Photo by Sasha Arutyunova

my TEDX talk: why artistic communities are crucial to creativity

June 10, 2013

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I was fortunate to get to speak last month at a TEDx conference here in New York. The video won't be up for a few months, so in the meantime, I wanted to share the transcript of my talk with you! If you like it, share it. Thanks for reading and I'll post the video as soon as I have it. If you haven't discovered the amazing world of TED talks, dive in.

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why artistic communities are crucial to creativity

a TEDx Talk by Shaina Taub

Let me take you back a couple years. It was January of my first year out of college. It was freezing. I was unemployed and in one of those post-grad existential static funks.

I went to college in New York,  so, after school, I was living in the same city with the same friends. And yet for some reason, after graduation, it felt as though everybody just disbanded. It was like this unspoken rule that New York was a tough, competitive place and that we would all make a go of it alone. 

Without the structure of school life, everyone just defaulted into these solitary little cells. But in college, I used to sit around with my artist friends all the time, getting together to play music and sharing our creative work in class. So I thought, I know you're all still out there, I see you posting happy birthday on my Facebook wall, and your current city is still listed as New York, and our thumbnail images are chatting with each other. There must be a better way. 

 So on one of those cold January nights on my long subway ride home, I started writing down a list on my phone of all the people I knew from school who played music or sang, and I sent out an impromptu group email titled "Song Forum,'  saying, 'hey songwriting friends, come on over to my apartment next Friday night, bring a new song, and we'll all share our stuff over some beers!'

That was it.

And, I have to admit.  I didn't think anyone would show up.  Because, nobody shows up to things like this, right?  That's how New York operates.  Or, maybe, adulthood.  Everyone is too busy or too lazy or too cool or too scared.

Or so I thought.

"Song Forum" night comes around and twenty musicians show up at my door.  And... we share a night of never-before-heard music. People play unfinished first drafts of new songs. People squeeze into every nook and cranny in my apartment, sitting on the floor, playing from a perch on top of the couch, lending one another guitar picks and cheering each other on when they mess up. People play everything from R&B to jazz to pieces from their new sci-fi / folk concept album. Seriously - this guy wrote a sci-fi folk robot-country concept album - it was awesome. People play and listen and stay all night.

And it was just that simple.  People... showed up. 

And people have kept showing up to song forum - once a month for almost the past four years. What I hadn't realized was that all of us in our little bubbles were craving the exact same thing I was - a sense of community. 

Sometimes we have only fifteen. Sometimes, forty. Hundreds of songwriters and singers have come over the years, from a core group of 'regulars' to friends and band-mates and travelers passing through town, always a different group each month.

A random order is drawn and we do multiple rounds. The night isn't archived in any way - no recording, no filming. It's an exclusively live experience - you have to actually be there. You can't see what you missed later online.

The only condition for playing a song at forum is that you stay to hear the whole round. Over the years, I've noticed that the listening is way more important to the event than the actual playing.

There's no audience besides each other. It's laid back, no set expectations, but nevertheless, it pushes you to create, to finish your tune in time for the next forum, putting the focus on process, not product. When new people show up, they often tell me they just want to listen, but they always end up playing. Not because they want to compete - they want to contribute, to add ingredients to the pot.

Song forum has become our creative harvest party, a testing ground, a sanctuary of sorts.

As forum continues to grow roots as a tradition, I'm starting to realize there's something even deeper at play here. In today's music world, so much focus is put on promoting and hustling your own work in the vast expanse of indie artists on the internet. Not enough time is spent cultivating a live community, not just a digital one. Not enough attention is paid to that crucial other half of making art - listening. 

Online platforms like SoundCloud have made virtually sharing your music easier than ever, but forum does something that the internet can never do by simple virtue of it being live.   It's a gathering of artists physically showing up to hear one another.  An analog social network. Not in earbuds or on a screen. I don't mean to sound old-fashioned - all the advances in online music are incredibly beneficial to us, but they shouldn't REPLACE the real thing - getting together with fellow artists playing their heart out two feet from you in someone's living room.

I think there's this myth that we create art in a void and that listening to one another is stealing, or being derivative. I think listening is inheriting, and our responsibility as creative people and that art is one big game of telephone.  I take in what I hear, make my arrangement of it, then pass it over to the next person in line. Opening your ears to the other artists around you right now invariably makes you a better one. Mutual inspiration, not competition - challenge each other to continue evolving. And shamelessly rip each other off. Picasso said great artists steal - I say great artists listen and ARRANGE. 

Participating in a creative community not only provides fuel that strengthens your work, it can be a springboard for your career. I've watched countless collaborations be born at forum that have gone on to become extremely successful. And there's no telling what kinds of opportunities can arise from just a drink shared between rounds. I've felt the reverberations of forum professionally just as much as I have creatively, with an authenticity that goes deeper than any amount of Youtube hits or Likes.

Being packed in a room with a bunch of people who share my passion also reminds me why I chose to be an artist in the first place. And I'm always trying to remember WHY I voluntarily signed up for this unpredictable field. For me, and I think for a lot of us, at the heart of it, there's this deep need to express myself in order to find some belonging. And that impulse is at the core of being alive. I think it's no accident that music has shown up in every culture in every era of human history. And that's more to do with a desire for connection than it is for success. 

Right out of school, I thought being an artist was all a waiting game. Waiting for that career-changing phone call or record deal or grant. 

And… it is. 

BUT it's more about what you do while you wait. And the most essential and fulfilling parts of being an artist require no waiting at all and they can all start by getting in rooms with one another to collaborate, to listen. Creating a community is the ultimate collaborative act, and our greatest commodity as young artists.  

Song forum itself is just my arrangement of a long tradition of artists communing. From Gertrude Stein's Paris salons, to the Greenwich village hootenannies of the 60s, to a similar regular gathering some friends of mine host in LA, these communal environments that foster creativity have sprung up wherever artists live, but in our increasingly digital, isolated lives, their importance is both undervalued and more crucial than ever to our growth, both individually and collectively. And the beauty is that creating one of them yourself is really pretty easy! You just need a room - an actual room, and a few friends. Painters, you could set up makeshift galleries in your apartments, playwrights, you could hold potluck readings, mathematicians, you could swap theorems over a few bottles of wine - I don't low what mathematicians do, I went to art school - but, whatever it is that you make - none of us makes it in a vacuum, and all creative thinking demands to be shared. We must work just as rigorously to create our artistic community as we do our art itself. It's mutually enriching for all of us - creatively, professionally and soulfully.

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