Practical Advice for Creative Artists from Grammy Songwriter

This is free advice from Dan Wilson, songwriter who just had Grammy hits with Adele.  This is excerpted from his blog and covers visual and audio arts –

Get in the Pool

  • Get in the pool.
  • Join the conversation.
  • Go straight to the audience.
  • Start a camp, a crew, a scene, a community. If you can’t start one, then join a camp, a crew, a community.
  • Hit the road if that’s what you need to do to find your community.
  • Better yet, hit the road with your community! See the fifty states and show them your music.
  • Keep no secrets.
  • Don’t save your art, spend it.
  • Get your ideas out into the world, into your camp, your crew, your scene.
  • Learn how to say, “How can I help?” and mean it.
  • Collaborate! 

Let’s talk about access.   Okay. Picture these friends in your mind.

I’m here to tell you the astonishing fact that these people, the peers you’re going to meet, and jam with and record with over the next five years, the people whose couches you are going to sleep on, whose vans you will ride in, whose equipment you are going to borrow, whose music is sometimes brilliant and sometimes not-so-much, these people are more important to your musical future than any executive in Hollywood or New York.

Why? Because when you start or join an interesting, inspiring and super-creative community of music, access will come to you.

Access will come to you and give you its phone number and its e-mail address. Access will want to be part of the community you’ve created, it will want a piece of the creativity that you are fostering. Access will see money in what you’ve put together, and access will find you.

Get In The Pool. Have A Camp, A Crew, A Community.
If you really, really can’t find this community in the town where you live, then move somewhere else. But I believe there are brilliant artists in many unlikely places.

Or, if you can’t find a super-creative music community, then start one yourself.

Songwriters and producers these days are not satisfied to sit in their studios alone and write or record new songsEverywhere I go, the top writer/producers are trying to gather a scene around themselvesThey’re trying to recreate the Brill Building, that office building in New York City which, during the Great Depression, became the birthplace of scores of hit songs.

The writer/producers I’m talking about, people like Tricky Stewart or Martin Terefe, are adding small rooms to their studios, finding undiscovered young writers, and setting them up in the small rooms.  Some call it setting up a writers’ camp.  Get three or four rooms like this going, each with a singer and a producer/engineer, and things start to multiply.

The doors open at lunch time, everyone hangs out in the courtyard, and suddenly people are pairing off with each other and writing extra songs during lunch. Camaraderie, competition, chemistry, all mixed together. So if you can’t find a community, start one yourself.

Don’t Hide Your Ideas. Spend Your Ideas.
When I started showing my work to journalists, other artists, and collectors, it was as though my growth curve as a painter got super-charged.

First reason to learn to love musicians: if this engineering thing goes well for you, you’re about to be locked in a dark room with these people for many years to come. So why fight it? I know too many engineers who find musicians and their non-linear thinking to be exasperating, too many engineers who think of musicians as obstacles getting in the way of making great music.

Second reason to learn to love musicians: as recording engineer, you are a vital element of the creative process, and you must understand the mind and character and needs of your artist just as well as you understand the needs of the machines you use to capture the artist’s performance. You’ve got to see the whole picture.

Third reason to love musicians: if you love them, they will love you back, and you’ll get more work.

Get your ideas into circulation. Show people your songs. Teach other engineers or producers your tricks. Trade up! They will show you their techniques in return.

In 2001 I decided I needed to learn how to make my digital recordings sound great. I had figured out that most people in the music business can’t hear the greatness in a song unless the demo sounds like a hit record. Everybody in the music business will tell you that they can hear whether a song is great by listening to a simple guitar and vocal demo. Well, most of them are lying. Unfortunately, the truth is the demo needs to sound like a hit.

If you’re scared to share your idea because it’s too amazing, try this: Always bet that you will have another great idea. That’s what I do. I have come to realize that my job is not to store and protect my existing ideas; my job is to come up with new ones. The reason people come to me is not for my current idea but for the next one I’m going to think of.

The only way to 100% protect your ideas is to never share them with anyone.

I run into musicians who tell me that they’re making an album but they’re not putting their best song on it. “Why in the world would you do that?” I ask. They tell me they’re saving the great song for when they have massive corporate backing so that the great song has a better chance of being a hit.

I always just prefer to use up my best idea today. If I have a writing session with someone, and I have a great new idea, I always show it to them and ask if they want to work on it. It’s a way of betting that I’ll have another better idea tomorrow or next year.

When you make the bet that you will always have another great idea, it gets a lot easier to risk the current one, get it out into the world, put it into circulation.

And when you put that current idea into circulation, it multiplies.

Your idea will get better when other people handle it and give it back to you.

And your community will start to think of you as somebody with great ideas, and they’ll start to ask you for more ideas.

Ideas are like the opposite of money, the more you spend them, the more they increase.

Go Straight To The Audience.
Are you half-ready to play live? Then get out and play live.   Don’t wait until you’re completely ready, because you’ll never be completely ready.

Are you micro-refining your sound for a market niche and looking for a corporate partner?  Forget that stuff!  Get your gear down to the bar, or the coffeeshop, or the open mic night, or your church, and play for live souls in a real space.   They will refine your work in the most ruthless and efficient way.

Get out and play a gig! Take whatever crappy gig you can get.  I promise they’ll get better if you stick with it.

Playing for an audience will improve your music a hundred times more than sitting in your studio and asking yourself for your own opinion.

One time-tested way of going straight to the audience is this: make them dance. Don’t laugh: a lot of the greatest composers throughout history have worked extremely hard to make people dance.

Almost every style of music can be traced back to a traditional dance music.

How Can I Make A Living
Making a living in music is not easy, that’s pretty obvious, but we musicians have advantages.   We’re cheap dates.   Musicians are accustomed to living on ramen noodles and sleeping on couches if necessary.

We have a sense of mission: we know what we want to do with ourselves and so we’re willing to sacrifice to make it happen.

We find meaning and joy in our work, so it doesn’t necessarily have to pay us like kings and queens to make us happy.

But since food must be bought and rent must be paid, here are five small but good tricks for making a living in music.

1. No cocaine. No heroin. Cocaine and heroin will eat your lunch money, then your rent money, then it will eat your dream too.

2. Learn how to say, “How can I help?” and mean it. Fill in for bands missing a member and do it for free or for cheap. Mix shows for nothing or for a meal. You’ll get really good. Become indispensable and people will hire you.

3. Find a flexible day job.  I know that’s not quite making a living in music, but a flexible day job that pays okay is way better for a musician than a time- and energy-draining day job that pays more.  You can phase out the flexible day job when you don’t need it anymore.  My personal opinion is that the day job is better if it uses different muscles that the dream uses.  So, for example if you dream of being a recording artist, I’d say don’t produce jingles for an ad agency.  Those music muscles will be so tired by the time you get home that rocking out will be the last thing you want to do.

4. Marry someone who believes in your music enough to share your dream for the long haul.  The minute your girlfriend or boyfriend wants to have a talk about a realistic timetable for either succeeding in music or getting a real job, you are in trouble. There’s somebody out there who will believe in your dream and set no time limits on your pursuit of it.

5: Whatever people tell you about the economy, don’t let them freak you out.  Now is a great time to be a creative person, especially one who is just starting out.  We’re in an economic downturn, and downturns are the time to be in research and development, creating new ideas that will change the future.  So work on your music and your techniques and your community now, and by the time the economy is back on its feet you’ll be ready to participate in the upturn with the great stuff you’ve created during the downturn.  And the best part about this is that during the hard times, you’ll have made a lot of people more happy, more inspired, and more hopeful with your music.

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