“I think you have to have a few things that you have to kind of chew on to get.”
When you first listen to a new Radiohead song, something about it sounds off. But after a few listens, the sounds in between appear and ameliorate Thom Yorke’s mystical voice. Nothing makes sense, but the emotional tug works, the same way laughter doesn’t need thought.
It shouldn’t be the author or musician’s goal to demystify everything. The maker is often still figuring it out himself, recasting their own interpretation.
The doer wants acknowledgment for their work. They want people to scream their hosannas. But criticism is democratic.
Not everyone likes Radiohead’s last album. Every Trump tweet draws liberal contestants. Where you fall in the Messi versus Ronaldo or Jordan versus Lebron debate could be a preference based on your birth date. Opines literary critic and poet Adam Kirsch:
“Everyone brings his or her own values and standards to the work of judging. This means that it is also, essentially, democratic. No canon of taste or critical authority can compel people to like what they don’t like.”
As an artist, athlete, CEO, US president, some criticism is better than none at all. My newest book Train of Thought has zero reviews. I’d rather have one star and a bad review just to confirm that someone had a look.
Criticism is integral to an informed democracy. Even the maker is a critic. Their rebuttals are neither valid nor invalid but mere reason. Conversely, the reviewer is also a professional; even a stream of invective is a manifestation of analysis and interpretation.
Perhaps it is the inner-critic that is the most annoying of all. It’s the one that wants both artist and analyst to say and do nothing but remain in a state of paralysis.
What’s most important therefore is the opinion itself. Consent is an illusion reserved for lemmings. Now feel free to criticize this post in the comments below.
Things are more interesting and potentially more truthful around the edges. This applies to anyone, from politicians to musicians.
Politicians that speak the truth become outsiders. But politicians who abuse the ‘outsider’ status to pander to populist voters squander their authenticity. They can be as thoughtful as Bernie Sanders or as morally corrupt and downright offensive as Trump.
Truth is in the extremes.
There is no noise in the far tails.
The artist also treads a fine line between a unique creative process to one that can become manufactured. Take the case of MIA; the Internet made her a star and removed her underground status along with it. Another case and point: Diplo, once a revered beat-smith from Florida, now produces hits for Justin Bieber.
The challenge for politicians and artists alike or companies like Apple, therefore, seems to be retaining their edginess despite a growth in popularity. Radiohead may be the paragon of balancing mainstream success while maintaining outsider status. By changing up their sound on each album, they’re able to appear credible to both the experimental listener and the person seeking the wisdom of crowds.
So how does a politician or artists push the boundaries without manipulating their uniqueness to the point of appearing fake? It depends on how honest they are in their approach. If the work is worth talking about, it’ll spread along with its originality.
Writer’s block is a fallacy, according to Seth Godin. You just write bad sentences and bad ideas until you something good to play with. After all, whoever got talker’s block?
Seth’s thoughts on social media are also thought-provoking and to the point. If you listen to his latest interview with Brian Koppelman, you’ll hear Seth say this:
“Social media is based on infinity. If you look at how many Facebook shares you got, if you look at how many Twitter followers you have, you have just enrolled in the wrong dialogue with yourself. I don’t read my Amazon reviews. I don’t look at my Google Analytics. I have no idea whether my subscriber base is going up or down. I don’t know if the the buzz is about something I did on Facebook because none of those things helped me do better work.
Seth Godin was popular as an author before he even started blogging every day. He doesn’t need to gain new fans nor expand his fan base by playing the system and responding to his fans on social networks–you’re either in his tribe or your not. Furthermore, he wouldn’t participate in social media even if he were just getting started today. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram–all that stuff gets in the way of doing what matters which is, first and foremost, the work.
Work requires tremendous focus. Thom Yorke goes off the grid when he records a new album. When some authors write books, they announce their departure from Twitter. Here’s one from author Teju Cole back in 2014. Note: he reemerged on Instagram about a year later.
Social media is hard to ignore. For one, it’s incredibly addicting, like playing the Vegas slot machines. You just want to keep pleasing the crowds which if you’re not careful, will start programming your thinking. You’ll begin to publish things that satisfy an audience rather than yourself.
As Maria Popova mentioned in a Tim Ferriss Podcast when Kurt Vonnegut said “write to please just one person” what he was really saying was to write for yourself. Still, there are tremendous benefits if you use social networks as a tool to connect with like-minded people that you hope one to meet in real life.
As Seth would go on to say in an interview with Tim Ferriss, we work for Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, etc. They make money breaking our individual and collective focus, tying our identity to their velocity. Consequently, we start avoiding the work that’ll outlast all of them.
PS. If you do want to reach out to Seth, he’s good about responding to email. But he still prefers you email Tim Ferriss instead.
Showing your work while you’re working on it is like throwing a fish net out to sea. The probability of catching something big is slim but you may be surprised by the immediate feedback that you get.
One of the main advantages to the Internet is that you can create something and ship it directly to your audience in the same day. There’s no waiting. There’s no publisher or record label but yourself. The only thing holding you back is the fear of rejection and perfection. So why wait?
“Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.” – Brian Eno
Sharing the backstory to your work is the fun part to the creative process. Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien’s blogged about the KID A recording sessions. Walter Isaacson is asking for fan feedback on a script from his new book.
Art is always in progress. We can touch it up forever. Sometimes art is about being good enough and part of that process is showing people where you’re at right now. Making is sweat and tears; a finished product never just pops out. Show us that you have what it takes to get there.
The album format still misguides some artists. They make more songs just to meet the expected album format of 8-12 tracks, or at least 40 minutes.
But excess content actually degrades the album. Record labels think they can convince you to buy a whole album on the premise of the first 3-5 good songs. In reality, listeners are merely consuming singles, or not even buying at all.
Listeners today stream songs a la carte on YouTube, Spotify, or SoundCloud and merely add those songs to their playlist all without spending a dime. Listeners pay with attention, not money.
If the music is the marketing today to drive live shows and merchandise, then why would a band risk publishing one bad song?
Radiohead is the first band that comes to mind in producing holistic albums. Radiohead treats their albums like novels, with each song or chapter shaping the album from beginning to end. You can’t skip a track if you want to understand the ebb and flow of the entire story.
For music albums, less is generally more. Enchancing the album with more songs doesn’t actually make the music better but worse.
Bands should consider the EP instead of the LP; create and publish their best 4-5 songs instead of 8-12. Unless you’re trying to tell a story through your music, it shouldn’t matter if your best tracks play in the beginning or at the end. All songs on the album should be fungible as they already will be on the listener’s playlist.
iTunes Radio is also going to help drive incremental download sales, which is of course, as Apple tries to extend the life of download sales as long as they can: this affords them the opportunity to do that.