Why do you make music? Write books? Make films? You might know, you might not. Either way, you do it for a specific reason. Maybe it’s to explore. Maybe it’s to affect other people. Maybe it’s to inject a little fun and excitement into your life.
That reason gives your creative work context. So does your interest in sharing what you do. If you share your work with your family, that’s context. If you share it with your friends and acquaintances, that’s context, too. If you share it with everyone you can, every chance you get, like an Energizer Bunny of sharing, that’s context, as well. And if you keep it to yourself? That is a context all its own.
Artists often begin their labors with thoughts like these:
1) “I will create things a lot of people can enjoy. I will provide a service to those people. That will make me successful.”
This is the populist context: make your potential audience as large as possible. Sounds logical, doesn’t it? You don’t want to exclude anybody, and if one person likes your familiar-sounding stuff, others probably will, too. The upside of this is fewer people will misunderstand you. The downside is that little, if anything, you do will stand out as special.
Real-world populists: Maroon 5, Michael Bay.
2) “I will create distinctive things I enjoy. I will not worry about what others think of what I do. That will make me successful.”
This is the purist context: stay true to yourself and your work will have integrity. This, too, is logical. You don’t want to pander to an audience that cares less than you do, and as long you’re proud of your stuff, you’ll sleep fine. The upside of this is a harmony of intent and execution. The downside is that relatively few people beyond your immediate circle will relate to what you do.
Real-world purists: Nick Cave, Vincent Gallo.
3) “I will create distinctive things I enjoy for others who like what I do. I will make things just for them. That will make me successful.”
This is the pragmatic context: stay true to yourself and find others who care. This is especially logical. For every 100 people who might like your Maroon 5 impersonation, there are one or two who love that thing you do that no one else does. The upside of this is connecting with a small but loyal audience. The downside? Well, you might never have a Top 40 hit (not that you really wanted one, anyway).
Real-world pragmatists: Bon Iver, Paul Thomas Anderson.
Are you a populist? A purist? A pragmatist? Knowing shapes your relationship with your audience. If you want Maroon 5’s audience, mimic Maroon 5. If you want to stand apart from other artists, be stubbornly original. If you want to communicate with like minds, then do distinctive work — and help others to connect to it.
Your context is you — whether you’re aware of it or not.
Mark Doyon is principal and creative director of Wampus Multimedia, a record label, publishing imprint, and creative branding agency based in the Washington, D.C. area.