Overcoming mental blocks in art and business

Anyone trying to make a living with their creativity, from music to marketing, will tell you there are few times in life more frustrating than those moments when you feel as if your inspiration has run dry. You know the feeling. It’s usually something that hits you settle into work on your passion project at night, or perhaps just after you have arrived at the office, and try as you might to get something meaningful accomplished you pretty much just spin your wheels until you feel comfortable excusing yourself in order to spend the rest of the day in a ball of self-loathing introversion on your living room floor, praying to any deity willing to listen that you have enough episode of The West Wing left to avoid you work for one more day. We’ve all been there, or at least those of us who have been working long enough to burn through the first 50 or 100 ideas that we had, and if you feel you’ve yet to reach that point then trust me – It’s on the horizon.

We don’t bring up those uncomfortable times in order to scare. Sd face the same thing on a fairly regular basis, and we like to refer to it as what author Steven Pressfield calls “Resistance.” That is, a universal force that works against human creativity on a daily basis. We all face it in our own ways, much like we all fight our own battles most the world never knows of. There are a million anecdotes and essays on overcoming Resistance, and we’ve offered several here on this blog. Whether or not it works for you can only be learned through application. Yes, good old fashioned trial and error.

The next time you’re confronted with a creative roadblock in your professional life, take time away from your forced search for inspiration and try losing yourself in an alternate path. Develop an alternative path for yourself, your music, your agency, your label, or that secret side business you always hope to one day attempt. These adventures can sometimes be the source of new real life paths, such is the case with many so-called ‘side projects’ in music. Artists from various genres take a break from their day-to-day career to pursue other creative avenues just like anyone else, and sometimes their efforts lead to new financial avenues that certainly don’t hurt their bottom line.

Developing alternative paths to success for yourself can allow your mind to relax and consider options you might not have been able to adequately access when attempting to force creativity. Let’s explore a few examples to better illustrate this point:

Musicians –

Let’s say you’re the lead guitarist and songwriter for an aspiring rock band. Your first demo went over well with local audiences, and the second was good enough to help you secure a few opening slots on national tours when they roll through your region’s bigger venues. You may have even been able to tour, albeit without the benefits of a bus or guaranteed sell out crowds. Still, you’re making progress and you can feel your dreams of stardom starting to come together.

As you find yourself beginning to thinking about your third release, which would probably be your first full length, you discover you have hit a creative wall. Writing riffs and lyrics was never something you found all the difficult before, but for whatever reason everything you’re coming up with at this current point in time is clearly not good enough to help you get you ahead.

To clear your head and relax your thoughts it might be wise to consider an alternative career in, say, top 40 radio pop. Ask yourself, “What would it take to make it in pop music today?” Think about the songs and artists topping the charts, the themes found in their music, and what it is about tracks like Bieber’s “What Do You Mean” or The Weeknd’s “I Can’t Feel My Face” that keeps people reaching for the repeat button again and again. Some answers will come fast, but others will take time. Think about what these artists do that you do not and ask yourself whether or not their approach to marketing or songwriting could aide your personal efforts. Heck, you may even try penning a song or two. Why not? Trial and error is part of any healthy exploration.

By the time you realize how lost in your pretend career you’ve become enough time should have passed for you to return to your real work with clear eyes and an open mind. Remember the things you learned about yourself and your peers during your brainstorming session and use it to influence your future work.

Industry professionals (label owners, site editors, publicists) –

Maybe you’re a label owner, struggling to keep your costs low while hustling around the clock to not only bring attention to the talent on your roster, but also to sell records. The grind required to keep a small business afloat, let alone build a new music empire, can be devastating on the mind of a creative person. One the one hand, your spirit and soul desire constant exercise and exploration. On the other hand, you need to find what works for your business and stick with it.

On those days when you cannot seem to focus on emails, accounting, marketing, or anything in between, it might be best to allow yourself to unwind with by exploring an alternate professional path. Just like the example for musicians above, you should stay within the realm of what you do (aka – running/building a business), but what it is your fake company does is entirely up to you.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s say your secret wish is to start a subscription box company that offers consumers the chance to receive 1 new album in the mail each month, along with an explanation for the record’s selection. The first thing you need for this business is a name. You decide ‘New Music Monthly’ is a good name and from there set to outlining what would be needed in order to get your business off the ground. You need a web host, a logo, and a cost estimate sheet. You know boxes can be bought in bulk, but you will have to contact the labels/artists you wish to work with in order to know if they would be willing to offer you a discount in order for buying X amount of records. You also need startup cash, which can be earned through launching pre-orders for your first box.

After the basic business details are ironed out, you should then turn your focus to understanding the type of customer who would want this product. Assume that your first few music shipments will be products from your own label, then outline what kind of music fan would be interested in whatever release you might choose. Be specific. Narrow down your fans to a specific age group (teens, young adults, adults 25-35, 35+, senior citizens, etc). Do (or did) these people go to secondary school? Do they attend a lot of concerts?

Once you figure this out you can begin to brainstorming how to accomplish the difficult task of targeting these consumers. Do they frequent Facebook? Twitter? Would placement in a magazine be a wise choice? Depending on which method of outreach you choose, how much will it cost? Can you advertise this way regularly, or do you only have the budget for a single campaign? Again, be specific.

Once you iron out your faux business plan you will not only have a potential new path to financial success, but you will have inadvertently developed marketing tools that could also be used for the real problems facing your actual business. The target market for your faux company will likely be the same, or close to the same, as your actual business. The plans you made to reach those made up customers can be applied in one way or another to the customers you are hoping to reach in with your label. You will have more or less done the work you needed to do in a way that tricked your mind into doing work it might not have wanted to do otherwise.

There are a million potential paths through life available to all of us, but far too few ever make much, if any, effort to explore their options. We would never advise you to abandon your dream(s), but we do believe that exploring alternative career paths can lead to success in your current field. What matters most is that you keep an open mind and try as much as you are able without jeopardizing your current professional/financial situation. You can use the examples laid out in the post to get you started, but don’t hesitate to make up your own adventure whenever time allows.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.