On a weekly basis, I get hundreds and hundreds of messages via email, Facebook, twitter, Youtube, etc... As many of you already know, I go to great lengths to try to respond to most if not every one. Of these messages, a good handful of them every week are requests for me to check out or inspect or critique someone's work. As it happens there are several reasons why it's impossible for me to do that or perhaps more importantly, better that I don't. None of this will be terribly easy to swallow for the artist who just really wants to share their work with another artist they admire and I'm fairly certain that there will be those who will think me incredibly arrogant for saying some of the things I'm about to say. But for the sake of sharing these ideas communally (and saving myself the trouble of having to explain my position, ineloquently in 140 words or less on Twitter, week after week to an earnest young artist seeking guidance or acceptance, let me say it here instead.
Let's start simply...
People who email me wishing for an opinion on their work do so because they are familiar with me. Stands to reason. The reason they are familiar with me is because of my work. I create things... lots of things. I write books and I make films, I write and record songs, I tour, I design toys, etc... In fact, in order to continue being someone whose opinion they'd want, I work all of the time. Literally. If I'm not sleeping or eating, there is a better than average chance that I'm working on something. At the moment, I've just released my latest album, BiTrektual and am STILL packing and shipping pre-orders. I'm also in the midst of my film "Odokuro" making its film festival run which means that every day a different festival writes me asking for any number of things (stills, an exhibition copy of the film, a bio, a trailer..) and NONE of the festivals ever want the same thing! I also fill my own orders from my webstore, so I'm often running to the post office. I'm starting (slowly) to write songs for my next album. I'm wondering WHEN I will find the time for the Candy Claws book or finishing my novel, "The Nothing". I teach stop-motion at The School of Visual Arts here in New York City. I'm editing my novel "Call of the Jersey Devil" and shooting vlogs for The Lair of Voltaire. There are probably a few other projects on the burners I'm not thinking of right at this moment that take up every moment of my waking time. Above and beyond all of this, I am often touring ( I play somewhere almost every week of the year!) and of course... a huge chunk of my time is spent answering emails and messages on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc...
There is NO time left at the end of the day. There really isn't. Just ask my wife and son. So in order for me to thoughtfully listen to someone's album or read someone's poetry or (LORD!) read their entire novel... I would simply have to NOT spend that time working on my own work. In fact, if I took the time to critique or 'check out' all of the things people ask me to, I would have to stop creating entirely. And then, ironically.. I would cease being a person whose opinion they desire. So my sheer lack of time is one major reason why it's impossible for me to check out everyone's work.
But to be frank, even if I had all of the time in the world, I'm not sure that a critique from me would matter. Why?
BECAUSE CRITIQUES ARE BULLSHIT!
I simply don't believe in them. I really don't! We presently live in a culture ruled by Hollywood and giant corporations and they are ruled in turn by the all-mighty dollar. In this environment, every project MUST be successful. Gone are the days of taking a chance on an obscure film. Gone are the days of record labels taking a chance on an unknown act. These days, decisions about art and culture are made by committee. There are no auteurs in the mainstream... there are screenwriters who then have 12 producers critique their scripts, each filing away a different funky corner until it's just one, formless blob sure to offend no one. Then, this film gets made and is presented to scores of "average" people who all add their two cents. Often the film is reworked to remove any element that has offended any of these folks. What's left in the end is shapeless garbage that could offend nobody. And in offending no one, it ultimately excites no one as well. This is true in all of the arts to some degree. Major record labels will have a band write 20 songs, then they choose 10 of them for the band to record. They send in their own producer to guide the direction and sound of the album. Eventually, the album sounds nothing like the band does live! Novels at big publishing houses go through various editors who shape the story, remove the blemishes, pave over speed bumps and white wash dingy fences. In the end, what do we have?
As independent artists we need to take back our voices! We need to work as freely as possible from the opinions of others. Only when one is NOT famous and NOT successful are they really truly free to express themselves as purely as they can with no outside intervention. So my advice to indie artists like myself is DO THAT!!!! Do not seek the opinion of others! Let your work be what YOU think it should be. If there are other people in the world who think like you do, then they will appreciate you for it when they find your work. And most importantly, only by working as an individual, free from needing the acceptance of people you think are a tiny bit more famous than you, will you truly be yourself. And only then with the world be witness to something truly original.
We live in dark times, my friends. I mean it! I often worry that we've hit a point in our evolution as a culture where nothing new can be created. I honestly lay awake nights thinking about this. So let's not help the situation by seeking critiques from others. Present your work to the world as YOU see it, not as some "professional" told you it should be. Now, I'm not saying this is going to make your work GREAT! In all honestly, your novel, record, film, etc.. might very well suck. It might. But if it happens to be great or at least ORIGINAL, that originality will still be there when the world encounters it.
So, I always tell people seeking my opinion that they should forget about what I think. "Do YOU think it's good", I ask them. Because in the end, as an artist, that's all that really matters.
SORRY, YOU'RE STEPPING ON THE WRONG COAT TAILS:
Sadly, some people who ask for critiques from someone they think is a celebrity (and yes, there are some very sweet but misguided folks who think I am one) are not ACTUALLY interested in the critique itself. Sometimes people believe that if a "famous" musician or author or director sees their work that this celebrity will grab them by their collars and pull them up into this elite world of success. It simply does not work that way. Honestly, you'd have a better chance of winning the lottery than having a famous artist select you and make you famous and successful as well. Why? Well, there are probably a few reasons. The most obvious one to me is that any artist who has any kind of success, however easy it seemed to come to them and however relaxed they seem in their station, is MORE THAN LIKELY STRUGGLING DAILY TO STAY THERE! LOL! The VERY LAST thing on their minds is "let me find some unknown artists and help them get famous!" Seriously! When you're an artist and you have a tiny little bit of success (and I'm speaking from experience here) it might look REALLY cushy to those who have less, but believe me when I say that it's a daily struggle to stay in the game, stay focussed, stay creative and NOT GIVE UP DESPITE ALL OF THE BULLSHIT!
Because of this, some artists with a little bit of success (or lots in some cases), may actually feel a bit resentful when an unknown pops his head in and says something like "Yo, read my poems and tell all of your fans about them." or "Help promote my band!" Neil Gaiman, I figure is a saint, really, because on a daily basis I watch this guy get no end of these kinds of requests. When you are that successful, I suppose you become a target for people who view you as a catapult for their own success, if only you would just endorse them and sing their praises. It must be massively annoying. He is always such a gentleman about it though. Let me tell you right now, that when I see stuff like that on his page I just want to jump into his twitter feed and rip people's faces off! LOL! Seriously, no one gets famous over night (except on American Idol maybe). What many young artists don't realize is that many of the artists you admire were YOU once upon a time. They were a person with ideas and dreams and talents. And just like you, no one knew about them and their work and no one gave a crap! So they created their art while struggling to survive off of a shitty day job, and they worked tirelessly on their craft and they sang for free at any club that would have them and they were the opening band with the shitty time slot for years and they read their poetry at open mics to empty rooms and they went into ludicrous amounts of debt to fund their film projects and they gave their works away for free for years until finally, finally, people started to notice and people started to care. And many many years later that tiny fan base turned into a mid-sized fan base and for some people like the Neil Gaimans of the world, eventually turned into HUGE fan bases. Now I can't speak for Neil of course, but I can speak for a lot of my colleagues (who bitch and commiserate with me about such things. LOL!) that when someone pops into your feed and asks that you check out their work or worse, asks for a shout out to your fans... it's hard not to feel insulted and used.
I usually have to bite my tongue to keep myself from saying something like, "Instead of getting me to endorse your work why don't you just do what I did? Eat shit for 20 years until you have a TINY bit of success." LOL! But yeah, I don't imagine that would go over very well.
I should point out that recently a young lady approached me at a con and asked for my opinion about something, I think it was a novel and I think it wasn't even finished. I explained to her as politely as I could that I didn't really have the time to read her unfinished novel. She continued to push. I expressed to her that she shouldn't place so much value on what I think and she replied, "I really don't care what you think, I just want to use your name to help sell my book." That is an exact quote. When she realized what had just come out of her mouth, she didn't even wait for my reaction, she just turned and ran away. So yeah, it happens.
I get it, believe me! My first novel is now finished and will be coming out soonish and no doubt within a month, I will be seeking quotes for the back cover. It's with a great deal of irony that I sheepishly realize that a blurb from Neil Gaiman would be pretty amazing. But in recent years I've gotten really shy about asking my betters for such things. Why? Because I've gotten a taste of what it feels like to have people view you as if your approval is the ticket to their success. I don't like it. I'm sure those who came before me like it even less. Yes, I'll probably still ask, but I'll feel like an ass while doing it. Which brings me to a whole other side to things...
I WANT TO SHOW YOU MY WORK BECAUSE I LOVE YOU!
A nod from Neil Gaiman or Clive Barker or Tim Burton or Guillermo Del Toro has a value obviously. In fact, I'm pretty sure publishers wet themselves at the very thought of getting a phrase from either of these giants. And I have no doubt it helps to sell books, films, CDs, etc... But that's not why I would approach either of them, not entirely. As an artist, there are those people who have moved you, the giants who've created images so beautiful or so horrible that it set your imagination on fire and made you say, "I want to do that! I want to create great art like that!" And sometimes, when you have a chance to meet one of your heroes in person there is this very pure thought that goes through your mind. You have an intense desire to share your work with them, not because you think they will help your career but because it's your way of saying, "You helped make this! This is as much you as it is me!"
I've been there. I have done it, usually with disastrous results. LOL! I'm reminded of the time I saw Bjork at a party and I trembled for an hour before finally getting up the nerve to approach her. I only wanted to hand her a flip-book from my "Chi-chian" animated web series I had made for the SyFy Channel's website back then. There was a lot of Bjork in Chi-chian and I simply wanted to share that with her. Of course by the time I was standing in front of this artist whose music I loved so much I suddenly found it very difficult to formulate coherent sentences. I'm pretty sure I talked REALLY REALLY fast in some bizarre run on sentence that went on for about thirty seconds without a breath. I then handed her the flip-book. She never even looked at it. Her hand dropped to her side and expressionless, she slowly turned her back on me (like something out of The Mighty Boosh! LOL!). God, I was so mortified. I don't blame her of course. After all, I must have seemed like I had only a tentative grasp on my mental faculties. But I did die a thousand agonizing deaths.
* So if you are one of the many people who have sent me a link to your work because you simply wished to share it with someone who inspired you, let me say very, very sincerely that I am truly honored. As an artist, knowing that my meager accomplishments moved someone enough to want to create... it's more than an artist can hope for. I really mean that.
* If because of my insane schedule it was impossible for me to enjoy your work, I'm really sorry, but know that it doesn't in any way diminish what you've created. Remember what I always say, if YOU feel it's good, it is! And just knowing that I had any part in inspiring it is all the thanks I need.
* If your goal was to get me to say some nice words about your work to use as an endorsement please know that you're probably barking up the wrong tree. Truly, my circle of influence is smaller than you think, I promise you. There are artists whose opinions are far more valuable than mine. So, go bother then instead! LOL! Just kidding! But seriously, what you SHOULD do is focus on the work!!!! Don't rely on "celebrity" endorsements to move your product further. Get your work out there! Do what any artist with a fan base huge or small has done... put your nose to the grindstone, pay your dues, do the dirty work and build an audience the hard way! At the end of the day, your goal shouldn't be to have someone like me notice your work because you emailed it to me... your goal should be to have someone like me notice your work because there are so many people talking about it, it was impossible not to! Trust me on this! Then you won't be viewed as someone looking for a favor, you will be viewed as this amazing, cool new thing that we discovered on the internet! There is nothing cooler than when your heroes find out about you on their own! I had it happen once and I will never, ever forget it!
* If you are thinking about asking an artist of note to give you a shout out for your new, not yet finished or otherwise unknown project, DON'T! I'll tell you right now that nobody appreciates that. It's rude to ask strangers for favors (didn't your mommy ever tell you?). I don't do it, I never did it and neither should you. You can ALWAYS say, "Hey, I did this thing that I think you would like. Please check it out if you have a moment" and cross your fingers. Don't demand anything and don't expect anything. Again, the artists you are asking already paid their dues, now it's time for you to pay yours.
* (I had to add this one!) When you email an artist you are a fan of and say "Tell me what you think of my work." Really what you're saying is, "Say something nice to me." Because frankly, no one is going to tell a fan that their work sucks if in fact, it sucks. Now, having someone you admire say something nice to you might feel really nice, but bear in mind that you are putting that person in a position, where they really have no other choice. Do you feel okay about that? I wouldn't. A better strategy is simply to offer your work and not ask for an opinion. Like, "I drew this picture of you! I thought you might enjoy seeing it." That's always welcomed and doesn't put undue pressure on the artist to come up with a forced reply or a straight out lie. And hey, on the off chance that you are a fan of a total dick, imagine how it would feel if they were honest and told you that your work was terrible that you display no talent at all! WOW, that would really be awful, wouldn't it? LOL!
* (Another amendment) I forgot another huge part of the problem and that is that when people ask for my opinion on their work, honestly, the first thing that goes through my mind is, who the fuck am I to judge? Seriously, I have really, really peculiar and specific taste. There is very little that I like and loads of stuff I don't care for at all. It's important to note that a lot of of the stuff I can't stand is HUGELY POPULAR with others! So I could tell you that I don't like your music (for example) but that won't mean a damn thing. The whole rest of the world might love it. And then that gets me to thinking that you're just damn curious how I feel about it and I wonder why anyone would care what I think. Eventually I just come to the conclusion that you just want me to say I like it. It's awkward.
* Never expect that an artist will make you famous and successful. It ain't gonna happen and people who linger around too long in the hopes that it will are usually referred to as "hangers on" or "hanger ons" (can't remember which because I don't have any! LOL!) NOW... what you CAN do that is very smart is to forget about the artists and look at the companies that hire them!!!! If you feel that your music is a lot like the music or a particular artist, communicate that to the record label that signed that artist and see if they'll accept a demo. Same is true if you make comic books. Try to contact their publisher and say, "I'm a big fan of (insert artist here) and since you like their work, you might like mine" I should point out that this approach is going to be far more possible with SMALL labels, SMALL press, etc... I'm pretty sure there's no way to contact Sony records or Paramount Pictures and pull that move (because if there was, I would have done it already! LOL!)
On a last note, I just want to say that my road to having any success as an independent artist was very, very long and very, very painful and I still have a long way to go. In that period of time crawling my way up and getting noticed, I did my fair share (probably more than my fair share) of starving and I say that literally. I also was met with rejection on a near-daily basis. I was homeless at one point, I got dumped by my partner for stubbornly trying to make it as an artist instead of taking the easy road and getting a "real" job. It was REALLY, REALLY hard! One of the things that plagued me the most was that no one ever seemed willing to share information about how to succeed. It was as if other artists felt that if they divulged any information they had, that they would lose whatever paltry ground they had gained ahead of me. It was an incredibly frustrating part of my life. So, if you feel that any part of this blog comes across as "rude", I will apologize for that. But let it be known, that I've always been a straight shooter. I will always tell you the truth, even if it makes me the bad guy. At the end of the day, I will NEVER be that artist that hides information from you.
I will always give you the straight dope... TIME PERMITTING. ; )