gig?

In my opinion, a lot of the time the line between ambitions and pretensions is crossed by way of how those very ambitions are delivered. If you are dreaming of headlining Glastonbury one day, that’s great, but there’s no need to be arrogant when you talk about those dreams. Staying silent and being too shy to talk about what you really want is at the other end of the spectrum and will also not do you any favours. Personally, I like the saying “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” and in my view, a well-balanced mix of modesty and cheekiness is what helps successful people achieve their goals. My rule is that it’s always good to ask but I should never expect to necessarily get whatever it is I’m asking about.

And when it comes to the opportunities that no longer suit your needs and ambitions, I sincerely think that no one should be shamed for outgrowing the old arrangements and moving on, as long as it’s done respectfully. I remember that at the very start of my career I was happy to perform anywhere, for as long as necessary and wherever was necessary. I didn’t care if there was no sound equipment in place or if I had no guitar on me and would need to borrow it from someone else. I didn’t even care if the show was detrimental for me financially, I’d still travel for it and play no matter what! However, with time my experience started growing and inevitably my expectations started growing with it. Some opportunities that seemed exciting 2 years ago, no longer sounded good and felt more like a waste of time and money. Slowly but gradually I started recognising unfavourable terms of certain arrangements and gained enough confidence to speak up when something didn’t feel right. Does that mean that I’ve caught star fever? I really don’t think so.

It’s certainly important to remember where you’ve come and to always remain grateful for all the opportunities you’ve had no matter how far you’ve progressed. However, it’s equally important to celebrate your own success and not feel reproached for moving up the career ladder. I think it’s quite possible to continue being down to earth while making your most daring ambitions a reality and it’s the attitude with which you’re doing business that makes all the difference. The same applies to artists’ requests and pretensions: no one will call you names if you politely ask for more time during the soundcheck or for one extra bottle of wine to be added to your rider. It will, however, look very arrogant and pretentious if you just demand those things because you know you can, and that’s why a lot of the time it’s not really the battle between ambitions and pretensions that we have to worry about, it’s the simple and basic question whether the person you’re dealing with has good or bad manners.

Photos by Jamie McNamee