What Musicians Can Learn From Pixar President Ed Catmull

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This past week I read Creativity, Inc. (Random House), the critically-acclaimed book written by Pixar and Disney President Ed Catmull (with help from Amy Wallace) on how to be creative when you’re faced with forces, both familiar and unseen, keeping you from optimizing your business.

Catmull uses his own story of co-founding Pixar and applies it to the roller-coaster ride that is starting and running a business, using both his successes and failures as teaching points on how to create smart goals and actually achieve them, how to get great ideas out of your employees, and how to properly learn from costly mistakes.

I was worried at first that Catmull’s advice would be as safe and kid-friendly as his Pixar creations – I cannot stand another successful person telling me that all I have to do is follow my dreams and I’ll be ok (it’s like a person who has never had to worry about money telling me that money doesn’t matter). What I discovered however was that Catmull was not interested in making Pixar out to be the perfect company. Instead Catmull is able to talk about Pixar in terms that everyone can understand and appreciate. He knows that he had a lot of luck and good timing on his side, and he also knows that most people can’t (or don’t want to) start a company like Pixar but are still interested in doing work that they enjoy.

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Though the book is meant more for business and manager types, I learned a lot of lessons that musicians, writers, and other creative people can apply to their own work. Most of us probably won’t start a company like Pixar, but we can all learn something from a man who has worked through the high and lows of running a creative enterprise.

Below are a few of the highlights. Though he’s talking about business, I’ve tried to spin these tips for how you can use it in music, writing, or any sort of creative field:

Hire people who are smarter than you

“I’ve made a policy of trying to hire people who are smarter than I am. The obvious payoffs of exceptional people are that they innovate, excel, and generally make your company – and, by extension, you – look good. But there is another, less obvious, payoff that only occurred to me in retrospect. By ignoring my fear, I learned that the fear was groundless. I had taken a risk, and that risk yielded the highest reward – a brilliant, committed teammate.”

Catmull is a genius for two reasons: he’s an actual genius when it comes to computers and animation, and he also understands that putting your ego aside to work with people who are smarter than you will actually improve your work. This applies with working in a band – work and learn from people who are smarter than you and you will become smarter. Catmull goes on to make another point that if someone can do a better job than you, let that person do the better job and let everyone benefit.

Hire people who are smarter than you, and let them do the smarter job.

“Story Is King”

“Two defining creative principles emerged in the wake of Toy Story. The first principle  was “Story Is King,” by which we meant that we would let nothing – not the technology, not the merchandising possibilities – get in the way of our story. We took pride in the fact that reviewers talked mainly about the way Toy Story made them feel and not about the computer wizardry that enabled us to get it up on the screen. We believed that this was the direct result of our always keeping story as our guiding light.”

Toy Story received universal acclaim when it was released in 1995, which Catmull was hoping for since it was the first feature-length computer-animated film and that it took an incredible amount of work to make. However when he talked to people who saw the movie they all commented not only on the animation, though that was impressive too, but also on the story. The movie was engaging, the characters where fun to root for but they also had depth, and so on. Toy Story would have been a landmark achievement no matter what, but the fact that it had a great story made it even more memorable and it’s the reason why we all still love Woody and Buzz Lightyear twenty years later.

A lot of the reasons why we love music and art is the story behind it. Even if your art doesn’t have a particular story, people want to hear about the story of how it was made.

Want people to care about your work? Make sure there’s a good story behind it.

A good team is more important than a group of smart people who don’t work well together

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.

“The takeaway here is worth repeating: getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right. It is easy to say you want talented people, and you do, but the way those people interact with one another is the real key. Even the smartest people can form an ineffective team if they are mismatched. That means it is better to focus on how a team is performing, not on the talents of the individuals within it.”

One of my favorite creative stories comes from the Exile On Main St. 33 1/3 by Bill Janovitz, another book that I recommend checking out. In it there’s a bit about Mick Taylor describing what it was like for him to play and record with the Rolling Stones, which of course sounds like a dream come true for any musician. However Taylor mostly commented on the band’s lack of individual skill; he said that most of time these guys weren’t that great to play with one on one. They were sloppy, usually too drunk or high to play, and didn’t show much musical skill on their own. However what he said next was the key takeaway; he said that, though they were lackluster on their own, when the entire band came together there was this unexplainable energy and unity, and when the band was “on it” they were the best band in the world.

So put a group of talented musicians together and you might get a wide variety of outcomes, but put together a group of musicians who work well together and you got a great band. The Stones, the Beatles, and the Replacements, none of them were really flashy musicians, but the sum of their wholes was better than anything a group of egotist musicians could do.

“Early on, all our movies suck”

“Early on, all of our movies suck. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so – to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not suck.’ This idea – that all the movies we now think of as brilliant were, at one time, terrible – is a hard concept for many to grasp. But think about how easy it would be for a movie about talking toys to feel derivative, sappy, or overtly merchandise-driven. Think about how off-putting a movie about rats preparing food could be, or how risky it must’ve seemed to start WALL-E with 39 dialogue-free minutes. We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. And this is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process – reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul.”

According to Catmull, every Pixar movie starts out as a failure. You have an idea, and it might be a great idea, but you see all the hard work ahead and you’re overwhelmed with all the work and all the potential opportunities for failure. No matter how many movies Pixar has made, every movie starts out as a failure.

Your next song, your next article, or your next novel is going to suck at first. The trick is to put in the hard work to make it, as Catmull says, un-suck.

You are not your ideas

“Naturally, every director would prefer to be told that his film is a masterpiece but because of the way the Braintrust [Pixar’s idea generator] is structured, the pain of being told that flaws are apparent or revisions are needed is minimized. Rarely does a director get defensive, because no one is pulling rank or telling the filmmaker what to do. The film itself – not the filmmaker – is under the microscope. The principle eludes most people, but it is critical: You are not your ideas, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation – you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person.”

This was my biggest takeaway from this book. One of the best abilities that an artist can have is the ability to step back from their work and be able to judge it on its own merit without any hard feelings. Any attack on the art is not on the creator but on the work itself, and that’s a distinction that I don’t think gets noticed a lot.

You are not your ideas. You are not your work.

Failure is not a necessary evil. It is the inevitable consequence of doing something new

“I’m not the first to say that failure, when approached properly, can be an opportunity for growth. But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality).

“If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: you are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy – trying to avoid failure by outthinking it – dooms you to fail.”

Not much more to add to this; creating something new is a messy business, but that should be expected going into your project. You’re going to go down a windy twisted road to get to your end destination, but you’ll eventually get to where you want to go if you stick it out and keep working.

Our ideas are ugly babies

“Originality is fragile. And, in its first moments, it’s often far from pretty. This is why I call early mock-ups of our films ‘ugly babies.’ They are not beautiful, miniature versions of the adults they will grow up to be. They are truly ugly: awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete. They need nurturing – in the form of time and patience – in order to grow…Our job is to protect our babies from being judged too quickly. Our job is the protect the new.

“Before I go on, I want to say something about the word protection. I worry that because it has such a positive connotation, by implication anything being protected seems, ipso facto. worth protecting. But that’s not always the case…when I advocate for protecting the new, then, I am using the word somewhat differently. I am saying that when someone hatches an original idea, it may be ungainly and poorly defined, but it is also the opposite of established and entrenched – and that is precisely what is most exciting about it. If, while in this vulnerable state, it is exposed to naysayers who fail to see its potential or lack the patience to let it evolve, it could be destroyed. Part of our job is to protect the new from people who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not-so-greatness. Think of a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly – it only survives because it is encased in a cocoon. It survives, in other words, because it is protected from that which would damage it.”

This isn’t really a tip as it is an interesting perspective on creative work.

“There is no movie”

“When we are making a movie, the movie doesn’t exist yet. We are not uncovering it or discovering it; it’s not as if it resides somewhere and is just waiting to be found. There is no movie. We are making decisions, one by one, to create it. In a fundamental way, the movie is hidden from us. I know this can feel overwhelming. There is a reason that writers talk about the terror of the blank page and painters shudder at the sight of an empty canvas. It’s extremely difficult to create something out of nothing, especially when you consider that much of what you’re trying to realize is hidden, at least at first.”

I like this because it puts the emphasis on work. You create something, step by step.

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Pick up a copy of the book for more insight into Pixar’s history and creative advice. As a reward, here’s a video explaining that Pixar theory you’ve probably heard of.

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Books That Rock: Our Band Could Be Your Life – Michael Azerrad

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While Reaganomics and MTV dominated the popular consumer culture of the 80s, a musical revolution was happening in basements all across America that was led by ambitious (or bored) young men and women who wanted to create meaning for their lives in a country that felt more like Springsteen’s Nebraska than Jackson’s Thriller.

And just like how the Velvet Underground transformed the lives of the small group that initially bought their records, the 80s American underground would be heard by few but would influence musicians and journalists all across the country by challenging the notion of musical success, and it would prove to a generation that you could actually do it yourself.

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In Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991 (Little Brown, 2002), Michael Azerrad chronicles thirteen different American bands during the 80s and how each band, in their own way, helped shape the underground music that would later be classified as alternative and indie.

Some of these bands you already know (Sonic Youth, The Replacements), while others might be new to you (Big Black, Mission of Burma), but Azerrad takes equal care of retelling each band’s history of humble beginnings, slow success (if they had any), and often-ugly endings. These are not glamorous stories of sex, drugs, and rock & roll but instead are tales of bootstrapped tours, internal fighting, and often heartbreaking tragedy. And lots of drugs.

According to Azerrad, the underground began in California in 1978 with Black Flag’s SST Records and ended in 1991 when Nevermind blew up MTV. In between those thirteen years saw the rise and fall of most of these bands that we now call alternative, though back then there was no official title for this scattered network of devoted bands, labels, and fanzines (the original music blogs) that provided role models for younger bands to go their own way.

Each band brought something new to the scene. Hardcore bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat gave kids, who were jaded by the failure of the counterculture, a sound and a energy that was pure and (for a while) free of bullshit. The Replacements gave countless sloppy drunks the hope that they could write music as good as the Beatles. Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth proved that noise could be beautiful. Minutemen made it ok to write punk songs inspired by Ulysses. And so on.

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What’s fascinating about these bands is that, while they all had similar upbringings, they all believed in very different ideologies of DIY. Some bands, like Black Flag, were out to rise above and destroy the mainstream machines that were hurting young bands from achieving success (not that you wanted to be in the mainstream with those bloodsuckers). Other bands, like Hüsker Dü, wanted mainstream success, but they also wanted to create their own system and network to play by their own rules. Sometimes it wasn’t even about the system or achieving great success. Often these bands, almost all of them in the beginning, just wanted to write music that made sense to them and their audience (one of my favorite lines comes from Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye: “I don’t know enough about the world to really sing about it. But I knew enough about my world to sing about it.”). Regardless of the music’s intent, all these bands shared the same network and often helped each other in a true sense of community.

You’ll enjoy re-reading the mishaps of your favorite bands, but if you don’t know any of these bands then consider this your official textbook in American Indie 101.

But this book isn’t so much about these bands as it is a story of being young and in love with music in the 80s, when a band from your small home town could make it big and that you finally had something to root for and claim for yourself. You’ll also realize that these now legendary groups were started by normal people just like you or I, people who were just trying to do their own thing with what they had. As Mike Watt famously wrote in his history lesson, our band could be your life. If they could do it, so could you.

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Take these stories with a grain of salt though; Azerrad tends to let his bias get in the way (there’s a decent amount of backhanded praise towards the Replacements, and apparently everything Sonic Youth and Steve Albini did was brilliant and ahead of its time). It also seems that Azerrad picked these thirteen bands because they all somehow knew and worked with each other, so every story has the same people showing up which becomes repetitive.

But bias aside, you won’t find a better book about this era and is as compelling and heartbreaking as the finest forms of fiction. If you want to learn about the American underground back when “indie” actually meant “independent”, then this is your book.

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