This post is about breakout success in any area — starting a company, making CEO, being a superstar boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse, etc — but I’ll put it in the language of entertainment superstardom. I’ll leave translating it to the language of the field you want to succeed in as an exercise. But I guarantee it applies.
Superstars make it look so easy. They dress how they want, say what they want, and do what they want and the world loves them for it. Everyone else has to think about what they say and do all the time — and then gets judged for it.
How do they do it?
Building a solid foundation
I’m conservative about hitting it big. This quote on a Bruce Springsteen 1973 concert, before he hit it big, captures what I think underlies breakout success.
Out trundled the opening act: someone named Bruce Springsteen. The conditions were abysmal, as they often are for opening acts: the houselights were up, the crowd was alternately inattentive and hostile. What I remember was a bandleader as frenetic as Mick Jagger or James Brown, a singer bursting with almost self-destructive urgency, trying to bust through the buzzy indifference of the crowd. After that show, Springsteen swore to Appel that he would never open or play big venues again. “I couldn’t stand it—everybody was so far away and the band couldn’t hear,” he told Dave Marsh. It was time to woodshed, time to build an audience through constant, intense performance in clubs, small theatres, and university gyms.
The quote above illustrates that desire and passion carry you only so far. You need experience (read: to try and fail many times).
Springsteen had been playing small places with several bandmates who would become his E Street Band for five years, living together in cramped spaces, eking out a living by performing whenever and wherever they could.
A year later, Springsteen was still living in an apartment with a couch, a bed, a guitar, and his records, but he had continued playing every chance he could. He got this review, called “the most famous review in the history of rock criticism,” which helped catapult him to stardom.
Last Thursday, at the Harvard Square Theatre, I saw my rock ’n’ roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time. . . . He is a rock ’n’ roll punk, a Latin street poet, a ballet dancer, an actor, a joker, bar band leader, hot-shit rhythm guitar player, extraordinary singer, and a truly great rock ’n’ roll composer. He leads a band like he has been doing it forever. . . . He parades in front of his all-star rhythm band like a cross between Chuck Berry, early Bob Dylan, and Marlon Brando.
He kept playing and playing — not just putting in 10,000 hours, but trying and failing and rebuilding.
Not building a solid foundation doesn’t work
American Idol has been one of America’s number one shows for ten years. Thousands (tens of thousands?) of contestants have tried out. Of all of them, around ten seem to have achieved breakout success, and then very limited on the scale of the show itself.
Maybe I’m evaluating it wrong, but shooting the moon by trying to hit it big through a handful of performances unlike you’ve ever done before doesn’t seem a great way to strike it big. You might think it would be a good stepping stone, but the show’s onerous contract restricts contestants’ ability to strike it big. Its producers aren’t doing anyone any favors.
Fuller also gets a cut of every CD, endorsement, TV, movie or T-shirt bearing the likeness of his Idol charges… While managers traditionally enjoy a 15 percent or so cut of a performer’s contract, 19 Entertainment reportedly takes as much as 50 percent.
American Idol may offer a shot at fame, but maintaining it and parlaying it into a lasting lucrative career is another matter entirely. Clarkson has sold some 8.3 million albums in the U.S. and boasts endorsement deals with Ford Motor, Proactiv, Vitamin Water and Candie’s… Fourth season champ Carrie Underwood scored the biggest debut of any country artist since SoundScan launched its tracking system in 1990. She is also a pitchman for Hershey and Skechers. Idol winners Ruben Studdard and Fantasia Barrino have done well, but not astonishingly so, both selling just over 2 million albums apiece. Neither has any major endorsement deals and no major concert tours.
No wonder New York native Mario Vazquez, a favorite of season four, bailed out after becoming a finalist. A year later — once his existing contract with American Idol lapsed–Vasquez resurfaced with an Arista record deal and a hit single, “Gallery.” Though he cited personal reasons for quitting Idol, the unprecedented move immediately sparked talk that Vazquez thought he’d do better as a free agent. Vazquez’s lawyer, by the way, is also Clay Aiken’s and helped the season two runner-up sever his contract with 19 Entertainment.
Not to knock these successes, but they’re nothing compared to the show’s success. In a pool of that many talented contestants, you’d expect at least that many to succeed that much without the show.
Note what some superstars have said about the show.
Some in the entertainment industry were critical of the star-making aspect of the show. Usher, a mentor on the show, bemoaning the loss of the “true art form of music”, thought that shows like American Idol made it seem “so easy that everyone can do it, and that it can happen overnight”, and that “television is a lie”. Musician Michael Feinstein, while acknowledging that the show had uncovered promising performers, said that American Idol “isn’t really about music. It’s about all the bad aspects of the music business – the arrogance of commerce, this sense of ‘I know what will make this person a star; artists themselves don’t know.’ ” That American Idol is seen to be a fast track to success for its contestants has been a cause of resentment for some in the industry. LeAnn Rimes, commenting on Carrie Underwood winning Best Female Artist in Country Music Awards over Faith Hill in 2006, said that “Carrie has not paid her dues long enough to fully deserve that award”. It is a common theme that has been echoed by many others. Elton John … commenting on talent shows in general said that “there have been some good acts but the only way to sustain a career is to pay your dues in small clubs”.
If you want no more than fifteen minutes of fame, shooting for the moon may work for you. I bet being on the show is an amazing experience most contestants loved just being a part of — nothing to knock. I suspect few people make it big that way.
How do people become superstars?
People become superstars by paying their dues — playing the small clubs, falling on their faces, learning how to do it more genuinely and authentically the next time.
They can do what they want, dress how they want, and say what they want because they’ve tried and dismissed everything that didn’t work from years of practice. What they retain is unflappable because they cut out everything that wasn’t them, that was trying at something else. They practiced until they got rid of the last thing that didn’t work.
Then they became stars.
I’d been planning to write this post for a long time. Originally I was going to write it about Lady Gaga, who hit it big during American Idol’s rein, making a starker contrast than Bruce Springsteen. Reading the Springsteen quote yesterday prompted to start with him. But note this history of Lady Gaga:
After high school, her mother encouraged her to apply for the Collaborative Arts Project 21 (CAP21), a musical theatre training conservatory at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. By age seventeen, after becoming one of twenty students to gain early admission, she lived in an NYU dorm on 11th Street. In addition to sharpening her songwriting skills, she composed essays and analytical papers on art, religion, social issues and politics, including a thesis on pop artists Spencer Tunick and Damien Hirst. She also auditioned for various roles and won the part of an unsuspecting diner customer for MTV’s Boiling Points, a prank reality television show.
Gaga withdrew from CAP21 at 19, in the second semester of her sophomore year, deciding to focus on her musical career. Her father agreed to pay her rent for a year, on the condition that she re-enroll at Tisch if unsuccessful. “I left my entire family, got the cheapest apartment I could find, and ate shit until somebody would listen,” she remembers. Settled in a small apartment on Rivington Street towards the summer of 2005, Gaga recorded a couple of songs with hip-hop singer Grandmaster Melle Mel, for an audio book accompanying the children’s book The Portal in the Park, by Cricket Casey. She also began a band called the Stefani Germanotta Band (SGBand) with some friends from NYU … in September of that year. The band played a mixture of songs: some self-penned alongside classic rock numbers like Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er”. Playing in bars like the Greenwich Village’s The Bitter End and the Lower East Side’s the Mercury Lounge, the band developed a small fan base and caught the eye of music producer Joe Vulpis. Soon after arranging time in Vulpis’ studio in the months that followed, SGBand were selling their extended plays Words and Red and Blue (both 2005) at gigs around New York while becoming a local fixture of the downtown Lower East Side club scene.
I’d say by this point she’d paid many of her dues, though she kept on going.
I don’t know American Idol’s style, but I would say that Lady Gaga is what that show dreams of putting out — a huge pop idol. But I don’t think it ever will. It will produce flashes in the pan.
Do you know of counterexamples — of people who made it big without putting in time, risking failing, failing, enduring emotional punishment, and so one? I haven’t researched, but I can’t think of any examples. I mean, there are childhood stars, but I think they get evaluated differently and by the time they evolve into superstardom I expect they’ve paid their dues.