Do this instead…
“I want to get my music out there, but no one is paying attention to me. Am I just not posting enough?”
There are young artists getting crippled by the pressures and constraints of how we now tend to share music.
They put a lot of unrealistic demands on themselves (or they have high hopes that get quickly crushed).
It’s because of a pervasive myth that seems to have permeated our culture (at least online).
It’s really a series of misconceptions that, when taken together, make up something that I consider to be toxic and counterproductive:
1. In order to exist, you must exist in the data stream (share things with an audience so that you can be noticed and rated)
2. In order to be relevant, you must constantly and consistently create content for an audience
3. In order to maintain relevance, you must never stop creating content, nor slow down the pace
I think all three of these things are laughably untrue.
There are always exceptions, and this approach has worked well for some people. I’d guess that about 20% of the people who do it and unfailingly stick with it for at least a couple of years likely achieve some goal or another (though the value of the goals themselves are worth questioning).
But I love making art that no one ever sees.
And I love making art that perhaps only my closest friends or family will ever see.
I also make a comfortable living as a guitarist, and I rarely post content on social media.
Does that make me irrelevant?
Many well-meaning motormouths continue to espouse the benefits of turning yourself into a content production factory. And there have been many charlatans who assert the same, and countless others who have mimicked their behavior and rehashed––then peddled––similar advice.
And you begin to see this infecting every corner of the online landscape, in every industry, including the relatively small corner of where the guitarists hang out.
They call it the “content model” (some refer to it as “Content, Inc.”).
And it’s infected guitarists and musicians, too.
They are on the elusive quest for significance and relevance, chasing down some version of fame, fortune, or acclaim.
They have bought the same hype and lies and have resigned themselves to having to commit to creating daily content in order to attract and audience, remain top-of-mind, and hopefully make some sort of dent or living in the marketplace.
All of this is understandable.
Times are tough for many, and musicians have been hit hard by the coronavirus quasi-quarantine.
I ranted about this in a previous video, but the dynamics of making a living as a musician are brutal, and without being able to tour and perform live, they are even worse (touring and merchandise are among one of the very few meager profit centers for even some of the biggest bands out there).
But here’s my counterargument to this misconception. And I offer it from a position of experience and I offer it with conviction:
The more time you spend playing the scattered, shallow, and vapid “constant-and-consistent-content” game… the less time you spend on the focused, deep, and meaningful effort that leads to lasting skill and enduring art.
You can pick your favorite example, but to draw from a few:
Jimi Hendrix’s legendary classic Are You Experienced took five months to record (and this doesn’t count all of the years of time and energy that went into developing his skills, or the time he spent writing parts for the songs that would then be recorded).
Five months is almost half a year. That’s not actually a lot of time. But in today’s social media frenzied, constant-and-consistent-content-or-else model, five months is an eternity.
Jimi had to go deep. He had to care.
And here’s the key, and the redeeming bit about the “content model” that is more signal than it is noise:
Jimi was consistent in that he showed up to do the hard work of honing his craft and writing songs and tweaking them to raw and real perfection.
He was constant (relatively speaking, because like all of us, he had many ups and downs) in his commitment to following through and making his ideas a reality.
But he applied that consistency and constancy to a longer-form work of art.
And this can take less time, too.
Pink Floyd recorded Dark Side of the Moon in 38 days.
Let that one sink in.
Of course, it took longer to write (of course)… but it’s quite inspiring, all the same.
Bill Gates once said, “most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”
I’d tweak that to suggest… because of the meretricious, constant-content-misconception, we now radically underestimate what we can accomplish in 30 days.
(There’s a reason I schedule a skill installation program on the guitar to last 30 days).
This isn’t to say that you have to focus on creating albums, though. Far from it.
Lin-Manuel Miranda––of Hamilton fame––spent an entire year writing one song (“My Shot”) for a musical that took him ten years to make.
When was the last time you spent a year working on a single project? Let alone a song that’s a mere five minutes and 33 seconds?
We don’t often talk about how long things take to make.
Partially because when we do work that lasts, we don’t exactly count the hours.
We just work with whatever we can, when we can, while the inspiration is hot, or the demands of a production are high.
The hour (or two, or three…) that people might spend on a single post for social media, getting the perfect take, or perfect angle, or making it look natural and effortless, or feigning a smile as if you’re having a good time even though you’re frustrated about now being on the 17th take…
…could be an hour spent engaging deeply with making a work of art that you care about existing in precisely the manner that you imagine it could.
And that’s key: the way you envision something existing might take a long time to bring to fruition. It’s not likely to happen in a social media post that you do for the day.
I’m not criticizing anyone for playing this game, and certainly not being critical of any person in particular.
But I’m definitely critiquing the model.
…this game that has to be played because of the monopolized networks, built on behavior-manipulating and modifying algorithms with very narrow economic incentives, that have consolidated the attention and eyeballs of billions of people by making its users the product…
Yeah… I’m definitely not a fan.
But the people who play the game? I’ve no judgement, because it’s perfectly understandable. We’re just dealing with what we have to adapt to.
And this contemporary, consistent-and-constant-content-or-else model requires a few things in order to do it right:
1. You have to cut corners and make lots of compromises.
If you really care about what you are making––even if what you are making is a 15-second riff of some kind––you likely to treat something as “good enough“ to post for its end-state, rather than feel like you truly did justice to the vision or idea
2. You have to play the game if you want to get noticed, no matter how good you are, or how good what you’ve made is.
This means gaming the algorithms, deliberately trying to grab and manipulate attention––the currency this model depends upon, and participating in what a friend of mine crudely refers to as the “online empty circle jerk.”
This is where everyone pats one another on the back with hyperbolic enthusiasm, tapping hearts and saying much, but caring very little except for the reciprocity (the praise and favor and attention they might receive in return for their “generous” [sarcasm quotes] gesture).
This approach is exactly backwards.
Its adherents spend more time promoting themselves and trying to attain and flash of relevance or influence than they do making something that would axiomatically lead to relevance by virtue of it being remarkable.
So many of us have become marketers rather than remarkable.
(Believe me, I speak from experience, and am not proud of it. I’ve bought the same misconceptions and fallen for the same traps).
Side note: I’m not saying that success is going to happen automatically if you create something remarkable. That’s not the case, either. Because it’s very noisy.
As I mentioned, if you want to play the game, you have to get attention.
But it stands to reason that if you create something that’s truly remarkable, it’s more likely to puncture the noisy landscape, at least momentarily for you to get whatever sort of traction you’re going to get from it.
Admittedly, that traction might not be much because I think that in general, these platforms don’t support enduring connections or relationships.
And in some ways there’s not a lot of benefit to be had, even when you have millions of people paying attention to you. I know artists personally with huge followings who still live in their parents’ basements.
It just doesn’t necessarily give them the sort of financial leverage that they might’ve suspected it would or were led to believe.
That doesn’t make the financial part of the conversation the most important part, either. It’s just another variable to consider as part of the misconception. And it does suggest that the model doesn’t work nearly as well or nearly as holistically is it’s often suggested it does.
On that note, the third thing that it requires in order for you to do this constant-and-consistent-content model right is…
3. (In a business context, but still applicable to artists), you need to spend a lot of time glued to the screen instead of your instrument.
That, or have a team of 35+ people who can take the simple things that you play and turn it into dozens of pieces of content across multiple platforms to increase your reach and the coveted “high engagement rate.”
This is the sort of team that guys like Gary Vaynerchuk has. I’m just pointing to him because he’s a prominent purveyor of this content factory approach.
But his advice is often––accurately––interpreted as the sort of thing that you can take and apply on your own and achieve similar results. And that’s just not true (or so rarely the case that it might as well be a lie).
I think it’s a huge misconception.
Worst of all, because so many people have bought the myth (however well-intended, or however effective it might’ve been at one point in the earlier days of social media), we have a sea of mimicries drowning the feeds with noise: half-assed content, posted for attention, bereft of depth.
And none of us can take a breath.
Whether creator or consumer of media… it’s just too much to be able to sufficiently appreciate what comes through. The environment and context is simply not conducive for deep consideration or appreciation.
I joked with my wife the other day that you could read that the most profound quote from the greatest thinkers that we’ve ever had, and it could hit you like a train in that moment.
And then the very next moment you see a cat rolling around on a cushion. Or falling off a counter top. Or some meme or another that makes light of the whole experience itself.
And the whole experience itself is part of what determines what it is that we feel and experience in that moment. So the profundity is lost, even though it was fleetingly felt.
We often stumble upon mind-boggling playing in our social feeds, only to immediately be bombarded with the next clip of cats and lols or outrage news or partisan bickering or whatever else pollutes our feeds (and our minds).
So the ability to appreciate what we are seeing or hearing weakens with every swipe.
You could watch a single clip of a monster shredder like Stephen Taranto, and that ought to be enough to take in and marvel over for weeks (and perhaps dissect so you can learn from it and apply it to your own playing and practice or writing ideas).
But this sort of due contemplation and appreciation cannot happen, or rarely happens, because of the nature of the online beast. It’s just not part of how that experience is designed to go down.
I’ve studied media and its effects for almost a decade. I was prompted due to my own video game addiction that wrecked my life and future prospects when I was a teenager. I wrote a book about it (Distracted to Death) years later. But I usually don’t talk about it in the context of skill development and guitar because to some it can seem irrelevant.
But where we put our attention is among the most relevant fact of our lives. It might even be the most relevant fact as a matter of direct experience.
Our time and attention are finite, non-renewable resources. It’s basically all we’ve got.
And it is in investing our time and attention wisely and well that we attain proficiency, mastery, and create art that matters to us (and perhaps to others).
If we get caught up in the game, thinking that we only exist if there is an audience who sees us and rates us… if we think that the only way for that to happen is to participate in the constant-and-consistent-content-production hell-wheel… if we think that we need to “keep up” with things or “stay in reciprocal shallow touch” with everyone all the time… what we aren’t doing is investing our finite resources deeply.
Slowly. Patiently. Deliberately.
Without rush. But with care and conviction, mustering all of our willpower and creativity to do something right and real.
Pause to hear the notes. Let there be enough silence to take in the soul of the vibrato.
Let there be enough of a lack of stimulation for ideas to form and percolate and announce themselves on the stage in your imagination.
And acknowledge that you aren’t moving too slow. That it’s not too late. That you aren’t missing out on anything. An hour spent in deep focus on your craft or art is worth a thousand spent scrambling to stay relevant in the incessantly decaying stream of online bits and data.
In summary (TL;DR if you are skimming)…
There’s no need to produce a lot of content and share it online.
Go deep, instead. Make something that’s too good to be ignored.
Take the time to create the best content that you possibly can, however long it takes.
In industry terms, favor being a “hit maker” over a “content creator” (the word “content” itself has a vague and vapid quality to it that speaks volumes about its value).
The deeper you go with what you make, the more meaningful the pursuit… and the more rewarding the result.
You aren’t missing out on anything.
There is no quota to meet.
You are already perfectly relevant and important.
And the Deep Practicing and creating that you do alone––unseen and unheard and unrated by anyone––matters.
…And it matters much more than one might be inclined to think, given our current online environment.
I’m excited to see the Deep work you make. I mean it. Share it with me; I’d love to check it out.
P.S. I’m not saying that the constant-and-consistent-content model hasn’t been of great benefit to some people and offered opportunities and possibilities that weren’t there before. I’m not diminishing the importance of that in any way.
But you can watch many would-be artists get totally bent out of shape about this, and it’s caused some––who are a little bit more naive––to have high hopes that are later crushed.
And others who are perhaps more pessimistically inclined will feel utterly overwhelmed. And it dissuades them from getting into the fray at all. And so they give up instead of giving more.
And there’s something tragic about that because they have some beautiful art to make and give.
But they think that it has to fit the criteria of the main mediums and platforms in which we currently, and rather, unfortunately, deliver and present and showcase and promote the art that we make (sandwiched between the mindless and the mundane and the mortifying… Other bits of content being heavily disseminated by countless other sources, desperately scrambling to attain and retain relevance themselves).
God, I just think about some of the great to have made these works of art that have endured over the years. And you used to get a vinyl and you would check it out and dive into the art and lyrics and explore it for months on end before you ever had anything else to listen to.
And you could just become so immersed in it.
I know I sound like a old fashioned romantic when saying things like this.
But when you consider… What would it have been like if TOOL––to use a great example of a band who I feel like created lasting works of deeply immersive art:
Imagine if they had spent all the time, energy, and attention that they allocated to writing these songs and creating an artistic experience that’s overwhelmingly and wonderfully involved…
…And instead they were posting every day on social media and hopping on Instagram Live and showing the latest riff that they’re writing. And participating in the empty online circle jerk.
What would we have missed out on?
I mean, it’s really sad to think about.
And it’s amazing to think about the quality of art that could be produced by the great minds of our time that doesn’t get produced because we’ve bought the myth and succumbed to this seductive sense that we have to be spinning our wheels on this social media content engine.
It’s worth mentioning that I’m not saying that I haven’t, at least in some small and modest way, benefited from this model myself, especially in the past. Because I have. But it was a pittance compared to the effort. It’s not necessary. And I don’t align with it. So I don’t do it anymore.
And the little bit that I gained from having done it is so minuscule compared to what I’ve gained by engaging in as deep and creative of work that I can.
The things that I’ve done that have brought the most benefit to my life––bar none––personally and professionally, have all taken a lot longer to make and even longer to get to the point where they were in a state in which I was ready to share them.
Lastly, there are many things about this model that I think are quite cool. I believe that it has its uses and it has its place and it has its purpose.
I also think that there should be people who exist outside of the model who are willing to do the deep thinking creative work that’s required to make enduring contributions and lasting art.
And with any luck, those “outsiders” can help to come up with solutions that don’t require being morphed and contorted into something that will fit into the paradigm and the model that we’re all at this point somewhat imprisoned in.
(This sentiment echoes the arguments posited by Jaron Lanier who has definitely influenced my thinking in some important ways over the years. I definitely recommend you check out some of his work if you haven’t. A very accessible and quick read of his is Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. It’s a nice starting point into the wonderful and eccentric mind of Jaron Lanier, who’s a great thinker and fellow musician).
Thanks for tuning in to the extra rant.
Go make some art.
That’s what I’m going to go do. I’ve got a new album in the works 🙂