The self-made art star— How to produce blockbusters by discovering yourself

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Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art. — Andy Warhol

There's a lot of talk about the similarity of artists and entrepreneurs lately, and how each can learn from the other. Seth Godin's new book, Linchpin, even appropriates the term "artist" to describe the person in any profession who "changes the game, that elevates each interaction and that takes enormous emotional and professional risk with their work." There are some definite parallels between artists and entrepreneurs, but only handfuls of either become successful on a grand scale.

The real question is: what do the artists and entrepreneurs who achieve rockstar status have in common? It's not just great product, or hard work, or time put in… those qualities apply to plenty of people you've never heard of. If you wanna know how to be a rockstar, maybe the people to look at are, well, rockstars.

Paul Carr's column this week on TechCrunch about the meteoric rise of pianist ELEW (formerly Eric Lewis) got me thinking. Carr writes:

To most artists the idea of creating art using the principles of business – let alone those of the Navy Seals – would sound hideous but thinking commercially was what led Lewis to make two significant decisions.

First was his personal reinvention. Eric Lewis became ELEW, a name which Lewis admits he chose because “there were many Eric Lewises on Google search results, but I was the only ELEW.” The name, though, reflected an entirely new persona: “before then I felt like I’d been hiding my real self under a cloak – just a tease”.

The second result of ELEW’s hustler-thinking was the concept of ‘Rockjazz’. “I wanted to be a one man rock band; using the piano to recreate the sound of the electric guitar; the vocals; the bass. Like how Beethoven and Bach were trying to reflect and emulate what they saw.” He pauses. “Except with them, of course, they were trying to emulate bees and things of that nature.”

So here's the thing— Lewis already had a career in music. He was playing routinely with jazz greats like Wynton Marsalis, essentially doing fine art (traditional jazz) not pop music. When he reinvented himself to play the music he really cared about, although he used a commercial model to launch the new career, the music itself still wasn't pop. Go listen to ELEW's music on his Youtube channel— It's challenging stuff. By recreating himself in his own image and creating his own genre, I'd argue that he's actually making art on a higher level than before.

The doors were wide open for an artist like Eric Lewis if he wanted to play what people expected to hear, but as ELEW, it was a different story:

I’d always believed in the system: work hard, become accomplished and get a record deal with a jazz label, that’s how it was supposed to work.” But it didn’t work. “I realized that the whole system was corrupted, and not in my favor. So I closed my head to that system. It was like breaking up with someone after a long relationship. I completely restructured my reality and started thinking – strictly by numbers – how to survive as a piano player. I looked at people like Kenny G, Dave Sanborn – people who are called ‘heretics’. I looked at what they’d done, but I also applied the thinking of a chess hustler.

I decided to fully embrace the rockstar ethos they’d tried to remove. And by rockstar ethos I mean what is known in some circles as ‘fun’.

What really changed the game for ELEW was thinking like a producer or a media company and packaging the work he cared about in a way that set it apart. Instead of waiting to be "discovered" by someone who could make him a star, he seized control of his career and created a whole new market.

Whether you're talking about the record industry model or the Hollywood model or the Art star model, the principles of producing a blockbuster are remarkably similar. Looking at artists such as ELEW, Warhol, Malcolm McLaren, Hazel Dooney, or Sigue Sigue Sputnik, it's possible to see how thinking like a media producer first can create great art and great business at the same time.

Further Resources:

  1. The Commodification of Commodification: John T. Unger
  2. It's easier To Run, And Other Lessons That Entrepreneurs Can Learn From ELEW: Paul Carr, TechCrunch
  3. Linchpin: Ten questions for Seth Godin: Hugh MacLeod, Gaping Void
  4. Hostage To My Independence: Hazel Dooney
  5. Sigue Sigue Sputnik: Wikipedia

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Statement + Bio | Curriculum Vitae | Bibliography

I'm best known as an artist and designer. Relaxing makes me tense, so I tend to put in a lot of hours on diverse projects.

On the way to a successful art career I've been a poet and writer, a tech geek, a print and web designer, illustrator, industrial designer, musician, teacher, actor, set designer and even a paid guru once.

It's all the same thing in the end— I wake up most days thinking about how I want to change, fix or improve some aspect of the world. And after a couple cups of coffee I get started on it.

My specialty is impossibility remediation: if it can't be done, I'm on it.

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