Lessons From Musicians on Life and the Craft

“Some people have lives; some people have music.”

John Green


This is my final article for the year, and I just want to express to you, dear reader, my heartfelt gratitude. Writing gives me a joy like no other, despite it being mentally and somehow even physically exhausting. No matter how an article turns out, the ceaseless flow of words and knowing that I’m giving at least a modicum of value to you never fail to make me smile at the end of the day.

On a side note, the Red Hot Chili Peppers recently announced that their former guitarist, John Frusciante has rejoined the band. If you’re not familiar with them, Frusciante returning is like Tun Mahathir becoming the Prime Minister again. You can imagine how excited I was when I heard the news — Frusciante was one of my most primary inspirations for picking up the guitar when I was a kid, and his return was something I hadn’t really expected. Because well, it has been 10 years since he left, and he did leave twice.

The reunion just made me think of his lasting influence on how I view not just music, but any craft that I’m blessed to keep. I’d surely cringe when I look at my older works, but I did even write my first Tales of Mastery article about Frusciante a couple of years back. As time did its thing, I’ve also learned some valuable things from other musicians I love — So here are some of those lessons.



Love, More than Anything

In John Frusciante’s words, “Music has always carried me through times of loneliness. So when I make music, I like to make people who listen to it feel like they have a friend who reveals something personal to them, rather than trying to be like a God up on a pedestal.”

One of the most admirable things about the Chili Peppers is just how they genuinely love music. Attempting to explain that love often chokes them up and moves them to tears. To them, living and playing music are one thing. Music isn’t a chore, a job, or merely a platform to showcase their skills, but rather something that they need to commit to every day. They find deep meaning in music itself, and also in communicating with their audience with their music. As their bassist, Flea explained, when they’re in the groove, that’s when they feel truly free and one with everything. It’s a beautiful way to treat your craft isn’t it? — Like a very close friend to confide in, instead of just a pastime or a money-making machine. And of course, if you don’t have this kind of love, you probably won’t be able to weather the hardships inherent in gaining mastery.



The Mind and Heart Work Together

It’s fair to say that the best Pink Floyd albums were fruits of the synergy and chemistry between Roger Waters and David Gilmour. Waters wasn’t so much of a singer, but he was commendably intelligent and creative. He was the mastermind behind all the clever concepts and themes for the albums, and not to mention, the lyrics. Gilmour was a gifted singer and instrumentalist, often responsible for coming up with the melodies. Waters embodied the intellectual intelligence of the band, and Gilmour on the other hand, embodied the emotional intelligence, the heart and soul of it all — Combine these two essential aspects together, and you get great art.

After they parted ways, things just weren’t the same. Waters’s solo material felt dry, and Pink Floyd, taken over by Gilmour, lacked the clever aspects that Waters contributed to the band. In your own work, try to conflate the logical and emotional, not letting yourself lean on one of them more than the other. In writing these articles, for example, I try to balance between making it entertaining and practical. I find the best stories that fit with the lessons I want to impart — So when you read the stories, you have an idea of what I’m trying to tell you. And when the story’s done, I explain those lessons to you. This way, the lessons can resonate better with you as you can relate with the stories and call up them up in your mind, a long way from now. If instead, I just throw in all the facts and lessons, it probably won’t achieve the same effect.



Work on Achieving Range

To date, Eric Clapton is the only musician to have been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on three different occasions. He has played in many different bands, starting from the Yardbirds. He then joined John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. By the time he left the Bluesbreakers, he was already hailed as one of the greatest blues guitarists of his time. He then formed the supergroup Cream, with fellow blues giants Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. Cream was famous for their virtuoso style, with each member having plenty of space to display their talents. When he got tired of the virtuoso motif, he formed Blind Faith. Then, he was inspired to make melody-driven music, so he formed Derek and the Dominoes. And after that, he paved his own path as a solo musician, even pioneering a new genre, reggae rock — A result of brewing his blues and reggae influences. Oh, and he founded the Crossroads Center for recovering substance abusers. He also hosts the Crossroads Guitar Festival to benefit the center.

Range always trumps specialization. The most successful people in this world are those who are good at more than one thing. In his book “Mastery”, Robert Greene elaborates about the importance of “alternating currents” — How switching back and forth between different fields helps to unlock creativity and new discoveries. It’s when we let go for a moment at a particular high point of tension, that real breakthroughs occur. Not only does having a wide range of interests helps you work hard without burning out and give your mind rest — The skills you gain in another field can be applied in the field that you’re currently in. So it’s a double win as you become good in two fields — You explore, you refresh, you make new connections. As Ryan Holiday wrote, “Wisdom is fungible. The more you have of it — Regardless of where you got it — The more places you can apply it.”



Know Your Audience

It’s often joked that John Mayer’s fan base is largely made up of two kinds of people — Teenage girls and guitar players. Because Mayer is a popular artist, it’s easy to overlook the fact that he is an exceptionally skilled guitarist — Even called a “master” by Eric Clapton. Mayer has an incredibly wide musical repertoire. At a young age, he had already mastered the playing styles of his favorite musicians such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton. However, Mayer knew that if he were to reach a much larger audience, he was going to play popular music — So that’s what he did, without discarding his previous musical faculties. He constantly finds ways to incorporate the blues into his music, even covering the likes of Hendrix in his live performances — Opening his audience to his musical influences.

This doesn’t mean that you have to go after what’s popular. Not really. It depends on what you want to do. If your goal is to reach a large audience, then you have to find ways to introduce the audience to your content or specialties — And of course, do it cleverly and creatively. In a similar vein, when Ryan Holiday pitched in his idea for his book “The Obstacle Is The Way”, his publisher wasn’t excited — “Philosophy” or “Stoicism” didn’t seem very enticing. Holiday put his idea on shelf for a while. He wanted his target audience to be businesspeople, and at the same time, he knew that the word “philosophy” could easily make people yawn. He thought that, no one wakes up in the morning thinking, “I need philosophy”. Instead we wake up thinking, “I need solutions to my problems”. From there, he redesigned his book. Despite it still being based on Stoic philosophy, “Stoicism” is only mentioned not more than two or three times in the book. It is instead designed to impart its main message of triumphing over adversity — If his readers are interested to know more about Stoicism, they can check out his recommended reading list at the back of the book.



Marketing Matters A Lot

You know the coolest thing about Led Zeppelin’s fourth studio album? — It’s not the fact it contains some of their best songs such as “Stairway to Heaven”, “Black Dog”, and “Rock and Roll” — And it’s not about the 32 million copies sold either — It’s that the album doesn’t have a name. Not even the band or the members’ names anywhere. Just a cover picture of an old man carrying a bundle of sticks on his back, and 4 strange symbols representing the individual band members, devoid of any context. Why?

At the time, the band was heavily criticized for being mostly hype, and not a real rock and roll group — Critics thought that if they looked past their long shows and overt displays of showmanship, they didn’t really have much talent — That their music “doesn’t challenge anybody’s intelligence or sensibilities,” as Rolling Stone wrote, even saying that the band was “as ephemeral as Marvel comix”.

Jimmy Page, the band’s guitarist and mastermind, came up with a genius marketing move — They were going to take a risk and release their fourth album anonymously. “We wanted to demonstrate that it was the music that made Zeppelin popular,” Page said. “It had nothing to do with our name or image.” At their shows, they only told their fans that they had a new nameless album out, but refused to give any details. This was obviously before the Internet, and as you’d expect, their secrecy created an unquenchable curiosity — Driving their die-hard fans nuts as they searched for their favorite band’s new album in record stores. If you were one of those first fans who located the album and bought it, what would be the next thing to do? — Tell everyone you know, of course. Gigantic amounts of word of mouth generated right there.

Marketing can be another topic in itself, but for now, understand this. Led Zeppelin’s success can be credited to their ability to build a very staunch fan base and then use their fans to power their hugest record release. It’s the album that gave us “Stairway to Heaven”, which took the world by storm. As part of another brilliant marketing move, they were careful not to release “Stairway” as a single, because they knew how amazingly good the song was. So if you wanted to listen to the song, you had to buy the entire album.

No matter what form of creative work you do, some knowledge in marketing is definitely essential. Even the best art needs an audience, and you as the creative, need to have a great, lasting relationship with your audience — Keeping them loyal and happy, so they tell their friends about you. That’s pretty much what marketing is all about.



Universality is Key

Eagles frontman Glenn Frey once said of his band, “People don’t just listen to the Eagles. They did things to the Eagles.” — People went on roadtrips, married their partners, welcomed their new child into the world listening to the Eagles. A song with an air of universality becomes part of our life soundtrack. The artist could be singing about something very different, but because he makes it vague enough, we find our own story in the song, and so we adopt it as our own. It gives our life great flavor, and makes it a lot more worth going through.

By incorporating universality in your work, you’re meeting your audience halfway. Instead of making it all about you, you give your audience the space for them to fill with their own colors, so they too could say, “I can relate” — And from that, a meaningful connection is forged.

It doesn’t only have to be about music — Take Ikea for example. Ikea actually builds a strong connection with their customers by leaving the assembling to them. What you don’t know is that Ikea leverages on a fundamental human principle : We value more of what we have to work for. By letting the customers assemble the products at home and customizing them as they wish, they are letting them invest their own time and effort into their purchase. And as a result, the customers are more apt to treat the products with great love and care (and of course, are happy to buy more from Ikea).

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