Subtlety, Details And Bridges, Not Hits

While working on a new track for my next album (you can download my previous works free) I had one of those metacognitive moments that struck me. Enough that I stopped working on the song, saved my work and fired up WordPress to write it down.

The insight is simple…

I’ve been too focused on trying to make hits and not enough on the moments between. I’m spending too much effort on the core elements like the lead and not enough on the subtle items like counter melody or percussion. I’m trying to express the obvious and not the subtle. And there is nothing original in the obvious elements of creative works. It’s all been done and to be perfectly honest, it’s boring.

The main theme of the story, song, blog post, marketing campaign – it is second tier to the details. It’s all about the subtle, refined elements that make something worth listening to, reading twice or watching repeatedly. It’s those tiny parts that upon first glance seem insignificant, but after further inspection reveal the depth that went into them. It is always the detail that astounds and inspires.

Because so many are trying to create hits and work on the obvious elements it’s common to hear similar progressions in music, common story lines in movies and like blogs focused on the same topics.

Consider three quick examples:

  • countless spy movies
  • innumerable jazz songs
  • seemingly infinite marketing blogs

Just how many of the works in each of these categories blatantly copy each other in terms of main theme? Quite a few – even the ones that we’d classify as original and of high quality. Although in all cases it is the details which define their level of quality, not the main plot, theme or classification.

Further, the hits in each of these categories already exist. You’re not going to create a new hit overnight nor should you try. Instead, stop focusing a majority of your time on the main elements which audiences expect and anticipate. Those things are easy/common to create and of little value. Flip it and instead pay relentless attention to the detailed, subtle elements. Spend 80% of your time there and 20% on the main theme. A good producer makes ordinary become extraordinary through detail.

Without detail, you’re creating content that’s expected and anticipated. And you shouldn’t create content which is expected and anticipated because it doesn’t make people think nor evoke change. It doesn’t inspire anyone to subscribe, form a relationship with you or devote time to your cause because there is no value to be gained. No value, as there are already too many others just like you, so why should we waste our time?

With an unstoppable mass of of art, content and creativity being produced for both intrinsic reasons and profit, the ideas that will stand out tomorrow are from people who – whether conscious or unconsciously – are focused most on subtlety and details, not hits and obvious components. They are telling a unique, less told story consistently over time.

The subtle elements are where originality lives

Everyone has heard the adage there is nothing original and everything is simply a derivative work. Essentially, any content we create is derived from the experiences within our lives or the other creative works we are consuming. While what we have experienced plays a role in shaping what we produce, especially the main themes, the subtle elements are where you have a chance to be 100% original and create something no one has seen before. In other words: yes, someone may have written a blog post similar to what you are about to write or someone may have written a song with similar chords, but the details of yours are the chance to differentiate. No one can accurately duplicate them.

Everyone else is focused on making hits

Most people are actively trying to make the next big hit. This is exactly why they won’t succeed. It’s not even necessarily that they’re trying too hard, it’s they are focused on the wrong thing. You simply don’t have the leverage in the world to create a hit until you have done something which sparked interest initially. It’s the reason why an unknown animator can create an absolutely stunning 5 minute short-sequence which gets millions of views and acclaim from industry players, providing the leverage necessary to gain funding to create a full-length hit. It’s why a blogger pouring their soul into an obscure niche 100 or 1,000 words at a time is gaining book deals and speaking gigs. In both of these cases, they aren’t trying to create hits – but due to their focus on something small they can win big.

Bridges are what connect the hits or larger elements

The idea that “there is never a dull moment in music” applies across any creative activity. Bridges string together the hits and provide contrast. Without them there are no peaks because you can’t have them without valleys.

Subtle ideas and side projects can evolve into hits

How many times have you taken a seemingly auxiliary thought and decided to flesh it out into a larger project? That’s how brainstorming generally works and you should embrace and encourage similar mental jumping points to occur within your own mental processes.

Create for the industry/true fans, not for the masses

The masses don’t want detail. In fact, they won’t even notice it. They’re just paying attention to them main theme and wouldn’t think to consider the details living beneath the surface. Subtlety is there for those who care.

It’s those detailed blogs, movies, books or albums that have that layer of subtlety to them I return to again and again. They do far more for me than the obvious hits. Do you feel the same?