the courage to create

Yesterday was an exciting day. My tune, slow waltz, was added to the Peaceful Piano playlist on Spotify, which at the time of writing has close to 6.5 million followers.

This is worth celebrating, of course! Though while I’m so grateful for more exposure, a “success” like this can come with many struggles. I only say this because I’ve been here before, and I hope my story can encourage you to keep creating, no matter the circumstances.

It was around December 2019. Colors had been released a few weeks prior. The first single to be released from Her Heart Is Open as the Sky. It was a surreal experience looking back on it. We were at a friend’s house, and she was listening to some piano music I knew well, though wouldn’t expect others to be familiar with. “How did you hear about this album?” I asked. “It’s just a playlist I saw you were on, from your profile.” A playlist? Me? I checked Spotify, and sure enough, there it was. Colors on the Magnificent Piano playlist.

I was shocked, stunned, excited, thrilled, affirmed, confused. How did one of my tracks get playlisted? I had no idea. I had submitted it for “editorial review” through the Spotify for Artists’ app, but figured there was a greater chance of being struck dead by a cow falling from the sky.

A few days later, there it was. Colors on Peaceful Piano. It simply blew me away.

What I didn’t expect was the self-induced agony that followed.

I soon came to realize that typically with one editorial playlist came many. (At least for others, based on my observations.) However, that wasn’t happening for me at the same rate. I also began to notice the playlist was updated every two weeks. (Now it’s weekly.) I think it’s fair to say I became obsessed with keeping Colors on the playlist. Though I had absolutely no idea how, and no control over it.

I became spellbound and obsessed with numbers. It felt hard to control. This compulsive desire to check my stats every day when they were updated. To make sure I hadn’t fallen out of grace with that one person (or many?) who made decisions about who is worthy to stay, and who gets canned.

It didn’t help that I was also suffering from imposter syndrome. I kept worrying maybe it had been a fluke. Did they really mean to add it? I’d wonder. Is it because Jane called out and Barry had to make the playlist adds that day and I got lucky? I’d listen to my track on the playlist, comparing it side-by-side with the others. Can it hold its ground amongst these giants?

It wasn’t just the numbers, though. People told me there was real money to be made from a playlist like this. I started researching how much of a payout I might get. And if I was even in the ballpark, it was significant enough to be helpful for our family. My heart swelled, looking forward to it.

After a few months, the first payout came, and I was ecstatic. Because if it continued, it would be a huge help for us.

Yet within days, Colors was removed from Peaceful Piano. Maybe they are just shuffling things around? I tried to reassure myself. My thoughts spiraled. It was almost like it had been planned. Like they wanted to dangle success (a/k/a money) in front of me, then burn it before my eyes.

I was a mess.

I’ve always been prone to self-doubt. And this was the pin to pop my little piano balloon. To me, it validated what I believed to be true about myself (at that time). That I wasn’t worthy to receive good things. That it’s dangerous to get one’s hopes up. That I shouldn’t dream big. That my music (or anything I make) isn’t worthy of people’s time and attention.

It’s interesting how expectations play a role in all this. When I released my first album (Opening), I was simply grateful to afford studio time and work with a great engineer. Those songs needed to come out. Otherwise I’d burst. And it felt so good to have a finished thing to share with friends and family.

There have been many experiences in my life where I’ve learned the hard way that money doesn’t satisfy. For example, I’ve taken jobs or promotions, just for the money. Then I was miserable because I hated what I was now doing.

That experience with Colors wasn’t much different. Once it became about money and numbers, I was a wreck.

In contrast, the times where I’ve chosen to do things in spite of money, have always been more gratifying. Where I’ve chosen to follow my heart, and act with integrity, rather than sell myself for money.

So what about now? It’s happened again. Will anything be different? Will I suffer the same fate?

In a way, I’m glad it hasn’t happened till now, because I don’t think I was ready. I had a lot of shit to work through in my head and heart. I needed to remind myself of why I create in the first place. I needed to remember: I do this because I have to. Music is a sort of life-blood for me. It’s like breathing. Without it, I merely function. With it, I’m vibrantly alive. It doesn’t matter who’s watching (or not), I must do it.

Additionally, there are some practical things I’ve done to prepare myself for whatever happened, “good” or “bad”. Editorial playlist or not. (Which I’d be happy to share more about another time.)

Part of the reason I share this is because I know I’m not alone. Like so many, I’ve created and bled my heart out for years with no one watching. With only a few people really believing in me.

After sharing about the playlist add, I posted this to my Instagram story. The response was overwhelming and heart-warming. It came from my heart, so rather than rewriting it, I’ll re-post it (edited for clarity):

For all of you who bleed their heart into the world and feel like there’s never a payoff, like no one is listening, you have to keep going. You do it because you have to. It’s like breathing.

And no amount of streams or follows will ever make you valuable. You are valuable because you have the courage to create and be yourself in this world.

What is most important as an artist is to be true to your craft. Make things you love. Make things to express your joy and sorrow. Share them if you want to. Like scattering seeds, letting them go to take root in people’s hearts, where and when they may. That takes time. We have no control over that.

I’ve been writing music since I was 13, though fear kept me from sharing it. In many ways, the music I wrote was awful. (It takes time to develop one’s craft.)

I tried to stifle my desire to compose for a long, long time.

You make because if you don’t, you might as well be dead. (At least, that’s what it feels like.)

If you connect with one soul through your craft, celebrate that.

And that’s exactly what I want to celebrate now. You, the listener. The reader. All of you who’ve reached out saying how much my music has meant for them. How could there be anything more wonderful than connecting with another soul? Money comes and goes, but our connection will give birth to new creations. New life. How can it be otherwise?

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels


  1. Gosh we’re all working through our stuff aren’t we. No one is immune to it. Good for you for recognizing it and pushing through.
    You are a creative soul Joe. Keep going! We love your art.

  2. “I do this because I have to. Music is a sort of life-blood for me. It’s like breathing.

    Like so many, I’ve created and bled my heart out for years with no one watching. With only a few people really believing in me.”

    Thank you so much for sharing your music and heartfelt words. You are such a gifted musician and writer. I’m so happy I found you through the Spotify playlist. I always try to follow artists who inspire me. When I looked up your name to follow at the time, you were posting your daily challenge to write a new piece. I need to do the same and have that daily discipline of writing new material. It’s so easy to either not practice at all or review mastered songs or consume and learn a new song. Last night, I started learning “slow waltz.” You’re my piano teacher now!

    As far as numbers, the only thing I wish that would change is the payout on Spotify. Artists should at least get a penny per play instead of so many plays to even get a penny.

    I’ve recently become obsessed with making my own playlists. I feel it is a creative exercise. I’ve started to make my favorite Vontmer songs playlist! Your songs are beautiful, calming, golden and mean everything to me. I’d love to see you play in real life one of these days!

    Thank you again times infinity for this reminder, “the courage to create” and for being my friend! Cheers!

    1. Yes, curating your own playlists is an art form unto itself. I’m glad you are finding joy in that. I’d like to go back and update/refresh some of the playlists I’ve put together as well. I hope you enjoy learning “slow waltz”, and may you find unending inspiration in the days ahead as you dig into your own creative expressions. I agree re: the Spotify payouts. That would be amazing if they could skew the scale a bit so us bottom-feeders could earn more per stream than those who stream millions (and billions). Thanks for your encouragement, and I’m glad we were able to connect! It be awesome if we could all meet you some day in person!

  3. Thank you again for sharing your raw thoughts and feelings with others. Especially during such an amazing time for you with the playlist add. And to know that someone so talented, still has a swirl of thoughts and second guesses like most independent artists, makes you feel connected in a whole different way. It’s so real.

    Congrats to you!

    1. It’s my pleasure. I’ve shied away from it for awhile for fear people might misunderstand where I’m coming from. But I’ve constantly noticed how much I appreciate when others share honestly and vulnerably, so I’d like to do that for others who might be struggling with the same things. It’s much more unifying than pretenses and facades, anyway. So why not just be real 🙂

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