Are You an Artist or Just Someone Who Plays Music?

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Many of us use the term ‘independent artist’ or ‘recording artist’ to describe ourselves, but are we really artists, or are we just people who play music?

To answer that question we need to decide what it means to be an artist.  Many of us grew up in an environment where we were only taught what art means at a superficial level. Maybe our first definition of an artist was someone who was really good at making realistic paintings or drawings or maybe someone who made weird abstract creations that were supposedly only understood by special people.  Perhaps we made a vague translation of those ideas and applied them to music in some way and that’s as far as we got.

So what does it mean to be an artist?  I think that’s a question worth asking – often.  The answer will likely change and evolve for you over time.  It’s not one of those words you can just look up in the dictionary, assimilate and forget about.

I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about this myself.  As of right now, here’s what I’ve got:

  • An artist creates from an internal frame of reference.  They don’t look around to see what’s cool or popular and act out of the hope for validation.  They believe in their ability to create something meaningful from their own unique experiences and view of the world.
  • Their drive to create is more important than their desire not to fail.
  • They operate under the premise that what they say and do matters.  A lot of creative people act as though they can say or do whatever they want because it doesn’t really affect anyone in the end anyway.  These people are not artists.
  • True artists see opportunity to create art everywhere in their lives.  They step back and see possibilities instead of just facts.  They imagine new, beautiful and interesting outcomes and dream about ways to make them happen – even if they seem crazy or unrealistic.
  • They take responsibility for making things happen in the real world.

An artist can be a singer, a photographer, a painter, or a teacher, a judge, or a waiter. All it requires is a heart, some courage and some creativity.

Roberto Benigni’s character in “Life is Beautiful” was an artist. In this scene he uses his creativity to help paint a different picture of what was happening for his son.

Sometimes being an artist is about protecting something beautiful and sometimes it’s about creating something beautiful.

I have a friend who’s spent some time on tour with Billy Joel.  She said that one time he spontaneously decided to play a couple’s wedding reception for 4 hours because he happened to be staying at the hotel where it was held!  Probably blew their minds.  I’m sure they will never, ever forget that and it’s impossible to know what that meant to them, but I’m sure it was profound.  Those are the things that artists live for.

Artists give voices to the voiceless – because they can.  Artists blow people’s minds – because they can.  Artists change people’s lives – because they can.  They can do things that other people don’t do because they’re looking for things that other people can’t see and seeing things that other people can’t, or don’t imagine.  They live in a world of possibility beyond the boundaries that most people accept and then they use their vision to create beautiful things in the real world.

Artists are not defined by their technical ability.  A poor musician can be a great artist.  What makes an artist is that they create and preserve beauty in ways that most people would never think of. An artist is someone who sees life itself as the venue for their creativity. It doesn’t start and end within a song. For a true artist, a song is just part of a bigger work of art. It’s not just about filling up seats or making people move. It’s about how what they do really affects people.

Sometimes art is about changing the world. Sometimes it’s about helping someone get over the loss of a loved one. Other times it’s about making someone smile, or helping someone believe in something that they had given up on.

There are a lot of tools to create art. You’ve got music. You may not be Billy Joel… but to someone you are. What are you going to do about it?

Article by Scott James of The Independent Rockstar Blog.

12 thoughts on “Are You an Artist or Just Someone Who Plays Music?

  1. You described what being an artist is very well. It would also be good to get some tips on how to deal with the penalty that being an artist can incur, when competing with others who are more focused on the easy sell at the middle of the road.

    It seems that what it takes to make it big (being an artist) and what it takes to make it when you are still unknown, are almost mutually exclusive. That is the challenge that many or most of us face trying to play creative music in venues that are really looking for dance music and oldie sing-alongs.

  2. A friend of mine put it this way,”There is the work of Certainty, and the work of Risk. Art is the work of Risk.”
    I would like to ask for your thoughts, on the differences between being an Artist, and being a professional Artist?

  3. Thank you for this….much needed reminder of why we do what we do. And yes. I am an Artist. Thank you for asking. ~ Gigi

  4. Great question Mike. I would say that yes, it is art if it’s the product of creativity and it’s beautiful to you.

    I’d also say that I, personally, don’t find it especially fulfilling to only please myself. I find art more exciting when other people are involved. Learning how to communicate is, in my opinion, one of the most important skills that an artist can have. One of my favorite teachers, Wyatt Woodsmall likes to say, “The message of your communication is the response that you get – NOT what YOU think it means”.

    It can be a little painful and for some people, very painful to go through the process of learning how to effectively communicate through your art. For that reason, many artists choose to rationalize and justify why they only care about pleasing themselves with their art. If you, as an artist have the ability to communicate your vision to others, but choose not to, then that’s your choice, just as it would be to lock yourself in your room and not speak to anyone for the rest of your life. Usually though, I find that artists who aren’t getting much response are actually just inept at communicating their ideas and translating them from their head to the ears and minds of their listeners in a way that they will feel and understand.

    The good news is that it can be learned. All that it requires is that the artist be open, seeks honest feedback and works at it over time.

  5. Philosophical question: Is it “art” if no one appreciates your art? Art, in its most basic sense, is entertainment, right?

    You’re an “artist” if you share your creative gifts with others and entertain them (and you’re a good artist if they appreciate it by patronizing your art in return). But art appreciation is SUBJECTIVE. Some may consider you an artist while others may consider you a hack (or worse).

    Without an audience, can one be an “artist?”

    Your article is thought-provoking and passionate. Kudos! Best of luck to you having your art recognized by as many poeple as possible.

  6. Wow – Thank you for taking the time & thought to write this article – It’s cuts to the core of what I’m striving to do in my life and music. Very well said Scott!

    Nathan Johnson

  7. Nice article. Good points and an interesting perspective. The question at the end seals the deal quite nicely … a question EVERY artist or musician needs to ask themselves EVERY DAY.



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