Success can be a bit of a double-edge sword sometimes. . .
On one hand a little bit of commercial success gives us the confidence we need to continue creating our art, but on the other hand, it can also lull us into a sense of complacency and prevent us from taking risks and exploring other forms, styles, and techniques.
I think that most of us have experienced this at one time or another.
We create something we like and it’s generally viewed as a success by others (yay!). From that point on, however, the temptation will be there for us to stick to that tried-and-true formula, instead of risking potential failure by trying something new. So what generally happens is that we end up repeating the formula that initially brought us our success because it’s comfortable and familiar to us. In fact, we begin to call it our “niche” or our “signature style”.
After all, if it’s not broke don’t fix it, right?
We’ve all seen this with musicians who try to duplicate the success of their debut album with a second effort that ends up sounding like little more than a slight variation of the first. This is the paradox of the sophomore slump–we try so hard to replicate what got us to where we are, that we end up not really creating anything new along the way.
Not that changing things up always works. We talked in a previous article about how Bob Dylan got himself booed offstage on more than one occasion when he decided to change musical directions. He ended up confusing (and angering) a large part of his folk music audience in the process. Now in the end, things have obviously worked out fairly well for Bob and his career, but he had no way of knowing that at the time.
More recently, this type of musical genre jumping/risk-taking has become synonymous with the folk/pop/dance/country artist known as Jewel. However, with apologies to Mr. Shakespeare, we are not here to bury Jewel, but to praise her. . .
I have little doubt that Jewel could have made a very comfortable living for herself sticking to the acoustic folk-rock stylings that had brought her so much success with her debut album “Pieces of You” that sold over 12 million copies worldwide and is one of the highest selling debut albums ever produced. Her followup album “Spirit” was similar in style and sold almost 4 million copies in the U.S. alone. In other words, she had clearly made enough of a name for herself (and money) at that point, that she could have easily stuck with what she knew and had a musical career that most singer/songwriters can only dream about.
But she didn’t. . .
After doing the obligatory Christmas album, Jewel began to change musical directions with her third studio album “This Way” and veered away from the solo acoustic guitar style that had brought her so much initial success. She followed this with the completely unexpected dance-oriented album “0304“. Legions of her fans hailed Jewel’s new sexed-up pop image as her defining “jump the shark” moment and the music critics slammed her. Undaunted and unwilling to conform to anyone’s expectations, she continues exploring new musical genres and her latest efforts have been filed under country music.
Where Jewel will go from here is anyone’s guess, but I’m confident that whatever she does, she’ll continue to ignore the naysayers and critics and she will continue to follow her own path.
Let’s be clear, this isn’t just me being some fanboy gushing on Jewel. She is just one example of the type of artists that I have always admired. I’m talking about those artists who weren’t afraid to break free from their audience’s expectations and were determined to follow that small creative voice inside of them. They never worried whether their latest project was going to be a success or failure, because they weren’t doing it to please other people.
These are the artists who always seem to defy explanation.
This is why you can’t sit down and easily define artists like Bob Dylan, Matisse, Verdi, Yeats, or The Beatles because they were constantly changing and evolving throughout their career. They continued to push themselves beyond the familiarity of their previous work because they knew that if they didn’t continue to expand, they would begin to stagnate and eventually become irrelevant.
Sometimes I think that we could all benefit by returning to that state of naive innocence when we didn’t know any better as artists/writers/musicians. It seems that after we have practiced our craft long enough and found a modest amount of success, one of the hardest things we can do is to try to go back and reclaim that sense of childhood fearlessness where we tried to do something just because we didn’t know any better.
The thing is to become a master and in your old age to acquire the courage to do what children did when they knew nothing ~Hemmingway
We’ve got to find a way to have the necessary experience and knowledge to create our art, while at the same time, still be naive (i.e. courageous) enough to try something new. In order to continue growing as an artist, we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and find a way to scare the creative crap out of ourselves once in awhile.
Switching genres or creating self-imposed limitations on yourself (ex. creating a painting using only shades of blue) is one method of pushing yourself out of your established patterns and forcing you into exploring new territory. In other words, you need to approach your work from a new, and often uncomfortable, perspective.
I know that we talked in an earlier article about some of the dangers of constantly switching your focus and bouncing from one genre to another and becoming a jack-of-all-trades but master of none. However, we’re not necessarily talking about your long-term growth here as an artist, but more of a self-induced creative shock treatment intended to push you out of your routine and comfort zone.
In other words, I’m going to ask you to do something here that you hate!
So for example, if you are a visual artist who really hates to draw or paint hands, perhaps you could challenge yourself by doing an entire work of nothing but hands. Or if you’re a writer who only writes novels, maybe it’s time to force yourself to write that short story. If you’re a photographer who usually only works in color, try shooting your next series entirely in black and white. If you are a songwriter or musician who usually works in 4/4 time, maybe it’s time to create something in 3/4 or 6/8 time just to see what happens.
Whatever it is you usually do — find a way to force yourself into doing something else.
Don’t be afraid to get messy and don’t waste your time worrying about the result. Just find somthing that makes you cringe creatively and do it.
Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book "Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work" is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.