We Can't All Be Special Snowflakes
March 19, 2014 1:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm a musician and sometimes when I see or hear other artists who are doing cool, innovative things that are somewhat similar to what I'm doing, I feel irritated or threatened, like my work is less important or less unique now, and it makes me bitter or less inclined to continue working on my own stuff. I hate that I feel so petty and competitive instead of just being happy for the success of others. I really just need to get over myself and stop being a butthead, but I don't know how to deal with these feelings. I was hoping the HiveMind could give me some words of wisdom.
posted by chara to Human Relations (16 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Welcome to the world of (professional) music making. The things that helped me were:

1) practice, and practice some more.
2) don't look too closely at people who are doing things too similar to what you do.
3) if you can't avoid 2), try to analyze what these others do well and not so well, and integrate the good stuff into your own practice (which is something else than blindly trying to copy their cool).
4) Don't be hard on yourself, take your own reaction lightly. It's natural.

Especially no. 2 has cured me a bunch of headaches.
posted by Namlit at 1:25 PM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So many artists copy. So many. Nothing is original. Michael Jackson took the moonwalk from from someone else. And that guy morphed it from something else. And so on. We have the tastes we have because of our culture and our time. So with that perspective...

I used to be like this, with music groups that I liked. I guess I just stopped placing my sense of self worth on being different, special, or better than.

Now I'm super happy when people like what I like because then we can enjoy it together!

This might not work for a musician, since in many ways you do want to be different, in order to get recognition.

So in your situation, when I feel the pain I would think "Sometimes I'm different, and sometimes I'm the same. When I feel pain, it is the pain of my own ego and low self esteem."

Something like that.

Also karmically speaking, if you are jealous of others' success, you sow the seeds of you NOT being as successful as them in the future. No one admires a jealous snarker in the corner. So maybe you can picture that and think yeeshe I don't want to be that guy.

And imagine how much better your music could be if you were REALLY GOOD and then could COLLABORATE with other REALLY GOOD artists. Like how Lennon/McCartney were just better together. So if they're really good, or better than you, you can just think "ok gotta up my game then!"
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:28 PM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have this problem a lot, too. I think all creative people do, because zeitgeists exist, and no, we're mostly not as clever and unique as we want to be.

Here are my coping strategies:

- Not everything has to be new in order to be good, or popular, or successful. For every super innovative person doing a totally new thing that has never been conceived of before, there are ten people doing variations on the same old stuff and laughing all the way to the bank.

- Art is a conversation. Recently I was annoyed that I worked really hard on a screenwriting project about tech startups. And now there are two new TV shows that take place at tech startups. First of all, the fact that there are two means that obviously being First and Only and Newest isn't really that important in the grand scheme, if both of those shows got on the air despite the existence of similar projects. Second of all, those shows don't invalidate my thing at all, because my thing isn't exactly the same as either of those other projects.

- There's always another idea around the bend. Coming up with the same idea as someone else means that people are interested in the kinds of stuff I'm interested in. Clearly, I am on the right track.

- A rising tide lifts all boats. Imagine you had the idea for punk music at the same time as whatever other band had the same idea. You shouldn't think, "oh great now that whole sound is taken, I guess," you should think "sweet, there's about to be a huge musical flowering of a type of thing I'm really interested in!" and then go make more of it because the kind of music you make is about to be really popular.
posted by Sara C. at 1:30 PM on March 19, 2014 [9 favorites]

Aren't you happy that other people have the same tastes that you do? It'll make it that much more likely for you to succeed, as there's obviously a market for what you're doing. Calculus was invented by two different people at the same time--and that's calculus. Serendipity is a blessing, and something to build a movement and a community around. If somebody else is doing what you're doing, it means you're moving in a direction that makes sense to others...and art is all about connecting with others.
posted by semaphore at 1:32 PM on March 19, 2014

Do you play what you do because you want it to be "new & innovative?" I chased that demon for almost 20 years, and it was never quite there, because everything I was emulating of course, had already been released & the trend-setters had moved on to the next thing.

If you want to avoid comparing other people's music to your own, that's easy -- stop listening to them. So many of the most innovative musicians I've worked with were also some of the most oblivious as to what was happening in music, trend-wise.

Play what you play because it's what you want to play, regardless of trends & styles, and you won't have to live on the back of that monkey. The less you worry about what other people might like in your music, and the more you concern yourself with it satisfying you, the better off you'll be. Maybe, just maybe, the larger world outside will recognize that your music is genuine & not contrived for the sake of being trendy, and you'll get some notice, but you can't just make music for the sake of getting noticed. Make music for its own sake & that's what people will notice, if they ever do.

I had to step back for a long time & come back to it much later in life though, to realize the mistakes I'd made in that regard, so don't expect miracles from yourself.
posted by Devils Rancher at 1:39 PM on March 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think it's somewhat universal, so I wouldn't feel too guilty about it. It's like when you see someone wearing some sort of boots and you think to yourself, "I invented that fashion trend. How did they know it was in my head 4 years ago?"

I think there's also an underlying Western culture (or American culture) belief thing that I have to be unique and different from others in order to be valuable. Especially in the creative/aesthetic sense. I think it's problematic when millions of people are thinking that, because some of them are going to happen to be doing the same things at the same time.

It's interesting how Zeitgeists form. Like there must be some kind of cultural current that made everyone start thinking that ukeleles are cool (I guess they aren't anymore) and that they were the first one to think of it. It must be that there are certain cultural currents in flux, like nostalgia, and people just all latch onto a certain thing and feel original while doing it.

It doesn't really detract from the value of your work I think. If you look at famous artists and musicians, a bunch of them tend to be doing the same thing as other artists and musicians or a variation on it, but it's a high quality version across the board.
posted by mermily at 2:23 PM on March 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I think everyone feels this way.

One thing that is useful for ALL KINDS of negative feelings is to recognize that you're having the feeling but to sort of set the feeling aside. It's very very hard to stop yourself from ever having these feelings. It's somewhat less hard to acknowledge that the feeling is not useful for you.
posted by mskyle at 2:34 PM on March 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

Read this excellent Oliver Burkeman article and understand it is part of the process.
posted by cluck at 3:26 PM on March 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's hard. I can't give you an answer because there isn't one. You're right, though - it's all in teaching yourself ways to think about it that will enable you to get past the worry and defensiveness, and move on to making more art.

A few useful lines of thought:

Your art isn't about what you're doing - the thing that makes it yours, as well as the thing that makes it art, is the way that you do it.

Everyone has moments of doubting themselves, and you've been using your great idea X as your ace in the hole. The thing is, your project that involves X is a lot more than just an idea. If all it took was the idea, then I could check out your website, acquire the precious seed, and quit my day job. But no. X is a great idea, but on some level, it's just a stunt. Your real skill is your musicianship. Your real art is the music that you make. X is just a gimmick (or to be kinder, a vehicle). Other people can share your vehicle without affecting your art.

There are invaders on your turf!! Your hackles are up!! They're going to take your idea away!!! But no. Ideas can't be taken, nor can they be defended, and all the distress and mental effort and you put into that is going to just make you an emotional mess.

The fact that someone is doing things that are related means that they've already started creating a community. People who listen to music don't say "I don't need to hear Band B, I already listen to Band A" - they say "Band B is friends with the awesome Band A? I must hear this!"

The people who are happiest with what they do tend to think of it not as a battle for success to triumph over the world, or as defending themselves from the world, but sharing themselves with the world.
posted by aimedwander at 4:59 PM on March 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

I am of the mindset that thinking about 'what the kids are into these days', etc, is very limiting as a songwriter and will do you no good. Just be passionate about what you write and play/record/perform, challenge yourself, and make the sounds that please you deep down.
posted by destructive cactus at 5:06 PM on March 19, 2014

“The Ghost of Sir Felix Finch whines, "But it's been done a hundred times before!"--as if there could be anything not done a hundred thousand times between Aristophanes and Andrew Void-Webber! As if Art is the What, not the How!”

-David Mitchell, "Cloud Atlas"
There is really nothing artistic you or anyone can do that won't be similar to something that came before. But it doesn't matter. If art was about "what" and not "how," there would only be room in the world for one song about love, and one movie about war, and so forth.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:20 PM on March 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am not a musician but I have thought a lot about this kind of issue. A couple of thoughts:

1) I think some of it comes from a need have some understanding of where we stand or who we are. One measure of such things is where we stand in relation to other people -- a pecking order kind of thing. Am I better than other people? This is a relative measure and I have come to mostly not like relative measures. I prefer to search for some kind of objective measure.

In other words, let's say you take a class and they curve the grade. Because they curved the grade, you got an A because you were better than 90% of your classmates. But did you learn what you really needed to learn in order to prepare you for future classes you will need or in order to prepare you for your career? Maybe, maybe not. Being "better" or "worse" than other people may have no bearing on whether or not you are good enough for X goal/need/whatever objectively, in the real world.

2) Music is a kind of art. The art I am currently doing is a webcomic. My drawings are not great (though I have had a fair amount of pleasant feedback -- people seem to like the drawings) but the drawings are not the point. Art expresses something internal to you. It expresses an idea or a feeling or an experience or a unique point of view or something else that is unique to your soul simply because no one else has lived your life.

So I have spent a few years figuring out what I wanted to express and working on that because that is what matters most. The drawings for Questionable Content were not great at first. They got better with practice. But the comic expresses something that draws other people to it. It really does not matter that I am not "as good as" Jeph Jacques. He was not always as good as he is now and his drawings are not really what drew people to the comic. People are drawn for various reasons but the draw is something alive about the comic that matters more than mere technical skill in terms of imagery.

So I suggest you focus on finding an objective measure of your skill -- something that matters objectively and has nothing to do with pecking order -- and then focus on what you need to express and how you want to express it.
posted by Michele in California at 5:21 PM on March 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think for me, what helps, is recognizing that this is occuring simply because we don't live in bubbles or are isolated vaccuums. It's enevitable and happens to everyone in every field... Photography was "invented" by several people in different places around the same time due to the confluence of material availability, advances in technology and scientific thinking, etc. It happens.

In fact, as consumer culture globalizes we have more and more common experiences and reference points... so it's that much more likely that people from even vaguely similar backgrounds like and make similar stuff and have similar stories to tell.

The flip side is that you can take any one genre, album, director, author etc. and I will really really LOVE some of them and find certain pieces "perfect" and sublime - and others I'll kinda hate, even thought they're essentially "the same". I loved The Royal Tannenbaums and hated The Life Aquatic. There are albums I play with songs I hate so much I skip (gasp, delete!) them - even though it's all the same artist and I like all the others. ?? Who knows. That goes for my artwork and your work too - it doesn't need to be - and won't be - completely new and unique, and not every piece will resonate with everyone (or anyone). I live for the moment that ONE piece resonates with someone (anyone! lol) occasionally.

Similar happens for a reason, but similar is not "the same".
posted by jrobin276 at 6:27 PM on March 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I just listened to your one track that's here, and I'd argue you are a snowflake. Gorgeous.

I sing sometimes, not so much lately. There's a lot I dislike about the process of putting things out there. Some of this is from that, but probably mostly from observations via being old: I think that even when singers sound similar (and have comparable melodies, preferred chord changes, lyrical styles - seriously, apart from all that), three things are enough for an audience to ignore even substantial similarities. 1) Some small but distinctive production element; 2) some small but distinctive vocal embellishment or tic; 3) a strong, identifiable look. I think David Byrne is dead on that in pop, visual style really influences how people approach the music.

The truth is most pop singers draw from a limited well (excluding people with unusually idiosyncratic styles - yelpers and the like, even then). It's the combination of little little things coming together that sets a style. That and, of course, the unique capacities and limitations of a physical apparatus. And then something ineffable - a person's particular energy, way of thinking (musical and otherwise) and history, and then the energy of the present moment while recording, or in the exchange of same when performing with others.

Re production: get a new toy/instrument, or work with someone else you can communicate with, whose style is really different from yours. Re vocal style: turn a bit of some 'similar' thing down, turn a bit of something else up; maybe, if you've been e.g. focusing on tone, reconsider phrasing or some other expressive dimension; listen to / steal from musicians of all styles others have forgotten for now or don't know. Re look: if you don't have one, come up with one*.

Definitely agree to not listen to those people you think you're close to - way too easy to be unconsciously influenced or consciously frustrated.

From a nothing to do with art POV: maybe there's only so much bandwidth for e.g. women singers with ukeleles in a given four month span, but hype moves so quickly there's room again about two months after that, especially if there's one or more of those 'different' things going on.

(*I like considered looks in others but have always been weirded out by the idea of consciously taking myself as a visual object in re performance, though I guess some enjoy that sort of thing more than others. I do think visually marking yourself in some way probably helps - could be a full-on look or something small/subtle. Thinking of: Anna Calvi's lipstick, Laurie Anderson's short shock of hair, Amy Winehouse's drag, Cesaria Evora's bare feet. It's a loaded aspect of performance for women, for sure, which is complicated, but anyway. You could probably have fun with it, or just pick something.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:55 PM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wow, I just answered a totally different question from the one you asked. Knowing and having known musicians as well as been one, I think almost all feel the way you feel at some point or other. I think the only way through it is to do/figure out your thing (this I think is what I was trying to get at!), and to be (or pretend to be) bold about it.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:10 PM on March 19, 2014

Last night, I thought of a musical example of objective measures. I thought that might be more meaningful to you than my art example from yesterday.

I have a long history of double ear infections. There is some evidence that this has impacted my hearing in weird ways, similar to central auditory processing disorder (CAPD). In other words, I can hear fine but somehow the message gets garbled anyway.

So, for most of my life, I thought all lyricists everywhere were higher than a kite any time they wrote any thing. All the lyrics to popular songs sounded so completely psychedelic to me. As I have gotten healthier in recent years and my ears have healed up, songs began to sound different to me. That song I thought was about some guy trying to catch a "moon train"? Nope. It was, in fact, a very ordinary story about catching the NOON train to meet his girlfriend in town. It wasn't that lyricists wrote psychedelic LSD inspired stories. I just heard them that way.

Interestingly, songs by The Beatles didn't sound any different to me. As far as I could tell, the lyrics remained the same as before my hearing improvement. It makes me wonder if, perhaps, one of the reasons their music was so popular is because there is some kind of objective clarity of sound to their songs such that people with varying levels of hearing can still understand and appreciate their songs. Something about the combination of voices and instruments allows you to get it even when you routinely miss-hear other things, thus allowing their songs to appeal to a wider than normal audience. For example, I know that people with CAPD often prefer instrumental music because they just can't understand the lyrics anyway and they find it frustrating. So if you have perhaps mild unidentified auditory issues, you might like some songs but not others and clarity of sound may be the determining factor.

Yet, The Beatles were not perfect. I remember seeing a piece where someone who worked with them -- perhaps a sound engineer -- commented on a song where one of the words was misspoken but it made the final cut for the album. He did not notice the misspoken lyric and most other people do not either. If you know it is there, you can tell. But they left it in and let this be the final take of the song that got published on the album. They had recorded it several times. This take of the song was good enough in some important way and the minor imperfection of the misspoken lyric was not that important.

So perhaps The Beatles were so successful because they had some kind of objective measure of "good enough" which was not overly perfectionistic and not based on "better than other people." Perhaps they were better than other people because they met this standard (of clarity or quality or whatever) and shot for this standard, not because they tried to outdo someone else.

My sons have noted that being "the best" as compared to a group of people does not guarantee you are actually any good. If you compare yourself to other people, maybe you are better because they suck. But if you compare yourself to an objective measure of quality, either you meet it or you don't. It isn't relative.
posted by Michele in California at 1:00 PM on March 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

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