Tag Archives: work

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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Do You Work for Free?

Do You Work for Free?. Only if I know that the caterers and other folks providing services at the event that features my music are also working for free. In other words, it must be a charity event.

(Or the wedding or funeral of a loved one, but that kinda goes without saying.)

Same reason why I don’t have my Reverbnation songs available for free download.

Am I a fuddy-dudd for thinking that our current “free music” era is an abomination? True, we’ve exposed the naked emperors of the major labels and big corporations in the industry, but we’re still not putting the money where it belongs: in the hands of the artists. Instead, we’re putting it in the hands of the Internet providers who give us endless YouTube.

Am I being stingy when I don’t roll out my semitrailer of a keyboard for every open mic in town? That thing is heavy! My objective for playing open mics is to network and test myself; I don’t do it just for the joy of playing; there has to be more reason than that for me to bust my hump lugging my Casio around.

Allow me to steal a page from Ayn Rand and say yes, I’ve earned the right to play professionally and get paid for it. I’ve put in the work, I’ve built upon my talent, and I think I got something special. Nothing would make me happier than to share it with the world.

But I’m not just going to give it away. Unless you’ll give away yours, whatever it is.



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A Dispassionate Passion Play

I’m absolutely BOMBARDED these days with “passion” talk in the discussion of career-building. And for good reason: I’ve taken a daring leap into solo-preneurship, and anyone will tell you that it takes passion to break out on your own like this, whether your interest is music or tax law. There’s a lot of talk out on the interwebs about being authentic and true to yourself, and being emotionally invested in your work; I end up following a lot of life coaches and other assorted passion-preachers because, hey–I’m an artist, and that’s where my heart lives, right?

But then I wake up one morning and think, “You know what, that was the stupidest idea I ever had; there’s no way in hell I can do that.” Or, “Crap–I’m gonna have to practice for 3 straight hours to get that song working.” Or, “You know what, I just don’t care today.”

Let’s face it–I’m not passionate all the time. Not in the sense of being emotionally turned up to 11 at every moment. And it makes me wonder if my passion for this business I’m running has died out. It worries me a little. In the absence of emotional turn-on, what is there?

Maybe more than I think. I’ve been keeping an eye on Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz these days (much like nearly 2/3 of southeast Michigan) and in the face of his now 5-0 record this season, he’s been keeping things remarkably cool. Sure, he’ll do a hearty fist-pump with every touchdown, but every time he comes to the mic, he barely smiles as he serves up slice after slice of humble pie, remarking on how Detroit hasn’t yet played its best football, how they need to do better in some areas. It reminds me a lot of Mike Babcock, head coach of the Red Wings, who for his stoicism and tenacity has become a virtual god in this town. You never see him smile (unless he’s hoisting the Stanley Cup), but anyone who knows Detroit hockey knows he doesn’t have to. He simply wins. And if he loses, he doesn’t lose his mind. He’s never stopped by failure. Nor is he stopped by success. And Schwartz is now joining him in the ranks of the Dead Serious Coaches’ Club.

Schwartz’s coolness reminds me of another aspect of passion that easily gets lost on people: the pure WILL that outlives the emotion.

Remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? “Let this cup pass from me”? Christ’s own Passion–THE Passion–was an exercise of will and acceptance. And he wanted to say “NO” to it in the worst way, like many of us do, at the 11th hour. But we all know what he did instead.

I have to do more than just want things.  If all I did was follow what I wanted, I’d just be eating truffles on the couch every night. Passion encompasses so much more than the emotional high that comes with its fulfillment. It goes deeper, sometimes deeper than can be seen by the average person. I have to be willing to take pain and loss and failure, and not lose my mind in the process.

In other words, I have to be dispassionate.

There are two sides to everything, and passion is no exception. And this is heartening to me, really. The will always survives when the emotional drive falls away. I don’t have to feel everything, all the time. I don’t have to be stopped by the devastation or failure or the rush of success.

How does the dispassionate will show up for you?

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