Creative excess leads to creative success

There is no substitute for creative waste. It’s a part of the process

I’m listening to Pharrell speak with NPR when he says he doesn’t know where his hits come from, or why they were hits in the first place. They just work. He laughs and calls himself the Mr. Magoo of music.

I find that difficult to believe at first. He has a lot of hits (starting in the late 90s). Pharrell is quiet, and behind the scenes, but he is an iconic artist. He’s telling us that he doesn’t know where his hits come from?! Fuck outta here. At least give us some hints.

Then I listen to the Travi$ Scott and the Weeknd leaks, and I’m starting to get it. These leaks are unusual as they’re not a premature leak of an official release. Rather, there are a lot of demos and unfinished tracks. They’re not easy listening, but they are really insightful into their creative process. I hear a verse of Tell Your Friends on one of the leaked Weeknd tracks.

On one hand, technically, these demos are a waste. They are a waste of expensive studio time, artist time, and recording, since they’re not final products. On their own, they’re not good enough to see the light of day, and that sucks. Consider how John Legend writes 50-80 songs for each album, and the final 10-12 that actually make it.

But on the other hand, this “waste” is vital to making a great final product. This excess that nobody will ever see is crucial to the process of creating, refining, editing, producing, and launching the final product. This excess is what provides the substance, insights, and sometimes even raw material for final versions.

This is why it’s so hard to demand an ROI on art and creativity, and why it will almost always be impossible to control and plan for.

These artists are really talented, and gifted, at what they do. But seriously, there’s also a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes. In the leaked demos from The Life of Pablo, different artists appear on versions of songs that don’t make it to the final. Travi$ Scott is on FML. There are also completely unused demos, like, “The Mind is Powerful.” Similarly, Kendrick Lamar is on All Day.

Mainstream artists preserve their longevity by experimenting with their content and creative just as much as amateurs do. And waste is an inevitable part of experimentation. Not every song is going to be a hit. Not every article is going to go viral. Not every book is going to be a bestseller. Not every design experiment will work.

A lot of times, ideas don’t work. Sometimes, artists outsource this experimental process to their labelmates or signees. Or, they take someone else’s ideas, and provide mainstream exposure for that previously obscure artist (see Kanye’s Father Stretch My Hands Pt. II which propelled Desiigner’s Panda to Billboard #1. Panda came out originally in December 2015, and was re-released in February 2016 to coincide with Kanye’s The Life of Pablo).

But not every one of them is going to fail. Chance is on your side when you experiment and release more. Even if most of your creative experiments suck, it’s unlikely that you’re going to mess all of them up. As Ray Bradbury writes, “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

A lot of people overthink their projects. I love what my friend tells me: “Think with your hands.” Don’t get trapped in your mind. Think with your voice, your paintbrush, with your software of choice. I think with my hands, eyes, keyboard, pen, Google Docs, and iA Writer.

I often feel guilty about my random sessions when I spend hours going down rabbit holes on Tumblr or Reddit, but the stuff I read or watch or see or listen to at these times provide me with new references. I connect really random dots after, and that wouldn’t have been possible without “wasting my time” looking at this. It’s research, but it’s fun. Research is labeled monotonous and boring so often that we forget that research is supposed to be driven by curiosity. Research is not an excuse to procrastinate, but it is a cost of being creative.

You can’t control what will resonate and what won’t. But you can put something out there, learn from it, and do it over and over again. If you feel uninspired or blocked, you can talk to people, or write with a pen instead of a keyboard, or see what other people do when they get blocked.

You only see one headline for each of Upworthy’s articles, but writers draft 25 headlines for each article. The other 24 are wasted, but that magical 25th one which draws in readers would not have been possible without them. Unfortunately there’s no shortcut to getting that great headline. As you get better, you might be able to do the same with 20 or 22. But there will always be creative waste and excess.
Embrace waste, churn out quantity, and have fun.