photo by IG: quinnbanks
I'm always reminded of a quote from an old theatre director of mine when I was a 14 year old in Mosaic Youth Theatre. Courtney Burkett used to say that actors are some of the most sensitive people. This is hardly the quote verbatim but it holds the same sentiment as the words that she'd tell us so that we'd suspend our inhibitions on stage. I think of this notion a lot still, in both my experience as a musician but also a writer. The words must've been pretty damn profound for me to still remember them a decade later. But all the expression means is that creators are sharing a part of themselves each time they take the stage.
Reflecting on it with what I know now feels pertinent.
When navigating a consumerist reality, creation seems to be more of a relationship than just a practice. There is an infancy everyone experiences where creation is dictated primarily by instinct and curiosity. But eventually we're forced to wrestle with a response: the response that the music offers in a finished product, but also the response of those who may hear it. We're concerned about the listener because there is both an internal and external push to share our creations. Some would oversimplify it to "instant-gratification" or "consumerism" but I don't think thats sufficient.
In our earliest creations, we are scientists. We're constantly experimenting and learning what combinations work. While our influences may be shared or communal, the chemical reactions we form are what we patent by putting to recording. We want to share these exclusive ideas because we want to share ourselves. For those who are marginalized or othered, the desire to show oneself can be even more resounding, something I'd say is common for black and brown folk that we cover here on our site. This is what I perceive as our internal creation.
But there's also our relational inquiry. Are there others like me? Has anyone else ever explored this idea? What cultural norms can I challenge folk to think critically about? How many people can form a personal connection with this piece? This is what some would call validation as somewhat aforementioned in the preface. But I think of this as more of a relationship. I think we have an inclination to be in community in whatever form that takes up because we understand that our values can have both internal and external value. We can think the world of our gifts, but also the world can think of our gifts. This is where I situate what I'd call external creation.
But why is any of this important? And how is it applicable to the reader that's made it this far? I think its relevant because it's a frame of thinking that allows us to be both kind to ourselves but also courteous to those who perceive our creations. But it's also a lens into where we can be more self-aware and intentional about the endgame of creation.
In thinking of why we create, we can ground our work in our truths whatever they may be. But also we can understand how it is that we might explore, goal-set, and sustain our creativity. After all, reception can have great effect on our morale as an artist.
First we'll cover some tips for Internal Creation
For many, this is the easy part, well into their tenure making music. I often hear that "I love making music but its the promotion that really gives me a hard time". So it would seem that this isn't as important as the next section. But I think that a solid personal connection with your work does not always come easy for new creators that just got their first taste of public perception.
Often the natural lifespan of our creative intuition is to go from:
Curious to Receptive
Receptive to Critical
Critical to Perfectionism
This means that as we receive either more feedback or the lack thereof, we start to question our ideas. This can be a positive measurement of growth when we are improving as songwriters/musicians but often it isn't. What we are actually feeling is fear of an external that we haven't even encountered yet. Often this looks like hiding behind "when y'all want this" posts and scrapping songs that we psyched ourselves into disliking. Often it can be "I just want to make sure its right", making senseless tweaks in our DAW to the point where we suck all of the fun out of an idea. These are the internal battles we take up with ourselves.
So here are some ways you can take control of your Internal Creation.
1. Practice- Seems obvious right? But often its missed when we're complaining about what skills we don't have. You can't become a better pianist if you don't learn new concepts on the piano. I'm aware that for many musicianship can feel dogmatic, but however, its an intentional means at improving measurable skills. This can look like music theory and other more concrete tools but doesn't always have to. Practicing can be simply deconstructing your favorite song and what you think works about it. What are the words or sounds that make you feel something? What do they make you feel? Can you emote those as well?
2. Not Every Session Needs to End in a Hit- You do not need to record a hit record every time you create. Some sessions can be for tinkering with sounds to store for later. Some sessions can be just jamming. Others can be recording ideas that came to you throughout the day. Often we record bridge songs--songs that apply new concepts that eventually result in a song much later.
3. Ask Yourself "What Do I Like/Dislike About this idea"- I don't want to insinuate that self evaluation isn't important; it most certainly is. But do some reflection around what you feel works and , and then keep what you like. Some of the best artists are constantly sampling themselves or using ideas they tested out several times. Never throw an entire idea away; there's likely something salvageable there.
4. Be Honest With Yourself- Be self-aware and understand your strengths. If you're great at putting together ideas that sound good together but don't know how to mix them or arrange them, ask for help. There's nothing wrong with asking for support from those you trust. But also be honest about what you want your process to be. If you don't want to produce your own beats/arrangements, you don't have to. You do however have to find who will.
5. State Your Intentions- You do not have to release music to be a creator. You do not have to create as a career. You do not have to build a base of listeners. I know this piece is covering two forms of creativity, but you don't actually have to exhibit both. For example, a manager generally exhibits external creation of the music but not the internal. Because of this, it's important that you understand why it is that you create. Some are hobbyist whereas some aim at being professionals. Knowing where you sit can help shape how you think about your creativity.
Now lets talk about External Creation
I've done a decent amount of interviews of artists here in Detroit and a common thread that always pops up in conversation is that artists are their own toughest critics. It's something that's said so often that it's become a platitude, while still holding true. There's always a particular irony in hearing it while I'm simultaneously interviewing them. its almost like a lack of awareness to the moment and its importance. Some of this is because Altnubian isn't Fader or Rolling Stone--a feature in Altnubian doesn't result in a call from an A&R or considerable revenue. But what's often missed is that they're talking to a new fan of their work.
We miss new fans very often as creators because they're not easily measured. They don't always say "Hi I am a fan of your music with undying loyalty". Sometimes its as subtle as a repost or a comment on your platform. And so we brush past them, beating ourselves up because the 300 likes on our post didn't amount to 300 listeners. But just read that last sentence back to yourself. It doesn't make very much sense right?
The world is constantly moving and so are the people that fill it. We can't within reason expect everyone to set aside time for us right when we want them to. But also we can't expect everyone to have energy for all of our ideas. I previously described our external desire to create as relational. This means that we can't share our creativity as a mere transaction. Quite literally, in an industry where music is hardly purchased, we have to consider what value we are actually contributing to a listener. Pre-social media and pre-streaming, a physical copy of the work with credits, art and true ownership was ample value for a listener, but much of that has changed. This is why we must think of our interactions with our listeners as relational; reciprocity is important.
But what does reciprocity in creation mean? And what does this look like?
1. Look at the Audience- If you're gigging in the city and you're constantly seeing the same face show up to your sets, say hello. But firstly, this means you have to be paying attention. It's more easy to think about who isn't there because we are concerned with how our base will be perceived by those outside of it. But this forms blind spots that tuck away people who share our values. Quite frankly, it can be quite inconsiderate to people who are taking a chance on you. You cannot look for the 100 people that liked your post if your gigging in a venue that fits 50. You can however look for who from that 100 people is in the audience.
2. Engage Actively, Not Passively- We complain about filter bubbles and algorithms but these constructs exist because social media is a reflection of how we interact with it. That's quite frankly what an algorithm is-- it's contingent on an input. Look at explicit support of your work as an on-ramp for building a relationship with that listener. You don't have to be best buds, but say hello. Say thank you. Ask if they'd like to be updated on your next piece (more on that later). But also feel free to explore the ideas that interest you and find others that share those interests. This doesn't have to always result in cold DM'ng your work. Sometimes you can engage over time. Who knows, they may even be a creator themselves. If you like what they make, genuinely, support it. Tell others about it. Share a review or post about it.
3. Consider Storage- I know, I know, this sounds cryptic. But all this means is that you need a clear visible place where you can see all who is engaging with your work. Social media insights are helpful and can inform advertising strategies, but an insight is your logistical on-ramp to building deeper relationships. Can you build a monthly newsletter where you share your work and things that interest you? Can you start a text program to update your base on new content and opportunities? Can you plan meet & greets or listening parties? Can you find unique creators and brands that you want to endorse on your platforms? These are ways that you can both offer value to your base but also have a clear idea of who they are.
4. Collaborate...Across, And Up with a Goal- What'd Issa Rae say? "Network across"! Often when we think of collaboration we consider what we can gain materially. This is natural and isn't necessarily wrong. But I think we can look at benefit more holistically. Sometimes it's not always about reaching out to someone with buzz. Sometimes it means finding another creator that shares your values that has something that can build upon your ideas. But also this means asking the hard question of "is this conducive to my creative end goal". Sometimes we like other artists, but it doesn't mean that we should necessarily collaborate with them. Frankly, simply supporting an artist is often enough to sustain that relationship. Don't take it personal if someone says no or would like compensation outside of your budget range.
5. Set Clear & Explicit Goals- It's very easy to beat yourself up when you don't set a goal. Imagine if with each new release of yours you said "I would like to attract 10 new listeners" and then named how you are going to do so. Suddenly it becomes way much easier to identify what work needs to be done to fulfill that goal. If you don't set goals, you'll never know what work you need to do to reach your next peak.
6. Reflect & Remember Testimonies- When you set goals, you are able to go back and evaluate if you reached them. If you didn't, I promise it's not the end of the world. It just means that you have to take a look at your strategy and tweak. I said in earlier that we are scientists when we first start creating; try not to lose that curiosity. But also, when folk share what your work means to them, store those testimonies. You can copy and paste them somewhere so that you can look at them when you're down about your art. Or you can ask the person if you can share their testimony. Your listeners' quotes about your work can be super helpful material for your artist bio or blog submissions. Just simply ask them for permission.
7. Cherish Small Platforms- I'm not just saying this because I myself am editor of a small platform. I say this because it makes sense. Think about it. People who start platforms to share work that interest them are generally "crate diggers". This means that they're always looking to know about something before everyone else. But also they are not bound to industry regulations; they're natural non-conformists. They will have a more close connection to your work and may go a step beyond and write about your work in their own words--not just copy and pasting your blog submission. Not to toot my own horn, but part of what readers have always said is that Altnubian writes personally about what's going on in our community. Again, these are the kind of quotes you can use in your press items. For example: "Altnubian described Frostisrad as a wonderful mix of Weezer and Kenny Hoopla coming right from Detroit's west-side".
8. Engage Listeners in the Art- Think of this. Where in your music can you include call and response? Where can you name explicit details about your life and your people? Can you namedrop? Do you need extras for your music video or photo shoot? Can you throw a soundbyte of a listener on your track. Can you cover or sample music coming from your community? These are all ways you can engage your listeners more personally.
9. Touch Grass- Go out! Detroit is teeming with events each week across many art communities. Find the communities where you feel inspired and safe and go to events within them. Get to know the folk hosting and the performers if they're accessible. Vlog your experience or take photos and then share later on your platform. Everyone nowadays has a smart-phone--you have a little content creator right there in your pocket. Also, there are always several photographers at each event. Introduce yourself, they're likely open to taking a picture of you. After all, taking pics at events is how alot of photographers get their names out there. If you get your picture taken, make sure to follow them on social media and credit them if they share images of you.
This was admittedly a lengthy article but I did want to be thorough from my perspective as someone who writes on your music. In doing so, I see so much talent but also see so much self-sabotage. I write this piece not as an absolute theorem on creation but as a personal lens that has helped me greatly over the years. If you're looking for some tips that can aid you in preserving your creativity, I hope that this can be helpful for you. Just remember, you are gifted and your creativity is yours to command. But first you must be kind to yourself and to your creativity.