Artrepreneurs in the age; or, how to survive idea theft

It’s the quote that spawned one thousand memes: Jim Jarmusch’s invective that, “nothing is original.” It’s true. Everything comes from somewhere.

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I tap dance in the tradition of jazz music, which means I am an improvisor. I live to create in the moment. I practice a lot on my own and try to stay present in my own sound. I collaborate with other musicians and get ideas from their collective brilliance. I listen to a ton of jazz music, and I like to watch a literal ton of archival tap dance footage, sure. Yet, in no particular order, I am inspired by all kinds of odd things seemingly unrelated to my art form: feminist theory, the life of Weldon Kees, all manners of twentieth century modernist poetry, people-watching, Janet Malcolm, Northeast Philly corner bars where I can sit and do said people-watching, Toynbee tiles, haute couture Instagram accounts, Bridget Everett, touring this old historic mansion near my house for the two-hundredth time….What inspires me out there in the world eventually moves me to go through the process of making my own art. What gets my creativity flowing is personal to me and doesn’t make a lot of sense, except to me.

I have never had a problem coming up with creative ideas. My mind is always going a mile a minute. My personal challenge for the last several years has been to pick one or two ideas, out of the hundred that might come to me, and focus on them to a high level of completion.

Even ten years ago, when I was working in sales, I had a lot of ideas. Speaking up in meetings was one way for me to stay awake in Cubicle Land. After these meetings, many people would take me aside and caution me to keep my ideas to myself. At first, I didn’t particularly care who knew my ideas, because I didn’t particularly care about the job. I was good at sales, but I had no intention of climbing a corporate ladder and kissing multiple behinds to land a director position. I was just keeping a seat warm. I legitimately felt this way until an elder colleague of mine stood up in a department meeting and word for word recited an idea and project proposal that I had tossed around in an earlier staff meeting catch-up. I was younger then and totally ill-equipped for how to respond. Inside, I was fuming; on the outside, I couldn’t form words. So, the incident happened, but I let it go.

By the time I directed all of my energy, effort and time into building my freelance life, and eventually, opening up my first studio, I had done about 8 years of time in a fairly high-pressure job in corporate America, and I felt like I had seen it all, especially working in sales: people back-stabbing each other to get promotions, people setting others up to fail, the meetings where your boss would throw your entire team under the bus, those wretched people who wrote passive aggressive group emails in red font, and folks who would do anything to “win.”

I naively didn’t think I’d encounter the same kind of environment in the arts. That was my primary mistake in my early days of freelancing and studio ownership. Not that I put stuff out there and had it stolen, but rather, not expecting it to be stolen, and spending too much time feeling like a victim—like I had lost valuable ground.

If you sit in the pain long enough, it’s a learning experience. If you take a look at those who copy your ideas or steal your finished work, they aren’t your people. Your people are the ones with the ideas that grab you by the shorthairs, the ones who dominate your attention without even trying, the ones who inspire you to think bigger and be the best you can be.

It’s all about the long game. There are no shortcuts to the rewards. I’d rather do the work.