Creativity starts with love and theft

Mick Jagger reading the liner notes of Bringing It All Back Home

I used to collect American soul records like a maniac, and I always assumed my collector journey would encompass making a record myself. This isn't a unique process. Many of my record nerd friends are artists who've released their own music.

Reflecting back of late, I think I can see a series of steps that are prerequisites for creative work. (I haven't read or researched anything about this, I'm just thinking out loud and joining some dots).

The prerequisite steps begin with an individual's interest, are extended by sharing interests with others, and end with crucial bridge into the creative process itself:

Fan > Collector > Scene > Imitation > Creation

We can further reduce these steps down to just love (fan, collector, scene) and theft (imitation). Let me explain this process as I see it.

Love, from fan to collector

First of all, you have to be a fan. That is, you have to be interested, you have to like it. Stadiums are full of fans. You can't spend time in a stadium without having some kind of fun, without being slightly fanatical about the event taking place.

There are spectrums of fanaticism. Each fan attends to their level of zeal, from casual Sunday time-passer to those whose attention has reached the point of fascination. Fans who become fascinated are in love with it. Their obession may give them hard times, but they hang in their doggedly with an unrequited love.

That's how I've felt about collecting American soul 45s. I'm awestruck by them. They are mythical to me. And yet I know of even higher levels of the obsessed record collector type who love their records more than any other part of their life, such that their social appearance and behaviour reinforce this self-identity.

I think a collector is the highest form of being a fan. When you are an obsessed fan, it's natural to start collecting examples of your fascination. A fan becomes a collector. Over time, the practise of collecting feeds and hones the collector's ability to find further examples of their fascination, and all the while, they are growing, pruning and cultivating to their own garden of fascination. It's a fingerspitzengefühl relationship between the collector and their collection garden. In this way, collecting is a form of seeing.

I'll argue that when the time comes to start creating, this collecting process has become the artist's garden to pluck from:

I was just gathering images and names, and ideas and rhythms, and I was storing all of these things … in my mind somewhere. And when it was time to sit down and write songs, when I reached into the attic to see what I was gonna write about, that’s what was there. I just felt a strong passion toward the discovery of going there, and it opened my eyes, and all my senses were overwhelmed by the feeling of that place. When I sat down to write songs, that’s all I could think of… Robbie Robertson, The Band


As a collector, you'll probably have an urgent need to share your fascination with others who get it. That is, you will seek out a scene of fellow collectors who share your enthusiasm. I used to frequent online record forums and many of the folks I've spoken to on those forums are still firm friends 15 years later. They send me soundfiles of rust-raw soul ballads, so I'm always in the know. That would be scenius in action if I still made my mix tapes.

Scenes are funny things. They involve highly concentrated status displays of love objects, and subsequent disagreements on taste (that is often thinly-veiled jealousy, such is the human condition). But just because you're a serious collector and in the scene, doesn't mean you become a creator. There's a very subtle daemon at play where a scene becomes a scenius. As Kevin Kelley says:

The serendipitous ingredients for scenius are hard to control. They depend on the presence of the right early pioneers. And some flash of excitement to kick off the virtuous circle. You just can’t order this.

Whatever the magic is, it sure feels to me like scenius is the bridge between collector and artist. I love this story of how The Rolling Stones began when the teenage Keith Richards spotted the Chess records that Mick Jagger was carrying under his arm.

This cat’s together and he’s got the best of Muddy Waters and ‘Rocking at The Hop’ by Chuck Berry under his arm. “Hey man, nice to see you, but where did you get the records?” Keith Richards

It's better to have no cofounder than to have a bad cofounder, but it's still bad to be a solo founder. Sam Altman

I'd need to write more to convice you of the pervasive nature of scenius, but I want to move on to how theft plays it's part as prerequisite for the creative process. Suffice to say, for every Kraftwerk, there was a Krautrock.

Scenes are alchemic. But what exactly lights the creative fires?


Here's where fascination can take a leap. If you've got it bad, you may start extending your fascination through imitation. You'll attempt to recreate what you've been collecting by yourself. Or possibly with others from your scenius, as happens when getting a band together.

The Rolling Stones were obsessed with Chess Records. As we saw before, Mick and Keith started the band from a mutual love of Chess Records. And they stole their name from a song by Muddy Waters, the artist who put Chess Records on the map. But more than that, they wanted to sound exactly the same as Chess Records. Here's Marshall Chess describing the band's brief for their first and only Chess studio session in 1964, the same year as their debut release:

They wanted the Chess sound … to be exactly like the originals. But it came out like the Rolling Stones.

We're taught very early that copying is wrong, that being original should be our goal. Yet seeing my children grow, it is very obvious to me that imitation is due process: it's how humans learn. My daughter draws from books all and every day. In this way she has learned to draw a fox. Here's the clincher: her copied fox barely looks like the original. It is, somehow, all of the originals at once. Something happened in the process that made it definitely her fox. Just like The Rolling Stones sure sound like The Rolling Stones, not Buddy Guy.

Gotta love what you steal

Creativity is a process of transferring energy. New things comes from old things. And stealing is the spark that lights the creative process. Stealing ideas often enough evolves in time to become something distinctly new. But to be bothered doing anything at all, you need an itch—the same itch that will keep you going when you're knee deep in the creative work—and that itch is to be fanatically in love with an idea.

As Bob Dylan almost said, all art is love and theft.