No…not that type of label.
Oh how we love to categorize things. Being labeled an artist is a useful human construct, a way to organize your inherent, or learned, skills into a neat little package. Artist is a label you assign to yourself, or one that gets assigned to you by those who identify your skills. It’s just a label, but it’s one to which you attach deeply routed meaning.
The brain undergoes a period of rapid development at birth, continuing for the first years of life. During this time, new neural connections are forming more rapidly than at any other time in our lives, and during our mid-childhood years, the brain starts to prune used ones. This becomes the basis for our understanding of music, and how it moves us. This is not to say that we can’t learn to appreciate new music as adults, but the basic structural elements are incorporated into the very wiring of our brains when we listen to music early in our lives. — from This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin.
Just like the basic structural elements of music are stamped on your brain, so too are the basic elements of what it means to BE an artist. Depending on who, or what, you were exposed to early in life, you unknowingly constructed a narrative of what it means to be an artist. You begin to piece together this story early and, as you age, you continue to add layers to it as you absorb new artists and their stories. Then, you unconsciously propel yourself down a career path, expecting your own experience to match the story you yourself have created.
It’s romantic, but it leads to all kinds of problems. What happens when your artist story doesn’t hold up to the definition you created? The band of self-doubt, confusion, frustration, fatigue, resentment, and stress show up to the party.
The story you’ve crafted about what an artist’s career should look like – i.e., its pace, the amount of touring, getting signed, level of fandom, etc. – is likely based on a blend of legacy artists, who operated in an entirely different music industry and culture, and your peers, who each possess variables so unique to them that it’s entirely unreasonable to try to match their route to success.
Take a moment to pause and step out of your story. See your artistry for what it truly is — your creation. Realize that your artist story is your creation as well. This means that you can mold and shape a new story, a new label, or perhaps no label at all.
You don’t need to live a life as an artist that is understood, boxed-in, or narrated right now. You don’t owe anyone a neat story, one that makes sense or has a familiar story arc and ending. You don’t need a label, or at least you don’t need to follow what others think that label is supposed to mean.
As I’ve found in my own creative process of writing my first book, my work suffers when I try to neatly frame the process. The second I attach the label “writer” to myself, my own story of writing a book doesn’t match the story of what I think a writer’s output should be.
We label ourselves, sometimes with very little thought, and bring with that label a whole mix of expectations we can never meet — expectations we were never meant to meet. You will label your music with a genre. You may label yourself as “independent,” “up and coming,” “emerging,” or “self-produced.” Each label is loaded with self-created meaning and expectations.What set of expectations are YOU attaching to your labels? And why must you label yourself at all? It’s worth ripping this all apart and getting to the bottom of. Especially now.
Perhaps the “self-produced” label blinds you from seeing potential collaborations with another producer that could unlock another level of your creativity. Consider that the “independent” label may be something you use to unknowingly keep yourself small and knock down your ambitions. “Emerging” and “up and coming” imply that you are on the brink of arriving somewhere. Do we ever really arrive anywhere? Or, maybe you’re already where you’re meant to be.
Don’t confuse the labels that you, or others, attach to you for who you are. They are not your identity. These labels can’t begin to accurately reflect the complexity and depth of who you are as a creative being. This is ultimately an exercise in self-awareness. As the world chaotically churns, this is an opportunity to look inward and begin to make sense of how you see, understand, and treat yourself as an artist and creative. I invite you, for a moment, to step out of the rat race, pause from the hustle, and observe how these labels are potentially limiting you. Or, in this self-exploration you may find that the labels you assign to yourself are actually the source of your power. Either way, knowing the difference will be valuable.
At the heart of all of this self-exploration is the idea that, underneath the layers of unrealistic expectations and ego-driven self-doubt, lies a version of your creative being at its most pure and honest. It’s this version of your artistic self that you must always work to uncover and get to know again.
Soundtrack courtesy of “Sleeping Summer” by Jónsi (Sigur Ros) & Alex Somers (Parachute) from the Lost & Found record.
If this resonated with you please share with other artists who might find it valuable and check out my previous stories on Medium.
Patrick Ermlich is a life-long artist guide, consultant, creative director, and CMO of Gramophone Media.