If you came into consciousness in the 80’s, under the thrall of MTV when it showed nothing but music videos, and had older sisters, then you too understand how Prince was always sort of there… either front and center being his esoteric self or on the periphery doing something odd but kind of endearing. Needless to say, I don’t remember a world without Prince.
And while I was always a Prince fan, Purple Rain was one of the ten CD’s I got for a penny for joining Columbia House, it wasn’t until Mandy discovered him during that epic, Super Bowl halftime show, that things around here got a touch more purple and paisley all the time. That’s also when I began to think of Prince in terms of what a great artist needs to be in order to survive this idiotic, commercially driven world.
When I lecture illustration and writing students… or anyone else who will listen to what I have to say about creativity and art, I tend to bring up the same artists time and again. Until recently, my three go to artists were: Woody Allen, Jack White and Prince. They are talented artists who consistently put out work, without care of the opinions of others. If the goal is to make the coolest work possible, you have to actually make things, and some of those things are going to suck and some of them are going to rock, but you never know what will work until you put in the time and effort and complete them. The more you work, the more consistently you work, the more you hone your craft, the better you are conveying the ideas you wish to convey… which is sort of the point of art.
When you look at the careers of Prince, Woody Allen and Jack White, you have to wonder how they get so much done? Without fail, there is a new album or movie almost every year, in spite of an industrial entertainment machine intent on controlling everything. Somehow, these guys get it done the way they want it done, so needless to say, there is something to be learned here.
So let’s go with Prince and point out the 3 keys to being just a tad like the Purple Yoda from Minnesota. And if this gets a tad rambly, keep in mind I'm talking in very general terms about facets of a creative personality... when in reality, this stuff all jumbles together into a complex mess...
1. Find Ur Thing and Commit to Ur Thing.
This isn’t rocket science but it is a hard thing to do. We all know what we are interested in doing and how our talent works with the things we are passionate about. However one our 1st World problems is that we have the time and resources to explore as many passions as we can think of. That’s great if your passion is finding new passions, it’s the kiss of death if you really want to excel at something. Prince set out to be a fine musician and a kickass live performer. And so he played musical instruments and performed all the time. That’s the recipe for getting good at something. You figure out how to do it, then you do it. Until you die.
The concept is simple, it’s the execution that trips people up. But as Prince shows, if you do your thing and are confident about your thing and are lucky as all get out, cool things will happen because people are seduced by secret to all good art: the expended effort to appear effortless. When we see someone bring their A Game to the stage, it all seems so effortless and perfect, like we could do it and, therefore, we revel in their glory. But most people are profoundly unaware of the tremendous effort it takes make anything appear effortless.
Which gets us to point #2.
2. Keep Working It, Day in, Day Out.
OK. So you find your thing and you commit to it. Pat yourself on the back if you do those two things. Then get ready for the real work because having found your thing and consciously decided to make it “yours”, difficult as that may be, is easy when compared to sitting down and doing it every single day.
So, there’s Prince and there’s Prince’s Vault. What’s in the Vault? Al Capone’s car… full of candy and hundreds of unreleased songs, among other things. Probably. Yeah, this whole Vault concept sounds weird to most people but to me it makes perfect sense. Why? Because Prince didn’t have an off switch. He found his thing, music, committed to it, wholeheartedly, and then played and played and played until he couldn’t play anymore. And anytime something good came from all that playing, it went into the Vault.
Again, everything is very simple. Once you start working your mad talent, all the time, you will find yourself knee-deep in good stuff. And then soon, waist-deep. Then it will be up to your eyeballs. So you too will need a Vault in which to store all the stuff you’re making.
And I seriously am talking about working every single day. I don’t know what you’re into or how feasible that might be, but if you want to hit a Prince level of intensity, and I suggest that you aim for that, then you will be doing something productive every day. And it will add up quickly.
Perhaps that just means making small notes about what to do on days when you have more time on your hands. Perhaps that means setting aside an hour per day to chip away at a huge project. Perhaps that means doing something that you can knock out in a few seconds, but doing an enormous amount of it. Who knows. Your working method will be unique. But once you figure it out, you build the rest of your daily life around getting your work done.
3. Artists Make Art, Businesses Make Money.
There’s a reason why that little dude gave up his name, for god’s sake. And that reason was all about the conflict between art and commerce. And you need to be aware of the difference between art and commerce or else something will happen and you’ll end up all sad inside.
Art is the thing you make. Commerce is the thing they sell. On a good day, those two things are the same thing. On a bad day, they are not. What I mean is that you, as a passionate artist, are intrinsically driven to do your thing and by working day in day out, you produce something. Being an optimist, I’m going to say it’s awesome and call it art.
But just because you make art doesn’t mean that they will understand it or sell it. And that’s where things get prickly. You have a great idea, a stroke of genius, and you create something glorious. Unfortunately, your moment of brilliance may not, in fact it will most likely not, translate to a successful business deally. ‘Cause business is about making money, not about promoting art.
If you are extremely lucky, you will make money off your work. If you are not, you should find a way to make your art anyway. And as Prince proves, you can be talented, beloved the world over and have massive commercial success behind you and the business world will still shaft you because your art is not the product that they imagine will generate cash pie. And like Prince, you should tell them to stick it and do your work the way you need to do it.
Sometimes, everything will work out. Sometimes, nothing will work out. In either case, shut up and do your thing.
And I guess that’s my weekly rant. A little more tough love than I’d intended, but Prince set the bar pretty high. A little tough love can’t hurt as we all strive to be that awesome. This game is not for the faint of heart. It’s a funky time. And if I've learned anything from Prince, getting funky means going big or going home.