"There is no new thing under the sun." - Ecclesiastes 1:9
Recently, I learned that a much larger YouTube musician had made a video. It had a title and thumbnail quite like one of my own from last year.
My first reaction was to get defensive and upset about what seemed like blatant theft!
It was one of my more popular videos. Maybe she saw it and thought if it worked for someone with a tiny following like myself, it must be a great idea.
She even used David Bowie in the thumbnail! I mean.... surely I was the first to ever use Bowie...
Then I watched the video.
There were common themes, but this didn't feel like blatant plagiarism. Hmm...
I think this experience simply reinforced the point I made in that initial video. There is nothing truly original, but we can still strive to be unique instead.
So, no hard feelings, Mary. But since this will likely be my only opportunity to ever say this - mine does have more views. ;)
"When people call something 'original,' nine out of ten times they just don't know the references." - Jonathan Lethem
You may have heard of Austin Kleon's excellent book "Steal Like an Artist." In it, he furthers Picasso's idea that "all art is theft." Every new creation is a mix of the creator's influences.
These influences can be conscious or subconscious.
But why does what we often see here on YouTube or hear in many Spotify playlists feel like something else; something kind of gross?
I know better than to get on the internet and try to define art. There's no point and it isn't even possible. It depends on many variables. These include the artist's intent, which we can't know for sure, and the consumer's subjective interpretation.
But my composition teacher once said something that has always stuck with me. "Art never panders."
In today's world we're often told that to be successful, we need to give the people what they want. This is how a product works.
People want a self-propelled vacuum? Here's a Roomba to get stuck on your rug for 6 hours.
This has always been a pressure point for artists.
If you were a court musician in the middle ages, you might have been working passionately on your greatest lute magnum opus yet, but the King really likes that little ditty he heard at the market (Kings probably didn't go to the market did they?). Anyway... you play that little ditty from the market, because you like your head and want it to stay where it is.
You might have an experimental album that you were very excited about. But, then you pitched it to the label who controlled whether you get paid. They replied that it "wouldn't work well on the radio."
The pressure to pander has always existed, but today it all feels exponentially amplified. The internet has given us more access and more freedom, but has also accelerated all our problems.
The Almighty Algo
As algorithms have advanced on platforms like Spotify or YouTube. They encourage artists to make more of what has already worked. More people share more ideas. But, we're being funneled down the path of sameness.
You pull the algorithmic lever; you get the cheese of more views or streams.
I don't think this is exactly what Picasso had in mind when he made such a bold statement about art.
So what does "steal like an artist" actually mean, and how is it different than modern trend chasing?
Everything has a Model
As artists, we often get so hung up on trying to be "original" that we get nothing done. It's too overwhelming. It's a burden that prevents us from moving forward in any direction.
We can focus on being unique instead of original.
But what's the difference?
One of my first assignments when I began to study composition was to take one of Bach's three part inventions and "change all the notes."
I was young and inexperienced. I wanted to write something "original" that would feed my ego and make people celebrate how brilliant I was.
Why was my teacher having me waste time in this way?
He would often say "every piece has a model." The model contains things we can learn from and apply in our own work. It gives us structure; a guide.
Zaninelli (my teacher) called the Bach exercise "simulating" a piece. It was like a painter in the Louvre copying a painting. They do it to understand how the artist approached lighting or some other technique.
The point wasn't to copy Bach's work and then pass it off as my own. It was to absorb my favorite qualities of Bach's work into my own set of techniques. To understand WHY he made certain choices.
"If you steal from one person, it's plagiarism; if you steal from many, it's research."
You may have heard that we “stand on the shoulders of giants.” Everything we do as artists is some variation or evolution of the work that has preceded us. Even if it’s a direct reaction against something - that’s still an influence.
Our artistic voice is made up of the weird, personal, unique combination of our influences.
I love Prokofiev's angular dissonances and sarcasm. I love Reznor's sound design. I love Messiaen's polychordal harmonic shifts. I love the straightforward honesty of certain rock riffs.
I wouldn’t call my own voice original, but it is unique. It's unique to me. It comes from my own mix of influences. It's how I filter those influences through my own taste.
The more influences you have, the more unique your work will be.
Steal from Older Things
Old things aren't trendy things, and that's a good thing. Old things have already proven they have timeless qualities. Most trends won't survive the week.
This is why platforms like YouTube can feel so empty and meaningless. Creators are tempted to jump on the latest trend. For example, WHY IS EVERYONE QUITTING YOUTUBE???
We get easily distracted by all the flashy things that seem to be working around us. We chase the shiny object, do it hastily because we know it won't last for long and we make something that has little to no chance of surviving long term.
This is why we see so much stuff made so quickly here on the internet. And it's why so much of it feels so empty.
It's a cycle of distracted creators pandering to the distracted masses. Short attention spans creating even shorter attention spans.
I tend to have the opposite problem - I obsess over my own work - especially my music. I put a lot of time and energy into it, and want it to be perfect.
But I've learned over time that the work itself isn't most important to me. It's my ability to keep working and creating what I love.
This, combined with the understanding that we're all kind of making variations of the same stuff, has made me less possessive about my own work.
Everything I make now, I view as practice. A chance to hone my unique voice and improve at my craft.
"The ability to create is far more valuable than the creation itself."
Embrace your influences. Don't obsess over originality.
Be unique instead.