Your greatest hits will never get old

“person playing piano” by Gregory Hayes on Unsplash

Billy Joel was playing at Wrigley Field the other night. I could hear him outside my window.

Piano Man. Uptown girl. She’s Always a Woman. All the hits.

And he was rocking out — he wasn’t phoning it in. Which made me think…

Billy Joel has been singing the same songs for almost 50 years ( the album, Piano Man was released in 1973). How many shows has he played between then and now?

And not just big shows — how many weddings has he played for celebrities and royalty every year? How many nieces and nephews have had ‘uncle Billy’ play at their birthday parties?

This goes for all the pop artists from the 60’s and 70’s. They get up on stage time after time, decade after decade, and play the same handful of songs over and over again.

The audience could care less about the new stuff. Those songs are just distractions. In fact, the audience gets a little annoyed when they hear a song they haven’t heard before. They paid for the hits and they want to hear them, damn it.

And so Billy Joel has to play Piano Man at Wrigley Field in the summer of 2018 just as enthusiastically as he did in the winter of ‘73.

What does this mean to people like me who create content for others? A couple things…

Listen to your audience to find your groove

As someone who creates content publicly (though to a muuuuuuch smaller audience than Joel), it was testament to this fact…

If you strike a chord with your audience, they’ll never get sick of you saying the same thing over and over again.

For example, Seth Godin has been saying the same thing over and over again for decades as well. It goes like this (it was the tagline on his site until recently), ‘Go. Start something.’ That’s it. On repeat. Keynote after keynote; bestseller after bestseller; blog after daily blog — for decades.

Maybe you’ve taken the time and emotional effort to build a body of work, either via your YouTube channel, blog, books, podcasts, or what have you.

And maybe something took off. You had no idea. This thing you lobbed out there went absolutely bonkers. This is insane — you’ve gone viral (or at least micro-viral).

One of the first pitfalls that can come up is the thought that you have to switch it up. It’s easy to fear that people always want new stuff from you. That they’ll think you’re unoriginal for beating that same drum again.

But you have to flip that notion on its head.

Your hit sets the groundwork for a deeper groove to be laid in the minds and hearts of your audience.

This is just the start. People obviously want more. Which can lead us to a certain kind of existential pitfall…

“This is great, but who I am is so much more than that”

I know what you’re thinking because I’ve been there. Your hit is kinda surface-level stuff in your mind, right?

You’re telling yourself that you’re way deeper and more complex than those Top-40-esque hits of yours (as much as you love them). And maybe you are.

I mean, my #1 hit is a post I wrote almost three years ago after one year of daily blogging…


“But I’m not one of these people who just blog about blogging,” I told myself. “My passion is writing about faith and spirituality, not just blogging for bloggers!”

That’s when my adult self stepped in…

“Stop it, Jonas. You are a blogger and people like that about you. Yes, you’re more than that, but own it!”

(Okay, enough self-dialogue. I had to get that out.)

We can’t discount the responses of our audience. If you’re doing your art for a living — or at least, you’d like to — your main job is to serve them, not to navel-gaze.

I’m sure James Taylor knows his creative depths go far deeper than Fire and Rain, but that doesn’t stop him from giving his audience what they want (48 years later!).

Sure, you have absolute creative license to reinvent yourself. I’ve done it a couple times. And each time, it hurt like hell. I remember wishing I was more like Billy Joel (in hindsight) and could suck it up and play an awesome Uptown Girl for the 9,000th time.

Because, here’s the thing…

Your audience has zero responsibility to continue liking you.

It’s harsh, but it’s true. As an audience member of yours, all it takes is one click to unsubscribe from your world forever.

Listen, you’re an artist. Sometimes, you have to make bold moves. I applaud you for it. Just understand the reality of the possible repercussions and proceed accordingly. If the bottom falls out and everyone leaves, go ahead and be pissed, but you have to enjoy rebuilding from the rubble. And your second structure might appeal to an entirely different subset of people than your first one.

Here’s one way to introduce your newer, more heartfelt stuff to your audience…

Sneak your new stuff in, drip by drip

What smart artists who have hits seem to do is this… They keep feeding their audience their hits (ex: their new song sounds a lot like their old songs with different words) and they sneak their new stuff into the background.

They’ve given their audience what they want. They’ve made them feel justified for showing up. And now, here’s a new thing I’ve been working really hard on that I think you’ll really like.

Test the waters and see if your audience bites — even a little bit. If so, put more and more in until a larger portion of your work resembles your more heartfelt ‘interesting’ stuff.

Take John Mayer for example. I like John Mayer. His songs are like bubble gum: tasty for a few minutes and then they lose their flavor and you move on with your day. No biggie.

But then he came out with his Paradise Valley album. I was blown away. It wasn’t quite a 180 — maybe a 90 or a 60 — but he was speaking my language. Others, I’m sure, hated it. But that was a risk Mayer took. If it was worth it to him, he could have kept going on that trajectory full-bore thus alienating his old fans while gathering a new audience of acoustic bluegrassy geeks like me.

This isn’t the first time he’s jumped into other lanes. He did it with his Where The Light Is: Live in Los Angeles album which appealed more to blues fans than his typical contemporary crowd.

However, John Mayer keeps playing Your Body is a Wonderland just as he has for 20 years (damn, I’m old — I bought his first hit CD when it came out).

In closing, notice your hits. Embrace them. Learn from them. And know you will resent them (but they truly are blessings if handled the right way).

Move forward accordingly.

Some stylistic changes at Higher Thoughts

I wrote an open letter to Higher Thoughts followers last night on some stylistic changes happening here. The thing about that letter is that it doesn’t pop up on the home page of this publication, which is why I’m posting this. So, if you’re curious, you can read about it here.


If not, rock on, you bad mamma jamma.



On making a living from your art without selling out

Image: Khara Woods

You know the struggle... The never ending battle between keeping true to your art and selling out by turning yourself into a commodity.

It’s something I’ve fought with ever since I started writing online many moons ago. Well, after almost a decade of banging my head against the wall and reading posts and posts and books and books about it from others, I think I’m finally getting it (yes, I’m slow). And I’m going to put it in a 3-minute blog post for you.

Let’s start with an example, shall we? So… Let’s say you like drawing. Before the internet, you basically had two options:

Option 1, you could have become an artist while eating TV dinners on a nightly basis and crossing your fingers that a big name/gallery would pick you.

Or, option 2, you could have sold out entirely and got a job in graphic design or something similar for a large organization where you drew what you were told to draw.

What’s funny is, thanks to school and well-intentioned teachers/authority figures, we STILL tend to think these are the only two options we have. But it’s utter and complete bullsh*t.

Now, with the internets, we can actually combine the two in a sweet, sultry, savory mix. Now, we can stay true to our art while (eventually) making a living from it by serving others who resonate with it.

Because now, if you share your art generously (for free, on the interwebs), you can reach other weirdos like yourself who are into your stuff. Do that enough and they’ll go bonkers (and pay you for it).

It’s definitely a dance... In the beginning, not everything feels good. You’re freelancing and you have to say yes to everything (to pay for those TV dinners).

But soon, if you keep showing up in your own online space (far away from the sh*tty clients who have you doing soul-sucking work) people will want more of that. Soon, the more good work that comes in will enable you to start saying ‘no’ to the soul-suckage.

Yes, it’ll be terrifying. But the more you can say no to the things that don’t align with your art/values, the more work you’ll be doing that your soul says yes to. And this is what people will end up seeing more of in your portfolio and what they’ll want to pay you for.

Soon, you’ll be in that sweet spot with a client roster full of people itching to pay you for work that sets you on fire.

Now, sometimes things sneak in the back and surprise you. Always will. You’ll say yes to things you think are incredible opportunities and everything will be going swimmingly, but then, BAM, it’ll start feeling sh*tty half way through. Either the client will change the scope on you or want to ‘go in a different direction’ (ugh, those words are evil) or whatever shenanigans humans pull. But that’s just life. We’ll never fully escape the a$$holes of the world. But if we’re doing work we love and are making enough to fire those people as clients, well, it’s all good.

This is the groovy place of work/art love. And it’s totally doable.

*For more on this, check out this interview with Lisa Congdon. She’s an amazing illustrator who not only does commissioned pieces for book covers, websites, etc., but also her own original work in galleries, etc. So she’s found the perfect balance of making a living off of the work she loves doing (for clients, etc.) while being able to do her own soul work (for herself). Pretty impressive.

More bits and bops from Jonas Ellison

The artist’s discretion

Image: Trang Nguyen

The advertiser writes exclusively for an audience. The message doesn’t much come from him, it comes from his market research. He doesn’t use many words of his own, he uses trending keywords and hashtags. He bends entirely to the whims of his audience. He gets off on conversion and likes, shares, and viral content. His mouth waters when his work goes viral and he’s disappointed when his message falls flat.

The artist follows her own creative intuition and instinct. The bigger she gets, the more nervous she grows because she knows she’s falling too deep into the status quo. Her discomfort forces her to push her art further towards the edges. This forces out those in her audience towards the middle of the bell curve, but in time, she knows it will grow in other new and interesting areas.

It’s terrifying, this constant tendency to try something new — something untested and unproven.

Reassurance is futile to the artist because it means it’s been tried before. But her audience — not the masses of looky-loos, but her tried-and-true audience — they love this about her. They don’t read her work because of some attention-grabbing clickbait headline or pop-up box. They engage with her work because through it, they connect with her. And through connecting with her, they see the very thing that makes them human. That common thread that entwines us all.

Pure, genuine, authentic work is hard to find in today’s online world where everyone is trying to make it on a “massive” scale.

I get it. We must be our own advertisers these days. We have to have a toe in each of these sides. But we needn’t forfeit our soul for a massive number of clicks or shares. If we stay true to our art while remaining authentic and generous — if we could just face our fears and do our thing in a way that rings true to our higher selves, the internet enables us to find the people who matter.

This is the truly enjoyable work. Work that takes an artist’s discretion. Not just an advertiser’s hunger. This is the work that changes people.

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