Career In The Music Business – Are You An Artist, Or Just Someone Who Plays Music?

I had the fortune to touch base with Scott James a Guitarist, Composer, and Songwriter in Los Angeles, CA.  I mentioned to him that his thoughts and blog on this subject matter were so in tune with mine that I wanted to share the ideas with you.

I found that many of us use the term ‘independent artist’ or ‘recording artist’ to describe ourselves, but are we really artists, or are we just people who play music?

To answer that question we need to decide what it means to be an artist.  Many of us grew up in an environment where we were only taught what art means at a superficial level. Maybe our first definition of an artist was someone who was really good at making realistic paintings or drawings or maybe someone who made weird abstract creations that were supposedly only understood by special people.  Perhaps we made a vague translation of those ideas and applied them to music in some way and that’s as far as we got.

So what does it mean to be an artist?  I think that’s a question worth asking – often.  The answer will likely change and evolve for you over time.  It’s not one of those words you can just look up in the dictionary, assimilate and forget about.

I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about this myself.  As of right now, here’s what I’ve got:

  • An artist creates from an internal frame of reference.  They don’t look around to see what’s cool or popular and act out of the hope for validation.  They believe in their ability to create something meaningful from their own unique experiences and view of the world.
  • Their drive to create is more important than their desire not to fail.
  • They operate under the premise that what they say and do matters.  A lot of creative people act as though they can say or do whatever they want because it doesn’t really affect anyone in the end anyway.  These people are not artists.
  • True artists see opportunity to create art everywhere in their lives.  They step back and see possibilities instead of just facts.  They imagine new, beautiful and interesting outcomes and dream about ways to make them happen – even if they seem crazy or unrealistic.
  • They take responsibility for making things happen in the real world.

An artist can be a singer, a photographer, a painter, or a teacher, a judge, or a waiter. All it requires is a heart, some courage and some creativity.

Sometimes being an artist is about protecting something beautiful and sometimes it’s about creating something beautiful.

I have a friend who’s spent some time on tour with Billy Joel.  She said that one time he spontaneously decided to play a couple’s wedding reception for 4 hours because he happened to be staying at the hotel where it was held!  Probably blew their minds.  I’m sure they will never, ever forget that and it’s impossible to know what that meant to them, but I’m sure it was profound.  Those are the things that artists live for.

Artists give voices to the voiceless – because they can.  Artists blow people’s minds – because they can.  Artists change people’s lives – because they can.  They can do things that other people don’t do because they’re looking for things that other people can’t see and seeing things that other people can’t, or don’t imagine.  They live in a world of possibility beyond the boundaries that most people accept and then they use their vision to create beautiful things in the real world.

Artists are not defined by their technical ability.  A poor musician can be a great artist.  What makes an artist is that they create and preserve beauty in ways that most people would never think of. An artist is someone who sees life itself as the venue for their creativity. It doesn’t start and end within a song. For a true artist, a song is just part of a bigger work of art. It’s not just about filling up seats or making people move. It’s about how what they do really affects people.

Sometimes art is about changing the world. Sometimes it’s about helping someone get over the loss of someone. Other times it’s about making someone smile, or helping someone believe in something that they had given up on.

There are a lot of tools to create art. You’ve got music. You may not be Billy Joel… but to someone you are. What are you going to do about it?