What is success? How do you define it? And what does it mean? For answers, Fort Worth Weekly editor Anthony Mariani sat down with three local artists at various stages of their careers: rapper Lou Charles, who has opened for Chamillionaire and Joe Budden and whose 2016 Album of the Year-nominated In Transit was produced by J. Rhodes (Talib Kweli, The Game, LaCrae); Rachel Gollay, whose titular indie-rocking band’s debut record, Built for Love, won Album of the Year last year and has produced a couple of songs in regular rotation on KXT and The Local Ticket; and Chris Johnson, a veteran singer-songwriter whose roots-rock band, Telegraph Canyon, has put out two albums, including 2016’s Rock Album of the Year-nominated You from Before, and has toured most of the country, sharing stages with The Flaming Lips, Built to Spill, Dr. Dog, the Old 97’s, Ryan Bingham, and many other marquee acts along the way.
Weekly: How do you define success?
Rachel: I think when you’re first starting out success is finding an audience for your music. For me, at least, starting to write music and perform it, it was a hobby. It was an outlet. It still is. But once you get a point where you have bandmates and people working with you, honestly, success is if I can pay them for their time. … It’s left hobby status. It’s got to be sustainable for everybody. We’re not getting rich off of it, but I’ve got to compensate them for their time. … Money aside, success, for me, is still very much if someone likes a song I’ve written and they resonate with it emotionally or whatever or they just like it, that is success to me. Whether or not they’re paying for it is pointless at that point. It doesn’t matter as long as they’re enjoying it.
Lou: I think you look at success two different ways. Are you making music that’s true to you? Unfiltered by anything else? And monetarily? Yeah, you want to be able to live off of your art. You want to be able to do this full time. The way I judge it is: Am I connecting with people? Every time I drop a new song or video, I expect the numbers to be higher. For me, at this point, as long as I’m connecting with a broader audience … that’s success.
Chris: When I started out, I knew I could get a band together, and I knew I could get shows, because anyone can do that, right? I mean, even though it’s a big deal and a ton of work, that’s just like baseline. … I thought if I could put a band together and draw 200 people anywhere in the country, that would be successful. That’s a huge thing to make happen. … Success is a lot of times getting to play with bands that I like and getting to meet people I’ve looked up to for 20 years, and I’ve gotten to do that, which has been really cool. But in the last couple of years I had a big falling out with my idea of success. I started feeling like a couple hundred people anywhere wasn’t anything. It was just as small as the work that it takes to put a band together and get shows. It was just bare minimum. And that there were a lot of people who still wouldn’t take us seriously, so if you have a hard time getting people to take you seriously at a certain level, then you have to bust through that, right? So success is always on the other side of whatever it is you’re trying to bust through. Instead, I personally and emotionally had to change my mind about how I felt about all of it. I decided that that moment in a show, when everybody’s there and there’s some anticipation … and something happens that you didn’t expect to happen, and you kind of come outside yourself and all the people you’re playing music with come outside themselves and then the audience also comes out of where they are, that’s success.
Weekly: It’s interesting. [Chris approaches] the question from a performance standpoint, Rachel from business, and Lou from creativity. But you all seem to be on the same page.
Rachel: Definitely. There are different forms and definitions of success. Part of it is I’m succeeding if I still love doing it. Not every show is amazing and not every songwriting session is fruitful, but as long as I’m still getting satisfaction out of it and still have a passion for it, that’s a success. Because it can be a slog sometimes … especially when money is a factor, but I’m lucky to have a full-time job outside of music. To me, success is still being able to balance that and still have time and effort and passion for the music part of my life.
Weekly: What’s your motivation?
Rachel: My motivation kind of goes back to kind of what [Chris was] talking about, connecting with people, you know like, “I put your CD in my car, and I let it play over and over for a week,” and if someone’s playing a song on repeat … that is another one of those little small wins.
Weekly: So it’s like success breeds motivation in a way?
Rachel: For sure, it’s addictive. You want to keep capturing that experience and see if you can get more people to have that experience. Yeah, it could be an addiction, hopefully a healthy one.
Lou: It’s definitely an addiction. I’ll say that you really want to be able to have fun. That’s why we’re doing it. We’re trying to have fun. I got out, and I have a show, 600 people there. If it’s packed but dead, it doesn’t matter what the numbers are. But if I do a small show, and there are 30 people there, and they’re all engaged, that makes a difference. At the end of the day, you want to have fun. I’ll also say you want to be able to connect with people. I was in San Antonio doing a show, and this lady came up to me and said, “Hey, Lou. How’s your dad?” “Uh, he’s alright.” “Well, I heard that one line in your song where you were talking about how your dad was sick.” One line! One line in a song! Something simple like that blew my mind, people actually listening to me. When you realize people are actually listening to you … I think that’s success, no matter what the scale is. There’s millions of things going on, a bunch of new music being dropped every day. The fact that you can capture someone’s attention for a little bit, I think that’s very successful.
Rachel: Doing a show like that, you’re battling so many distractions, especially if people haven’t heard you before … . To know someone’s in touch with what you’re doing, that’s special.
Weekly: Do any of you feel you’ve achieved success to an extent? Are you pleased with where you are, or are you disappointed?
Rachel: I’m very pleased. What I initially set out to do was just record an album, and that was just what I wanted to do. I didn’t necessarily have any intentions to put together any sort of band or play live shows. I like to perform, and I liked to perform before that, but it was sort of like a “This is just the one goal I want to hit,” and everything outside of that was icing on the cake, you know, people wanting to actually hear it and press and all that stuff. But now it’s sort of beyond the album and bigger than me, and I collaborate with my bandmates Russell [Jack], Josh [Ryan Jones], Taylor [Tatsch], Billy [Naylor], and it’s taken on a life of its own. That’s an unexpected success for me. Setting one tangible goal, and if I can hit that, that’s success. All the other stuff that comes along with it, I think is just extra.
Weekly: You started out with low expectations.
Rachel: I didn’t come in thinking, I’m gonna book all these shows and maybe tour someday –– we haven’t toured, but maybe that’s another goal we want to set.
Chris: Don’t do it!
Rachel: Maybe solid advice! Yeah, for me, I sort of have to set small, measurable goals, and if I can hit that, great. Everything else that happens surrounding on that is, yeah, icing on the cake.
Lou: I’ll say when I first started rapping I never thought I would make it this far, but as soon as I saw a little bit of success, I was like, “Wait. Hold up. I could really turn this into something legit.” From that … my goals have expanded. Do I think I am where I want to be? No. Am I disappointed? No, not really. You have to enjoy the journey. At this stage, I know that we’re building up to something, and we’re progressing in the right direction, so I can’t be upset about that. As long as I see progress, I’m happy. But I definitely have bigger goals, and I want to draw 200 people anywhere in the country. That is amazing, if you could pull 200 anywhere.
Chris: You can do it in the big towns, Chicago and New York, but if you can go to Lubbock and draw 200 people and parts of the Northwest, outside of Portland and Seattle, yeah, but you’ve got to stop and play [smaller cities] along the way.
Weekly: Has your definition of success changed over the years?
Chris: I’m definitely surprised I got to do it this long. I haven’t had a full-time job, haven’t had a job outside of music since 2009. That’s shocking. I’ve worked and saved money for 10 years while I was doing it … . I needed to do what makes me feel good, what makes me feel balanced, what makes me feel the most creative, so I don’t have to wake up and go do other shit a lot of times, you know? I think that being successful is being able to do what you want to do outside of music. I mean, anyone wants that feeling, right? And maybe what you want to do is bust your ass every day and work really hard to get beyond where you’re at, but just having the choice to do that? Music has given me that, so I can’t turn my nose up at it. There are things that I want that I haven’t touched. There are things I hope for. I guess, once you get a little taste of it, you can feel like it’s just going to keep going. I never expected to be a huge artist or anything like that. I just wanted to be bigger than we are. I wanted it to be easy. To echo Rachel, I wanted it to be easier to pay everyone more. I wanted it to be easier just to fund the thing in the right way. You make better decisions when you have the money to do it also. And I don’t know how much y’all have spent on records, but I can almost guarantee that we’re not spending anything close to the records that we’re quote-unquote-competing with. On the production of it? No matter if you’re spending $20,000 on a record, that ain’t shit. It’s nothing.
Weekly: Compared to like?
Chris: You want me to drop names?
Weekly: You talking like Radiohead?
Weekly: You think those are 20-grand records?
Chris: More. Every time. And that’s before advertising. Just think how much it costs to have a ton of records printed. Hopefully, you’re successful enough to have a ton of records printed. It doesn’t matter if the record label’s printing them or not. All the money that’s spent is ultimately coming from you. In our world, and I’m not trying to speak for [Rachel and Lou], I feel a lot of times you have to push on past what you feel like you can spend to try to get to another level. And then you’ve got to find someone to put money into the record and have some skin in the game, somebody who cares enough to work hard. If you’ve got people working for you in that way, you’re always going to need better people and more people. It’s not gonna end.
Weekly: Is that frustrating?
Chris: Yeah, but maybe it’s a different conversation. Maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with success. I think everybody’s gonna want to sit around and say that they feel successful, because we’re all grateful. But not to put a damper on the whole thing, but are we really, truly successful? In the music world? Not even close.
Chris: I’m a complete failure! And I’m OK with that! But I don’t have a job, you know what I’m saying?
Lou: That’s the thing about success, though. It’s one of those words. However you define is going to shape the way you look at it. People are looking at me like, “You got multiple nominations in the Weekly awards. You made it!”
*lots of laughter*
Lou: I’m like, “It’s not bad! It’s alright!” I appreciate it, no doubt, but we’re all looking at someone else. I’m like, “Man, they just announced the XXL magazine freshman list. Who’s on the cover? Man, those guys are successful.” It’s a lot of keeping up with the Joneses. Constantly. But you’ve got to be comfortable with what you want. There are a lot of things you can get out of music, but what do you want? I want to be able to play live shows. I love playing awesome shows. I enjoy the writing process, the recording process. That’s all cool. But when I step off a stage at a show, I’m like, “This is why I go through what I do, the ups and downs, the business, all of that.”
Chris: Because it’s worth it.
Lou: Yeah. So you just got to define [success] for yourself.
Weekly: I think that’s a good point and also what Chris said. There are so many artists out there. Recording technology is so much more affordable now, and making music is popular. It’s a good, wholesome pastime for kids now, School of Rock and all that, but it does feel like there are the Wilcos and Radioheads of the world and then a huge gap and then everyone else. So how do you navigate that landscape?
Chris: I think that they’re barely successful. Above that is Beyonce and Kanye and Jay-Z, and the way that the money’s structured … means that bands like Radiohead and Wilco, which I don’t know if they’re in the same category or not, but those people get paid way less money, just a percentage wise of royalties because of these other artists above them … Kanye, Jay-Z, or Beyonce. Who’s bigger than that?
Weekly: Right. The pop stars. Taylor Swift.
Chris: Are we suggesting that stuff doesn’t matter in a discussion of success?
Weekly: No, not at all.
Chris: Because I think there’s a lot of artistry involved in that. The new Beyonce record. I think it’s honest and sincere and innovative in a lot of ways.
Weekly: It’s a hundred-thousand dollar record.
Lou: More than that.
Chris: More than that, man! In my mind, those artists in the middle are pounding it out in a cool, interesting way, and if I were there, I would be super-pumped. And then come down from there: Dr. Dog and Dawes and Delta Spirit. All those bands are very successful to me. We don’t have to go very far into the world of music to feel successful, but the distance between here and the top is so far.
Rachel: It’s a different industry completely.
Chris: That’s what I don’t understand. That’s what I don’t know. All I know how to do is make music and … try to make good business decisions and barrel through it, but until you have a shit-ton of money behind you, I don’t know how you can consider your place in the business as really successful. …
Weekly: It’s like the idea that every Scorsese movie could win Picture of the Year, but it rarely does because through his body of work over the years he’s set the bar so high for himself.
Chris: Or one song could get you there.
Lou: I try not to think about that. I try not to. Aw, man. Just one song!
Rachel: Yeah, there’s always that hypothetical situation: If you could be a one-hit wonder or a person who had a sustainable but under-the-radar career, what would you choose?
Chris: If you can get a hit, and you can’t make a career out of that, even if it’s a little bit quieter than what the hit was, then maybe you shouldn’t have had a career. You won’t get a hit out of purposefully being poppy. The best way to be successful, in my mind, is to be the most raw, most sincere possible. …
Rachel: Making something that’s real or true to you and being proud of it … that’s success to me. If I can be happy with something I put out and truly stand by it, “This is a version of a true experience or emotion that I felt, and I’m unashamed of putting it out there,” that’s success. Because there are levels of self-editing. It’s success if I can get it out there.
Lou: If you can let it go.
Weekly: Trust your instincts.
Rachel: If you feel you need to cater to a certain audience it’s not authentic to what you want to express.
Weekly: You all have an audience too, right? An ideal listener.
Rachel: I think it starts with “What kind of music would I like to hear?” Then when you grow an audience, it’s something to think about, for sure.
Lou: I agree with that. When I was in college, I was in a group. It was all party rap. But as I broke away from them, and as it was becoming more about me, my tone changed. Every record I’ve put out has been me. Me back then in college? That was me. But as I’ve grown up and matured a little more, my music has matured. To me, that’s successful, being true to yourself. You’ve got to envision the music industry as a pyramid. The higher you go up the pyramid, the less people there are. With the internet, all you’ve done is made the pyramid taller. There are a lot more people in the game, but if you ever want to feel like “I’m special,” hit that next level, whatever it is, where you don’t feel crowded. That’s a big discussion I’ve had with my friends. “There are so many people out here doing it.” Well, hey, man. Hit that next level. Once we do that, there’s less people there.
Weekly: What about the concept of the big, fat record contract? Is that not even on your radar, or do you try to keep from thinking about that? Because getting on a major label or even a big independent seems to be a sign that you’ve arrived in a sense.
Lou: If somebody’s gonna pay me money I can live off of to make music, and you have no creative control over the product I put out and all the numbers look right, I would love to be signed. That’s cool, but I’m not chasing after it. I’m not going to make music that will help me get signed, but the thought is in the back of your mind. My focus? It’s on trying to build a fan base. The more people I touch, the quicker that phone call comes. If you’re chasing the record label, you’re doing it wrong. You have to have the record label chasing you. You should be out here trying to engage people first and foremost. Would I love to be signed? Yes.
Chris: That shit is crazy.
Rachel: It’s surreal.
Chris: It’s one of those things, thinking about it never makes you feel any closer to it. But you have to be OK with it not being a reality in your situation. You always have to figure out how to fund things yourself.
Rachel: I feel like that label system any day will collapse.
Chris: But all those people who are successful, they all have it, so how can you see it any other way?
Rachel: I feel like it’s the Hollywood blockbuster system. I don’t know how or why it will collapse, but the internet comes in and democratizes how we can listen to music and see films and get access to stuff, and the fact that we have this old dinosaur of a record industry and movie industry reinforces that whole thing. As long as they’re making money off of it, that will continue. Where does that leave everybody else? Not really thinking of getting signed, because that’s just not the model that works for the majority of musicians.
Lou: You can’t sit here waiting for it. I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere. I think as long as I’m making music, there will be record labels pushing their Beyonces, Kanye’s, and Jay-Zs, Taylor Swift, everybody, but there’s a lot of independent labels out there, there are a lot of other opportunities. Like I said, you can’t chase it. You got to build what you have. If I can get 200 people in any city, a label is gonna knock on my door.
Lou: “We want in on what you’re doing because we think we can make it 400 people.” As long as you have your goals in line and are currently building toward that, you’re building toward more. What’s the label doing? The label’s fronting you money to do what you want to do.
Weekly: That has to be paid back.
Lou: Right, right.
Chris: Big or small, doesn’t matter who it is. Everybody’s gotta get their money back.
Weekly: The thing about the slow potential demise of major labels is that it may explain why festivals are so important right now. The live experience, there’s no replacing that. Ever. As long as people are putting on good shows, there will be a demand for original music.
Chris: And as long as there’re TV shows and movies …
Weekly: You might not be on the cover of Rolling Stone …
Chris: Who says, baby?
Weekly: … but you still can make a pretty damn good living playing shows and making original music.
Chris: I remember I told you I wanted to be on the cover of the Weekly, and you said, “Never gonna happen.”
Weekly: I never said that!
Chris: Did it happen? It did happen!
Weekly: I know! But I never said that.
Chris: We were hanging out just like this! You said, “I don’t see how I could make it work.” You had John Lamonica on there, and I go, “Seriously, John Lamonica was on the cover of the Weekly.” And you said, “No, he wasn’t.”
Weekly: Because he wasn’t! Or because it was a story about local music in general, not about John Lamonica.
Chris: It was, too!
Weekly: I never would have told you that!
Chris: Things change. Things change.