Art, Business, Talent and Authenticity

Art is Risk

Authenticity in music is risky… if you are social… and value the opinions of those around you.  Expressing my authentic reaction is a commitment of solidarity with those who agree with me. But, it is a commitment of antagonism toward those who disagree with me (which sucks if everyone disagrees with me).  Those are the facts.  Authenticity is a path where someone walks the walk, talks the talk and accepts the consequences. Artists often walk the path of authenticity.

Business is Risk-Averse

On the other hand, it is necessary to do whatever we must in order to survive – in the most basic sense of physical survival.  It is necessary to eat and procreate.  It is absurd to expect someone to seek approval and consensus from everyone around them before feeding their child (dare I say, inhuman!). These are also facts. Survival is a path where someone plays by the rules or they are taken out – no second chances.  Business often walks the path of survival.

Talent is Inherently Authenticity

We all have god-given talents – art and business are two possible talents that each of us *might* have.  Some have both.  Let’s do a thought experiment where you imagine that your god-given talent is music (or art generally).  Now, imagine what steps you’d take to create some music.  You might dig deep emotionally and try writing lyrics for a song about someone important to you or you might play chords and melodies on an instrument, refining as you go until everything seems beautiful and perfect.

At some point you’ll decide that your work is complete… your expression is complete so you talk the talk – “check out my new song…” – and you accept the consequences (mom loves it, but your roommate isn’t crazy about it).  Although it might mean your roommate doesn’t like your song, authenticity is the mechanism that you must use to complete your work.  For the artist, authenticity is not an option anymore than survival.  These are just 2 sides of the same coin.  If an artist doesn’t create with authenticity they will not survive artistically. Creative authenticity isn’t any easier for big stars either – read about how Beck, Kendrick Lamar and Tom Waits view authenticity.

Authenticity in Business

We all have god-give talents.  Some people count business savy among their talents.  Without preconceptions about the goodness or badness of business, I suggest we continue our thought experiment by imagining what steps you’d take to create a business.  You might start by building a machine that solves a problem that a lot of people need to solve (like a selfy stick) or you might build a bunch of gizmos, market them and see which ones everyone likes.

At some point, you’ll have a product and you’ll talk the talk – or at least your marketing consultant will.  You’ll start advertising and you’ll face the consequences (millennials love them, but Gen-X doesn’t care).  Even though your product doesn’t speak to everyone, you’re best shot at surviving as a business is to craft the best selfy stick a millennial could think of – and run the risk of alienating millions of Gen-X consumers.  This is not cynical business practice, this is authenticity applied to business.

Allowing the Path to Wander

I’ve been a musician most of my life.  Music fascinates me and I love what it does to me… and other people.  I’ve struggled with the question of my own authenticity (the catch-phrase is “artistic integrity”), but I have also been a victim to a common misunderstanding – that authenticity and all of its noble influence belongs exclusively to my life’s sun-center… music & art.  It doesn’t.  Authenticity exists alongside any talent.  But, it often looks like a different beast.

In 1978, Bob Marley practically ended a civil war when he and the Wailers played “Jammin” at the One Love Peace Concert in Kingston Jamaica.  Steve Jobs created a technology empire at Apple Computers and defined an era of technology, making billions of dollars in the process.

What do Bob Marley and Steve Jobs have in common?  Maybe it was talent… but more than that – I think it was authenticity.  In response to some common experience, they express their genuine reaction and it is something that other people know to be true.  They gained allies among those who find the truth empowering as they gained enemies among those who find the truth threatening.

Bob Dylan said that “the world has enough songs” and I’d agree.  I think its important to point out that songs can represent art, business, talent and/or truth.  Assuming the question is “Do we have enough art and business to survive?”, then yes, the answer is “the world has enough songs”.  “But,” says Dylan “a person who has something to say, that’s a different story.”  He means (and I’m paraphrasing, here) that there DEFINITELY is not enough authenticity.  There is ALWAYS room for that!

Authenticity is Currency

Having something to say (a.k.a. authenticity) could be the only really currency in the art (or music) game.  Over my years as a musician, I’ve found that it was important to wander in and out of music.  Sometimes I’ve been a dad instead.  Sometimes, I’ve been a student or a desk jockey or whatever.  The point is that my path has wandered… a LOT.  Allowing temporary departures from music has helped to develop and refine my authenticity with music – which is actually key to my survival.

Music Doesn’t Have to be Business

Business is shy about taking sides on social and political issues – when there is an actual debate (and the most need for constructive exchange).  Then, when the issue is resolved, business quickly advertises their “authentic” support for the winning side.  Business is an amoral mirror that reflects the lowest common denominator.

If you’re like me, you hope that authenticity is still a widespread influence in music at every level of commercial music, right?  But, how can it be when commercial music is fundamentally based on business-style authenticity?

I saw ColdPlay a few years ago.  The lights, mega-screens and sound were pretty awesome, but overall the show felt a bit… prescribed.  Like a Michael Bay movie, the show seemed like a sure thing (at least on paper).  But I’d hoped it would hit me in the gut.  But, it didn’t… until the “Fix You” encore.  My wife and I were really beat down by life at that point and that song lifted us up big time!  But, I don’t think the mega-screens were the reason that song mattered.  I think it was because the song spoke to our hearts – because of who we are. The screens and lights were there, but they didn’t matter in that moment.  All that mattered was the music and our experience of it.

Do Everyone a Favor – Be Authentic!

Never before has so much technology been at a musician’s disposal (and within their credit limit).  But, amps and mics don’t make music hit me in the gut – I think you’d agree.

It doesn’t seem to be common sense that musical greatness would owe so much to having something to say.  On the contrary, it seems like greatness is tied up with arena gigs, mega-screens and roadies who bring you vintage guitars.  Hell, Keith Richards has a guy hanging around just to put talcum powder on his left hand when he’s recording in the studio!  Unfortunately, it seems like common sense to link fame and fortune with musical greatness. We should look much deeper – at the heart of what a musician has to say.  But, if you’re an artist (and I hope you are) then walk the walk, recognize what business is (and is not) and allow your path to wander.  Then everyone will be better off.