Looking for Inspiration? Channel Your Inner Bob Dylan
The music business lies perhaps atop the heap of the industries disrupted by the rise of the Internet. The record industry is a shell of its former self. No one knows better than Peter Himmelman, a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter once signed to Sony and Island Records. Praised by Rolling Stone and featured on "The Tonight Show," Himmelman watched in disbelief as downloads and streaming put his life's work (and income) in jeopardy.
"I never considered that what I’d been doing when I was 22, and what I spent my adult life learning to master, would simply stop being effective financially when I hit 52," he says.
But a few years ago Himmelman went entrepreneurial -- and pivoted like no one else in the music business. He created Big Muse, a corporate consulting firm that teaches executives and worker bees alike to access creativity through songwriting.
If Himmelman had an elevator pitch, it wouldn't come via elevator music of course. (His fiery, intelligent adult rock fits on an iPod playlist right beside Wilco, John Lennon and Elvis Costello.) But he posits that if you teach an entrepreneur or businesswoman to write a song in a day -- that's right, one day -- they’ll harness creative energy to surmount mental blocks of all kinds.
Himmelman has faced his share of skepticism. What could songwriting have to do with spreadsheets, quarterly projections and the like? Yet as he puts it, songwriting is a right-brained activity, and business needs right-brain thinking to gain insight and make breakthroughs. To date, he's made believers out of leaders at the Gap, McDonald's and the Interpublic Group's Draftfcb ad agency.
“Peter's strength is his ability to get people to problem solve using a new set of muscles,” says Jim Schmidt, president and creative director of the Downtown Partners Chicago ad agency. “By not forcing them down the usual routes, they find new solutions -- perhaps one that’s more honest and less forced.”
After hosting a Big Muse seminar, Schmidt found that “Our group loved the process. It was out of their wheelhouse and they saw both the beauty and the power behind it.”
How does it work? You don't have to rock a microphone, or even play an instrument, to write a song. What's more, the principles Himmelman teaches apply to any creative goal, challenge, or dream -- especially one of an entrepreneurial nature.
Sound scary? Himmelman understands. But facing that fear is part of the Big Muse challenge. "The medicine it releases is strong," he says.
1. Gather information.
Himmelman says: “Take exactly two minutes to write down things you can see, smell, hear, feel or taste: Cold wind, foggy afternoon, crows cawing, popcorn roasting, a train rumbling down the tracks.” Then, “Take two minutes to create a emotional list: I'm afraid no one will love me, I feel good when I'm with Sheila, afternoons make me nervous, I feel like I let my brother down, I can't wait for Saturday.”
2. Create a structure and choose a title that’s easy to rhyme.
“Being creative doesn’t mean that we forego structure,” Himmelman notes. By using titles and lines from the two lists above, he shows how a song lyric can take shape almost immediately:
I let my brother down
A train rumbling down the tracks
It's late in the day, I can never relax
Is a foggy afternoon, can't see past town
I feel like I let my brother down
“Just make sure you can tap your foot along with the lyrics as you read them back,” Himmelman says. “That way, you’ll know you’re working well within the structure.”
3. Stop making sense.
As you create verses, use your lists for inspiration and stay within a set structure. “Try to stop making literal or linear sense,” he says. “The songs we love most, be they ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ or ‘Tangled Up in Blue,’ almost never make sense. They all evoke strong feelings. Sacrificing literal meaning for emotional heft often leads to a deeper level of communication.”
That deeper connection builds trust, he says. “As entrepreneurs we know it’s trust people are actually buying -- trust that makes the difference between the average consumer choosing Northern Trust or UBS or Morgan Stanley. Communication is our most valuable tool.”
4. Start something and fearlessly deliver it.
Give yourself 20 minutes exactly to create a finished song. “The time limit is what helps [our anxieties] relax,” he says. The song might consist of three verses of four lines each. “When you’re done, you’ll have written 12 lines -- the last line should always be your title.”
5. Sign it, send it.
Himmelman suggests signing your name like this: “I Let My Brother Down,” copyright 2013 by (your name). “That way, you’ll commit to the song. Now, copy and paste it into an email and send it to a friend. Putting it out into the world changes the world and it will change you.”
Lou Carlozo is a freelance writer in Chicago.