I used to know a very talented guitarist. Quiet and introverted, wire-rimmed glasses hanging below a leisurely receding hairline, I got to know him through an album project I was co-producing long ago. Over the course of years I knew him, he was always tinkering in his bedroom recording studio, writing latin-tinged instrumental pieces with a modern vibe. The problem is, he never shared his songs with anyone. He never played out, never joined a band, never performed at an open mic or a church, never released a CD or even an EP. And then the sad part. He quietly passed some years later of cancer, never having shared any of the music that burned deeply in his soul.
Another songwriter I knew had a pocket full of acoustic rock songs that I helped him arrange and pre-produce. Driven but unfocused, he was constantly bouncing from one studio to another, recording and re-recording the same material. It just never quite seemed good enough for him to release. Over time, the songs started sounding dated and worn. I lost track of him eventually, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he is still out there somewhere re-recording the same project.
I know another very talented musician (I know a lot of musicians I guess!) who actually owns a well-stocked project studio where he produces music and video and beta tests music technology (he’s “in da bid-ness” as they say). Knowing that he also writes music, I asked him once if he would ever do a solo album. He replied quite sincerely, “I don’t know if I would ever have time.”
Of course there are many reasons why people hide their art. And if you want to know more about that, I suggest you read my previous blogs, “Letting Go of the Fear” and “The Intimacy of Art.” But lately, I have been reminded of an old saying by the late Steve Jobs, who used this to motivate (and maybe manipulate) his employees to both create and deliver. He famously contended, “Real artists ship,” a three word mantra which, in this new technological age, challenges the very idea of “the starving artist.” What it implied at its core essence was that art isn’t truly art until it is being experienced by an audience. It isn’t truly art until it all those brushstrokes, all those words on the page, all the choreography, all those musical notes—all of your art—is experienced by an audience, to reject or applaud and to hopefully permeate them in a way that moves them.
And I think there’s some truth in this. As we have discussed many times on this blog, art is dialogical. And a dialogue involves two entities, the artist and the audience. So what does it mean to ship? Well, that depends.
A sax player takes his horn out to a public square once a week and performs. Amidst the passers-by, he and his partner play a little pop, a little bop, a little sacred music. Propped next to them is an easel with a flipboard filled with short statements, some funny, some amusing, some thought-provoking and God-centric. After every song or two, they would flip the large page on the board and wait for people’s reactions. What he is doing is entering into a non-verbal dialogue, both musical and otherwise, with the world. What he is doing is “shipping.”
A talented watercolorist had been creating these exquisite renderings for quite a long time, so much so that she had run out of space in her house to hang all her art. But she had never displayed them publicly before. Amazingly, our church art gallery director persuaded her to do a one-man show, a huge splash of vibrant color that hung for many weeks in our gallery and elicited a tremendous response from our congregation. Though a bit hesitant at first, what she did through her gallery showing was “shipping.”
A young, talented aspiring songwriter is testing out her material in a variety of open mics all around the area. Though nerve-racking, she is gaining valuable experience with a wide variety of audiences in pubs and bars and cafes. What she is doing is not only building a fan base, but building her stage presence as well. What she is doing is “shipping.”
Ultimately, what we do as artists is more than just the words or notes or brushstrokes of our work. What we do is more than paint or sculpt or film or write or compose. What we do as artists is create meaning. It is our calling to express that which the world feels but cannot express by themselves. To make emotion incarnate, and in some small way, to pull back the veil and aspire to transcendence. And that meaning—whatever it may be and in whatever medium it is expressed—needs an audience to feel what we have created, to resonate with what we express, to enter into the aspirations of our modest epiphanies.
Over the last few decades, I’ve coaxed scores of artists out of their bedroom studios and private lofts and into the scary, unpredictable world of public expression. And you know what? I’ve never had one of them ever regret it.
[As a sidebar, Michaela, the young, talented songwriter I wrote about above, is currently raising funds through kickstarter to produce a full-length album of original music, her first CD project. In other words, as an artist, she wants to ship her songs. I believe in her and in her music, and I hope you will too. Please check out her kickstarter page here, and if you feel so led, please support her!]