my failed artist project.
My own music
Working as a songwriter for other people I often get asked the same question in various forms – “Have you ever thought about writing music for yourself?”
It’s a reasonable question – people may presume that because I play, sing, write, produce and record music that I’ve aspirations to be the brand too.
I tend to respond with something like – “No not really – I love writing for artists.”
But a more accurate response would be – “As most songwriters do, I started out making my own music – fronting indie bands in high school, uploading demos to myspace and subjecting the local pubs to my terrible Newton Faulkner rip offs.
It wasn’t until I ventured out of my hometown and into the wider commercial music industry that I stopped.
When I discovered how the industry operates, the mechanics behind record labels, lawyers, publishers, sync agencies, radio pluggers, distributors, booking agents, live promotors, PR companies, marketing strategies and the countless moving parts and hours of work behind building and maintaining a successful artist career – I decided I probably didn’t have what it took.
Nor was I that interested when discovering that you could make a career out of writing for artists that were already successful.”
My writing career
As I began cultivating a ‘writing career’ I learnt how to restrain my own artistic urges in order to nurture the client’s – a necessary part of the job and one that allows for new and exciting creative territories to be explored.
But when you’ve used music as a mode of self-expression for your whole life, having to constantly suppress those instincts can be challenging and begin to chip away at your creative identity.
Over the years I’d occasionally work on projects where I felt I could realise an artist’s vision whilst also flourishing creatively.
But when those opportunities were scarce, the act of making music felt more like a conveyor belt of commerce than the liberating cascade of expression it had once been.
Even the act of listening to music felt analytical and far from transcendent or emotive.
Without knowing it, I’d lost a valuable tool that used to help me explore my emotions – process pain, express anger, rationalise fear, contemplate loss and find closure.
I hadn’t recognised this loss but I certainly felt the effects of it.
My artist project
However, in the quiet lull of a Christmas Holiday and the wake of a very significant and painful split from religion, I started to make music again.
genre, current trends or agenda but simply to express myself – something I hadn’t done for years.
I spent the next few weeks writing freely about what felt true to me – anxiety, insomnia, self-esteem, loss, love, religion etc.
It was cathartic and therapeutic and all the things making music used to be.
But the notion of making music for the sake of making music had become so alien to me.
I quickly convinced myself that I could only afford to spend time expressing myself, if I was eventually going to release the music.
And as soon as I’d made that decision, and labeled it – MY ARTIST PROJECT – that was the beginning of the end.
The next several months were spent carving out time to finish the first few tracks I planned to release – but I struggled.
I was obsessing over whether listeners would actually connect to the project – whether it ought to be less weird, more commercial, more modern, less organic, more conventional, more like this artist or that band.
I spent another several months going back and forth, tweaking and reworking the music without gaining much clarity and delaying the release of anything.
Very quickly the process started feeling more like a chore than a joy, and one that felt impossible to complete.
I dreaded listening back to songs in fear of identifying YET ANOTHER way of improving them and delaying things even further.
After another several months of no progress, I decided that playing the unfinished music to some industry people might help me gain some clarity and get the launch of the project in motion.
The response was ‘positive’ but immediately followed by questions about marketing, strategy, live plans, future content and all of the commitments that come with building and maintaining an artist career.
The thought of all that stuff scared me, as I didn’t actually want an artist “career” – I just wanted to create a platform for myself to release music whenever I felt like it.
But that was difficult to justify committing time to without a listenership, and to build one of those I needed some sort of marketing strategy beyond “i’m just going to release a song :)”.
It was also a struggle to get anyone in the industry excited about something I wasn’t prepared to fully commit to or take seriously.
So I spent the next several months planning out a loose strategy, creating and rehearsing a live show to give the project some credibility.
I found myself a booking agent who liked the music and scheduled in some shows.
But I was faced with the same problem – I couldn’t commit to how the show should sound or look or feel and eventually I had to cancel all the shows because I wasn’t ready.
Another chunk of time disappeared and by January 2020 I’d spent two years re-strategising and re-imagining my artist project without having released a single thing.
It was now so far removed from a creative outlet that I wasn’t even creating for it anymore.
It wasn’t cathartic or therapeutic, it was demanding and tedious – I felt anxious just thinking about it.
I didn’t even really like the music anymore, but I was still desperate to put it out to the world.
Eventually I had to ask myself why I still wanted to pursue something that was causing so much stress?
It wasn’t about cultivating a creative outlet anymore, so what was it about?
The music industry is incredibly competitive, highly saturated and fast-paced – it can make you feel like you have to prove yourself over and over again and that seeking constant validation is natural and virtuous.
My artist project had become the EPITOME of that: my opportunity to prove that I had the ability to appeal to a wide and eclectic audience without compromising my musicality or artistic integrity.
It had become a platform for validation and I was ashamed to admit it.
I felt like this project was going to DEFINE ME and I wanted that definition to be SPECTACULAR – that constant battle made it very difficult to finish anything.
I couldn’t pretend to be anything other than myself and I wasn’t comfortable being defined by one thing.
I’m a creative
I naturally prefer to meander between genres and moods and statements and cultures, far more frequently than I felt was possible building an artist career from scratch.
I just want to create stuff.
I listen to The Neptunes and I want to make beats.
I listen to Bill Evans and I want to explore jazz.
I listen to Best Coast and I want to start a band.
Being a recording artist is having the conviction to say “this is who I am and this is who I’m not” – and I don’t have that.
I don’t have the discipline to confine myself creatively and as soon as I tried to package myself into something it felt stifling and disingenuous.
Diversity is what I love about writing for other people – it’s an infinite spectrum of inspiration, collaborations and new explorations.
And when I need to express my own creative voice, it’s okay to carve out the time to do so, without any other agenda – in fact, it’s necessary for me.
I recently explained the job of ‘writing for others’ to someone, and they said “it sounds like you are the artist”.
That made me think about what the word ‘artist’ really means – someone who creates art.
Just because our names aren’t on the covers or we’re not the ones singing, doesn’t mean we haven’t put our artistry into it.
When music is being made, everyone in that room is creating art, and in that moment – we are all artists.
In the spirit of closure, I thought I’d share a song from the project. ‘Guilty’ was one of first songs I made for the project back in 2018.