Photo by Spencer Lum

Here is a fundamental truth: Nothing is equal. No actions, no thoughts, no ideas. Certainly no two people.

I would be lying if I said what works for me won’t work for you, but the more important and accurate statement is that what works for me won’t work the same for you. Not in the long term. In the short term, we may not see the differences, but over the course of a career, results will always vary, and not always in the way we want.

I could rattle off 5 tips to improve your business now. If they’re the right 5 for you, they’ll do something. But there are no ruby red slippers in real life, and there is no secret sauce. There is ability and the decisions you make. There are the thoughts racing through your mind in the middle of the night and the beat of your heart pounding in the heat of the moment. It is about how you decide. What you do when you don’t know what to do. When the tricks don’t work and the tips have worn thin, but the decisions count, what choices will you make? Because whatever they are, the process you use to make them is yours and yours alone.

As for the tricks? They’ll work for as long as they work. Give them a test drive. But let go of them when you have to, keep them in context, and never forget that they are not your substance. Don’t let them become anchors tethering you to your simpler self who understood less. Be free to move on. A tactic is effective as long as the market fails to change. They’ll last as long as an ad stays fresh, a song stays at the top of the charts, or the cutest dog in the world cycles through the digital outback. They work, but mileage may vary, and a modest shelf-life is guaranteed. There is the water. There is the fishing. And there are the fish. Which do you want?

This is the true plight of the rockstar economy. It looks like it’s about fishing, but it’s really about the fish. It’s about marketing and photographic band-aids that can plug the leaks, but won’t fix the plumbing.

Seductively simple, sensationally sexy, the rockstar economy summons notions of quick money, minimal work, and massive fame (well, at least insofar as a wedding photographer can be famous), as we live on streets paved of gold, peering out at tropical skylines with bottomless wells of tequila and sunshine. The only problem? I don’t know anyone who ever made it anywhere, whose goal was to get out of it as soon as they got in.

In the rockstar world, we are all beggars, chasing the new currency of digital fame. Every act defined by its potential for dissemination, every thought a virus to spread. These are conditions under which growth wilts and ideas die. Forget fulfillment. Forget longevity. Long live short living.

The crux of the problem is that the rockstar economy is based on equality. But not equality as in rights. Not equality as in a fundamental value we all possess. But a cheaper, duller ilk. A static, lifeless, and unchanging brand that sells godliness on the cheap. It sells us on the notion that if we can access the secret, we simply need to wash, rinse, and repeat, and results will follow. Because in this world, equal actions lead to equal results. The world is unreactive and unchanging, a static landscape from which we merely need uncover the hidden tricks. It is a model that blots out the nuance of individuality, the complexity of development, and our own role in learning to learn. It mutes growth by shifting the focus to sameness. Life envisioned as formula. A sure thing – a path from repetition to money to the hedonistic life we secretly want. Find the fabulous life in 10 easy steps. Cut around the dotted lines. Sign up now!

Of course, the grand irony in all of this is that innovation and individuality made the rockstar possible. It is to be among the first to fully harness the power of words in the blog (Jasmine Star), to be the clearest declaration of the editorial and lifestyle image (Jose Villa), or to be the first to lend the depth of realism to the context of weddings (Denis Reggie). When these things emerge, we feel the aura. We seek the secret. The allure is undeniable. But as valuable as that information may be, it’s not what you really want. You don’t want to know the tactics they’ve developed. What you really want is the ability to create your own. To uncover the next big thing. To get ahead of the game, not to follow.

Photo by Spencer Lum

When it comes to exercising our minds, no one can do the heavy lifting for us. It’s easy to lose sight of this, especially in the pressure cooker that is the ever-dwindling land grab of social media. Forget the fact that we’re all becoming inured to link after link after link on everyone’s walls. That sharing has gone beyond saturation. Who remembers yesterday’s buzz? The bright lights of attention and the seductive scent of success make it easy to forget what matters. They tell us there is no time. We need to make it. Right now – no matter how we get there, no matter who we become. But what matters isn’t in a result. It’s not in a timeframe.

What we need to look at is the person we are becoming. Are we learning to move forward with heart, dedication, and commitment? Or are we attaching ourselves to easy gratification and quick fixes?

For each of us, in each thing we do and each outcome we see, there are invisible forces at work we can never identify. But seen or not, they are everything. They are built from how we talk, how we walk, the people we are, the people we know, and the instincts that inhabit our body. They come from time in the trenches, observation, and participation.

Photo by Spencer Lum

No list, no trick, no single thing can ever account for the beautiful mix of self, community, life, and interaction we all have at our disposal. This is what we must harness.

The road is littered with has-beens, one-hit-wonders, next-big-things, and ex-wonder boys. People so focused on getting there, they never got anywhere. In reality, there are no rockstars, there is no success. There is an ebb and flow that only the universe is privy to, but we’ll never know. That’s the inside joke. Sometimes you’re hot. Sometimes you’re not. Either way, destiny has no interest in fame and fortune. It can be a cruel mistress. It will reward some and deny others, but if you want to take this ride, don’t let the din of success drown out the strength of your character. When things are at their hardest, it’s not turning up the volume that matters. Reach, but don’t grab. Stretch, but don’t claw. Be proud. Let yourself live a life of quiet inspiration.

About Spencer Lum

Spencer is a storyteller with an indelible belief in the raw humanity of weddings. 

With 10 years of experience running Brooklyn-based 5 West Studios, he has developed a style that combines influences from fine art and photojournalism. He has also enjoyed time as a designer, creative director, and filmmaker. 

Spencer is the founder of the industry blog, Ground Glass, as well as a doting husband and father of two beautiful children in Brooklyn, NY. 

48 Comments

  • You serve up multi-course meals in a culture of tapas and food trucks. An essayist in the culture of twitter :)

  • sherry boles says:

    I have long been a critic of the one-size-fits-all business models. So many are looking for a pep rally and an easy route. Thank you for sending out a message worth noting!

  • Joe Buissink says:

    Niiiiice words!! Well written!! Awesome analogies!!

    Thanks!!!

  • It’s a little difficult to hear sometimes but that doesn’t make the message any less true. Thanks for speaking the words we all need to hear.

  • Fantastic read….keeps us positive and real. Thanks!

  • Zack Arias says:

    This is the best read on the Internet today. Really well thought out and delivered. I’m so tired of the rock stars, the top 10 lists, the 4 hour work weeks, the fast tracks, the egos, the embellishing, the narcism, and the positioning. Tired of it. It’s ruining the craft.

    If you aren’t shooting, you’re dying.

    The crock stars can suck it.

    Cheers,
    Zack

  • [...] can expect to see. But first, don’t forget to check out my latest article on The Photo Life: The Truth about the Rockstar Economy. It’s a good [...]

  • Finally!! Somebody has said it!!

    I think this quote is appropriate: The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear. — Herbert Agar

    Thank you for this.

  • john salgado says:

    Great read, I need from time to time like to be reminded what’s really important in life and remember that I am trying to create photographs, no more, no less. No Rockstars, just humans. :)

  • Jim says:

    This is why I don’t blog – my words are inside me and can’t get out except through the lens on my camera. You’ve written something that rings true and I could only dream of writing (actually, I don’t dream of writing at all.) The only people asking me if I have a blog are other photographers – not my clients. The clients don’t really want or need Hemingway, they just want a talented trustworthy experienced photographer with a certain photography style (and one who doesn’t creep on the bridesmaids!) And that’s why I need not spend a penny on advertising (look at me sounding practically like a poet!)
    Thanks for being the good writer you are Spencer (so I don’t have to be.)

  • Twyla says:

    Agreed, and this has been in the back of my head all along. This is why I have what most photographers would consider abysmal knowledge of other people’s work – I am not a follower.

  • Mike Warren says:

    Superb post! This is something we all need to think about and take heed. Thanks for sharing some great words of wisdom!

  • Barbara Cameron says:

    Only in the wedding industry is the word rockstar negative. Most amazing wedding photographers loathe the word and their perceived association to it. Be your own person, do what makes you happy, become a better photographer everyday as well as a human being. If you only strive for the name rockstar, you will never truly be happy. Well said in your post!

  • Robert Lowry says:

    Thanks Spencer, for such a great post. Too many snake oil salesman out there and willing followers who want turn by turn gps navigation fed to them.

    Just give me a destination and a direction, I’ll find my own path.

  • You say what we’re all thinking to ourselves. Thank you for sharing.

  • Guy Collier says:

    Beautiful. It nails the problem with selling something that doesn’t exist.

  • Keana Clay says:

    I enjoyed that so much that I want to scream. But since I’m at work, in an office, I’ll just say wow. Thank you for writing this.

  • David Medina says:

    Great read. very well said. In a worlds that seems to be fixated on “secret formulas” and quick fixes it is great to be reminded that none of that is a proper substitute for hard work, talent, passion and vision.

  • We’ve been in the business for over 30 years and have seen styles change, develop, grow red hot then ice cold as the next new thing comes along. Buzz words like photojournalism, boutique, and vintage capture something that is out there in the communal psyche. As artists, we will always need to recognize these trends and adapt accordingly, to push ourselves farther, deeper, purer or we stagnate. That is the quest of an artist. This Rockstar economy is shiny and new and, while talented, it’s just a little bit ugly, a little bit mean-spirited and naturally, in this environment, the entire process of creating beauty is tainted. We’ve learned to – as you said Spencer – reach, not grab, and then leave the hand open in case something is plucked out and replaced with something better. It’s at first a frightening but ultimately peaceful place to be. And the roses do smell a lot better when they’re not being trampled in the mad rush of the spotlight…

  • Hey man, that was awesome! If I could assemble words in that fashion and ignite such worthwhile thought I would cease to be a Photographer? jaja

    I see you’re in Krooklyn. Can I interest you in grabbing lunch one day?

    JA

  • You are my hero! Your words resonate and inspire, and I can’t thank you enough for what you offer to this industry. You just GET it, when the majority of people don’t. Please, PLEASE write a book.

  • Just found this article from a link from Zack Arias. It is a very true what you say and difficult to keep that perspective and drive on a day to day basis. we are in a society were we feel that we “deserve” thing like success, happiness, etc… for sure it would be nice, but the truth is that we all need to work hard toget somewhere and then keep pushing and stretch our targets and goals. Thanks so much for writing this!

  • Matt says:

    Great, great, great post. I’m glad Zack linked to it.
    I think most of us can learn a lot from this…

  • A great post. Sums it up perfectly…

  • Spencer, so very well said. The comment; ‘You don’t want to know the tactics they’ve developed. What you really want is the ability to create your own’ is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen articulated in print before, and it’s something we could probably all do with remembering from time to time.

  • Phenomenal. I hope more people get to see this. My favorite part, “I don’t know anyone who’s goal it was to get our as soon as they got in.”

  • Rab Cummings says:

    Well said. I find it particularly awesome that when I viewed this post there was an ad on the right hand side for “5 Rules for Website Design by Leeann Marie.” Priceless. : ^ )

  • Scot Baston says:

    Quite simply this is the Tao of Photography.. finding your own path or way, being true to yourself without grasping greedily for what you perceive another to have.

    “Be yourself, everyone else is taken”

  • Lora Carr says:

    Now, if we could just get them off the stages and away from the podiums at our industry conventions where eager, wide-eyed newbies furiously take notes and drink the digital kool-aid that these rock stars are pouring. Nothing worse than a professional who’s profitable business is not derived from shooting sessions, but rather from selling actions, templates, how-tos, workshops etc., stands at the photographic pulpit and tells me how to run a successful photography business.

  • Lisa says:

    Thank you, spoken like a true professional:)

  • Michelle Warren Photography says:

    Beautifully written. So true. Thanks for sharing. 

    Whenever I feel foggy and start to doubt myself or ask where am I going?…. I always come back to this, “Are my clients happy? Are my clients beyond satisfied? Have I taken fantastic care of the people that hire me?”. As long as that answer is an unequivocal YES then I know I am moving in the right direction. It helps ground me in an industry where it feels like so many are so full of themselves and lost in LAH LAH Land. I want to serve and make people happy. Provide them images that will warm their hearts for a lifetime. That is and always will be my goal.

    I thank you for your eloquent words. So well put and hopefully will inspire and ground many professionals like myself.

  • Kenny Kim says:

    Hi Spencer – we don’t know each other but just wanted to congratulate you on a well-written article. I’ve been a wedding photographer for 6 years now and in the beginning I was that beggar taking any crumbs of knowledge I could learn from all the wedding photographers out there. One of the first major lesson I learned was that I am NOT and CANNOT be them. I had to take the principles of that worked for them and applied it to my business. I am glad you shared this insight with everyone. Cheers!

    Kenny Kim

  • [...] believe it was last week, it could have been the week before, but I read this article about everyone having a different path and how everyone’s path and life, no matter how close [...]

  • Chris B says:

    Amazing words of wisdom, Spencer. It takes me back to the days when I started as a photographer, and I wonder about the motives behind actually making the leap into do this for a living at that time. I’m glad to be able to say my story is more of a steady climb than a peak and crash.

    Here’s to the years to come.

  • [...] The truth about the “rockstar economy” by Spencer Lum I “discovered” Spencer Lum last year and his wonderfully insightful and inspirational writing. This post made me realise that I need to stop focussing on what other (successful) photographers are doing and concentrate on my own journey. [...]

  • James Stokes says:

    Seriously the best thing I have read in a long time!

  • It’s a rare blogpost that grabs and holds my interest like this one.
    Thanks for sharing!

  • Stan Richard says:

    Spencer, you are a wise man, we thank you!

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