Artistic courage versus playing it "safe."

Being a real artist requires taking risks. Whether it's trying new techniques, or attempting a different form, you have to step out of your comfort zone. Growing up I always admired those artists who challenged the status quo, and wrote songs that explored unknown territory, or helped define new genres. A classic example is Bob Dylan.

In 1964 when Dylan courageously plugged in his electric guitar at the Newport Folk festival, nobody knew what to expect. Up till that time, Dylan was regarded as a New York City folk artist, a poetic savant with a penchant for Woodie Gutherie. Nobody expected him to betray the folk tradition, and go rock n' roll. But He did, unashamedly. What were his critic's response? Some loved it. Other's hated it. Either way, It was pure artistic genius.

As artists it is necessary to re-invent ourselves and defy conventions, even if they are genre conventions. Had Dylan safely stayed in the "folk genre" boat in 1964, and not gone electric, he might have stagnated as an artist and not gone on to write other songs that many consider as classic Dylan tunes. Who knows? The point I am trying to make it this. It's easy to stay "safe" by doing the same things everyone else is doing musically, but being "safe" isn't exactly gonna provoke or inspire others musically. So should artists play it "safe as milk" or should we challenge the proscribed "rules" and defy conventions? I prefer the later.

What some artists regard as "standards" may be nothing more than contrived rules. These could be production trends, songwriting formulas, or anything that has become common practice because it elicits as certain "response" or "emotion" or whatever. My advice? Throw those conventions out the window, and be willing to discover for yourself new musical revelations.

That could mean writing differently, recording in a different environment, and trying new things.

I remember reading an article years ago about Bon Iver's first album. Justin Vernon the group's frontman described a season in his life, where he left Raleigh North Carolina, and headed up to a cabin in the woods in Wisconsin, and there in isolation He wrote the songs that later would become the album "For Emma, Forever Ago." According to wikipedia Vernon "abandoned his old songwriting methods and instead focused on wordless melodies that he later set to words, which he felt evoked a more subconscious meaning." Listening back to "For Emma, Forever Ago" you can hear Vernon's voice take shape through his falsetto melodies that became the signature "Bon Iver" sound that would be found on later records. Had Vernon stayed in Raleigh and never had ventured to the woods of Wisconsin to get honest with himself, he might not have written "For Emma, Forever Ago" and the band name "Bon Iver" would be unknown.

The point is you never know what you could gain, by leaping out into some new territory and being willing to explore. That process may seem scary at first, because lets face it, it's unfamiliar. I get it. It's uncomfortable and you want to revert back to what "works" and what is "proven." However the best ideas really do come out of the liminal place, because you are at a threshold of something new.

So what's my advice?

First, get honest with yourself, and stop fleeing to "the safe zone" as your refuge. Instead of avoiding your fears, confront them, and push past them with new beliefs about what's possible for yourself and your art. You will never know unless you try. Take that step.

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