Fake It Until You Make It

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Photo Credit: Brian Schultz

How would you like to have a job that requires you to be always on? Where the cameras are always rolling, and someone is always watching you? Where you smile and laugh no matter what kind of day you’re having? Would you be energized? Mortified? Maybe a little of both? Every weekend from July 11 to Labor Day, I have that job from early morning to evening. As I have discussed on my blog, I am part of the cast of the Bristol Renaissance Faire, a highly acclaimed festival in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where visitors pay $24 to experience a re-creation of the port of Bristol, England, in the year 1574. I portray a garrulous windbag of a barrister named Nicolas Wright, whose personality mixes bluster with a vulnerable need for approval. In real life, I am a quiet, reflective person who prefers chilling out with music and a book in my spare time. You might argue that by becoming Nicolas Wright, I’m faking it. And yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Being always on keeps you connected with people. And you need to be connected to be creative.

When you join the Bristol cast, you make a commitment to uplift others. All cast members, entertainers, and merchants adhere to a sacrosanct rule: make every patron who walks through the Bristol gates feel like an honored guest to be celebrated, revered, and welcomed. Bristol is also a dream for anyone who creates. As cast members, we create our own characters and skits, and hone our talents through acting lessons, improvisational training, and dialect coaching. The creativity and customer service complement each other: the characters we develop, ranging from Sir Walter Raleigh to Martin Frobisher, exist in order to offer an immersive experience to our guests — namely a sixteenth century town hosting the Queen of England.

And we are “on” for the patrons from 10:00 a.m. until the faire closes at 7:00 p.m. — without exception. We want patrons to forget their cares for a day, which means we must do so as well. It doesn’t matter whether I’ve had a long week at work, I woke up with a headache, or I’m stressing over an unexpected $1,200 bill from the auto repair shop. When it’s show time, I’m going to mingle with patrons, joking with them, praising them, handing out trinkets to kids, and performing scheduled skits, including the Queen’s Show that follows our daily parade. And there is only one way to do it: with a smile, a wink, and a laugh, for hours. There is no going halfway, nor should there be. That one moment when you let your guard down and act impatiently with a child at 6:45 p.m. after you’ve been enduring heat, humidity, and mosquitoes could tarnish a family’s first visit to Bristol. That instant when you grimace because your toe aches as you march in the Queen’s parade just might be the moment when a happy couple celebrating their wedding anniversary is taking your photo for their Facebook album. If necessary, you fake it until you make it. But here’s the thing — being always on is both exhilarating personally and essential to creativity. Here’s why:

  • Uplifting others is a selfless act. When your attention is focused on making other people happy, you stop thinking about your own problems and direct every fiber of your energy outward. You, in turn, are rewarded. Just last week, I handed one of my Nicolas Wright calling cards to a patron, who noticed that I had written a runic symbol on the back of the card. It turned out that he was an expert on runic symbols. He happily produced several runic stones he had hand-crafted and eagerly discussed his passion with me. A small gesture on my part was returned 100-fold. What if I’d blown him off? I would have lost.
  • Faking it until you make it really does make you happier. As the saying goes, love is a verb. Action creates emotion. At first you might truly feel like you are acting when you hit the streets of Bristol in the morning, but the energy from the patrons and my castmates uplifts me. It never fails: be friendly to one person after another, and no longer do you feel “on.” You naturally feel energized and positive.
  • Being always on spurs creativity. Our directors encourage us to deepen our character development through interactions with patrons. Each time I meet a patron, I have an opportunity to test a new joke or gauge a response to a revelation about my character. When I first developed the character of Nicolas Wright, I cast him as a nobler leader. But then I experimented by making him a bit more devilish, and I noticed patrons became more engaged and interested. They liked him more as a villain than as a saint. But I would not have achieved this kind of creative breakthrough unless I had constantly put myself out there, interacting with people and giving them my all. Sometimes my jokes bomb, but Bristol is the kind of place where trying and failing is not only expected but celebrated. You just cannot grow unless you’re pushing yourself to inhabit your character and learning from everyone around you.

Learning how to “fake it until you make it” has taught me how to take energy from other people, internalize it, and then build on it, whether I am acting at Bristol or living my everyday life. That energy not only uplifts others, but it strengthens you. And the dynamic of being with others leaves you with fresh ideas that won’t necessarily arrive when you are alone.

You don’t need to be an actor in a Renaissance Faire to apply this lesson. For instance, occasionally I attend business conferences as part of my job as a consultant and writer. The events usually include social functions as well as more formal learning sessions with presentations. Instead of blowing off the cocktail parties as I once did, I force myself to not only attend them but to mingle with other attendees, no matter how busy my day is or how many unanswered emails I need to address. I almost always walk away from the social functions learning as much or more than I did by sitting through a PowerPoint presentation because the real-time insights from other attendees build upon each other through conversation. What are some opportunities you might try?

“Amy” and the Unsolved Mystery of Amy Winehouse

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Amy, the new documentary about Amy Winehouse, is an unsolved mystery and an all-too-familiar one. You know the story: a mercurial artist dies before her time, leaving behind grieving fans and an unfinished body of work. The movie leaves us pondering why she self-destructed and provides no easy answers.

Over the course of two hours, Amy offers several possible reasons why the critically acclaimed singer spiraled out of control and died of alcohol poisoning in 2011, just three years after winning multiple Grammy Awards for her triumphant album Back to Black. Those reasons include:

  • Her parents’ separation when Winehouse was 9 years old — in particular, her father’s infidelity and leaving home. These events led to some serious daddy issues, which clouded Winehouse’s judgment in men, especially when it came to her husband Blake Fielder-Civil. The movie portrays him as a ne’er-do-well leech who dumped Winehouse but then returned when she achieved fame, enabled her drug abuse, and distracted her with his own destructive behavior.
  • Her fragile soul, unsuited for fame. Throughout her life Winehouse was treated for depression and suffered from bulimia, two widely misunderstood afflictions whose serious impacts she probably failed to comprehend fully. She was also a dependent personality, which made her vulnerable to the pressures and temptations of fame, especially drug use. Near the end of her life, she was tired of being Amy Winehouse, the star, and wanted to return to the simpler times she lived. But there was no turning back.
  • An insatiable appetite for drugs and alcohol. Like Brian Jones before her, Winehouse consumed drugs like candy, living off crack cocaine, meth, and heroin on top of alcohol binges. It was clear to everyone but her that she had no business taking drugs given her vulnerabilities. Why didn’t she stop? When she was alive, she offered no clear reason beyond her admission that life just is less fun without drugs. But the movie provides a clinical perspective: she was an addict who could not stop drinking once she started, an answer so obvious and yet too easy to overlook in a society that still largely treats alcohol as a social lubricant instead of the drug that it really is.

You’ve heard this tale before, haven’t you? Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, and Jimi Hendrix are among the gifted artists who lived their own variations of Amy with the same results. During Amy, one of the narrators is quoted as saying that Amy was living a high-pressure star life for which there was no template. I disagree. The tragedy of Amy is that by the time she came of age, the industry of celebrity had evolved to the point where any number of stars such as Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney had learned how to manage its trappings. But it doesn’t matter. The movie argues that she would never have listened to anyone’s advice. The disease of alcoholism dictated her choices. And yes, she is to blame for failing to treat her addiction properly. It’s easy to judge; but it is not so easy to watch Amy Winehouse throw her incendiary talent away as she fights and loses one struggle after another with her demons. Her loss is ours, too.

Amy reveals other sides to Amy than the train wreck. We gain an appreciation for why she was an artist. Not only was her singing style original, but she also wrote her own songs, with lyrics that conveyed vulnerability, irony, sass, and self-awareness. She took whatever life gave her and molded her experiences into music, most notably with the hit “Rehab,” which now reads like a diary of self-denial. One of my favorite moments of the movie occurs when, in a voice-over, she explains that she started writing songs because she was bored by music she heard on the radio. She shares an inspired lesson: if you don’t like the status quo, create something better.

We also come to understand her own innate grasp of her musical influences. She consciously molded the styles of the jazz greats along with the soul genre. Questlove of the Roots cites her deep knowledge of jazz. Tony Bennett raves about her ability to create a true, pure vocal style. Late in the movie, we witness a tender scene in which Bennett and Winehouse record a duet for his album Duets II. She is clearly spellbound by Bennett, whom she idolizes, and her passion for nailing the perfect vocal is evident. And yet, only a few months after the footage was shot, she would be dead.

But, ultimately, Winehouse’s death overshadows her life in Amy, not because her demise was sudden or shocking, but because she died a little every day. And we may never solve the mystery.

 

“Be Prepared to Never Make Money on Your Work”: A Music Industry Insider Speaks

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If you want to understand the future of the music industry, follow Cortney Harding. She is an expert at helping emerging artists find audiences through the intersection of music, branding, and technology — the three essential requirements for any artist to succeed in the reinvented music industry. Her resume includes being Billboard‘s music editor and working with hot music start-ups such as interactive media site ThingLink (a source of innovative digital music art) and Muzooka, a new hybrid streaming service and intermediary that helps artists, brands, and music executives find each other. (If you hear a fresh artist playing at a hotel like the W, chances are Muzooka may have had a hand working behind the scenes connecting the artist and the hotel). Harding, who writes a music column and co-hosts a podcast, recently spoke with me about the state of the industry — and it’s not always pretty for anyone who clings to pre-Napster days when record labels and albums ruled. She also has some words for artists: look for your audience in unexpected places, super serve your fans, and don’t plan on making money off your music.

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Sound bleak? To the contrary: as Harding sees it, artists have more ways to find audiences than they did in the so-called good old days of the 1990s, when, in actuality, only a small handful of musicians really had it good.

Read on for an insight into a wide-ranging discussion that covers everything from the future of music streaming to how artists can succeed in a fractured industry.

You have been both a music journalist and consultant, collaborating with music companies ranging from Muzooka to Soundrop. Why did you switch over from journalism to marketing and consulting?

Well, I haven’t made the switch completely — I still write a weekly music tech blog and co-host a podcast. But I saw an opportunity in the market a few years ago and was really curious about startups and wanted to see what I could learn working in that field. Journalism is a tough place to make a living and it seemed like there was more of a future in the startup space. My goal for my career is always to be learning new skills and growing. Who knows, I might stay with startups, I might find a path back to writing, or I might do something totally different next.

Music is a notoriously fractured industry. What excites you about the industry?

The fact that it has been so disrupted, and that there are so many new opportunities to experiment. I think people recognize at this point that you can’t just cling to the old ways in music, and there is a willingness to try new things. Music is also growing on a global level, and I’m excited to see where the next big markets are.

What’s on your playlist right now? Which artists excite you?

I just got Apple Music and am working my way through the Indie Hits playlists year by year. In terms of new stuff, I love the new Sleater-Kinney, the new Bjork, Speedy Ortiz, and Torres.

It’s difficult to keep up with all the streaming services in the marketplace now. There’s even a streaming service for Christian rock available. Where are streaming services headed? What do you think the landscape for streaming services will look like a few years from now?

I think niche streaming services are super interesting — I was just talking to someone about an Indian and South East Asian service that is doing well in the expat community in the U.S.A. On a bigger scale I think there will be a contraction in the market and we’ll be left with a few big players, kind of like what we have in streaming movies and TV right now. Much of the future of streaming depends on the future of connectivity and devices, and better connectivity will only be good for streaming. But formats also come and go, and I don’t think streaming is the final place we end up.

What are your feelings about artists such as the Black Keys and Taylor Swift, who have been outspoken critics of streaming services such as Spotify?

I don’t want anyone to get the idea that musicians should not get paid — because they should. Musicians should monetize their content. But there is the idea and the reality. The reality is that you have to give something up to get something in return.

Musicians like to hearken back to the pre-digital era as being the height of fairness and prosperity for musicians, but the pre-Napster era was only good for certain people. If you ran a record label in the 1990s, your life was awesome. If you were one of the few boy bands that hit it big in the 1990s, your life was awesome. But the music industry was protectionist then. It was very hard for a bands to get their music into stores. There were bands every now and then who broke through, but the acts that succeeded were a small segment of Western acts in Western countries.

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Three Lessons I Have Learned from Jim Morrison

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Thirty four years ago today, I visited Jim Morrison’s grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery to honor his memory on the tenth anniversary of his death. The moment sealed my lifetime interest in the Doors and especially Jim Morrison. But aside from providing the soundtrack to my life and fascinating me with his songwriting, has Jim Morrison really had an impact on how I live and work? Yes. Here are three lessons I have learned from the lizard king, which I apply today:

1. Take Risks

Morrison famously challenged us to break on through to the other side. He constantly challenged himself, too, in his actions and words. He was not afraid to write about disturbing themes in his songs and to explore topics that can still make you feel uncomfortable, such as the Oedipal subtext in “The End” and the killer on the road in “Riders on the Storm.” As a performer, he pushed boundaries to the point of defying audience expectations of rock stars, with sometimes unfortunate results, such as his being charged for indecency in the aftermath of an infamous Miami concert in 1969.

Morrison has inspired me to take risks in all aspects of my life, whether I’m auditioning to perform in a Renaissance Faire or launching my own business. My family and I create our own personal adventures each day, pushing each other to grow and live outside our comfort zones, as we did recently when we all hiked steep, unyielding trails in the Smoky Mountains. We could have enjoyed a relaxing vacation in the comfort of our rented cabin, but instead we pushed each other to literally explore new terrain that was sometimes grueling. We took risks and flourished.

2. Words Matter Continue reading