The Localist: The Birth of Imposter Syndrome
I begin with the caveat that I am not literally giving an analysis of the birth of imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome has existed for as long as people have been doing art, and naturally arises from the tension between what an artist thinks they have accomplished, and what an artist has actually done. In this post, I am instead, giving an analysis of what has been a more recent increase in imposter syndrome that I see in musician communities, one that I think is driven by a rise in the professionalization industrial complex.
A fairly common topic amongst aspiring musician groups I have seen is: How do I avoid imposter syndrome? The reply that I state in my own mind, which I always keep to myself, is: “How can you have imposter syndrome? You haven’t done anything yet?” Which is a rather rude way of getting at the concept imposter syndrome, but I think is instructive. In order to have imposter syndrome, you have to represent yourself to others as someone who has a certain artistic status, broadly construed, and you have to then worry that the status that you’ve represented to others is false (i.e., you are an imposter).
One way to cure imposter syndrome – and the one that people focus on concerns the worry part of the equation. By employing techniques to overcome self-doubt, you can eliminate worry, and by definition, eliminate imposter syndrome as well. Such techniques are undoubtedly useful, as self-doubt is a constant bugbear of artists. Though, you have to admit this is a weird response to imposter syndrome. After all, one worries about imposter syndrome because they don’t know whether they are imposters or not. And say I didn’t know if i had COVID-19 and nevertheless represented to the people around me that I was COVID free. I might have a form of imposter syndrome. But the way I would deal with that, wouldn’t be to work on self-confidence techniques. I would just go and get tested to determine if I was in fact COVID-19 positive or not.
Of course, determining whether one is a legitimate artist or not (whatever that means) is a much more difficult affair. I can’t just take a swab or blood test in order to determine that. So maybe the objective litmus test is not so easily available in which case, it is not an easy method for curing imposter syndrome. But what about the other way that is implied in the definition? Is a big source of imposter syndrome the fact that we are representing ourselves as big shot musicians when we don’t need to be doing that in the first place?
Part of the increase in anxiety of imposter syndrome I think is the result of a significant increase in the “professionalization” industry, where musicians who are *just* starting to write are encouraged to sign up for PROs, develop a website, do a photo shoot, do a singles release show, etc… The reason the availability of these services has expanded is because there’s money to be had. And there’s an obvious temptation that comes with purchasing services, because the services all purport to lend an air of *legitimacy* to the musicians, whether musicians want to admit it or not.
I’ve talked to musicians who even feel that having a track on Spotify lends them some small amount of legitimacy that they would not otherwise have. Of course, just having a track on Spotify doesn’t actually help one to achieve legitimacy (whatever that means), because anyone could literally record a 5 minute track of cats vomiting to a beat, and pay a fee to CDBaby to get it posted on Spotify as Classical music. And a similar logic leads musicians to spend money on scam publicists, costumed photo shoots, graphic and web design services, boutique “session recordings” and the like. All of these things force the musician to in some sense “put themselves out there” and represent to the public an air of credibility – not just because the product of the services is made public. But the musician is forced to pay for the services, which puts a mental pressure on the musician to justify the cost via the legitimacy that is allegedly gained. When musicians don’t have enough money themselves, they are often encouraged by these “professionalization services” to fundraise the money from friends and family – in essence forcing the musician to represent to the public that they take themselves to have a certain amount of legitimacy, sufficient to ask for money.
I’m reminded of a report I saw on the victim of a Nigerian prince scam, many years ago, who kept donating larger and larger amounts of money to scammers, specifically because it would have been psychologically too much to acknowledge that she had lost tens of thousands of dollars to a scam. Paying additional money to the fake Nigerian prince was the only way to help her maintain her certainty that she would eventually be paid back the (eventually) hundreds of thousands of dollars she had wired. There’s a sense in which the spending of money (oftentimes in the thousand of dollars) forces a musician to create for themselves and others a representation as to their legitimacy, which in turn places extreme mental pressure on the musician.
Most of these entities offer their services to literally *anybody* though, which means that they are objectively not measures of legitimacy. Most of these services do not engage in any kind of “legitimacy check” in determining who they will charge money to. And, if you know people who work in this industry, you know that many of them actively mock their clients behind their backs. They are stuck in that position – servicing people who they think are actively bad musicians – because they need to make money in order to pay the bills. (More about that unfortunate economic situation another time). And people are lured into purchasing such services to “buy legitimacy” by a loose community that actively shames them into being customers by making representations that they are somehow not “real musicians” until they achieve one or another hallmark. Conversation on these music threads oftentimes shame musicians by telling them that they aren’t “real musicians” until they quit their day job, or until they are making sales on their music, or have merch to sell, or have a music video, or hit certain streaming numbers, or work with this one person who once worked with this Famous Artist (who is a definite “legitimate artist”). Of course, all of these services inevitably end up involving the buying of legitimacy to cure the source of shame.
Keeping this in mind, it’s no wonder that musicians can develop imposter syndrome. They are literally enticed by the professionalization industry into spending money and making representations to the public as to their legitimacy – either through the products that they purchase or even the act of spending significant money on services. Before I was just a musician playing some songs in front of strangers at an open mic, and not worried about much. But now a someone has told me about how so-and-so is a legitimate musician and has purchased these services, and how I’m in danger of falling into the void of ignomy unless I do X, Y and Z. And all of a sudden I’ve spent $1000 on a special session recording, where I’m now dressed up like a doll, and asking friends and family for money, and put before the public as someone who is claiming to be the next big thing. But now I see it’s only gotten 150 streams. Was I a complete fool to have spent that much money only to have gotten 150 streams? I can see how I might start to get nervous about imposter syndrome. In fact, I think I get now why purchasing botted streams on Spotify is such a popular thing. Because now that I’ve spent all of this money on these services, I have to justify it to myself and the people around me that I spent all of this money?
And the thing is, none of this stuff is actually needed to be a great musician. In fact, there are amazing songwriters out there who are writing material that could do very well commercially, but they never get around to doing the whole music professionalization thing – and they are amazing despite not going through with all of that stuff. And there are amazing songwriters out there are who are creating real high art who are not doing the whole music professionalization thing. And, I think this is a really important thing to say out loud. But, it’s okay to be a “mediocre” musician. Because you can create work that has genuine, real and valid meaning to you, all without doing the whole music professionalization thing. Where that genuine, real and valid meaning, is not somehow invalidated because it is not commercially successful, or “high art”.
I write this post only to point out the way in which the professionalization industrial complex has non-accidental connections to imposter syndrome. And to warn musicians off of spending money on these services and/or the idea of “buying legitimacy”. Mostly because these services aren’t needed in order to be a legitimate musician (whatever that means). Of course, maybe some time in the future, you will eventually want to purport yourself as an artist of some repute to the public. Hopefully by that time, you will have created for yourself a body of work which you have thoughtfully developed over the years, and have a clear sense of the artistic merit of that body of work, and sought the right kind of feedback on your body of work. And by that time, you won’t be able to have imposter syndrome, because you will know that you are a great artist.
The Localist is a column focusing on issues relating to aspiring local musicians in New York City. In his free time, the author performs as St. Lenox. MTV News praises his most recent record, “Ten Songs of Worship and Praise for Our Tumultuous Times” noting “[s]hades of Stephin Merritt and John Darnielle abound … but Choi is also his own kind of performer – muscly, not showy, economical, and completely unforgettable.” In 2021, Rolling Stone named St. Lenox one of its Artists You Need to Know, comparing St. Lenox to The Hold Steady, Mount Eerie and The National. AllMusic credits St. Lenox with “some of the most unique and unconventionally thrilling pop music in the late 2010s.”