They say life has never been easier for creatives – all you need is your laptop and an up-to-date social media profile. But as leading Aiglonian musicians, filmmakers and directors attest, the 21st century is a tough gig.
When Octave Lissner (Delaware, 2009) left Aiglon, he was determined to make a career of his passion: music. He bought a computer and a programme called Logic, which enabled him to arrange and record songs in his bedroom. It was 2013: people were just starting to listen to music online, so he thought it would be worth uploading a new song, Silver Rain, to Soundcloud and YouTube. “Vittorio, who is now my producer, heard it and loved it,” he says. “And that’s how I got my first record deal to make my album, Wildflower.”
Getting into the creative industries has never seemed so attractive. There are multiple avenues for creatives to explore and exploit, and the numbers are mind-boggling: 65 million Netflix members in more than 50 countries watch more than 100 million hours of movies and TV shows every day. Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You has had almost two billion streams on Spotify. Felix Kjellberg, better known by his YouTube moniker PewDiePie, is the most-followed YouTuber of all time, currently at 71 million subscribers, earning him an estimated $12m per year.
So how do you make it as a creative in the 21st century? First, a caveat: it’s rarely simple. While there is more opportunity than ever, there is also more competition, as independent filmmaker, animator and artist Farzin Farzaneh (Delaware, 1979) points out. “Twenty years ago, it was tough to get all the resources you needed – film equipment was heavy and expensive, you needed a crew and it all cost a lot of money – but because it was so difficult to pull it all together, there was less competition,” he says. “These days, because of the technology, it’s much simpler to make a film – but that means many more people are doing it.”
And although success might appear instant, delve further into the story of Octave’s big break – his single, Corners, is heading towards four million Spotify streams, and his second album is due out soon – and it turns out that his breakthrough was the result of a lifetime’s hard work. He studied music from an early age, switching from violin to classical guitar when he was 12. Throughout his time at Aiglon, he played in bands, constantly exploring new kinds of music. And he committed to following his musical career instead of completing a degree. “I had a lot of anxiety,” he remembers. “I thought: ‘Am I messing up my life here?’ But there was something that always called me to it and made me stick by it.”
In fact, starting young is a common theme among creatives. Farzin’s mother was a painter and sculptor, and he found great joy in drawing as a child growing up in Iran. His father worked in the photography industry and brought home cameras for the young Farzin to play and experiment with. This passion continued throughout his schooldays. And two others caught the bug early.
Producer and writer Daniel Voll (parent of Ondine and Harper) says he was “always writing plays and short stories. That was a big part of my life as a kid and in high school it was something I continued to do.” And Andrew Keresztes (Belvedere, 1982), a film and TV composer who’s worked for everyone from Fox to Disney, became “obsessed” with the guitar at the age of 14.
But it’s not just about the technology, as award-winning director and screenwriter Edoardo Ponti (Delaware, 1990) points out. “Directors sometimes tell the story that they picked up a camera when they were six days old and started shooting films, and they lived, breathed, had breakfast, lunch and dinner with a camera in their hand – but I wasn’t that person at all. For me, inspiration never came from a camera but from people. It was always about understanding where they come from, how they are and what their journey is.”
Edoardo believes that gaining life experience is an essential part of a creative’s journey. “On my film course, everybody was so focused on having a camera in their hands – making films as opposed to what films are about, which is people and stories,” he remembers. Edoardo switched to English, History and Psychology to feed his desire for stories, before returning to film school as a graduate “armed with story-making tools”.
Daniel agrees. Starting as a journalist, he says, gave him a skillset that put him “in the real world, knowing real stories”. One of those stories inspired his break into TV as the writer of Threat Matrix, which ran for 70 episodes. He was also involved as showrunner on Guantanamo, a series about the lives of detainees at Guantánamo Bay. "It helps to be someone who has been in the world and crossed a lot of borders and boundaries. Because what we’re looking for right now is diversity. We want a diversity of talent that has an awareness of politics, story and verve.”
Passion and experience have always been important in the creative industries, but the major change over the last decade is that, today, creatives can get their own work in front of the public without the backing of major studios, TV networks or record labels. Being able to record songs at home for no money was a huge benefit for Octave, he says – while the internet also changed the music industry radically, it’s brought plenty of advantages.
But you still have to work at it, Daniel points out. “If you’re a writer, you will ultimately become a salesman at the same time. There is no employment office that says: ‘Writers apply here’.
“Don’t wait for someone to affirm you. Do the work yourself, collaboratively, with your friends. Get it out there. Use the entrepreneurial skills and connections that a place like Aiglon can give you. And leverage everyone you have in your life to get your work seen.”
Using those connections is crucial, agrees Andrew. He was working as a composer for commercials in Boston when a friend sent his showreel to bassist and composer Stanley Clarke, who had just finished the film score for Boyz n the Hood. Clarke liked the reel and told Andrew he should come out to LA.
“He hooked me up to the president of music for Warner, Doug Frank. I asked him how you get to work on a big film when you need experience on a big film to do it. He said: ‘That’s when you have to work on a sleeper’ – something that wasn’t destined to be big but somehow broke through. And then everyone will say: ‘Yes, him, he worked on that little movie that became big’. That introduced me to the way things work in LA.”
Andrew didn’t get any work as a result of the meeting, he points out, but that disappointment, too, is an essential part of being in the creative industries. “You have to be passionate, love it and be dedicated to it, otherwise you won’t be able to last through the lean years. And there will be some lean years. I lived on pasta and made very little money for longer than I care to recall. I know very well what it is like to have less than $200 in my bank account.”
After Edoardo’s first film, the drama Between Strangers about the tribulations of three Toronto women, he didn’t make another for five years. “If my first movie had been an unadulterated triumph, then I could have done anything I wanted after that,” he points out. “But though it was well received, it wasn’t the big success that I was hoping it was going to be.
“It was only when I switched to something more commercial [the comedy Coming & Going], that things got better for me. In the end, it’s so much about confidence. The tightrope artist has the confidence of walking on the tightrope because he or she knows they have a net underneath them. Even if they don’t have the net underneath them, they have the confidence to know how to fall. And I think, as artists, we need to have that confidence.”
And perhaps that’s why, whether you talk to a musician, a director, a writer, an artist or an animator, one message comes through more than any other. “You need to want to do it,” says Farzin. “Liking it is not enough. The fact that it is cool and other people are doing it is not enough. It should come from the heart. Stay true to yourself. Don’t pretend to be something else or emulate other people. I’ve tried that just to see what happens, and for me it’s never worked.”
“Only aim to be a creative if you have no Plan B,” says Edoardo. “If you’re not passionate about it to such an extent that there is no room for Plan B, that if you don’t do this you will perish – do something else. This is the creative life: it’s an entrepreneurial life. You generate your own work, you create your own opportunities. You don’t have a nine-to-five job, you don’t have a recurring salary. And you are always in this limbo – between despair and ecstasy.
This article first appeared in Issue 11 of Aiglon's Magazine.
Words by Lucy Jolin
Prop styling by Charlotte Love
Photography by Thomas Baker