“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.”
These are the words of rock legend and National-Book-Award winner Patti Smith. The advice is reminiscent Madame Bovary author Gustave Flaubert: “Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.”
In 2012 Smith shared more creative advice while speaking to a large crowd at the 2012 Louisiana Literature Festival at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, with its incredible panoramic view across the Øresund.
“What matters is to know what you want and pursue it,” says Smith. She urges us to recognize that suffering is part of the package for everyone. “Life is going to be difficult.” Ride with it, she urges. Nothing is perfect. There will be “perfect moments and rough spots.”
We’re pioneers in a new time, she argues. “Everyone has access that they’ve never had before.” It’s a “pioneering time because it is a time of the people….Technology has democratized self-expression. People have more power than ever.” But as Smith explains, we are still trying to figure out how to use technology, and this stage is like “a painful adolescence.”
More and more, artists tell me that they’re struggling with these technological growing pains. It is no longer enough to “know what you want and pursue it.” Artists must now be PR managers, social media experts, web designers, online networkers, and web strategists. I’m the last person to complain about the advantages of technology and online connection—Gwarlingo wouldn’t exist without it.
But how do we make room for deep thinking and deep creation? And what about the artists who want to focus on the art itself, and not on marketing and PR?
What I missed most about having a label wasn’t the monetary investment, but the right to be quiet, the insulation provided from incessant self-promotion. I was a singer, not a saleswoman. Not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur.
I am not so vain to think the music world will be any worse for my absence, or that my failure had nothing to do with the quality of my music, which is dark and sad and weird. But I’m not the only casualty of the new regime. And the rising body count will include artists with far more resonance than me.
My indie wasn’t run by Benz-driving executives but rather passionate music lovers who invested in art that moved them. This tier of the industry was pretty much knocked out by music piracy. Kickstarter, many seem to think, is its logical replacement. Now musicians can raise money to make an album from their fans (if the old model already made them famous) or from their friends and family (if not). What’s less discussed is how this mechanism naturally winnows out the artists who lack the ability, confidence or desire to publicly solicit donations.
I’m no Luddite. Technology does allow artists to share their work directly with the public in new and brilliant ways. But there are some critical questions we need to be asking…
How do we move from the “painful adolescence” that Patti Smith describes to a more confident, mature stage? And what does that stage actually look like? What is working now, and what needs to be changed? How do we assure that the best work, and most important creative work is supported and nourished, and not simply lost in the cute-overload of baby animals that saturates the Internet? Are traditional publishers, recording labels, agents, and production companies really taking hold of the reigns on behalf of their artists and relieving them of the burden of salesmanship, marketing, etc.? And has the burden of marketing one’s own work really changed, or is the marketing simply different today because of technology? Who wins and who loses when artists are in charge of their own self-promotion?
I’d love to hear your own thoughts on this topic.
Patti Smith is right. Life isn’t perfect. The best we can do is to find our passion and pursue it. But what kind of help and support can we expect along the way? How can technology serve artists in this pioneering age?
It’s time to figure out what we want to be when we leave this “painful adolescence” behind and embrace our “adulthood.”
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