Last year, the Hollywood Reporter sat five movie composers down for a chat. I was interested in it because three of the five were Trent Reznor, Hans Zimmer, and Danny Elfman. Nothing against the other two, but they haven’t really hit my radar.
The whole 50 minute session is interesting, but some of the things that I noticed included the insecurity of artists everywhere. Now, understand, these five musicians are all very accomplished in their fields. They’re award winners, not Johnny-come-latelys, and are quite skilled in their craft. And yet, each and every one of them, kept talking about fear of failure, of being afraid to let others (especially a director or producer) hear the music.
This isn’t a thing exclusive only to musicians. I’ve heard actors talk about it, directors, painters, dancers, and most especially writers. It’s a constant that seems to affect all artists. There are exceptions, and those who handle or conceal it well, but part of what drives a person to become a creator is difficulty with the reveal of work. Because all art, whatever medium you’re working in, involves showing or displaying or playing it for an audience at some point. That audience might be front and center in the room with you, a broader audience at an arm’s length in theaters or record stores around the world, or scattered even further and more far-flung across the internet; but an audience it is.
I definitely get it, because I struggle with it too. I’ve got work I’ve released under a pen name because I wasn’t sure I wanted it out under mine. As a writer, I’ve got that option. I’m really only at risk of being ‘exposed’ if the book gets popular enough to encourage people to start digging. If that happens, I’ll probably have long since reclaimed it under my byline anyway.
But, in other ways, I don’t get it. Again, the composers in the video, and what I’m talking about, are people who have accomplished. Not newbies, not wanna-bes, not hopefuls; but artists who’ve seen success. That’s the part I do not get. I was talking to an author a few weeks ago, and he expressed the uncertainty of ‘is it good enough’, saying he was always afraid his books were bad, that he worried about it more than occasionally. My response was simple; I asked him if his books sold. He said they did. And then I said that he wrote them, people buy them, therefore he’s awesome.
That’s why part of me doesn’t get it. When you release a work, it goes out there. If people are buying it, then it must be good. Does this mean it’s perfect; no. Does this mean you couldn’t have done better; no. But does this mean others did like it; yes. That yes is what I use to beat back the mindkiller that threatens to strangle creative spark, that stands in the way of walking without rhythm. When you sell your work, it must be good. Maybe it’s not timeless and able to stand across the ages as a classic, but who cares? It’s selling. It’s finding an audience. It has fans. And it’s yours. That must mean you’re awesome. Because most people, most work – regardless of medium – doesn’t get released, and doesn’t find an audience even when it does enter the wild.
At DragonCon, I talked to a guy who was about to get into Youtube and Twitch game streaming. That’s when you play games live, with a video feed that others can tap into via the internet. Most game streamers narrate and interact with their viewers live over the Twitch platform, and also edit and release the streams as videos on a Youtube channel. What I told him was to stick with it, because it takes time to build an audience. When he asked what I meant, I told him I couldn’t begin to count how many people I’d seen pop up on either platform eager and ready to find their audience, streaming and playing the games and chattering away, and then they’d vanish just as abruptly as they’d appeared. For a few weeks they’d be going strong, then nothing. I began to notice the issue when some of them, before the end, would start talking unhappily in their last couple of streams about how people weren’t finding them, how they weren’t getting the audience they wanted.
This is the lot of most artists. Musicians, actors, painters, whatever it is; there are more wanting to practice the art than those willing to consume that art. Part of being a fan — whether it’s music or movies or sculptures or flower arranging or whatever — is picking through the offerings in your area of interest to find those you like.
What I meant when I say “your stuff sells, therefore you’re awesome” is just that. Most artists don’t see their work sell. They can’t get anyone, anyone, to trade money for the art. And the art just sits there, withering away. When you’re someone who’s selling, you’re ahead of the pack. Even as few as a couple dozen strangers paying for your whatever-it-is makes you better than 99% of the other artists in your field.
And, back to the video, this was five very accomplished composers. Some of the best and brightest working in soundtracks today! And they were talking like nervous college students standing in the wings of their first public recital, when they’d talk about playing what they’d put together for the director, or a producer, or even a friend or family member. Guys with Oscars and Golden Globes, guys who get checks for millions of dollars in exchange for two hours of music, worried about what the reaction will be.
I’m not saying an artist shouldn’t try their hardest, to attempt to go as far as they can figure out how in making their art great. But, to me, even though I have that creator’s fear, I’m saying that at some point it starts working against you and becomes a mental issue. Sooner or later, every great artist found a way to get out of their own way, and push through to that greatness.
Anyone who creates should figure out that way. Use that fear to sharpen and hone and drive; but don’t let it drive you away. Use it to drive you on, not out.