Remember when you were a kid and your parents told you to turn down that music, and do your homework instead? “You’re not going to learn anything important from Rock and Roll,” they said.
They were wrong. The most important things you could ever learn about success could come from a rock band. Here’s why:
Last Sunday, we took our 16-month-old daughter to her first** rock concert – They Might Be Giants, at the NY Hall of Science. It was a great show. Over the last few years, TMBG has put out a lot of kid-friendly music that is just as appealing to adults as it always was.
As I sat in the audience listening to a few old favorites and a few new ones, I suddenly thought – how incredibly brilliant are these guys? Most rock bands burn out, break up, or just fade away as their audience grows out of them. But instead of letting their audience slip away, TMBG have brought their audience even closer – by inviting their kids along for the ride. Here I am, a parent with a lot less disposable income, but somehow still spending my money on the exact same band I did years ago.
Well, even if you don’t like them, as an artist trying to use your talent to support yourself, you have to respect them, and if you’re smart, learn from them. They are a perfect example of creative people who’ve found a way to achieve success in their work, while still remaining happy and true to themselves – something most of us only wish we could do in our lives and careers.
So here are a few things I see about their business and creative model that might help you:
1. Try new things, and don’t fall in love with anything you do:
TMBG have always been innovative – there’s no question there. They experiment with different genres of music, different sounds, and different textures. I’ve seen them perform the same song from concert to concert, without it ever being the same twice. Nothing is sacred, except the idea of trying something new. They’ve embraced new technologies (website, Podcast, FaceBook) to reach their fan-base – even being the first major artists to release an album exclusively as MP3’s on the web.
When was the last time you tried something new? If you can’t remember, it’s been too long. Personally, I try to do something new every day. Not easy, but I really try to challenge myself in some way that makes me a little uncomfortable, but still broadens my experience, so that I can grow as a person. We’re not talking about big leaps here. Even a small thing can mean a big deal down the line. In the past I’ve mentioned Nick Campbell’s 5-second project as a great way to experiment and learn something new. If you haven’t checked it out, you should.
2. Don’t be afraid to let others help you in your creative process, and don’t be threatened by their talent.
Another thing that has helped TMBG grow is that they’ve widened their talent pool – allowing their band members to step forward and shine, and even having people not in the band singing lead occasionally. There’s no ego there. It’s not about being the center of attention – it’s about creating something wonderful as a group.
The lesson here is that inviting other people to be involved in your creative process can really help you. Don’t get me wrong – they need to be people you trust and respect – and it really helps if their skills are complementary to yours. For me, that’s my wife, who does not use computers to create art of any kind – She’s a great photographer, makes jewelry, and creates beautiful hand-drawn geometric art. And while we have very different approaches to being creative, she understands what I do and helps me improve my work by giving me a different perspective.
But I’ve also found that even as a producer or project manager, my best work is done when I gently guide my team, but really let them be as creative as they can be – instead of forcing them to get in line and do what I would do.
Let go of your ego, accept other perspectives, and create something great. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.
3. True success is not fame or money – it’s happiness in what you do.
An important thing I’ve noticed about TMBG over the years is that they have grown organically. Though they’ve won 2 Grammy’s, it hasn’t been a fast track to glory. They’ve achieved success and recognition through years of just doing what they love. Maybe they’re not U2 pushing Blackberries in national commercials, but I doubt that’s what they want.
Mostly, they seem to want to just have fun, experimenting with sounds and ideas, and to connect with their audience in a very human way. On a really hot summer day, Dan Miller once gave my wife, and other fans, water between sets. After the show at the Hall of Science on Sunday, John Flansburgh handed me stickers for my daughter. It’s that kind of willingness to connect that makes me, as a fan, feel important to them – even if I know they’d do the same for any other person in their audience. This is actually what I think makes them different than most other bands that have achieved their level of fame. They haven’t lost touch with what they’re about or the people who have helped them.
I know I said that already in the title of this section, but it’s worth repeating. The lesson: True success is not fame or money – it’s happiness in what you do.
For me, that’s helping people to learn to do what I love – computer animation and visual effects – whether it’s through the tutorials or career advice I’ve put online, or through contributing to communities like CreativeCow.net or After Effects New York.
In fact, I recently reached out to Tiny Inventions, the team that did the TMBG music video for Electric Car, just to tell them I loved their work. Almost immediately, they wrote back to me thanking me for my tutorials, which have helped them over the years. Knowing that I’ve helped someone create something so spectacular, even indirectly, is the most rewarding thing about what I do.
All of this said, the real lesson here is simply this: Be grateful to the people that help you grow, and stay connected with the things that motivate you to do your best. If you do that, you can achieve whatever you want – without having to be someone you’re not.
**Technically, it was her second concert. The first was TMBG at the Beacon Theater, but she was still in utero, and there was definitely a lot more weed at that one.
For even more advice on being creative and making money, check out my article: You’re Not That Talented, and Other Advice.