THE STARVING ARTIST
“Music is not something that you are in control of. It comes from somewhere else. If you’re that middleman between the cosmos and the real world on Earth that the music comes through, you are very lucky. The second that someone thinks music comes from themselves, and that they are the ones responsible for it, is when they go off track. The most important thing you could realize is that you are the least important part of the whole process. Music is going to be made whether any one artist is here or not.”
It was the early 90s. A young John Frusciante was contemplating on leaving the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their latest album had sold 13 million copies. Their unexpected success was too much for him to handle. This newfound life of fame had put Frusciante on the ropes.
He refused to play onstage, and when he did, he intentionally played at his worst. He would tell his bandmates, “We’re too popular. I don’t need to be at this level of success. I would just be proud to be playing this music in clubs like you guys were doing two years ago.”
He did leave.
Musicians such as Frusciante are uncommon. He was a young man who dedicated every waking hour of his young life to his craft, and you could feel it in his work. That is definitely something to admire, and something that we should emulate. Music, for him, was about having a deep connection with nature.
He was, however, at the time influenced by the thought of novelist William Burroughs, that every true artist is at war with the world.
Unlike his bandmates, Frusciante went deep into his music that he didn’t think at all about commercializing it for the masses to listen to. He was scrupulous in not playing music for egocentric reasons.
Touring and other means of reaching out to audiences would ruin the relationship he had with his art. He hated being looked up to as a superior figure. He wanted it to be about the music, and not about himself.
Frusciante wasn’t a kook or a weirdo. It’s a very normal thing. At some point, especially after dedicating one’s self to immense hard work, this is what most artists have to confront.
After the long hours of labor and deep thought are put in, their work becomes very dear to them. Some artists would refrain from marketing and the business side of their craft. They believe that doing so would stain the “purity” of their work. They’d rather live in obscurity and poverty. Their art is only for themselves. They are what we call the “starving artists”.
WHY THEY STARVE
“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky : two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”
It is understandable that their art is deeply personal. Creativity is so dear to them that it is almost sacred. Their best ideas aren’t in their control, they come when they’re not thinking, when they shut their minds and let the current of their art take them to new places. Some call it a help from God, some would say that’s our subconscious mind at work.
Those ideas do not come consciously. That’s the reason why when novelists, most commonly, are asked about where they get their ideas, many of them would simply answer, “I don’t know.” It’s not that they’re trying to be humble. They are humbled because they didn’t “come up” with those ideas. Their job was to carry those ideas through in the best forms possible.
Jimi Hendrix, a character quite similar to Frusciante, once said, “I attribute my success to God. It all comes from God. My name is nothing but a distraction.”
Most artists starve because they are afraid to shine the spotlight onto themselves. Afraid that they will make themselves the subject, that they will be the “geniuses” instead of just a medium for nature to express itself.
But there’s always a fine line between not promoting your work at all and getting your face everywhere on TV for the sake of being famous. After all, no one likes those annoying commercials with the same self-indulgent hacks. They turn themselves into celebrities, so much that you forget what they’re actually selling in the first place.
THE STRIVING ARTIST
“Literature is not only fun, it is also business.”
A striving artist faces the same dilemmas that a starving artist faces. Her art means a lot to her personally, but she simply takes the middle path. She doesn’t treat her art as this sacred thing, and she doesn’t let ego get in the way either. She doesn’t let herself be the center of everything.
She shows up for interviews, book signings, talks, because they help in making her work as successful as it can be. She doesn’t always like the attention. Sometimes it can be a distraction, because every minute she spends doing all that are minutes that she spends not working.
A striving artist understands that art is communication, and communication can’t happen if there’s no one listening. To quote Jason Fried, “In order for the product to speak for itself, it needs someone to talk to.”
A striving artist takes the thing that means so much to her and does her absolute best to make sure that it can mean something to other people too.
She has put in all the time and effort, she has created something meaningful and of value. What use would it be if she kept it all to herself? Instead of having only her life changed, she helps others change their lives with the same message.
If an artist were satisfied with no one seeing what she was working her brains off for, she’d sit in her room and imagine that she created it already.
“A boy’s got to hustle his book”, Capote would say. Try looking at hip-hop musicians. It doesn’t matter whether you like them or not, but you gotta admit, they’ve got hustle. Many of them are also successful as entrepreneurs. They treat business as an art as well.
I love Ian McEwan’s thought on this :
“I feel like the wretched employee of my former self. My former self being the happily engaged novelist who now sends me, a kind of brush salesman or double glazing salesman, out on the road to hawk this book. He got all the fun writing it. I’m the poor bastard who has to go sell it.”
COMING TO TERMS WITH COMMERCIALISM
“The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of ‘the gods’, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.”
Commercialism is usually kind of a dirty word. It has become almost synonymous with selling out, watering down your work for the money, not being passionate and honest in what you’re doing.
But only if you let it be that way.
The creative process is about being in an adventure, somewhere in a different dimension. But after a while you have to return to the real grounds you’re living and breathing in. You have to return to the material world in order to do your work.
The reality is you have to make other people (and yourself) some money. If you don’t have any way of getting attention for your work, then who’s going to buy it?
You’re left with the only job you have, with no income to feed yourself and to improve your work. That can’t be what you want.
Maybe you will get lucky.
Maybe you can get away with not marketing your stuff. Luck is William Faulkner living as a relatively unknown writer, writing as a side job, not doing much to promote his work, and winning the Nobel Prize. But that’s a one-in-a-million chance.
Not wanting to “damage the purity” of your art with marketing is really just self-absorbed and short-term thinking.
To a writer, for example, books are everything, the central fact of existence. But to other people, they’re something that they can live more easily without than they would without coffee and Instagram. Why would anyone care about what you’re making? How do you convince others that you’re offering them something valuable?
That’s why marketing and commercializing are important.
An example of a common yet effective strategy is “cheap and free”, especially when you’re starting out. The costs can be covered in the long term, even through speaking and signing gigs. You can always raise the price later, after you’ve built an audience.
According to Amazon’s stats, the cheaper a book is, the more it sells.
Raymond Chandler was one of the first writers to embrace the low-priced paperback format. When he had his book published, he intended it to be sold at the price of a pack of cigarettes, and small enough in size to be sold in gas stations and small shops.
Of course he was criticized for making literature seem cheap. But by doing that, he was able to attract new audiences who otherwise would be priced out from reading, who couldn’t afford to buy hardcover books.
Another writer, Paulo Coelho, with a tight marketing budget once pirated his own books to Russia, where he wasn’t very known.
Let’s look at music.
Before Metallica even had their first album released, they already conquered the San Francisco scene with no radio airplay, no record deals, no music videos. They generated word-of-mouth by giving out free demo tapes. The tapes were so good that friends and fans of theirs would recommend them to their friends. And those friends would recommend them to theirs. They created something bold and new. And their fans did their marketing for them.
The same goes to what many authors are doing today — Giving “free-tastes”, because people would hate to pay lots of money just to find out if their book is any good. — So they give free excerpts online, bonus contents as gifts in exchange for subscribing to their newsletter.
Of course, this isn’t a black-and-white answer. Cheap and free isn’t good for all products. Some things are worth their high prices. Like real authentic leather shoes and bags, or noise-canceling headphones.
“Art costs money. Art costs time. The best art does not come from scarcity.”
So which action would you take? Starve or strive? Which would help bring your work to better places that it deserves?