The Creative Musician Over Time
I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity lately. It started a few months ago when I was chatting on the phone with a friend about the prospect of a new job that I was about to interview for (I’m happy to say that I accepted the job!). My friend mentioned that at the young age of twenty-five, that I’m in the perfect stage of life to take the next leap in my career. He continued to explain that this stage of life is one in which I still maintain high fluid intelligence, in which I’m able to solve problems and be creative more easily, compared to having higher crystallized intelligence, which dominates as you age and consists of stored knowledge.
I agreed with this thought process when it came to my marketing career, but for some reason the musician side of me felt a bit dejected when I compared the aging process to creativity.
Deep down I knew where this feeling came from. We’ve all watched from the sidelines as our favorite bands grow older and are labeled as “one hit wonders,” or have dwindled from once playing for massive audiences to now playing county fairs. And equally frustrating is the fact that many had-been fans have lost interest in the bands they used to love, only buying tickets to hear the last few songs everyone knows at the end of the show. I see articles for music marketers referencing how to categorize fans as “past fans” and how to market toward your older audience once you’re past your prime. These observations make me nervous to age and concerned that I’m wasting my time if I’m not always using my creativity to its fullest extent.
Yes, there are some artists who become well known from one great song or album that they wrote in their twenties that carries their career for the rest of their life. For these musicians, they may be satisfied with their work and happily give up creating anything else. Others will write and record new material as they age, but for whatever reason it doesn’t meet the mark, or their fan base doesn’t engage. I recall a story where James Taylor said during a concert: “I’m going to play a few new songs now, so if you don’t care to listen and just came for my old stuff, now’s your time to go grab a beer.”
My goal is to explore bands who defy the status quo – who continue to harness their creativity and create new music that deeply engages audiences over time.
What makes bands successful as they age?
I saw a glimmer of hope in October when I bought tickets for Death Cab for Cutie at the Masonic Temple in Detroit. While I’d consider myself a long-time Death Cab fan, I figured that some of their newer stuff may be unknown to me. But as they took the stage and played a beautiful two-hour set and an encore of 3 songs (even with Ben Gibbard being sick), I realized that aging hasn’t stopped them from creating amazing music. Though Gibbard is in his mid-forties and the band has had some lineup changes, many of their “new” songs are still hits and have only been released in the last couple of years. Even their new album, Asphalt Meadows, is as innovative as ever.
I came out of the Death Cab concert filled with hope and excitement that my downer attitude about creativity and my personal future as a musician had been proven false right in front of me. I wished I could sit down with Ben Gibbard and ask him what he did to harness that energy over time, but instead I brought up the discussion on one of our band walks through our local metro park. We came to the following conclusions:
Producing creative music over time has a lot to do with who you are and your mindset on personal growth.
Change is good. Connor shared a great example: “I saw Local H when I was in high school. Now he’s in his fifties and he still has just as much hate and blame for the world as he did back then. That’s fine, but his music has stayed that way, too, while I’ve grown and moved on, and don’t care to listen to that style much anymore.”
It’s important to see yourself as someone who can grow and innovate over time. Bands like the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd are icons of creativity, and they’re known for having different “phases” in their music – sometimes more jazz inspired, other times heavily psychedelic, or acoustic and bluegrass. This change infers a growth mindset – the idea that your capabilities and creative limits aren’t set at where they are now, but that they can improve over time.
Repetition is key. Waiting for a moment of inspiration to strike yields poor outcomes compared to composing as a daily practice.
“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood… Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.” – Tchaikovsky
Creativity takes courage. While there are some songs, paintings, or other creative works that are built in a shimmer of inspiration, the skills needed to create something amazing are often shaped by tedious hours of hard work in the practice room or studio. Often the songs we write today are going to be better than the songs we wrote a year ago simply because we’ve put in the time to understand better arrangement and composition, have homed in style, and are confident in the message we want to share.
Being a professional musician is a full-time job. But the artists with the best long-term careers love what they do.
When Death Cab for Cutie came out to play their encore, Ben Gibbard got to the mic and said “We’re gonna play a few more, why not – we’re already here!” I started laughing, since even as a small, young band, we love to play longer than our original set length whenever we get the chance. They were smiling and jamming, and I marveled at the fact that they were having so much fun despite illness and having to drive to a show in Missouri the next day. But that equally explains their longevity and success.
We feel blessed to be doing what we love and honored that our musical passion brings joy to others. If you’d like to keep up with Chloe & the Steel Strings’ journey, please click the following links to join our mailing list, follow us on social media, and check out our Spotify and YouTube to explore our original music, including our recent release, Burn Bright.