I spent much of my teens and early twenties playing in bands. There were basically two paths a band could take: they could start painfully and slowly by playing their original music in front of a handful of mostly friends and family at tiny clubs, or they could get slightly higher-profile gigs (and make some money) by playing music that everyone knows and loves, otherwise known as "covers". Needless to say, most people opted for the latter option because it afforded them the chance to make immediate cash and play for larger crowds.
However, I also saw many artists take the less-popular path. They would play tiny venues, hone their craft, and develop their following slowly. It's a funny thing, though, how passionate and loyal their fans often were. Though these artists weren't rocking packed clubs with their versions of the latest top 40 fare, they were able to attract a respectable fifty or so people to come out to listen to the music that they themselves wrote. Sure, some of them weren't gifted enough to "make it", but for many of these artists, their fans grew over time in numbers and passion because they were offering something unique. The cover bands? They gradually lost traction as new bands came along playing better versions of other people's music.
What I discovered is that it's the music that matters, not the band. People go home singing the song, not talking about how well-covered it was. The valuable lesson I took away from my time in the music biz is that those who want to create meaning in the world must be music makers, not cover bands. Cover bands entertain us, and maybe even make a little money in the process, but in the balance they are replaceable. Music makers, however, give us something that we can remember. They change us.
It's easy to slip into "cover band" mode in the marketplace. For some, it's the temptation to strap on the golden parachute and ride out their career avoiding anything that appears risky. For others it's contorting into whatever is needed despite what it does to their soul. These are common themes I observe when I am invited to speak at companies or spend time with creative teams through the work I do at Accidental Creative. Sometimes the tension between possibilities and pragmatics, as I call it in my new book, wears on creative professionals until there is no energy left.
But in order to discover if we have within us the capacity to do truly brilliant work, we need to commit to the challenging - and often uncomfortable - pursuit of possibility. We need to take our creative process seriously by instilling infrastructure to support it. And most of all, we must choose not to go for the quick and glorious route over the one that adds deep, abiding value to the world. The love of comfort is often the enemy of greatness.
Thomas Merton, one of my favorite authors and thinkers, wrote, "Hurry ruins saints as well as artists. They want quick success and they are in such a hurry to get it that they cannot take time to be true to themselves. And when the madness is upon them they argue that their very haste is a species of integrity."
Truly brilliant work results from dedication, focus and a commitment to something more than immediate rewards. As a side benefit, that's also the best way to develop a following in the marketplace that doesn't abandon you when the next "big thing" comes along! Whatever your role and sphere of influence, don't be a cover band. Find your voice.