A large part of what makes up the myth of the ‘tortured artist’ is that musicians, artists, writers, actors must work in relative obscurity for x number of years before their work is discovered or recognized (accepted). Sometimes it’s all their lives. For the most part – with a few exceptions – this is true. Indifference, rejection, and/or vilification of the work produced tends to lock artists in that obscurity, and in a country that worships “making it big”, monetary success, notoriety, etc., it can add a certain amount of suffering into your life… if you’re an artist trying to make it big.
Understand, there’s never a problem with actually doing the work itself other than the inherent ones presented by one’s craft. The problems I’m talking about here are where your art meets the world, specifically the world of commerce – the marketplace. Turning art into cashola (i.e., making a living at it) – ka-ching! The idea and stereotype of the “starving artist” enters in here and that typically means obscurity… but obscurity isn’t a bad thing in itself and is very underrated, i.e., it doesn’t necessarily suck. Here’s why:
1. Obscurity gives you time to develop.
A band/artist may have some great material starting out because they’ve been developing it over the period of time that they’ve been ‘flying under the radar’. That can all change when the first album – or first major label album – comes out. If said band/artist is signed to a record label and if the album becomes a huge success, suddenly they’re on the map and they’re going to be expected to repeat that success. Maybe they can, maybe not, but there’s going to be the pressure to duplicate the initial success. If it can’t be duplicated, then after the third album (it used to be four)… label change! So the first thing: obscurity takes the pressure off. Chances are your music/art is going to evolve into something else over time and you don’t want to be locked in to coming up with endless variations of past successes. You can keep doing the creative work that matters most to you.
2. No image to live up (or down) to.
A few years back, there was an advertising campaign – for Sprite I think – that featured the slogan, “Image is everything.” Well no, it’s not, especially when there’s no real substance to back it up. Sprite – “crisp, clean and no caffeine”… or was that 7up? Another phrase that goes along with that is ‘perception is truth’… [buzzer] again, false, despite what the marketeers will tell you. Realize that perception – other people’s – does not equal truth, but if someone, other than you, is constructing an image for you, you may be saddled with something you don’t want. It may also be very hard to get rid of.
It takes time to come up with a representative image, at least one you want to live with for perhaps the duration of your career. Obscurity gives you that. Your ‘fame’ (real, virtual or imagined) and all its attendant expectations, does not precede you – enjoy it! Example: the time-honored tradition of rock bands trashing the hotel room: “You mean we don’t have to trash the room… but it’s expected!” Defeat all expectations – the image is not real.
3. It cuts down on the “familiarity breeds contempt” factor.
If you’re gracing the covers of tabloids or magazines like People, Us, InTouch, et. al. (trade magazines excepted) or are viral on the Internet and one or more of your songs is getting played 20 times a day on the radio, you might think that would be a good thing, but chances are somebody, somewhere is going to hate you. With a passion. Rebecca Black’s (“Friday”) recent plight – being pulled out of school because of bullying over her song and video’s success – bears that out (yeah, that’s going to help with the socialization process). That kind of overexposure when you get “big” brings out the “haters,” and who needs that?
Closely related to this is the jealousy factor, professional or otherwise. Or as Morrissey wryly observed in his song “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful” (wonderful title, by the way):
“You see, it should’ve been me
It could’ve been me
Everybody says so.” – Morrissey
Funny, tongue-in-cheek perhaps… but there’s more than a grain of truth in there. In fact, Morrissey claimed that the lyrics were about the music scene in Manchester, UK, with bands competing for success.
If you should go out and become a “cash cow”, trademark your name and incorporate… yes, there will be those that hate you.
4. It keeps you honest.
This is mainly about just keeping things – mostly yourself – manageable. Obscurity serves as a reminder to stay focused on what you’re doing and why. “Making it big” is a kind of collective delusion – very few are going to do it in actuality and what good is it going to be if you do and lose yourself in the process? Keep it small(er), keep it real.
What kind of wacky place is this world are we living in where Vanilla Ice, 20+ years after “Ice Ice Baby”, waxes philosophical and advises Justin Bieber to enjoy his “weekend of fame“… and the media goes apeshit over it (even Huffington Post)! Once the press ‘discovers’ you, you become quotable. You never know… you may end up in someone’s blog.
To further help keep things in perspective, I’ve always thought this lyric on fame is one of the best:
“‘Cause if you think you are a star
For so long they’ll come from near and far
But you’ll forget just who you are
You ain’t the nazz,
You’re just a buzz,
Some kinda temporary.” – Ian Hunter, “Hymn For the Dudes”
Impermanence. All things change.
5. You can still go out and about freely without being mobbed, asked for your autograph, or hearing about how your last album really sucked (No, really dude – what were you thinking?).
Self-explanatory, yet not fully appreciated by us “non-celebrities.”
6. You retain your creative freedom and direction (i.e., control)…
not to mention other little things like whatever money you do make and retaining publishing rights. This (along with no. 1) is the best reason I can think of hands down. It always amazed me, and still does, that bands, artists, think of a recording contract as the “holy grail” and pursue it [almost] obsessively when it always struck me as the musical industry equivalent of a student loan (even some 30 years ago when student loans were not the big money-maker they have become). Signing a recording contract means only one thing: you’ve gone into debt… to the record company.
You gonna argue with the King of the Surf Guitar? ‘Nuff said.
The common thread in all of the above is freedom… and freedom for the artist is a very good thing. You get to stay an “ordinary average guy” (or gal).
So stay indie/DIY… and Rock on!