Joseph Gordon Levitt on HitRecord

Eva Mackevic

We caught up with actor, director and entrepreneur Joseph Gordon Levitt about his creative collaboration platform HitRecord and finding joy in making art 

Reader’s Digest: How did HitRecord begin? 

Joseph Gordon Levitt: HitRecord began when I couldn’t get a job as an actor. I had been acting since I was six years old, and then I quit when I was 19. I really wanted to go to college and sort of experience a more normal 19-year-old’s life. After a couple years of college, I was really feeling the itch to get back into working on movies, and no one would give me a part. It was a really painful thing because I had this strong urge to be creative, but when you’re an actor, you’re kind of dependent on other people to give you a creative outlet. 

Joseph gordon levitt young

At that point I realised, okay, I have to take responsibility for my own creativity, and it was right then that I started saying this thing to myself, “hit record”, which was sort of a metaphor to press the record button, to hit it, making a symbol out of that button that I’m going to be the one to push the button, to start being creative.

"As an artist, one of the most valiant thing you can do is inspire other people to be creative"

This was a long time ago, this is in the mid-2000s. And so, I started just making little short films and songs and stories and things and my brother helped me set up a tiny little website to post the things I was making. And what happened was that on this tiny little website, we had a message board, and a community started to form there. That’s when it really started to get interesting because what we noticed was that sometimes people were coming just to check out the little songs and stories and videos I was making, but oftentimes, what people wanted to do was make things together. And so we kind of leaned into the collaboration part of it. 

And it grew—this community sort of evolved over the years, and after a few years, it was just getting cooler and cooler and then a couple of friends and I got together and said, maybe this community could power a production company, and maybe we could use this kind of collaborative, creative process where people all over the world are building off one another and making things together. Over the years, we managed to do all the things that we set out to do: we played some short films at Sundance and then we put out records and we published books and eventually we made a TV show. Honestly, I really think that as an artist, one of the most valiant thing you can do is inspire other people to be creative and so that’s really the core of HitRecord.

 

RD: Is that how you imagine your foreseeable future? Guiding other artists rather than working on your own projects? 


JGL: Well, I contribute stuff on HitRecord all the time and I lead projects too. For example, last year, we did this collaboration with the rapper Logic. He joined the community and he wanted to make an original song and he led the making of this song. We turned it into this whole big thing for YouTube Originals, this hour-long music documentary I’m super proud of called Band Together with Logic, and I directed the whole thing.  It was very, very much with the team, so I wouldn’t take all the credit at all, but that was still very much something that I always wanted to do and was working on, so it’s really a balance of both.
 

 

RD: Can you tell us a bit more about your early short films—what were they like?


JGL: Some of them are really like artsy and I’d spend a ton of time on them and then some of them were a little more I guess you could say documentary style quick things. I used to walk around with a camera all the time, and now it’s funny, because now everyone walks around with a camera all the time because they’re in our phones. But in my tote bag I used to have a Mini DV cassette video camera, and just shoot all kinds of stuff, and most of that footage is just sitting on those tapes, but I would also take footage home and put them on my computer and edit them together and make videos out of them. It’s great that the technology has now made that easier for people to do, although I do have concerns about some of the culture that’s forming around media tech is informed by these big platforms that make it all about likes and followers and kind of getting attention, and I think that that can be harmful to a person’s creative spirit, if you will. 

I know from personal experience, having been lucky in my life to receive a lot of attention as an actor, personally, the joy that I’ve experienced from being an artist and the meaning and the fulfilment, it doesn’t come from the glamour of the spotlight. It’s the joy of making things, being an artist and collaborating with other artists. You can do your art whether you like to draw or you like to write or, if you just focus on the joys of the creative process, I think that leads to a lot more happiness, whereas if you focus on likes and followers and getting attention, ultimately that always leads to disappointment and anxiety.

 

RD: How is a new artist supposed to get exposure in that case and how does it work for HitRecord users? 


JGL: Well, I guess the question is, what is your ultimate goal as an artist? Because on HitRecord, we never position ourselves as your ticket to a successful career in the creative industry because if we were to say that, we would be disappointing almost everybody. The creative industry is small, yet the whole human race has creativity inside of them. I think it’s a human universal, and so there are all these platforms that dangle that carrot and say like, “hey, you can be a star, you can be an influencer,” and then they show examples of this very, very tiny minority of people who actually get that attention.

Which in turn makes creative people feel like they’re inadequate or they failed or something like that, and I don’t think that’s really the right way to think about art and creativity because no matter how many likes and followers you get, it never feels like enough.  

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t try to build careers. If that’s what you want to do, then you definitely should do that. 

I just think that there are so many people out there who have creativity inside of them but they’re not going to make it their career and that’s totally okay, and that doesn’t make them any lesser of a creative person. We have this notion in our culture that if you’re not a professional artist, you must not be a good enough artist or a less valid artist, and I really don’t think that’s true at all.  

I’ve never really made any money doing music, and I kind of like it that way because I just do music for myself and it’s something I’ve always really loved doing and I don’t know that I would be successful if I tried to have a professional career out of it—it’s beside the point.  The reason that I do music isn’t because I want to become a rock star, it’s because it feels good to me when I sit down and sing a song, or play the drums. 

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