The Grammys are a usually a lovely nightcap to the previous year’s music. Some celebration, some tension, a little drama and some nice performances. And whether or not you agree with where the Grammy Committee’s voting ended up in any category – one thing is for sure: 4 Grammy’s from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – who to this day are not signed to a record label – is impressive. And perhaps what’s more impressive IMHO is that they built their success on their own ethos, according to their own plan, from when there were no “opportunities” coming at them from every direction.
Am I biased because I’ve known these cats for a while…Yes. Probably. (disclosure they played #chasejarvisLIVE in 2011 and first performed some of the tracks a capella at a little dinner party at my studio ) Yes, they are they wildly talented (Ryan’s actually a great photographer too), but IMHO that’s not what made their meteoric rise to 15x platinum and 4 Grammys possible. What made it possible was certainly some real talent BUT it’s also a handful of things they know that YOU can begin applying to your life/career/passion right now. Here’s 7 things:
1. Freedom is More Important Than Money
Sure having some baseline amount of money is helpful, but there is no denying that the freedom to say what you want through your art, to call your own shots and control your own destiny is supreme. Had M&RL not kept their independence (and the key it to keep it gracefully – no need to be an ass…), they’d be nowhere near the success that they are today. Releasing a single about marriage equality on a hip-hop album? The “label” would never have “permitted” such a thing if they weren’t independant. So whose ass are you kissing right now that you shouldn’t be? I’m banking that if you kept your freedom (and kept it positive -i’m not talking about being a grump) that the rest will follow. And this isn’t just about money really either…I’m talking about all the upside.
I’m guessing that there are decisions you could be making to keep your ability to be nimble – to play to the beat of your own drum…to scratch your own itch (even if that itch is being in the service of others). Follow those freedoms, not the other stuff.
2. Setbacks are Temporary
When I first met Ben in 2009 he was living in his parents basement having just come out of rehab. He had found some local success with an earlier, locally released EP but soon found himself resting on his (albeit local) laurels, only to find that he was hitting the peace pipe and drinking cough syrup instead of diving into his work. He’s said on lots of occasions how low he felt – that he might never be able to make music again, but that he would give it everything he had with a fresh outlook on life. He found Ryan and boom. If you’re like me, there are setbacks everywhere. They never end. It might take living in your parent’s basement to realize your dreams. It always feels like I’m moving 2 steps forward and 1 (or sometimes 2) steps back. Shed the voices in your head that are keeping you down. Setbacks are temporary. They are meant to keep everybody else out, not you. The breakthroughs happen just when you think your at the end of the line. Trust M&RL on this one.
3. Only YOU Are in Charge of Your Personal Brand
I remember when I realized HOW in touch Ben & Ryan were with their brand M&RL when the emailed me one day asking if I had a RED camera they could borrow to shoot their next video video. They’d had some good vids to date, but they wanted creative control – they know how they wanted their creative vision realized and they wanted to own it front to back. That was for the video shoot of Thrift Shop. Seems like they…um…pretty much nailed it (487 MILLION views and counting….). That they had a)the desire; b) the balls to go for their vision says it all. Throw in the fact that they put their physical CD is a box made of alligator leather for god’s sake and you get the point.
What are you doing to make your brand different – not better? I bet you can think of 5 things in the next 5 minutes that helps your brand stand out from the noise. When you finish that list, nail it to your bedroom wall and reference it often.
4. Have a Point of View
In a world of mass messaging, right and left points of view, and chest thumping me-ism, I see so many artists who are reluctant to let their true colors shine. They’re worried that having a point of view might alienate a subset of fans or followers. Well, that’s bullshit. Because the only reason you’d want fans and followers is to genuinely connect with a community of like minded people – connect your authentic self with theirs. Referencing #1 above – you think it didn’t take balls to stand up for a belief in marriage equality amidst the typical hiphop anti-gay mindset? Sure it took balls, but that’s wht M&RL believe and so they found it a perfect thing to write about – with confidence. I spoke to them about it here. THAT is called having a point of view.
I’m guessing there’s a few things in your world (I know there are in mine…) that you’ve been scared to put out there. Dimes to donuts that this thing you’re holding inside will be a huge benefit when you get out of your own way and share that thing, own that thing, have a point of view. The people that will care about that thing are the people you’ll want to connect with anyone. So what are you waiting for?
5. Collaborating with Your Friends is a Good Thing – surround yourself with good people
When M&RL put out The Heist, they made it local. They made it with their friends. The solo’s and featured artists on their album? Almost entirely local talent…friends, people they admired, and by and large people without name recognition. But that didn’t matter – they made their album and their art with their circle of friends. Their tour and merch manager Tricia is Mack’s fiancé. Why chase the party when you can make your own.
So instead of waiting around to collaborate with Bono – why don’t you collaborate with your best friend, your makeup artist pal, your uber-talented homie from around the way. Again, why chase the party when you can make your own?
6. Don’t Let Them Put You in a Box
When I first heard Ben’s rap – it put me off balance. “Whoa – this is different” I thought. Which is part of why it works. I noticed it. Throw in Ryan’s beats and the whole thing goes to a different level where your brain doesn’t quite know which box to put that in… Our brains are pattern recognizers – which is why when you don’t fit into a typical pattern you STAND OUT. One Grammy committee almost didn’t let their music be classified as Rap – they wanted it filed under Pop. It caused controversy. But it didn’t matter. Ultimately it got the rap nod and then…lo and behold…claimed Best Rap Album and Best Rap song, Best Rap performance. They just made music they wanted to make and then let the world comment on it. The rest took care of itself.
So many creatives have spent too much time studying their peers our neighbors and reading the rule books written by others. Here’s a little secret – those people who wrote the rule books did so to keep you out. Break those rules, ditch that box as best you can.
7. Community is King
In their Grammy acceptance speech, Ben opens with [paraphrase] “Wow, we’re on this stage…And we could never have been on this stage without our fans.” This is true for the Grammys, but it’s also true for life. M&RL have connected with their audience in a way that I’ve rarely seen in this age of pop culture. It’s authentic, it’s humble, and it’s hard working.
The same can be said for your approach. I’ve said it here and here before: Things don’t make things happen, people do. The world of achieving career success is a world where community is front and center – whether you’re building your own business as an independent artist or you’re making a dent from within the machine of a bigger company. Your friends, supporters, fans, network – however you define it – is a huge is a requirement to unlock your future. What are you doing to build your community? In what ways are you giving back and asking for nothing in return? Don’t just reach up…be sure to reach sideways and down as often as you can muster.
Much respect to M&RL. Now I recommend we all get back to work at tackling our dreams.