Creative Output in the Age of Social Media and Beyond
For creatives, the balance between honing your craft and your business has always been a factor, but in the age of social media it seems to be a unique challenge. How important is it to cultivate and maintain an online presence? How much time should we, as aspiring artists, be spending posting, "tweeting," and "gramming," vs. honing our craft— whatever that may be? These are questions I've been struggling with the past few years, and have done quite a bit of waffling in my own approach.
Let's unpack some of this. I imagine the first question many of us ask before putting ourselves out there to the world is: "Am I ready yet?" This applies to real-world output (such as performances, presentations, etc.) as well as online-output, but online-output is unique in its permanence. On one hand, if we wait until we feel we are "ready" to put something out into the world, we will never create. The great saxophonist Bob Reynolds talks about this at length in his vlog (often referencing the concept of "resistance" from the Steven Pressfield novel The War of Art) and in fact started his vlog with the sole purpose of forcing his hand to release content.* On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if we are doing more harm than good if we, as artists, put things out into the world before more fully cultivating our aesthetic vision? Sure, Bob puts out daily vlogs, but Bob is also a grammy-winning saxophonist who has toured the world with Snarky Puppy and John Mayer. Bob's aesthetic is, by my estimation, quite developed.*
For myself, the struggle is real. The majority of my internet output to date has not been truly in line with my aesthetic. Sure, I'm proud of some things more than others, but I like to think I've got a fairly objective view of my output, and am constantly trying to close the gap between the aesthetic I have a vision for, and the reality of where I am on the path. While I am currently making an effort to cut back on online-output, I am starting to feel the opposite about "real-world" output. I am 100% positive that making an effort to stretch outside your comfort zone and surround yourself with others better than yourself is essential at every stage of the artistic journey. And to be clear, none of that discomfort really exists on the internet. I don't believe it's possible to literally shut yourself away with your vision for five years and come out the other side a fully developed, badass artist ready to show the world your stuff. The blade of your creativity can only be sharpened in the forge of life's hard knocks.
So the question I have is: how do we as artists in the digital age most effectively push ourselves, go after our goals, and become the people we want to be? What are real, actionable, steps we can take to further ourselves and our careers? How can we use the internet to our advantage rather than be distracted by its allure? Let's talk about some of this in reference to music— since that is what I can personally speak to— but I have a feeling it applies to acting, painting, business, dancing— whatever it is you're trying to creatively achieve in life.
The first thing is: we need to be able to stretch outside of our comfort zones, keep our minds open, and push ourselves, without losing ourselves. Yes, we are trying to change. We are trying to improve ourselves and our lives. All of us are seeking this self-betterment on some level, whether or not we're too depressed or too successful to admit it. We're trying to be smarter, faster, stronger, more beautiful— these are perfectly admirable pursuits— but we need to be sure most of all that we are aiming to do these things authentically.
To address the idea of not losing ourselves...this is so fucking hard for me. Usually, when I pursue something that puts me outside of my comfort zone, there is a thought pattern that accompanies that pursuit. First off, there is a great deal of anxiety leading up to the event. My brain goes through all of the scenarios that could play out, how I envision myself acting, how I envision other people acting, the dynamics at play. As of late, I've been practicing meditation and trying to accept this anxiety rather than fight back against it, as this always makes it worse. But some of the conversation in my head is undoubtedly something along the lines of: "Why are you feeling anxious? What do you have to fear? You shouldn't be feeling this way. You're wasting time and energy." I will also say that the anxiety leading up is always worse than the feeling during the actual event.
As an example, I will occasionally take lessons with musicians whom I really admire. I have a feeling this is an important aspect of my journey, and well worth the (often steep) price tag. However, leading up to the event, I usually experience some of the aforementioned anxiety, and during the event itself I am often struggling to "be myself." To be clear, the older I get, this seems to be less of a problem, but it plays out something like this: I go into the lesson feeling excited, confident and centered. After ten minutes or so, I have started to slip from that confident self, and am feeling docile, shy. If I have to speak, it usually feels more difficult to access vocabulary; if I have to play my instrument, I feel tentative, tense, insecure- the opposite of what is needed for a state of flow and good music making. It's not as if I'm unaware this is happening, and I'm still able to glimpse my "usual self", but for the most part, I don't come fully back into my skin until the experience is over. When the experience does conclude, the thought pattern takes a turn for the better. I always feel better for having stretched my comfort zone and clear that it is important to do so more.
To contrast the above anxiety-ridden events, some of the best musical and personal experiences I've had to date have come almost from a place of apathy. Not that I didn't care for the experience itself but often when I've felt infuriated, jaded, or on some level uninvested, none of the usual restrictive anxiety would present itself and I would experience flow instead. Apathy seems counter-productive to producing good art, but I think it's more about accessing the power in these emotions without being overtaken by them. This idea is explored on the title track of one of my favorite records from the past few years: Taming The Dragon by Mehliana (a duo comprised of the legendary keyboardist Brad Mehldau and boundary-pushing drummer Mark Guiliana). The track details a dream dealing with angry impulsive responses, and how the anger actually represents inner power. Mehldau has this to say about the dragon: "You don't want to snuff him out, you wanna tame him, you wanna actually make friends with him and harness his power so you can use it."
These times when I can access flow are the emotional antithesis of times I am tentatively sitting in a lesson with a hero of mine. Why does this happen? Obviously, I want the people I look up to and respect to like me— hell— I want everyone to like me. We all want this, despite it being a futile pursuit, just as we all seek to better understand the world. In the classic Dale Carnegie novel How to Win Friends and Influence People he talks about Sigmund Freud's theory that "everything you and I do springs from two motives: the sex urge and the desire to be great.” We all want to impress, want to be thought of well, want to achieve; why are we fighting ourselves?
My theory is that the key to winning our inner battles comes back to authenticity. When we are trying to impress others, when we are trying to make good art, we are often not being authentic. I'm not saying we shouldn't care, but we need to first be sure we are approaching things from an honest place, otherwise a rift is created. The dragon may need taming, but she is surely authentic.
So how does this all relate to social media? Good question. Authenticity and Facebook seem like mortal enemies to me. Yet, there is so much great content and knowledge on the internet—a lot of it is undoubtedly being created from an authentic place. If we can parse out the good stuff from the noise, it can be a truly effective tool for us as aspiring artists. We will still have to engage with it on a creative level, though, teach ourselves the "secrets." No single source will hand us the key to the city. And if we feel we have something to say that others will glean knowledge or joy from, we should put it out there! The important thing is that we put enough thought into whatever it is— real. honest thought— so that it will truly provide value for the person taking the time to check it out. If we do this, we will be making the internet, and the world, a better place.
To finish off, here are ten people/groups- in no particular order- who are winning the internet (mostly musicians here):
- Jacob Collier: London-based phenom who makes incredible music videos.
- MonoNeon: Funky bassist who seemed to gain popularity through Instagram.
- Vulfpeck: Great band that makes hilarious, weird videos of their music.
- Casey Neistat: Amazing vlogger who sort of put vlogging on the map.
- Ben Wendel: Modern jazz saxophonist who doesn't put out lots of content, but always puts out quality content.
- Mike Johnston: Online drum educator who paved the way for many online music educators to follow.
- GroundUpMusic: The current label for Snarky Puppy who, through music videos uploaded to Youtube, gained huge traction around the world. They are now doing the same for many other groups on the label.
- NPR: Whether it be the Tiny Desk series or the All Songs Considered podcast, NPR has kept up with the modern age in amazing fashion.
- TheVlogBrothers: John and Hank Green who provide tons of valuable insight, and entertainment, about the world.
- The8020Drummer: Nate is a friend from Montana who I've gotten to watch go from internet-unknown to having a dedicated following in the online drumming community... cool to see!
*His friend, the bassist Janek Gwizdala also has a great daily vlog that I would recommend checking out.
*I recently saw Bob's band play at the 55 bar in Greenwich Village, NYC— really wonderful night of music. I witnessed an interesting moment before the show when an older musician- who is fairly well esteemed but shall remain nameless- had just finished his set at the 55. He came out the front door and saw the long line for Bob's set, and seemed almost bitter. He started asking how people had heard about this show, clearly wondering why there weren't more people at his. I wanted to tell him that if you tour with Snarky Puppy, John Mayer, and maintain a strong online presence through it all, it probably helps with getting large turnouts, even at your dive bar sets in the village. I felt bad for the guy, but it did kind of confirm some opinions I've been developing around the importance of social media.