Why Artists Will Survive During A Changing Landscape

Why Artists Will Survive During A Changing Landscape

Today, let’s talk about life as an artist. Not the Instagram rose-tinted glasses version of reality, but the real thing.

I came to a realization the other day. It wasn’t a particularly new revelation. More like an assortment of recurring thoughts I’ve had over the years suddenly coalescing into one larger thought that made more sense in the big picture than in the small. Everything I wanted when my career as an artist began is no longer possible.

Okay, to be clear, those goals aren’t technically impossible. And there are variations on those dreams, which I’ll get to momentarily, that are still thoroughly within reach. Some of which I've already obtained. Yet still, a certain melancholy overcame me as I thought back to the world that existed at the start of my journey and how the roadmap has shifted over time.

Now, if reading that has understandably led you to assume that this will be a negative article, have no fear. Negativity isn’t really my style. Rather, I’m sharing some of my own personal experiences to highlight just how much the goalposts have shifted over the course of my journey in order to highlight one of the hard truths I’ve learned through the decades.

When I began my artistic career, I had one goal and one goal only: to see the films that I wrote and directed projected live in movie theaters across the globe and entertain audiences. Teenage Christopher certainly entertained the idea of little dancing gold statuettes in my head. But, realistically, all I really wanted was to have a chance to share my verse with the world. To see the glow reflected from the silver screen on the faces of audience members there to see my story. The same way I had seen thousands of films in theaters from their point of view.

As time went on, both practicality and passion led me to develop a second career as a commercial photographer. The height of my goals in the still world boiled down to following in the footsteps of some of my mentors within the industry. I wanted to shoot for the world’s top brands, have my images printed larger than life on billboards over Times Square, and publish my photographic work in all of the legendary magazines that I grew up collecting from the newsstand.

Fast-forward several decades, and I have been fortunate enough to achieve many of the dreams I’ve set out to accomplish since first seeking to create art in earnest. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to stop and start multiple times. I have fallen flat on my face more than once. More than twice. Regardless of past accomplishments, every single day remains a constant fight just to stay in the game. As important as it is to constantly renew my skills to meet the latest developments in technology, I must also renew my spirit. It doesn’t only take courage to take the leap to start your career as a professional artist. It takes stamina to continue a fight that never really gets easier.

One way I go about that is to constantly remind myself why I love what I do. It’s important to remember why I started down this path in the first place and evaluate whether or not my goals are still worth the sacrifice. It was during one of those moments that it suddenly occurred to me that many of the objective goals I set out to accomplish when I began were no longer the same as when I began. Yes, movies still play in theaters. But in the span of time between when I first put pen to paper on a script and now, we’ve seen the shift from film to digital, the birth and then growth of the dominance of social media, the horror of vertical video (he says trying not to go on an old man rant), the decline of the traditional box office, and the growth of streaming services. The red carpet premieres I used to dream of attending at the start of my career are now simply email blasts letting everyone know that a new movie is now available to stream (likely to get lost in a sea of other streaming titles released the same day). Don’t get me wrong. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making a film for streaming. But when the original dream was so tied to the theatrical experience, one can’t help but yearn for a more traditional approach. And based on current box-office returns alone, it's easy to foresee a world where physical theaters play an increasingly small part in the entertainment landscape.

Likewise, the very business model of commercial photography has been permanently altered by technology. Social media has shifted buyers' priorities from quality to quantity. Whereas a campaign used to be focused on getting a handful of memorable images that would define a brand, now social media’s demand to be constantly fed content has led many brands to forgo high-end key art in favor of whatever they can get the most of for the least amount of money. I’m not blaming them. Whereas marketers used to be able to craft campaigns that buyers would see on a billboard or in a magazine and feast on, nowadays, at best, marketers are hoping to have an image or video catchy enough that the viewer will take two seconds to scroll past it instead of one. This has led to the idea of art as a commodity. The artist as merely a content provider rather than a creative partner. Again, there is absolutely still a market for traditional commercial photography. That’s how I make much of my living. But the market has shrunk and the end product devalued. That’s not even beginning to touch on the fact that those magazine outlets I used to dream of shooting editorials for have mostly gone out of business due to social media, with only a handful remaining.

So what does this all mean? Does it mean that we should all just give up and follow our mother’s advice to get a stable 9 to 5 working at the bank? Is it a fool's errand to pursue a career as an artist when the world is constantly shifting beneath your feet? Well, no.

Through a strange set of circumstances, one of the first screenwriting classes I ever took was taught by legendary actor and writer Billy Crystal. It was after "When Harry Met Sally" and right around the time "City Slickers" was hitting the theaters and he was teaching us the basics of the writing process. As part of his presentation, he quoted his own character from "Throw Mama From The Train" by saying “A writer writes, always.” Most catchphrases stick with you because, no matter how simplistic, there is an element of truth. And that phrase has always stuck with me because it is applicable to a multitude of situations in life, writing or otherwise.

An artist creates art. That is what we do. At a certain point, we may get to a level where we are able to leverage our art to make a living. Or maybe we will spend our lives working at the bank as our mothers suggested, simply spending our evenings and weekends perfecting our craft just for the love of the game. But, either way, a true artist almost has no choice but to continue to create. To create for an artist is as necessary as breathing. How we choose to do it may be different. How well we do it may be variable. But, just like breathing, it simply has to be done.

So when I think of all the dramatic shifts that have occurred in the market that have fundamentally altered what dreams are even still possible in today’s world, I have to ask myself why I still bother when the original dreams are even less obtainable now than they were then? I guess the simple answer is, “because I must.” It’s part of me. I don’t have another choice. Nor do I want one.

And because I can accept that as a truth in my life, I am then forced to accept one more truth. No matter what plans we have made or are currently making, the world around us is always going to shift beneath our feet. We can do our best to steady ourselves. But we can’t stop the Earth’s rotation. We can choose which new technologies we are going to bypass and which we are going to adopt. But, as certain as the sun coming up tomorrow, we will be forced to adapt.

Adaptation is hard. Adaptation is difficult. It tends to come along when we least expect it and often when we least desire it. It can throw us off course and leave our best-laid plans to waste. But it is necessary.

Whether your goal is to become a world-class photographer, filmmaker, musician, or novelist, you will face trials. Even if your career starts off hot, there will come a time when things slow down. Even if you start in famine, you too may find your time to feast. The journey is a constant pull of give and take. With every step forward, it can, at times, feel as though you are taking two steps back. But this is all in the game.

Good times don’t last forever. But neither do the bad. As a shifting market leads to doubt, replace that doubt with the universal truth. A writer writes, always. An artist creates, always. As tough as things may seem, have no fear. You will adapt. It's simply what we must do to survive.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Beautifully written. Thanks for sharing your refreshing positivity. We could all use a shot of that!

Oddly similar to my work life. When I finally was able to work on a film it was digital, and I was the image capture guy. My plan be was as a professional photographer. I even had a professional side business as a videographer for over 3 decades. It worked out well. I made money and I'm still married to the same woman after 49 years. While my initial dream didn't happen, what did happen was nice because I got paid very well.