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THE LEFSETZ LETTER: Artists/Experience


You remember the art chick in high school. She looked different, didn't really care if you noticed her, didn't seem to play by the rules, wasn't on a direct path to riches, but you never forgot her, never stopped watching her.

The art chicks were yesterday's rock stars.

They will be tomorrow's too.

And we never really called them "art boys" or "art dudes" or anything like that, but there was a breed of male outsiders who garnered this same attention. There was a swagger, there was a cool. They were the ones who were quarterback of the football team and one day up and quit, and didn't profess a hatred of the coach, just claimed they didn't want to play anymore.

These people are the art leaders.

As a result of crass commercialism, primarily MTV and now the Silicon Valley rush to riches, our vision of art has been skewed. Money comes first. It's readily available to he who succeeds, and there are short cuts to ubiquity. But most people employing these short cuts are not art.

The art chick and the outside guy never wake up and are CEO of the corporation, you don't open the alumni magazine and see the traditional markers of life, if they even went to your school, or went to school at all. Artists are driven by a different beat. That's why your favorite bands break up, it no longer felt right. Can you imagine the CEO of a Fortune 500 company waking up one day and stating that it's no longer fun and dissolving the organization? But the Beatles did this.

So there are two camps.

One camp is peopled by aggressive individuals who want in. This is the reality television crowd. How can I make myself into a character, push ahead of so many others and get screen time? Remember the art kids in high school? They never grubbed for grades, they never fought to get ahead, they questioned this herd mentality/behavior, they hung back.

So we have a world where the aggressive, normal people and the desperate poor will do anything to make it, get plastic surgery, change their soul and their sound to fit the desires of the man, of the system.

Ain't that what "American Idol", "The Voice" and "X Factor" are? Do it my way, I'm an expert. The judge/advisor is no different from the principal, and if you think the art kids listened to the principal, you were home-schooled and have no clue.

And these principals, in most cases they're angry they never got to be art kids, they never got to express themselves, so they tell you how to do it. Labels are not peopled by successful musicians, but fans, who are angry that they can't get laid every night, can't live the musician lifestyle. In most cases, they won't take the risk. They want to get their job via their education, their MBA, whereas successful artists have struggled, to find out who they are and to make it.

We revere our artists.

But don't confuse commercialism with artistry. Most people are just passing through. Their stardom is brief, they're puppets whose strings are pulled. When their moment is through, they get desultory day jobs or go back to college and move up the corporate ladder. An artist can't do this. He can go to college to prepare himself to be an artist, but not a doctor, lawyer or manager. And he continues to create irrelevant of success, it's in him.

But don't equate true belief in oneself and outsider status as either a predictor or guarantee of success. How many of the art kids end up becoming Andy Warhol? Just because you practiced your guitar for hours a day or wrote poetry just as long that doesn't mean you'll make it. You have to have something to say. Which is insightful, different and necessary. You must never compromise. You must be willing to struggle forward despite the odds. You must be willing to change.

Before the MTV/CD era, when so much money flowed, artists were king. Labels signed them and never messed with them. They didn't say what could come out, didn't foist cowriters upon them, because the label didn't know. The label trusted the artists.

No one trusts the artists anymore.

Except the fans.

Fans want artists. You always wanted to be friends with the art kids, you just didn't know how to bridge the gap, you just weren't cool enough.

But today you can know the art kids through their work. They're honest and soulful in a way all people are but most are too fearful to reveal.

The artist embodies his material. He is what he says. He's free. He marches to the beat of his own drummer. He makes it not through marketing, but the music itself.

With the crumbling of old institutions, the time of the artist has returned. With less money in music, only the artists persevere, because they're not in it for the money.

There's a reason why Joni Mitchell is an icon and Vanilla Ice is a joke. A reason why people love the album. It used to be a statement.

Now you can have ten tracks but it's a commercial event.

And those people calling themselves artists are not.

You know if you're an artist.

You sacrificed, you don't have health insurance, you're playing without a net.

We're dying for a few good artists.

As for the rest of you, get out of the way.


You're gonna need something to write about.

Practice is important, perfecting your skill, but being a really good guitar player or a really good vocalist is kind of like being a really good computer, you're just a tool, you're essentially inert, you can't be believed in.

Or look at professional athletes. As successful as their careers might be on the playing field, very few succeed thereafter. Because they've got no skills. And hitting people is not something authorized amongst geriatrics, we've yet to have a Legends NFL, hell, a lot of the guys can barely walk.

So you've got to be three-dimensional.

If this means it takes you longer to put in your 10,000 hours, so be it. It's not a race. If you're not taking time to soak up the sun, you're not gonna have anything to say.

As for the nitwits who make it in their teens… Most of them end up broken down on the side of the highway, didn't Michael Jackson regret missing his childhood, wasn't Screech gonna lose his home?

You don't want to be successful before puberty, before adulthood, because fame rarely lasts that long, and all those childhood memories and friendships, you just won't have them.

So I'd stay in school. Not so much for what you learn in the classroom, but the experience of meeting and interacting with others. This is where you learn about humanity, find out who you really are, your biases and your strengths. Take risks. Win and lose. That's great fodder for a song.

And unless you're planning on being a businessman, don't take business courses. You're learning methodology, you're not learning how to expand your artistic mind.

And travel. Miles Copeland set the standard for international touring with the Police. He'd lived in all these foreign countries as the son of a CIA agent. Whereas most managers and record company employees, especially Americans, had barely been anywhere. Turned out there was a worldwide market for music with English lyrics, in places so out of the way many U.S. citizens couldn't place them on a map.

And read.

A lyricist is about words. You can get inspired by movies and TV, but your greatest resource is the printed page, or the Kindle/iPad/computer screen. You're inhaling words and they'll end up flowing out of you without you having to think about it. You can learn so much. If you're willing to put in the effort.

Most people have nothing to say. That's why they rely on cowriters and producers. Without them, they've got nothing.

But great artists possess a plethora of insight which the public craves.

You don't have to be a great guitarist to sell a song, but a great guitarist can't sell a shitty song.

Great songs are about creativity. The more you write, the better you get, but you're mining your life, your experience, and if you've got none, no one's gonna be interested.

P.S. Read the Wikipedia entry on Kris Kristofferson for example. Look at all he did before he was a successful songwriter. These experiences made him who he was, gave him perspective, and we're still interested in what he has to say, his recent albums have gotten very positive reviews. Is Vanilla Ice still recording?–Kristofferson