Creative people in our culture do not enjoy the status of tribal totem carvers; our creations are enjoyed by many, but their significance is fleeting and our existence is taken for granted; we exist mostly on the margins. As our population was led with slogans about ditching “dirty fingernail jobs,” we found our strong middle-class on the globalists’ sacrificial altar built on H1-B visas, automation, lowered wages and salaries, and ourselves working in the new economy of “adult diaper-changing jobs.” So, the misery of creatives has plenty of company, as wave after wave of formerly secure professionals are confronted with destabilized lifestyles and reduced circumstances which make professional re-invention an imperative.
A lot of developments which have occurred within my lifetime have seemed like dreams come true for the creative person. We can produce imagery or publications in any medium we want, at low cost, with complete creative control over our own output. However, the flip side of dream is nightmare. What if we have come into a era where, no matter what an artist or creative group does, they are unable to connect with enough of a market to sustain themselves?
Leading support for visual fine art, such as painting, generally comes from the community of visual artists themselves, the people who know and love it best. Andy Warhol famously predicted that, “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” He was quite close to correct, as this “reality TV” era shows. But, we may be moving beyond his forecast into an era where, essentially, practically no one is “famous” because everyone is a self-promoter with global reach, at least of some sort. We’re living in a world where billions of people are raising their hands and saying one basic message, which is, “Look at me!”
Salon.com has responded to the plight of creatives by publishing an article to lead off the week, titled “Can Unions Save the Creative Class?”
The article lays out a rich swath of history, including the reasons specialists formed guilds in earlier centuries and the trend away from collectivity to individuality among creatives since the era of 19th-Century Romanticism. And it explores an era which opened my own eyes to the efforts of producers to use the clout of their own numbers and reduce the royalties being paid to writers during the 2008 WGA (Writers Guild of America) strike which pitted the eleven corporations who comprise the producers’ union, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), against the writers; essentially, this was a Hollywood class war wherein the richer and more privileged group tried to take their servants’ life circumstances down a few pegs. But, it was also occasioned by the shift in technologies used to deliver the movie product to the consuming public. Like the Chinese symbol for “crisis,” “opportunity” was embedded in the product-delivery shift, which the producers attempted to take advantage of at the writers’ expense.
Creatives are faced with the democratization of the means of artmaking through technological innovations. Publishing, image-making, music production, and film-making have been revolutionized by the internet, on-demand, and download services for self-publishers. A visual artist with a digital pen pad, Photoshop and Illustrator, and/or a 3D modelling program can produce amazing imagery that can look just like an oil painting or a photograph. Music production on computers, using digitial audio workstation software, places CD-quality sound production with fancy effects within the reach of practically any musician. Affordable, digital, high-resolution video cameras and a few pieces of auxiliary gear make independent filmmaking possible for nearly anyone with a story idea who wants to give it a whirl and can buy some pizza and beer for a few willing friends.
But, coincident with the new technological developments have come information overload and market segmentation, the slicing and dicing of attention spans and wallets. The internet has proliferated to the point that there are more web sites than there are people on the planet. Market segmentation includes hundreds of channels on television alone. Bookstores, first swallowed by huge chains which are now, themselves, in a state of economic emergency, are becoming a thing of the past as Amazon.com supplants them with its nigh-limitless selection and convenience, and digital readers steadily replace printed books. First, home video tapes and later, streaming movies and Netflix services have, for many, replaced going out in public to movie theaters.
Technology is providing low-cost means of promotion. Rock bands, for instance, have resources like Band Vista and Tunecore for marketing and Bandmix for social networking. But the world of labels promoting groups to the starring prominence and vast fortunes of, say, The Beatles or Led Zeppelin is gone in the MP3 download era. Filmmakers have indiegogo and kickstarter to help raise funds, and Vimeo and YouTube to reach some kind of audience, sometimes quite large ones. Dance and performance troupes, municipal orchestras, may apparently have to stage fundraisers and hope for enough support from their communities, but even they can promote via the internet.
There are, however, people figuring out the nuts and bolts of this economy and how to survive or even thrive, creatively, within it. Those of us who would maintain our fidelity to our calling need to learn from what they’re doing.
David J. Hahn of MusicianWages.com has a strict but simple, totally workmanlike formula for how musicians can make $50,000 per year.
Then, there’s the true-life story of Amanda Hocking, who made a $ million-dollar + fortune selling ebooks after being relentlessly rejected by traditional publishers.
Author Joe Konrath insists it is possible to make a good living as a fiction writer, and he’s got the Kindle numbers to prove it.
“Buy low, sell high” remains an eternal verity in the quest for profit, as was done by the producer of the indie film bought off the film festival circuit by Paramount and placed into wide distribution, “Paranormal Activity.”
Visual and fine artists, like others, though often more so, face a lot of upfront investment of time in making their work, which is rather demand inelastic and burdened by being less overtly “entertaining” than their noisier cousins in music and film. There’s only so much wall space and art-purchasing budget in the average home. To surmount that problem has traditionally meant climbing (or descending, depending on one’s tastes and the fortunes of the art markets) to the ranks of blue chip artists selling works for six and seven figures out of New York and Los Angeles art galleries. Artists have also relied on multiple editions and commercial work to avoid starvation and ending up as coal miners. But, there may be some ways to play it smart and actually function as a painter or sculptor. Visual artists should explore a free publication available as an Acrobat file from the International Trade Center and World Intellectual Property Organization, called Marketing Crafts and Visual Arts: The Role of Intellectual Property – A Practical Guide. Julia Neidlinger also has an article with a few suggestions at Better at Marketing Blog, “How Visual Artists Can Use Social Media To Get Famous (Sorta).” Artists should also take in Visual Art Marketing and Artist Marketing Resources.
All creatives looking for patronage have to do all that they ever did and more, now. The internet, with social media, is a cheaper method, dollar-wise, to promote work than more traditional mass media advertising, but it demands more time and attention to reach a sufficient audience to produce a survival-level income, often from the creatives themselves who work on miniscule budgets. There may be twenty ways to use Twitter and some associated online tools to help promote your music, but it takes a heaping helping of time to make use of them all.
A band can put out an album and gain some revenue stream from the downloading of audience-favored songs based on their taste for posted audio samples. It’s hard for an author or screenwriter to achieve the same effect. Faced with a situation where an excellent series like “Mad Men” garners an audience of a couple of million viewers, where a comparable show in the days of three TV networks would have had manifold that number, Hollywood is scrambling to promote on the internet and in social media, just like everybody else. There, they swim in the same pool as millions of indie productions and web series, all trying to get some kind of return on investment.
Part of the answer, insofar as there is one, in a world where the vast bulk of the wealth is being drawn to a fraction of a percent who already have the most of it, will involve working through the same frustrating dilemmas faced by creative people all along. We just have new channels for dealing with it. How much can we promote our own creative vision vs. serving the conditioned tastes of the public? It’s always been a truism that we make more money, rather than less compared to menial service roles, as creatives in one of two ways — we find a narrow audience of wealthy patronage for our unique positions in our own art world, and we in so doing, hazard our reputations on the whims of their tastes. Or, we strive to deliver what we “know” the public wants, seeking to earn small sums from vast numbers, and hope, with carefully-planned timing and hype, to do it in a more-attention catching way than the next guy. If we have independent, creative spirits, then neither option is likely to appear a panacea, yet, if we want to make our own way in this world, we must at least consider and incorporate some elements of both in our modus operandi. After all, it’s hard to sell someone something he really doesn’t want, especially on a repeated basis.
All creatives are advised to follow Shakespeare’s dictum to “know thyself,” and one other, the marketing diktat to know and promote your own USP (Unique Selling Proposition). Some are obviously better at this than others. In coming days, I am going to be reading a Kindle book by the title, “Make A Killing On Kindle (Without Blogging, Facebook Or
Twitter). The Guerilla Marketer’s Guide To Selling Ebooks On Amazon.”
Because I want to know what Joe Konrath knows.