How To Nail the 13 Stages of Your Creative Career
Image: Grace Jones
9 Minute Read / 12 Minute Listen
I’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of established musicians, choreographers, playwrights, poets, designers and writers over the past 15 years. The thing they all have in common, is that it’s not easy.
In this piece I’ve tried to distill some of their experiences, choices and perspectives in to a short guide for an enjoyable and long-lasting creative career.
Everyone’s career will be different of course, but there are so many ups and downs we all share and yet we mostly keep them to ourselves. I hope this helps you to remember that we’re all in this together.
1. Young, Fresh & New
When you’re first starting out, you’re so engaged with the struggle to get a foot in the door it’s impossible to revel in the fact that no one’s bored of you yet.
The desire for something fresh out the box, shiny and new is eternal. In the beginning, it’s hard to tell whether something’s exciting just because it’s new, or whether it’s going to remain exciting when the shine wears off.
It doesn’t last long, so if you’re ready* make the most of it. Artists who get off to a bold start tend to capitalize on this fertile ground.
*Tip: making a bold start before you’re ready isn’t a great idea, but that’s a piece for another day.
2. Social Proof
No one wants to be your biggest fan… because they’re your only fan.
Your ability to connect with other people and help them connect with each other through their shared love of your work is incredibly important right from the get go, but it can be difficult to achieve without seeming self-serving.
The easiest way I’ve found is to approach with joy and gratitude. Don’t make it all about you.
DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE this step.
The chicken and the egg. It’s hard to get gigs without an agent, and it’s hard to get an agent without any gigs.
People tend to want to work with you when a lot of the hard work has already been done. Most likely, by you. That’s because most people in business want an investment, not a gamble.
If you meet someone who is willing to gamble, it’s likely they either;
Really believe in you
Really believe in themselves
They’re spread-betting and hoping one of their bets comes off and pays for all of the others.
The very best thing you can do is invest in yourself from day one.
4. Round 1
It’s time to share your first fully-fledged, complete body of work with the world.
You’ve been working up to this moment your whole life and it probably won’t turn out the way you’d hoped or imagined. Very few people set the world alight on their first try, but we all hope that we will.
Try to remember that one day you’ll look back on this incredibly important moment years from now, and hardly remember any of it.
5. Critical Acclaim… or not
What does it mean when critics give a movie like “Venom” 1 star reviews and it still takes $500m at the box office? It means no one was expecting Venom to be good.
People went to see it because it’s part of the Marvel universe, and fans of that universe want to see that story unfold. Or they want to see Tom Hardy.
You might be the kind of artist critics love. You might not. If you are it helps, if you’re not it’s certainly tougher, especially if you don’t have Marvel budgets.
Either way, it’s your job to build a creative universe that fans of your work can engage with.
It’s also your job to find the best way to communicate with them about it directly, so that you’re not reliant on publications and critics to tell your story.
6. Increasing Ambition
You’ve wanted to do or release this thing your whole life and now that you’ve done it, do you have new ideas and something else to say?
Are you tempted to freeze and make something very similar because now that you’ve had some success you’re scared to take a big risk?
You’re probably under pressure to follow up, to capitalise on your momentum, you’re scared people will start to forget about you and you’ll have to start from scratch.
Stop, take a deep breath, and raise the bar.
7. Context & Community
A lot of artists want to be the lone wolf, genre-less and hard to define.
Fans often want artists to be part of a movement, in order to understand the cultural context of their generation.
Whilst being a lone wolf is fine, it makes it harder for people to discover you, to write about you, to program you and the list goes on.
You have a choice; you can ignore it when people find it hard to define you, or you can help them. If what you’re doing really is new and innovative, you might make your life easier by providing context and fostering community.
It could be as simple as talking about your influences, or as involved as curating your own festival.
8. The Difficult Round 2 (and 3 and 4...)
Image: Lady Skollie [“I was much further out than you thought; And not waving but drowning" - Stevie Smith]
A lot of people never get past this stage.
The first round was harder than you thought; you’re sick of the people you worked with on round 1, you haven’t made any money, you’re tired but you have to start the whole thing again from scratch, and you’re really scared to put yourself on the line now because you’ve been criticised.
You start to shrink and pull back. You tell yourself you’re still moving forward but you’re not really.
Resilience is usually what sets apart artists who survive and continue from those who fade from view.
Round 2 is basically an enormous purgatory full of talented creative people trying to convince themselves to get back on the bike.
Give yourself long enough to catch your breath, but not enough time to psych yourself out.
9. Staying Power
Can you hold people’s interest when you’re no longer “new”?
Does the story you told at the beginning sound infinitely less exciting if you simply remove the word “new”?
“Here’s the new thing from the exciting new person”.
All of a sudden you have to think about what it is that really makes you and your work interesting. A lot of artists never interrogate this difference, and wonder why the spotlight has disappeared and moved on to the next new person.
Now you have to go deeper; to add layers, to keep surprising people, to live up to your potential.
10. Scale & Growth
The first couple of rounds were probably an experiment - throw it out there and see what comes back.
Now you need to start choosing which directions you want to go in, based on the opportunities coming your way.
- Is this making you happy, or changing how you feel about your art?
- Do you want to remain independent or niche?
- Do you want to work with bigger, more established partners and companies?
It’s important to be thoughtful about your choices and decisions.
A lot of artists stay in experiment-mode and feel they don’t have enough agency to make meaningful decisions, that their only choice is to keep throwing work out there and seeing what comes back.
Not making decisions - the decision to be strategic, to set goals - is still a choice.
This is your career, it’s your job to research and understand the industry you work in, and to plot your course through it as best you can.
11. Your Audience
This is also probably the moment you have to decide on what to do about your audience.
You can stick with the early adopters, the people who want to experience your work up close and personal in niche locations that only they know about, many of whom you know by name and who’ve been there since the beginning…
Or you can go where the majority and the slow burners are, because make no mistake you will have to go to them, they’re unlikely to come to you.
So where are they? They’re hanging out at big festivals, they’re visiting established venues, galleries and theatres, they’re reading the newspaper and watching the television.
You won’t be on a first name basis with them, and a small number of your early audience may not come with you, though of course you can try to spend time in both worlds.
It’s a gamble… you might have to adapt your work in ways that feel like an uncomfortable compromise. Then again, you might feel empowered to make more creatively ambitious and higher quality work than ever before.
There’s really only one way to find out.
12. Mastering Reinvention
Image: Ryoji Ikeda, Test Pattern
The skills and ideas that got you through Round 1 are not going to take you all the way through your career.
You need to keep evolving, learning new skills and taking risks. Real ones.
A lot of artists pretend that’s what they’re doing. Really, they’re just doing the same thing they already know how to do (and that they know people already like) over and over.
People will stop supporting you if they sense inertia. If you stop meeting or surpassing their expectations of your potential, they’ll feel it. If you stop surprising and inspiring them, they’ll eventually get bored and drift away.
If you get too comfortable and rest on your laurels, your career will stand still and start to wilt. If your career is already wilting, when was the last time you learned or tried something so new it was scary?
13. The Long Haul
It’s really hard not to become cynical.
Cynicism is about fear. It’s less scary to think of other people as superficial and selfish and to blame your downs on them, whilst you take credit for all of your ups.
It’s easier to blame others instead analysing your own decisions, which you made in the knowledge that it’s a tough job and that your peak moment in the public eye probably won’t last forever, or maybe not even for very long.
It’s less scary to focus on everything you don’t have that other people do, instead of focusing on what you do have and asking yourself why that’s not enough?
It’s hard to accept that your unrealistic expectations are what makes your work so great, but they also may be leaving you in a state of near constant disappointment.
If you choose to look outwards with cynicism and frustration, and you don’t look inwards with curiosity and acceptance, you will have a very hard time doing two things:
Enjoying your career
It’s a long road. Pack light.