Have a Showstopper

Last week I was at the Iowa State Fair, in the middle of an agricultural orgy. I got to experience the famous butter cow, the yodeling contest, the livestock shows, and of course the savory sweetness of pulled pork.

I also got to see an artist demo. Barbara Vaske, an artist and art consultant in my home town of Des Moines, was giving a demo on wire crochet, something that combines two of my favorite non-musical activities: crochet and beading.

Toward the end of her presentation, she shared a whopper piece of advice that really challenged my thinking about being a professional artist: You want to have a SHOWSTOPPER.

A showstopper is the one piece that is the biggest, wildest, most awesome and unique amongst all your projects. It draws attention and curiosity. It’s not the same as a masterpiece, which is the best thing amongst your usual stuff. A showstopper stands completely apart from your usual stuff. Someone who does metalworking may do the vast majority of her pieces as jewelry, but the showstopper will be a ball gown made of metal that patrons can marvel at from a hundred yards away. (Extra points if Lady Gaga wears it.) And if it’s for sale at all, it will be at a disgustingly out-of-range price.

The artist who creates a showstopper will be remembered and known for that piece, such that people who want to buy something smaller and less expensive from you will feel like they’re getting a piece of the big one. In fact, that will be their reason for buying from you at all – the showstopper has them fall in love with your work, and its aura will be cast on everything else you offer.

The ultimate lesson: Not every piece you do has to be a showstopper. By having just one, you free yourself from the pressure of having to paint Picasso every time you sit down to create something.

I was blown away by this.

And it made me think, “This applies to other industries too.”

Take cars, for instance. A car company will produce the apotheosis of custom vehicles with a price in six or seven figures to be their showstopper. Its only real purpose is to revolve slowly on a turntable at an auto show and get people salivating over it. The company may produce only ten of these cars for sale. But the buzz created from this Supermobile will give extra selling power to all the mid-priced grocery-getters that the same company makes for the average consumer.

Of course, it got me thinking: How does the showstopper principle apply to music? Well, it can do that in hundreds of ways. An obvious example is the “one-hit wonder,” though most of us use that term dismissively. A better example, I think, is a stand-out project that stretches the limits of what an artist can do, without falling prey to assumptions and formulas – like Michael Jackson’s video for “Thriller.” No other Michael Jackson video at that time needed to have the breadth and scope of “Thriller,” just that infectious title track. And guess what? You know the rest of the story.

It’s about taking what you do best and asking, “What could I do with this if I had no limits?” Do it once, deliberately, and with love and patience. It’s not a rat race. It’s not about conquering the world, or having every one of your projects be an ultimate masterpiece.

I get myself tied in knots thinking this way – that every little thing I do must be THE thing.

No, just let one thing be THE THING, and let it be your mouthpiece. It will express the love of what you do, the best of your skill, your hearing of the muses. People will say, “So you’re the one who made the house-boat out of hubcaps?” And all you need to do is smile and nod – no need for mission statements here. You’ve already communicated something.

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