When you are on a winning streak, there will inevitably come a moment when you are not. The forces of the universe are all conspiring in your favour. Then they are not.
You are still you. The sum total of you remains. The essence of you, what makes you you is still there. So what is different?
From golden child to idiot
“I went from golden child to idiot in one fell swoop.” So says musician Billy Corgan (these days trading as “William” Corgan) in an excellent podcast chinwag with Joe Rogan*, recorded last month. His band, the Smashing Pumpkins, experienced ridiculous, stratospheric success in the early-to-mid 1990s. But Corgan’s fortunes turned on a dime with one late-90s album flop. The moment had passed, the audience voted with its feet. Corgan was still himself. So what was different?
Mr Corgan, it seems, has spent a long time contemplating and analysing the cruel but inevitable departure of fickle fame. Thinking about what happens when the world moves on, but you are still there, still you. I think the conclusions he’s reached are fascinating, and apply far beyond the sausage machine that is the music industry.
Your self, your essence – if you will, your “brand” – is the most valuable thing that you have, in Corgan’s view. You should hold onto what is unique about you at all costs.
Phenomenal popular success is down to what he terms the “Zeitgeist effect of the public.” He defines this as follows:
“[Moments] when it all seems to make sense. The public’s fascination, the artist’s place and time, the work that’s being created. There’s a sense of familiarity, but also something is happening and everybody wants to take part in it.“
It’s all gravy, until it isn’t. No matter how much you might like it to be otherwise. This moment will pass. But this moment can come round again. Corgan says:
"The ego of the artist wants to convince yourself that you’re always in that moment. And that’s just impossible. There’s just no way. It’s just the cyclical nature of creation. It’s like falling in love and expecting to feel that feeling forever. It’s just not going to happen. You need to mature into a deeper relationship with your work, your audience and yourself. And when that happens, people come back. Because you’re giving me some new information. This isn’t just a riff on the thing that you gave me before.”
Be the bandwagon
This week, my friend Laurie Ruettimann wrote a fascinating post about blogging and her place in the blogging world. Laurie feels that the blogging world has rather moved on, meaning – in her view – that “it’s undoubtedly true that I’m no longer the best. Legacy is not enough.”**
She’s chosen to lay low, to watch the wheels turn and speak only when she has something to say. How did she reach this conclusion?
Contemplating her next move within the blogosphere, Laurie considered two potential career strategies from the world of music.
- U2 – a band that has spent much of this century chasing what’s popular and in effect imitating their own imitators in an ongoing desperate bid to stay on top. Nein danke, Baby.
- A Tribe Called Quest. I blogged a year back (actually, twice!) about the wonder of their 2016 comeback. Laurie sums up Quest’s strategy beautifully: “They didn’t sacrifice their values to jump on the bandwagon and seem relevant. They were the bandwagon. And they waited.”
I love Laurie’s point here that the most important thing is not sacrifice your own values, not to lose your own voice by speaking in the voice of others. Be the bandwagon.
The sum total of what that person represents
Corgan has arrived at the same conclusion. He argues that you must hold onto and protect what makes you you – your self, your voice, your brand, your essence – above all else. He says:
“My brand is far more valuable than my sort of profit/loss on paper. So long as you appreciate that, you won’t let people come along and gut out your brand value. Musicians are surrounded by people telling them it’s a profit/loss business, when those people know full well it isn’t. […] There are only a few American iconic artists that are truly free. Was every year of Johnny Cash perfect? Was every year of Neil Young perfect? It’s the sum total of what that person represents that I think is the durability. Protecting what that brand is worth is so much more valuable than whether somebody liked one song or one album or something that I said in 1992. It’s so inconsequential.”
Songs come and go. But the brand endures.
The sum of you will always be you. There’s no faking that.
I’ve always liked the following words of wisdom from advertising genius David Ogilvy’s February 1981 talk to American Express executives***:
“Are we leaders or followers? Do our competitors imitate us, or do we imitate them? You may remember Kipling’s long poem about Sir Anthony Gostler, the old shipping tycoon. On his deathbed, he is telling his son about his competitors:
”‘They copied all they could follow,
But they couldn’t copy my mind,
And I left ’em sweating and stealing,
A year and a half behind.’“
So, gentle reader, do you know: What is the sum total of you?
* Here’s the Rogan/Corgan podcast in full. As ever with Mr Rogan’s podcast, it goes on forever. But I think it is interesting throughout. I particularly like Corgan talking about how his fans disapprove of his obsession with wrestling: They would rather he was just "a gothic vampire”!
** I can’t say I entirely agree with Laurie on this. Laurie is as good a blogger as we have. The picture at the top of this particular section of this post depicts one of the most happy-making images I’ve seen this year – Laurie’s tweeted selfie with another true blogging legend, Mr Steve Browne (!!). Please do consider reading Mr Browne’s wonderful book: HR on Purpose.
*** This quotation comes from the excellent collection of Mr Ogilvy’s work The Unpublished Ogilvy.