My first dance single came out in 1992 (DJ JD — “1-900″). I was 22 years old. My most recent dance single came out last Wednesday (Yellowcake and Kevin Knapp — Oh Yuki/Waterfall). My dance music career is old enough to legally order a drink at a bar.
At the beginning of your artistic career, the challenge is to make enough noise to be recognized at all. A couple decades later, if you’ve had any success at all, the challenge is to stay out of the cupboard.
Let me explain.
When the young kids making music (or painting pictures, or writing novels, or whatever) meet you, the veteran producer, they’re likely to make a few assumptions:
- That they understand your sound (because they’ve heard a track you made five or ten years ago).
- That you probably haven’t really kept up with what sounds and styles are cool and current (because you look kind of old).
- That your best work is behind you.
All this will be couched in politeness and respectful platitudes — you might even be called “legendary”(!) — and these expressions of admiration might even be genuine. But it’s the kiss of death. They’ve put you in the cupboard. A nice top shelf curio in the memory collection, but not something you’d actually use or actively engage with.
And here’s the kicker — their assumptions might be correct. Even if you’re artistically active, maybe you haven’t kept up with current trends. Maybe you don’t know how to use the latest tools and techniques. And worst of all, maybe your best work is behind you.
(Of course, it’s possible you’ll get a blank look, because they haven’t heard of you. In some ways I prefer that … no preconceptions, and you can talk about your current projects and be judged sans past baggage.)
So how do you stay out of the cupboard? How do you continually surprise people (and not just in the sense that you’re still alive and releasing work)? How do you avoid labels like “retro,” “old school,” “classic,” and “comeback”?
Don’t call it a comeback!
David F*&king Bowie
If anyone has this question figured out, it’s David Bowie. Though the later phases of his career include long periods of silence, they’re punctuated by blasts of originality so powerful that you’re forced to recalibrate every Bowie song you’ve ever heard and reform your holographic image of his career and artistic soul.
I remember being blown away by Earthling in 1995, which drew from genres that were very current at the time (especially drum and bass). But Bowie did it his way, say “no thanks” to most sampling techniques and instead making live drum loops from scratch and mercilessly editing them (with his co-producers on the album, Mark Plati and Reeves Gabrels).
And now Bowie has released the truly weird, yet true-to-Bowie, Where Are We Now.
Definitely not staying in the cupboard!
So What To Do?
So what’s the answer to this quandary?
I’ll tell you what I tell myself.
Get over yourself and get back to work.
- Every artist, no matter how famous or successful, is immediately in the cupboard three months after their latest release/show/publication.
- We generally overestimate how much other people are thinking about us. Unless you’re mega-famous, nobody is thinking about you (and your artistic career) that much, except for maybe your mom, and your ex who isn’t totally over you. And maybe not even them.
- Be thankful if they’ve heard of you at all, and don’t worry if someone isn’t aware of your latest work. Most of us are a release or two behind on the artists we like — we’re all busy and there’s too much media to consume.
In other words, the whole question of whether or not your work is “relevant” or “current” is an ego thing, and it’s a distraction, and the cure is to get back to work and to make something as fresh and original and mind-bending and polished as you possibly can (while still staying true to your own taste or “artistic soul” if you will).
Personally I enjoy learning and absorbing new techniques and genres, but I don’t chase or emulate genres that I don’t respond to emotionally (like banging electro, or nose-bleed dubstep). I know I’ll always be attracted to spacious, open music with simple chord progressions, kind of on the deep side, so I don’t resist that. I think the key is making sure you’re not bored with your own work. If it’s exciting to you, it might be exciting to someone else. Otherwise, no chance.
You can stay out of the cupboard by releasing something halfway original on a regular basis. But you can’t control what people think, and it’s not worth trying.