Talented songwriter and performer Mandy Mercier lends her voice to our ongoing conversation about artistic recognition and creative success
This issue, at least the poll, is authored by you, our readers. SXSW exists and flourishes because it is organically of Austin rather than being any kind of artificial imposition on it. This week of SXSW celebrates Austin, and all of us who are involved in both the Chronicle and SXSW appreciate that and love this city and its people.
Last week's column offered two truisms about creative work. The first was "Go out and do it!" The only person, force, or situation stopping one from doing creative work is one's self. Sometimes it's procrastination, sometimes lack of confidence, often because the masterpiece you dream of creating is flawless compared to the actual work you create, and sometimes because one is just not ready to do really interesting work.
I noted, "There are a million reasons you're not doing what you think you should. None of them is any good. You don't have the money to make the film you want to? Figure out what you have and make that film. This isn't to promise you're going to be good at what you believe you'll be good at, or that you will love it. Many people find they have no skill or talent for their passion, and many are more interested in thinking themselves the artist (musician, writer, filmmaker) than in actually producing the work.
"Everyone comes into his or her talent at different times. Some are prodigies; some grow into skill at an age-appropriate rate; some come into it very far along. ... But the only way to find out what you can and can't do, the only way to get better at it, is to do it."
The other truism I stated in the column was "If what you're doing is unique, brilliant, unusually powerful, or significant, in almost any way, the whole purpose of the art-business world and media is to find you." The column went on to explain: "In others words, we are not consciously neglecting your work; we are not cliquishly disdaining, blindly ignoring, or ignorantly avoiding it. Instead, a critical part of our job and a significant part of our pleasure is to be out looking for it. ... Bands write in and bitch how they're being neglected. Filmmakers wonder why they're not discovered. Novelists bitch about the empty-souled publishing houses. Some of this is accurate, but just as accurate is the opposite how record companies, club owners, film producers, filmmakers, small publishers are all out there looking for new talent."
Finally, I concluded, "I hate to be the one to suggest this, but often if you get turned down, or ignored, or reviewed badly, it is because you're just not good enough yet. It is not a conspiracy against art, an attempt to suppress taste, that the established are scared of the new, critics only review what they know, or that you lack important friends in high places. It has to do with the quality of your work."
Mandy Mercier, a gifted songwriter and performer, wrote me a long, impassioned e-mail disputing my position. Some of it is excerpted below:
"I think your position is a little disingenuous. People who are brilliant, try hard and make it therefore people who don't make it must either a) not be trying hard or b) not be that brilliant. Or both.
"So how do you explain Walter Hyatt, arguably one of the greatest musicians and songwriters who ever lived, who at the time of his death in the ValuJet crash had a job delivering sandwiches on a bicycle (and was flying back from a gig on a cheap airliner because that's all he could afford? And he had a record deal)? ... Champ Hood, another unbelievably gifted singer and songwriter played hundreds of gigs a year, but most of them, because he was only able to earn a living and gain some measure of renown for his work that way, as someone else's sideman? Or Randy Thornton, a great R&B singer, who died of pneumonia because he wouldn't cancel a showcase gig figuring this was finally his chance at a break? Would you really say those guys weren't trying?
"We know about Blaze Foley, whom Merle Haggard is now obsessed with, and whose song (Blaze's) Merle sang for Tammy Wynette's funeral. Merle never knew Blaze, they met once very briefly. Blaze always thought of Merle as inhabiting the pantheon he aspired to 'someday' but never 'made it' to. Blaze never got that far. Arguably Blaze picked his battles and lost them, but Blaze died homeless and pretty much unknown (his well-deserved fame has snowballed many, many years after his passing). How does one judge, much less dismiss, the 'effort' of anyone much less that of an artist, whose demons we usually can't even imagine (that's why we need their artistry)?
"If talent and hard work (busting one's ass) were all there is to it, how do we explain away the lack of 'success' of people like these? Or Dana Cooper, who drives several hundred thousand miles a year to gigs and whose lyrics are on a par with the poetry of Yeats? Or Shake Russell, who got a postcard for his 5,000 mile checkup when he'd already logged 30,000 gig miles in a couple of months, whose charisma rivals any movie star's and whose songwriting rivals George Harrison's? Or Conni Hancock, more beautiful than anyone on the red carpet at the Oscars (or the Grammy's) whose years-long steady gig is no more and is looking for a place to play regularly, after garnering a nomination to the Texas Music Hall of Fame? Or Jon Dee Graham, who is known to have driven to Corpus Christi, painted a house, driven back and played a gig that same night Jon Dee who writes songs so masterful, it's as if God himself were talking with you and just got dropped by his record label?
"If your position were all there is to it, why would these people get relatively little recognition in proportion to their massive talents while someone else can make millions being Britney Spears?
"Your piece reminds me a little of the comment of someone I know, who's been married to a rich guy most of her adult life, and observed that people who were in dire straits 'ought to just go get a job.' Well, Republicans say that too. And many of them probably believe it's that simple. I do know it's uncomfortable having seen it in close friends, firsthand for a person to suddenly become famous and/or financially successful, when one has companions and colleagues whom one knows are also talented or 'deserving' (if that's the word), and who are still slogging away at a day job; it's very tempting to find a rationale for what can truly, simply, sometimes be a twist of fate. ...
"Is Walter Hyatt's talent any less than Neil Young's, or Jackson Browne's? I revere the work of all three of them, but I don't think Neil or Jackson necessarily worked 'harder' than Walter. Your piece is a good slap on the wrist for those who expect it to come easy.
"But I don't really know very many of those people. ... Frankly, those are the people who tend to wash out.
"As Townes said, 'Well, you have to get a guitar, or a piano. A guitar is easier to carry. And then you have to blow off everything else ... your family ... comfort ... money ... security ... you have to blow off your ego. You have to blow off everything ... you'd be surprised how many people that discourages.'"
I'm sorry to quote both last week's column and Mercier's letter at such length, but I think she makes some really excellent points, and I agree with so much of what she says. Unintentionally, she beautifully illuminates what I was planning to write about in this column, as a continuation of last week's.
I don't think that anywhere in last week's column I talked about "making it" commercially or as a public success. I did make the argument that if you do significant, creative work, people will find you. Critics, publishers, record labels the whole entertainment, artistic, and creative establishment is always out searching for new talent.
Making it is a very different thing: Achieving commercial success is radically different from earning recognition. Townes Van Zandt is an excellent example. Even as Van Zandt came to be a legend among songwriters, influencing a couple of generations, his records never sold. The most success he found was with other people covering his songs.
Every talent Mercier mentions achieved some level of recognition in most cases critical appreciation, respect, and admiration of peers, and even cult audiences ranging from the few to the many.
Making it, living off your work, hitting the financial jackpot is very different from and much more capricious than earning recognition. Great talents often don't find success, for any number of reasons. Sometimes great, innovative, or important work simply fails commercially, despite the best efforts of those involved. On the other hand, how many talented musicians have put out a great album only to watch the label concurrently go out of business or the executive championing it leave, resulting in the work's receiving no support? Similar situations exist in every creative field.
Some talents have no social skills and/or precious little idea as to how to promote themselves or whom to trust. The only example given above that I would argue wasn't germane is Blaze Foley, whom I knew in passing. A more self-destructive talent than Blaze doesn't come readily to mind. Frequently, in comparison (and only in comparison to Blaze), Van Zandt seemed to be a health nut. Toward the end of Foley's life, there was hardly a club in Austin that hadn't banned him from playing.
People know that Mercier, Graham, and Hancock are talents. If you do the work and you have any kind of gift, you will earn appreciation in the creative community.
But success, well, success is entirely different. Not only can it never be guaranteed (being completely unpredictable), but as often as not it seems to reward the mediocre more than the inspired.
Which leads me to the point of this column. The truisms are "Go out and do it" and "If what you're doing is unique, brilliant, unusually powerful, or significant, in almost any way, the whole purpose of the art-business world and media is to find you."
But the inner gyroscope, the beating heart driving creativity has to be "Do the work because you love it." Expect no commercial rewards, no financial success. Do your work because you can't not do it. For a songwriter writing songs, a filmmaker making films, a painter painting is like breathing itself. There is no way to stop; you simply can't. If you do, you will die or at least a significant part of who you really are will vanish.
Creative work has to be its own reward. Obviously, almost every artist would like to live off of his or her work, if for no other reason than it gives them more time to work. One of the main tenets of SXSW is that there is a business to be learned there are tools that will help you achieve success and control your work. There are no guarantees; in fact, there is nothing even close. At the end of the day, if your work fills your soul, that may be the most you can expect. But if it does, even without success, there occurs some kind of crucial human nourishment.
To dance is to love is to live. Life promises you nothing more.
Regularly, I state that SXSW is my favorite time of the year. Some of this is because it is Austin amped up way past 10, to 11 or even higher. But more than anything, it is because of the opportunity to work with so many people who are so good at what they do and who care so much about it. This commitment is found at absolutely every level of SXSW, and it makes the job more than just a pleasure and actually a time of reaffirmation and renewal. If I started to name people, there would be no way to stop. To all I say thank you.