How To Succeed As An Artist

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I’ve felt like an outsider all my life since I first began interacting socially with people outside of my family. My earliest memory of a social interaction is from when I was 4. My sister and brother and I were playing on the sidewalk with two sisters who lived down the street. The elder sister and my sister were dominating the convo which consisted mainly of the other girl (who was about 7, like my sister) sneering at various things about me and my brother (kids can be so mean sometimes), and my sister hotly countering the jibes with pithy comebacks such as, “So…?!!!” and “No he/she’s not!” During that conversation, I suddenly became aware of the fact that I was freakishly small for my age, and that I looked much younger than I was (which is insulting when you’re 4).

And then my years at school began. It was the late 1970s, Canada. My grasp of English was limited. To be fair, that was true of the other 4 year olds too, though they were native English speakers. So I quickly caught up. But not before I started realising that everything about my experience (my culture, my family) was different from the common experience of my peers. My family was different. My parents were different. All the class activities which took for granted Canadian culture, tradition, and customs were foreign to me.

And then the moving began. My parents moved frequently, at least once a year, sometimes more. It was terrifying, but I soon got used to it: being the newest kid in the class, having no friends, feeling unsafe.

Things changed rather dramatically when I got to University as a 17 year old. I was a math student. We were ALL outsiders. It was like discovering my home planet. The only problem was that I didn’t particularly want to be a mathematician.  So after a couple of years of desperately trying to make myself be like everyone else, I gave up and changed paths to classical piano. Classical music students were just as geeky as math students, but again, I was a square peg trying to fit myself into a round hole. I was an appallingly bad classical piano student.

In fact, I was a terrible student, full stop. Academia did not suit me at all. I didn’t like doing my own work (though I was happy to help others with theirs). I didn’t like sitting in lectures. I was disorganised. My life was chaotic. But I had a glorious time doing whatever I wanted while always feeling like I was avoiding what I should be doing. And it was while I was procrastinating that I starting song writing. That was a long time ago. Autumn 1995. Nearly 20 years on, and I’ve realised what Jessica Hische has put so neatly: “The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.”

When I was procrastinating I helped others, encouraged others (especially those who were disheartened). I wrote songs. I sang them. I shared them with anyone who would listen. And this has been the work I’ve been passionate about (and longing to do professionally) ever since I started doing it in my “spare time” as a student.

As an artist, a question that I get asked time and again is, “What makes you different? What’s different about what you do?” And this is an important question.

It’s hardly surprising that I find it so satisfying to perform my music and be an artist, since it’s a field where being different is not only allowed, but celebrated. We are all unique, we each have a unique set of experiences, unique DNA, evident in the uniqueness of our fingerprints. So at the heart of the question about what it is that makes my music different, is the question, what makes ME different? WHO AM I?

That’s a good question.

And a fucking impossible question.

Who am I? I’m discovering who I am all the time, with every passing moment, with every new bit of life experience. I express that in my music. I long to have more time and resources for it. But I celebrate the time and resources I DO have for it now. And in the midst of all this discovering, I encounter rejection again and again and again.

In April, I applied for Samsung’s “Launching People” competition, hoping to be chosen from hundreds of artists, to be mentored by Paloma Faith. I didn’t win the competition. At the end of April, I applied for a PRS For Music Foundation recording grant to record my second album (which is written and ready to go!!) and I didn’t make it to round 2 of the application process. Every time I attempt a “jump” for my music and I fall, after the initial disappointment, I celebrate. Because this is my story.

I am GLAD that my story isn’t: 

So I just wrote these songs and they were so awesome and someone in a position of great influence and power heard my songs and was like, “You are so awesome, let’s put you on a shortcut to stardom and everything you ever wanted.”  And then I became super successful! I’m so lucky! This never happens to anyone … just me!

I’m glad that’s not my story because that story SUCKS. That story is NOT REAL. That story is NOT THE WAY IT HAPPENS, despite the weird fantasy-illusion-belief that most people seem to have about the music industry, or any creative industry. This idea that you have to be lucky to make it, otherwise your career as an artist is pretty much doomed from the outset is a huge load of BS. This story is entirely disempowering to artists, placing the power of making their career possible in the hands of a small group of wealthy people and corporations. This is the fiction that is endorsed by those in power and then bought and propagated by those who are afraid of the work they’d have to do if they took responsibility for their own success. So it’s easy to see why so many artists buy into this fiction … because most artists would prefer not to do any work aside from their own creative work.

It’s tempting to want someone to step in and make things happen, especially when it feels like my own efforts have been ineffective for a long time. But giving in to that temptation, adopting that position means to give up all my power. And I am not willing to do that. I am not willing to place the power of making things happen in my life and career in the hands of others. Even if I were to get a recording grant, that wouldn’t be the funders making my record happen. It would be ME doing what I do, being who I am, inspiring funders to want to be a part of what I do.  Let’s set the record straight. Let’s get the REAL picture of who’s got the power here.

It’s the funders, the distributors, the labels, the publishers that need US the creatives, not the other way around. WE ARE THE REASON why they do the things they do. But THEY are are NOT the reason why WE CREATE.

So every time I feel knocked back, every time I put in a load of work, take a risk, and find that the result/response is not the outcome/boost I’d hoped for but simply the news that I’ve got to work harder, work longer, I CELEBRATE. My story is REAL.  And I want to share my story and for people to be inspired, encouraged, heartened, to know that the effort, the disappointments, all the passion and heart that they invest freely and generously into their art and work without any guarantee of being paid or being heard, this is all part of the journey.

YES, I want my music to be heard by as many people as possible. I want to have great impact. I want my songs to be so touching, so resonant, so relevant, so insightful, that one day, everywhere I go, I’ll hear other people singing my songs (and hopefully not because I’ve gone crazy). And I will explore every opportunity that comes my way that might help make that happen. But I am not looking for “luck” to get me where I want to go. That’s not to say that luck won’t happen. I’m saying that I’m not depending on luck.

I am going where I want to go, right now, every day. I’m going to keep writing my songs in as awesome and true a way as possible, and step by step, I will get to where I want to go. I feel confident of this.

So when I am rejected by Samsung or Paloma Faith, or the PRS for Music Foundation, I celebrate my journey and my story. I laugh thinking about how one day, when my songs are being sung by different people, and they’re a ubiquitous part of the music landscape, I’ll be able to say, “When I was looking to record this album in the way that I envisioned, and I looked for partners in that, I was turned down again and again. But I kept going and I found a way to do what I want to do.”

Now THAT is a story worth celebrating. One that will give people hope, and also be an accurate portrayal of reality, instead of the fantasies/lies that are perpetuated about creative professions and about success in general!

Rant over.

So you want to know how to succeed as an artist? Take heart. Your dreams are your destiny, if you just continue taking the steps each day towards them. One step at a time. There is a shortcut to success.  And it’s what my little boy might call a “longcut”. That shortcut is simply going where you want to go, step by step, like the proverbial tortoise. Begin by dreaming.

If you want to help make my second album happen, I’m raising the funds to record it right now. So if you want to help, you can do so at:

http://LeeSunMusic.com

via the “Buy Now” buttons …… and you’ll receive my album (either as a digital download or a CD depending on which you select) as well as my deepest gratitude 🙂

Or you can buy something from my eBay shop at:

http://stores.ebay.co.uk/Little-Music-Tree

If you do, please drop me a line at LEESUN [at] LEESUNMUSIC [dot] COM and I’ll send you an exclusive preview of my newest song, “Know, No Matter What (We All Matter)”!

 

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