I picked up a copy of this book sometime last year. It was recomended by a music mentoring program I was trying out. Unfortunately, after a month of implementing the program and getting exactly 0 album sales, I can safely say the program was a huge waste of time and money.
I’ll probably write more about that another day.
Anyway this book recommendation was about the only good thing to come out of the program.
The book is a pretty fast and light read. In it, Jeff challenges the traditionally held perception of the starving artist. We all know about a handful of musicians that are making insane amounts of money, but for a lot of musicians, I think the idea that we won’t be financially successful doing what we love is accepted on a pretty fundamental level.
Is it possible to have it all? To enjoy a creative life and be financially successful? I don’t see why not. And Jeff’s book gives a couple of good lessons.
Drawing on different artists and icons throughout history and recent times, Jeff set about to find some fundamental rules that the modern day artist can follow (without selling their soul and creating garbage they pass off as art).
Lesson 1 – Steal
This is a conclusion I came to myself before reading this book. One of the early ideas that Jeff presents is that a thriving artist steals ideas from everywhere they can. But, you have to steal the right way.
Taking a piece of someone elses song and passing it off as your own, that is wrong.
Figuring out why their song is cool, and applying those principles to your own songwriting… that is smart.
I guess another way of saying this, is that you don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Learn from others.
Whenever I hear a song that I really like, I figure out why, and take 2-3 principles from the song, that I can apply to my own songwriting.
Lesson 2 – Your job is not to be perfect, but to create
This one really hit home with me. Two big things I’ve been putting off doing are:
- Making a YouTube video each week to grow my YouTube presence
- Updating social media accounts more regularly
All because I get annoyed at myself at not being able to create something and play it perfectly, or not being able to compose something in a week to put up that is perfect. Sure perfection should be what I’m aiming towards, but it will come with time. The important thing now is to create more.
Lesson learned – make a new video every week.
Lesson 3 – Transitioning into a creative career is done gradually
Boy… did I screw up this one. Real Artists Don’t Starve gives several examples of people moving from traditional day jobs into creative careers. One such example is of a lawyer, who took an interest in acting. She then spent three years slowly transitioning from her law job to being an actor.
There is a cultural perception of the overnight success, which can play out to the perception of our creations being failures if they don’t take off straight away. Which… when you stop and think about it, is pretty silly.
When I released my album I focussed all my time on figuring out how to promote it (I think all the things I did wrong there would make for several blog posts!) and completely neglected my day job business… which shrank to the point of nearly forcing me to go bankrupt.
That was from a combination of bad mentoring, bad attitudes and bad decisions on my part.
A much smarter approach would have been to keep working on the day job and slowly figure out how promoting a record works. But hey – that’s all lessons learned!
Lesson 4: Study Under a Master
The fastest way to become great at a skill is to find a master to study from. Apparently, during the Renaissance, an apprenticeship would last a decade. Can you imagine anyone studying that long with a teacher today? There is an often quoted statistic about guitar students, that the average student takes lesson for 3 weeks.
This is something I have and have not done, to different degrees. While I was at university, I was self taught on guitar for about 4 years, and made little progress. I then went to music college for a year and made some progress. Then, I studied privately with two different guitar teachers for 3-4 years and made a LOT of progress.
I’m currently waiting to be able to afford a new teacher to study from, but in the meantime, I’m hitting the music theory books hard and learning a lot of baroque.
If you can’t find a teacher, you can at least find a good book(s) to study from.
Lesson 5: Don’t Try and be Perfect, Create
“An artist’s job is not to be perfect, but to be creating”.
This is my favourite quote from the entire book. Something I have struggled with, and I’m sure a lot of other creatives struggle with too, is perfectionism. We think that everything has to be perfect before we release it to the world. But… if we don’t release anything… are we actually an artist?
I took this to heart, and started recording pieces for my YouTube channel every week (subscribe here), even if it is just a theory exercise on my guitar. I’m working on releasing a video from Bach’s Cello Suites on Electric Guitar every week… even if they are not perfect.
It’s challenging, because I can list every mistake that I make – those little mistakes haunt me. But… the people watching the videos seem to be enjoying it, which is cool.
Stop trying to be perfect… and create.
Lesson 6: Cultivate Patrons
This has got to be one huge mistake you can see with musicians trying to become professionals.
This was the biggest mistake I made releasing my record.
I put all this time and effort into creating and recording the music… and released it to… my friends and family.
I hadn’t put any time into growing and finding an audience.
You need to find people who will help you, work with you… and buy your art / music / writing.
If you don’t have an audience, you will never make any sales.
Some people do the “self patronage” route, which is to use your day job to fund your artistic creations.
Lesson 7: Practice in Public
This feels like a variation on the previous two lessons – you have to create your art and get it out there. That means playing shows, building online social media channels, and building your own website. Making connections with people.
People love to see the journey.
It’s easier than ever to get your art infront of people and make connections online.
Again, this was another lesson I learned the hard way. Sitting by myself writing and practising for years… could have been better used. I could have easily built an Instagram channel by recording my practising and things I was working. I could have built a blog to engage and find an audience by writing about my experiences and views (like I am now).
It’s not difficult.
Building social media channels and building an audience also gives you a bullet proof career. Look at Nita Strauss – she has 272,000 people following her on Instagram alone. She can release anything she wants, work on any project… and will be highly in demand for sponsorship deals or working with other bands, because she brings a massive amount of eyeballs to whatever she does.
Promoting yourself is a vital part of the job.
Lesson 8: Don’t Work for Free
Musicians worldwide are complaining about streaming platforms… and then putting their music on streaming platforms. If you give your work away for free, play shows for free, then you will never make a dollar.
“The Thriving Artists always works for something”
Lesson 9: Make Money to Make Art
This chapter opens with a quote from Karl Marx. Karl Marx was a piece of shit, philosophically and as a person. So, I think that choice of quote is… a very poor choice.
The idea behind this chapter is interesting… and one I agree with. The more money you make, the more you can re-invest into creating more interesting art.
For a musician, that means working in bigger studios, being able to hire interesting and awesome musicians to play on your album, getting to work with awesome producers and putting on incredible live shows. Making money allows you to do some very cool things.
This is a great book for any artist / musician / writer / creative person, and it helped me identify a few weak areas in what I have been doing and gave me the ideas to correct them. It was enjoyable to read and very well researched, with a lot of stories and background on artists throughout history.
Have you read the book? Let me know what you thought in the comments.