Patti Smith’s Advice to Artists: We’re Pioneers in a New Time

(Photo via

“Life is going to be difficult,” says artist Patti Smith. “Ride with it.” (Photo via


“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.”


Singer, writer, and artist Patti Smith (Photo by Linda Smith Bianucci)

Singer, writer, and artist Patti Smith (Photo by Linda Smith Bianucci)


"The realities of forced entrepreneurship in the music business hit me when, in 2010, the label that released my previous two albums went bankrupt," writes musician and writer Alina Simone (Photo by Matthew Spencer courtesy

“The realities of forced entrepreneurship in the music business hit me when, in 2010, the label that released my previous two albums went bankrupt,” writes musician and writer Alina Simone (Photo by Matthew Spencer courtesy

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?

This New York Times op-ed by musician and writer Alina Simone, called the “End of Quiet Music,” makes a strong case for what has been lost in the technological revolution. Here’s an excerpt:

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.


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? Who wins and who loses when artists are in charge of their own self-promotion?

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.”

Patti Smith: Advice to the young from Louisiana Channel on Vimeo.



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By | 2016-11-11T21:49:30+00:00 11.13.13|Process, Sounds, The Complete Creative|3 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. Sandra Nordgren November 13, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Thank you for that wonderful, thought-provoking article. What struck me most was a revelation born from reading about Kickstarter, where friends, family, and strangers can support artists through a site like this and other like-minded sites. In Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and the Book of Hours, I was thrust into a world where Rilke relied on strangers who were well-off financially, to take care of him. In his day, and through the first quarter of the 20th century, artists were supported and sponsored by men-of-means and their wives. It was a great status symbol to house an artist such as Rilke. Benefits and collections were taken up to support artists in financial need as well. The means of supporting artists has changed, but it is clear that most artists have always needed monetary support to continue their art. Ah! If everyone’s rent was paid through some magical ATM machine hooked into a billionaire’s bank account, imagine how much artistic creativity would permeate the planet! And that would radiate a true healing for us all!

    • Michelle Aldredge November 13, 2013 at 7:03 pm

      This is a fabulous point, Sandra. Most artists rely on patronage, grants, residencies, and other types of support to get by, and that was true centuries ago, as well. So perhaps what has changed is the way this support is obtained versus the existence of such support. Also, I think it’s true that artists have always had to attend to the business side of their profession. This is part of being an artist.

      I’m the last person who is going to demonize technology. I agree that these are exciting “pioneering” times, and many worthwhile projects are finding support because of vehicles like Kickstarter. Gwarlingo itself is a crowd-supported arts journal that relies on readers instead of advertising.

      But Alina’s essay resonated for me because of her reference to “quiet music” and the “insulation” afforded her when she was NOT in charge of her own publicity. This is the benefit of retreats and residencies like The MacDowell Colony, where I worked for many years—they provide some form of support and protection from the tyranny of being constantly plugged in.

      It takes a different headspace to tweet, to communicate with fans and followers, and to promote our creative work. There is nothing inherently wrong with technology or social media (it is an incredible tool). But there is a danger that we will forget to unplug, be quiet, and create at the deepest level. Whether we find this creative space at an artist colony or during a few sacred hours we rope off each week, the key is to make room for playfulness, thinking, daydreaming, and experimentation.

      As for your “magical ATM machine”—where can I make a withdrawal?!?! 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Carol Hollenbeck November 13, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    I do totally identify with this article. I wrote a novel titled TRUE BLONDES, which is on and I have been through so many PR and social
    media people it could make my head spin. It is truly depressing how we have to do our own press…let me qualify this, I don’t mind doing press—
    I have been a guest on several radio shows and podcasts because of my own pr work…however, there comes a time, when I cannot do it any
    longer, it is too overwhelming. I had a PR person, and quite a lot of followers on Twitter and two Facebook pages and a Tumblr website
    and he did several wonderful press releases for me, and he was not too expensive, but I had to stop. I cannot afford to keep doing the same
    thing over and over and getting the same results. Now, I am at work on a new project and dread that when it is finished I have to learn how
    to do all of this social media crap, or pay someone a huge price to do it. So you ask, why do I keep writing? Because I have to, and like
    the creative flow when it comes. But I can guarantee you that does not come for me when it comes to the media… So I am between a rock
    and a hard place… dammed if I write and dammed if I don’t.

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