Talent ≠ Success

tal-ent (/’talǝnt/)
natural aptitude or skill.

Oxford English Dictionary

When I was very young, I was always told by my parents that I was exceptional, talented, and full of potential. There was no doubt that I would go on to be a great musician, or film composer, or physicist, or … something. I would defy the expectations of everyone around me, and I’m fairly certain people saw me as a somewhat precocious, and probably very pretentious, little kid.

You see, I grew up as as child in rural, backwater Switzerland, where the talent pool was small, and I was a big fish in a tiny little pond. My first exposure to the limits of my talent came when we moved to England, and I was suddenly in classes with people who were genuinely as talented, and in some cases far more talented, than I could ever hope to be. Pianists who could play Bach’s C#-minor fugue, and cellists who could play Elgar; English students who could write better than me, and math students who understood differentials better than me.

This was a blow to my young ego, which had unto that point been stroked egregiously by everyone around me. Yet I weathered it, and came to the realization that, in most endeavors, there would always be someone in the world who could do it better. That’s the nature of life.

As a side note, this became a factor in my worsening teenage depression, as I assumed that I would never amount to anything if I couldn’t be the best at anything.

And yet, I’ve continued on through decades assuming that my lack of success (and let’s be clear, in this context success means money) was due to a lack of talent – that I really am not very good at very much. I have a low-skill job at mediocre pay, I frequently live paycheck-to-paycheck, and the art I create is not spread wide across the literary or musical worlds.

The funny thing is that, to myself, I really enjoy what I create. I listen to my own songs on repeat; I re-read my own books frequently. My background wallpaper is a photo I took – one of my favorites. In my own mind – from a failed childhood or some other delusion – I am still talented.

And perhaps this isn’t necessarily wrong, per se; if talent is a natural aptitude or skill – key word being ‘natural’ – then I am at least somewhat talented. Whilst I’ve enjoyed a musical upbringing and education, I’ve never been taught anything more than high school English, and yet have written four full-length novels. In my own subjective opinion, at least some of my songs are as good as number one chart hits – within genres, at least.

Maybe it’s okay to be talented; maybe it’s okay to think I’m talented. What I might consider a lack of success doesn’t have to mean a lack of talent.

You see, it’s taken me a long time to realize that talent and success don’t go hand-in-hand. I might be talented; I might write good songs and passable novels. But talent doesn’t guarantee success (and frequently, success doesn’t guarantee talent). In fact, I would go as far as to argue they aren’t even two sides of the same coin, but literally separate coins entirely.

I wrote three fantasy novels. They’ve amassed – in the five years since publication – fewer than 30 reviews and ratings. In the grand scheme of things, no one’s read them, and I certainly haven’t recouped my editing costs through sales. The same is true for my young adult novel, although it’s spread has been somewhat wider than my fantasy.

What I’ve learned is that writing a book is hard, tedious, laborious and and thankless work. It’s the fruit of hundreds of hours of labor, sweat, tears, depressions and other terrible emotional free-falls, and to create a worthy book – one that stands toe to toe with ‘real’ (read: established) authors – is an incredibly difficult and daunting task.

But selling a book is even harder.

Selling a book – that is to say, marketing a book – is a whole different world. A completely different set of skills are required, a different world view and knowledge, different insights and connections, and is often subject to the mercy of individuals who may simply not like your work. Getting significant sales from a book you wrote is a different beast altogether, and one that I most certainly don’t have a talent for.

Yet what I’ve discovered is … that’s okay. Just like I learned as a child that I’m not ever going to be the best at anything, and to focus on the things I am somewhat good at, I’ve learned that marketing and selling is something I’m just not very good at. And that’s okay.

Success – and its definition – is highly subjective. To succeed means to achieve a goal, and in the sense that, when I started writing I had a goal to write a novel, I have succeeded. I’ve succeeded, in fact, four times over. And not only did I write four novels, I wrote four damn good novels – maybe no Harper Lee or Tolkien, but perhaps at least as engaging and well-written as Stephen King (or maybe Jay Asher). I like my books.

Whether they ever lead to a career or not isn’t necessarily what I care about; I didn’t set out to write a best-seller. If I had, I would have written a by-the-numbers thriller or romance novel, and sold it to the first publisher wanting to tack it on to the countless thousands of other books out there exactly like it. No; I’m much happier having written a complex, character-driven young adult novel, or dark, unpredictable fantasy stories, knowing that I’m personally pleased with how they turned out.

If, in some years, someone discovers these books and makes me an offer I can’t refuse, well then that’l be the icing on the cake. Until then, I’ll keep writing, because the satisfaction of finishing a story is in itself a success. The fact that there are people in the world who I know have been touched by my work is all the nicer.

Talent doesn’t equal success, but then again, success doesn’t require talent.

Best to put talent to good use.

Thought of the Week: Poor Drummers

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Yeah. I have a big kit.

Let me preface this by saying that I am a music snob. I require my music to have depth, meaning and thought. Though my tastes lean heavily towards metal and anything before 1900, I am not closed to other styles of music per se; I simply find that most styles of music are…how to put this tactfully…banal. (Somehow despite this, I find jazz unpalatable. Sorry.)

Britney who?

Britney who?

This is why I find myself disliking ‘artists’. I don’t like Britney Spears’ music. I don’t like Justin Timberlake’s music. I’m impartial to Madonna’s. Why? Because their music either isn’t theirs, or is utterly trite. Although their style isn’t aligned with my personal tastes, I do like The Black Eyed Peas; I do like Eminem. I grudgingly like Oasis. I’d like Kelly Clarkson if she stopped writing about breaking up with her boyfriends. Their music comes from a different place; it comes from passion, or from beliefs, but most importantly, from them. Marshall Mathers has written or co-written every one of his songs. The Black Eyed Peas are a self-made band, both performing and writing together. Oasis are…well, Oasis.

So what do I admire? I admire composers. This is probably because I am a composer myself. I see (and know) the sweat and the tears that go into writing a good – good – song, be it vocal, metal, orchestral or anywhere in between. I was raised listening to Bach and Beethoven and Liszt and Tchaikovsky, and the ingenuity these people had – the extraordinary creativity – astounds me to this day. Ultimately this is what drew me to metal, because I see that same drive, passion and compositional talent there as well. Some metal is formulaic, or course, and some of it is banal – as is some of any genre of music. But by and large, there is a great difference in mentality.

Still, in all areas of music there are people who go uncredited, under-appreciated and unseen. In pop, it is usually the original songwriters. In classical music, it’s ironically often the performance artist. In avant-garde experimental music, it’s everybody.

And in rock, metal and any other band-based style, it’s the drummer.

Poor drummers.

As any drummer will tell you, the drummer is the core of the band, the foundation and backbone without which the entire thing would collapse in on itself. The drummer is a technically better and more proficient musician than any other part of the band. Singers only have one thing to do; guitarists have two (strumming and fingering); bassists have nothing to do; but a drummer has to deal with four separate limbs doing four separate things, at the same time, in time with each other – and sometimes singing as well. Just think about that for a moment.

These poor guys and girls are chronically underrepresented and unseen. The bands themselves, of course, would bow down to their drummer (or they should, anyway), and go out of their way to allow the drummer the spotlight on stage (think epic drum solos), but outside of the arena no one seems to care about them.

So to rectify that, here are ten of my favorite, most respected drummers:

  1. Martín López – Opeth

Not only is Martín my favorite drummer, he’s from my favorite band, so that kind of makes him a double-favorite. All the members of Opeth are musically talented, but Martín’s knack for seeming to hit more than four pieces of kit at a time boggles my mind. Perhaps he plays with his face. Check him out:

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  1. Joey Jordison – Slipknot

If anyone epitomizes the hardcore drummer, it’s Joey Jordison. He can freaking play drums upside-down in a cage. And he wears a terrifying mask. And his kit is bigger than lower Manhattan. Oh, and he’s in Slipknot. Did I mention that?

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  1. Nicko McBrain – Iron Maiden

First of all, yes – that’s his real name. That right there is enough to make him awesome. The second thing that makes him awesome is that he plays barefoot. Really – watch them live sometime! He’s been the steady tub-thumping time-keeper for Iron Maiden for – count ’em – thirty-one years, and he’s as perfect today (age 60!) as the day he joined Maiden.

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  1. Bill Ward – Black Sabbath

We wouldn’t have Iron Maiden without Black Sabbath, and Bill’s role in the distortion-drenched blues of the band’s formative years is undeniable. Listen to him play War Pigs and tell me he isn’t amazing:

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  1. Evelyn Glennie

I had the opportunity to see Evelyn Glennie in concert once, and it was one of the most profoundly astonishing performances I’ve ever seen. She’s not strictly a drummer, playing instead a vast range of percussion instruments, but her talent is unmatched. Oh, and she’s deaf.

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  1. David Gray – Akercocke

The drummer of any black metal band probably deserves to be up here, but for sheer technical ability there is no substitute for Akercocke. Stylistically they’re about as extreme as black metal gets, yet still willing to push the boundaries of the genre. As for David Gray…see for yourself.

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  1. Dave Grohl – Nirvana (not his own band!)

Before Dave Grohl was Dave Grohl, he was the drummer for Nirvana. Kurt Cobain killing himself was arguably the best thing that could have happened to Dave (I might be struck by lightening for that), so it’s a little unfair to call him an ‘unrecognized’ drummer. However…he’s a really nice guy, but I still reckon he’s better behind the kit than in front of it.

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  1.  Mike Portnoy – Dream Theater

Mike Portnoy will probably be remembered as the guy who pissed off the world’s entire prog-rock audience by leaving Dream Theater for, of all things, Avenged Sevenfold. Urgh. Nonetheless, he is a superb drummer, as any footage of any Dream Theater concert anywhere and any time will demonstrate (is that three kick drums I see?):

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  1. Doktor Avalanche – The Sisters of Mercy

Okay, so Doktor Avalanche isn’t a drummer, but for someone who doesn’t play drums, he plays drums pretty well. He’s very precise – almost like a machine. A machine…that plays drums. What an invention – if only it’d been around in the 80s!

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  1. Shane Rout – Abyssic Hate

It’s not likely you’ve heard of this drummer; it’s not likely you’ve heard the music of Abyssic Hate; it’s not likely you’ll ever find it on iTunes. Shane Rout is (possibly was) a misanthropic megalomaniacal nut, but the impressive thing (if there is one) is that he was the whole band. He once said that 99.9% of humans should be exterminated, and that the point of his music was for people to be “entranced by the sounds they hear, and blow their head off with a shotgun.” Pleasant guy. I haven’t seen any updates about him in seven years, so it’s quite possible he’s dead.

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Who are you favorite drummers? Who do you feel is criminally unrecognized? Let me know!

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On Creativity, Credit, and the Popular Idol

My wife is watching American Idol. As you can tell, I am not. I don’t strictly loathe the program; I just really, really don’t like it.

I’m aware it’s a very popular little show. Not just my wife watches it, apparently; there’s a guy at work who mentioned in passing as well. And, as long I’m being honest with you all, I don’t actually mind the talent on display, even if it does seem like a grossly overblown, shameless televised debutante ball for people with a little more lung than the rest of us.

The key thing for me is, what talent exactly is on display? There is something indeed unique and special about the contestants on American Idol (at least, those that make it through the first few rounds). Whether they’ve got a Dave Grohl grin or don’t care two whits about their audience, most of the people up on that stage share a common talent: their voice. They are, for the most part, good singers. Some are great, and would be at home on Broadway, or at the opera.

And I am a huge fan of musical talent. Alfred Brendel, Yo-Yo Ma and Isaac Stern are unparalleled to this day (and I am quite fortunate to have a recording of Brahms’ chamber music with most of these fellows playing). Joe Satriani and Eddie Van Halen can shred like none other. Mike Portnoy is an astonishing drummer, and hey – love him or hate him Axel Rose can sing. These are all exceptionally talented musicians, performers who rank in the top 1% of their art. But – and here is the argument’s focus – how far does their credit and fame extend?

As much as I enjoy consuming media (books, music, movies, etc.), I also create it as well. I am by training a musician and a composer. I am by my own hand a writer. And I have made a couple of terrible home movies. And whether it is in poring over the score of Beethoven’s sixth symphony, or marveling at the poetry of Dickens’ words, or admiring the artistry of Coppola’s Dracula, it is always driven home to me the intense passion, the sweat and tears, the frustration and the determination, that these artists have invested in their work.

Think, for a moment, about the song you’re listening to. Is it three, four, five minutes long? How long did it take to write, rehearse, perform and record that music? Chances are, several months. Production began last year on The Hobbit, which is due for release this Christmas. And the script was in the works ten years ago. Stephen King began work on his Dark Tower series in 1975 and is still working on it today. These are creations of human imagination, and while many of us have wild fantasies, stories and songs that run through our hears, these few are the ones with the bravery, the foolishness, and the love of self-immolation to commit those fantasies to permanence.

Yet in all of this, music – and specifically popular music – stands alone in several ways from all others. I won’t comment on the idea that pop songs are created for money; all art is, in one form or another. Nor will I say anything about the formulaic characteristic that defines most pop music; how many Agatha Christie clones are out there in the literary world?

No, the one thing that I can’t help but notice – the one thing that frustrates me to no end, and drives to to tears to think of it – is the credit given to the creators of these works. What springs to mind when I say The Hobbit, Vertigo, Titanic, Alien, Dune, or The Pit and the Pendulum? More likely than not, J.R.R. Tolkien, Alfred Hitchcock, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Frank Herbert and Edgar Allen Poe. Yet if I ask you who wrote any one of Britney Spears’ eleven Top 10 songs, how many of you would be able to answer, Max Martin?

Turns out, Max Martin wrote chart-topping songs for The Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Katy Perry, and even Usher. Now I don’t typically listen boy bands, pop rock or hip hop. Not out of any sense of pride – it just doesn’t speak to me. My tastes do vary – anything from The Cure and The Sisters of Mercy to Iron Maiden and Napalm Death, along with more or less the entire canon of western classical music from the 1600s on. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I started to wonder why I was attracted to these styles of music in particular. The answer that came to me, ultimately, was art. These musical styles represent art in its highest form. Like looking at a Picasso or reading Jules Verne, through the art you are in touch with the artist, and you have the chance, if you slow down, to marvel at every brush stroke, or wonder how the writer chose their words, and why they hold such magic.

When I listen to Porcupine Tree (one of my favorite bands), I don’t just hear the music. I hear Steven Wilson, writer, producer, singer, performer, making sure every single sound I hear is there on purpose, for me to recognize and revel in. I imagine him sitting in a studio, expensive headphones on, changing the reverb from 5 milliseconds to 6 milliseconds, smiling, and thinking – that’s perfect.

I wonder if Britney Spears ever does that.

In classical music, the composer is prized above all else, even the performer. “Simon Rattle conducts Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony” – the work of art belongs to the composer.

In film, it is the director, though the producer, screenwriter, and composer are all credited as well; “Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.”

In literature – surprise – the author.

And even in contemporary popular music – rock, rap, jazz, punk, metal, house and hip-hop – it is rarely questioned that the artist and songwriter are not the same. We assume that Kurt Cobain had some hand in writing the music and lyrics to Smells Like Teen Spirit. Even Flo Rida wrote “Good Feeling” (under his real name of Tramar Dillard). So what happened to generic-brand pop? When did the performers begin to overshadow the creators?

So I won’t cry shame on American Idol; after all, showcasing talent is (ostensibly) what the show is all about. I have no problem with a nobody from Arkansas being given a shot at fame. But spare a thought for the songwriters who gave their lives to make this happen. Continue to give them credit as you sing.

And who knows? Maybe one day we’ll have a talent show for songwriters and composers. Admittedly, it would be a lot less fun to watch. But it would certainly be more interesting.