How Artists Level Up
I’ve been hearing the “How do I get to the next level?” question in myriad, usually less direct forms from artists for years now, and the answer as I’ve come to see it is actually very simple, though not in the prescriptive way that they, and perhaps you, are generally looking for.
There are two ways you arrive at the so-called “next level,” no matter what level you’re currently on or what level you’re trying to get to:
Path A) on your own terms
Path B) on the industry’s terms
This seems basic (and obvious) enough, so let’s bring an analogy into the picture to help animate the concept: Path A basically equals using The Force, and Path B equals using its ever-present Dark Side.
Using The Force in our arts-based context means focusing on: 1) making quality art you are personally proud of (records/artwork/videos/etc.); and 2) connecting with fans (shows/social media/press/etc.). That’s it.
If people like the art and/or connect with you enough, the industry team-members that are helpful/occasionally necessary in climbing the so-called levels will appear at your door, asking ‘How can I work with you?’ and giving you a better deal for the privilege.
Using The Force doesn’t mean not “hustling,” or shunning interactions with other bands, or avoiding outside opinions, or anything like that; it just means that those things should always be secondary to your art + connecting with fans, period. If relying on the strength of your art or ability to connect with others sounds daunting, it is. But being the underdog has it’s advantages too: it’s undeniable that we humans really like to share our cultural discoveries (see: social media), especially when those discoveries lie outside of the mainstream and/or when the human in question has established some sort of personal connection with the artist.
So what does the Dark Side look like? Succumbing to the Dark Side most often resembles spending your time worrying about what you think you “should” be doing aside from creating art + connecting with fans. This appears in such forms as: Should I be networking in the industry more? Should I be adding/replacing team members? Moving to a new label/publisher? Should I alter my art or my persona to have a broader appeal?
The Dark Side is indeed easier, more seductive- creating quality art is much harder than worrying or schmoozing or even catering to the masses, and then there’s this: relying on The Force leaves less room for blame-shifting; often it means there’s no one to blame but yourself. (Relevant aside: it’s also becoming clearer to me by the day that success in the arts is more luck/timing than literally anything else, so you could always take comfort in that instead of blaming yourself).
But The Dark Side will require more compromises along the way. Even if you become successful through utilizing its power (still not likely), you will almost invariably be in a worse position, creatively and otherwise, than if you’d earned that same level largely on the quality of your art rather than your networking skills. Very often the compromises demanded by Path B ultimately doom the project even if it IS successful for a time.
I suspect that every single artist, past, present and future, has taken turns on both sides of the aisle. Some days we find ourselves bathed in the demanding light of creativity, others we sneak off into a dark corner for an indulgent bit of selfish concern. We should not be too hard on ourselves when we invariably slip up, and we shouldn’t judge others who we deem have gained success largely by harnessing the Dark Side. Indeed, doing so would be as dark as it gets, and would be that much more time spent out of the light.