Songs for the Struggling Artist


This Is Not a Good Story

Like most humans, I’m a sucker for a good story. I like them on stage, in books, on screen, in magazines, on the radio, in podcasts, in songs and so on. I also like them over dinner or drinks at the bar. I like to tell them, too. I’m telling one right now about stories.

We are in the golden age of stories. We can get them in so many forms. In addition to the plays, movies, books, radio dramas, news and such, storytelling events and podcasts and shows have exploded onto the scene. Many of these storytelling groups run storytelling workshops where you, too, can learn to frame your experiences in a story form.

“We’ve reached Peak Story!” I shouted as the last storyteller of the evening brought his story back around to his opening teaser.

Let me back up. I did not actually shout this at a storytelling event. I did attend a storytelling event and I did think it but I did not shout it. Because I didn’t want any of those storytellers turning me into a story.

At the same time this popularization of storytelling is happening, stories are also turning up on every product. Check your bag of chips. Does it have a story on it? How about your coffee? Your toothbrush?

Branding and marketing have leapt upon storytelling with great relish. Stories sell now. When you make a product, you don’t just make a product, you also learn how to sell its story. Branding and storytelling start to blend into each other, intertwining until they become indistinguishable.

Because of this overlap with advertising, I have become increasingly suspicious of stories. Every time I hear one I think: What are they selling? And if they’re not explicitly selling something, I wonder about it metaphorically. What version of self is this person selling? What are they trying to accomplish with this story?

At a party, it’s usually pretty clear what the stories are for. It’s all interpersonal. We all have our standards that we play. Whether the story makes us look good or look bad, in a social context, they’re all an attempt to connect, to establish or affirm our place in our relationships to each other.

As soon as there is a stage and or audience involved, a different set of questions emerges for me. Why is this person telling us this? What are they revealing or hiding about themselves and sometimes even, what are they selling?

I started to think about this at that storytelling event I went to last year. I’d listened to dozens of stories over the years on podcasts like The Moth or Risk or Story Collider but watching a storytelling event live – with several professional storytellers in the line up – made me suddenly see things differently. I was struck by the disconnect between the words coming out of the storytellers and what their bodies were doing. While the words came out so self-assured, their bodies twitched and wavered. They adjusted shirts, hats and jeans. Their words were polished, their bodies told the truth.

I found the experience un-nerving. As a theatre maker, I am very concerned with the body and seeing it left out like that made me understand that storytelling, while theatre-ish, was not theatre. It sat in a kind of middle space. And I found I did not like it. I felt bad about not liking it. I felt I SHOULD like it. I felt the noble aspiration of listening to people from all walks of life, regardless of their expertise or training in stories was all good. What kind of jerk didn’t want to listen to “real people tell real stories” as a lot of these things bill themselves?

This made me think about realness. So many of the stories in a storytelling event are polished within an inch of their lives. There’s almost always the teaser, the beginning, the middle, the end, the button. “Real” people don’t often tell stories this way. They ramble. They start somewhere illogical, wind back and forth, go on tangents. They can fail. They can talk for ten minutes and when they stop talking, the story can fall flat. That’s the point at the party that many a “real” person will awkwardly say,”Welp! That’s my story!”

The trend of live storytelling events has led to a formulaic and predictable way of telling stories. Everyone has a story to tell but somehow they all seem to tell it in exactly the same way. I have come to love the awkwardly told story. It is so much realer than “real people” stories on story shows.

I think the “realness” is one of the things that troubles me about this trend. There’s a fetishization of the “real person” – and I think what is often meant by this is someone who is not an actor. The “real person” is not an actor and tells a “true” story. As someone who IS an actor and deals in stories, both true and made up, I find the realness confusing. It’s like Reality TV – which has writers, directors and editors, all of whom create the stories of the “real” people. Reality TV featured a “successful” businessman whose businesses in real life, were failing. The Apprentice Reality show led to some very real consequences out in real life. But Reality TV has very little to do with truth.

I understand the hunger for realness. I watched ALL of the San Francisco season of the Real World when it came out. It felt just like being on tour, but from my living room. At the time, it felt like a window into the lives of some real people. But I now understand that the realness of TV is about as real as many “real” stories people tell. More so now than ever before. A lot of people would rather watch “real” people on YouTube or Instagram than actors in made up stories on TV or in movies and in plays. But while Lil Tay, for example, seemed real to people, she was mostly the brainchild of her older brother. (Lil Tay was a child social media phenom last year.) In other words, Lil Tay is a character. She’s acting. She’s about as real as Luke Skywalker.

And I suppose that’s why I get so flummoxed by storytelling. Is it acting or is it just talking? Is it a performance or a presentation, like a TED talk? Is it Stand Up? I don’t know how to relate to the “real” story told on stage – which is a place of invention, of performance, of heightened or imagined reality. It is also a place for truth.

Picasso once said, “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” I think sometimes “real people” telling stories are telling truths that are really lies.

I’m not saying there is no truth and there are no facts, as many nihilistic storytellers and politicians would have you believe. There are facts. Some things are true and some things are false, just as some stories are true and some stories are false. But context is everything. I expect a journalist to tell me true things and to acknowledge when they make a mistake in that arena. I expect a fiction writer to tell me things that they made up – but that doesn’t mean there won’t be truths woven throughout. The truth can be emotional, situational, metaphorical. And it can be featured in all the stories in between. The spectrum of truth is wide and mysterious.

There’s a TED talk by Tyler Cowen about stories. I find it refreshing to watch in the midst of this moment of peak story. He is very skeptical of stories and suggests we should all be. He points out that, when asked, over 50% of people described their lives as a journey – that is, as a particular kind of story. He notes that no one declared their life “a mess” – which is probably a much more accurate metaphor for most of us. It’s just that “a mess” doesn’t easily translate into a story the way a journey does. A mess is a mess. It’s like a story “badly” told – like a story with tangents and dead ends, with extraneous facts and unnecessarily details. A real real story is like that. So is a real real life. It just goes for a while and then stops and then maybe you think, “Welp. That’s my story! That’s the end.”

But to get real with you for a second, I’m not entirely sure why I needed to tell you THIS story about stories. I don’t really have beef with the storytellers. I like stories. I like real people. But…I suppose my fear is that a cultural shift toward “realness” and stories that anyone can tell means fewer and fewer resources for the people who make art out of stories. When everyone is a storyteller, sometimes stories become devalued. When the storyteller comes to the village, the villagers won’t pay him because the baker told a good one last week. With stories multiplying in every direction, people become loathe to pay for the deeper stories, the more careful stories, because they can get simpler ones for free. Maybe I’m paranoid and there’s room in the tent for all of us. But…authors are making less money than ever before, actors are making less money than ever before, songwriters, screenwriters, poets, filmmakers, etc, are all struggling. With a handful of exceptions, artists – storytelling artists – are finding it harder and harder to get paid sufficiently for their work.

We have no national arts council. The theatres, dance companies and opera companies are shuttering – but the National Endowment for the Arts funds storytelling organizations like The Moth. It won’t fund individual artists but it will fund real people telling true stories. We have the barest of bare minimum in funding for the arts and a slice of both the state and federal pie is going to storytelling organizations. Is this a problem? I don’t know. Storytelling is cheap, comparatively, and you get a lot of bang for your buck. I understand why it’s easier to fund a storytelling event than it is to fund the ballet. I’m not trying to start a rumble between ballet dancers and storytellers, I’m just worried. I hope I’m wrong and I hope that there’s space for everyone – but I have concerns, which is why, I suppose, I needed to tell you this story.

Welp. That’s it.

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This Is My Motherf—ing Brand

(If the title hasn’t already tipped you off, there will be a great many f-bombs in this post.)

I went to a conference for “creators” and of course there was a session on branding because that’s the world we live in now. I did not attend because that is my motherfucking brand. My brand is that I don’t fucking believe in branding.

You know where we get the idea of branding? From actual white hot branding. Can’t tell the cows apart? Put a brand on their rumps. Whose cow is this? Check the logo burned into its rear. You know WHY branding became a part of advertising? It’s a way to distinguish identical things. Can’t tell the difference between the cans of cola? Put different logos on them. My motherfucking brand is no brand. If you can’t tell who I am without a branding, I can’t help you.

We live in a world of branding now – we talk about things being “on brand” in just regular conversation. Personal Branding is a thing. If you make things or work in any creative capacity, you have probably been encouraged to work on your brand. I know I have.

I understand that it makes sense to create a narrative and/or identity around what you do. I have a mission statement for my theatre company. I suppose you could frame that as a brand (OMG, please don’t) but a mission feels very different to me. As an individual artist, writer, etc – I also operate on a mission basis and not on brand.

I’m pretty sure that the people who support me know that. I’d bet the vast majority of my patrons on Patreon see their support of me as service, as contributions to the greater good – even though, as an individual, I am not tax deductible. (My theatre company is a 501c3, though.)

Since I went to Patreon’s conference a few months ago (the aforementioned conference for creators,) I have been wrestling with the discomfort I feel around the whole enterprise. On one hand, I am awash in gratitude for the structure Patreon provides. By making trusted space for people to support me, it has allowed me to begin to make a living doing what I do. It allows me to be of service to my whole community. That is a thing of beauty. On the other hand, Patreon is kind of Brand Central Station. It is a business that makes its money on the support of people supporting creators/makers/artists. They have been hugely profitable by taking a cut of patron’s generosity.

But everyone does that. Kickstarter. Indiegogo. Crowdrise. Go Fund Me. All of those platforms do the very same. I just raised $2550 on Indiegogo for a project and they took $208.50. Crowdfunding is a big money maker for the owners of those platforms (less so for the people on them.)

When it first started, Patreon pitched itself as a way to support artists – that is, as a kind of service. Now it explains what it does as powering “membership businesses for creators.” I’ve seen this transition in progress – and find myself questioning what it means (because that is my motherfucking brand.) While I am on board for the ongoing support, I do not see myself as a business (or a brand!) I have missions. I have purpose. I’m trying to make art. Not everyone there is.

Patreon is for “creators.” The actual artists I met at PatreCon could be counted on one hand. And I wouldn’t even need all my fingers for the counting.

I did, though, meet a guy who puts casts on people. Not like sculptural casting. No. Casts – like for broken arms or legs but without injury. I mean. No disrespect to Kevin. He was a very nice guy. But he’s not making art.

He is making money, though. Unlike me. Kevin makes money. I make art. I guess that’s my motherfucking brand.

People aren’t giving Kevin their money out of desire to be of service. They give him money so that he’ll put a cast on them or so they can watch a video of him putting a cast on an attractive young woman. There are more Kevins than there are of me. And Patreon makes its money on the Kevins. It also makes its money on the “content creators” like the guy who spearheaded the Gamergate campaign and makes misogynistic harassment videos directed at Anita Sarkeesian.

It doesn’t make much money on art. Art isn’t profitable, folks.

There are exceptions, of course. But in the old days, arts’ unprofitability was why it was something rich folks supported for the public good. Our new ruling class rulers – i.e. the dudes at the head of Silicon Valley companies – don’t support the arts the way the ruling class of old did. Zuckerberg probably doesn’t sit on the board of a ballet company and Tom of Twitter probably isn’t supporting the opera. The head of Patreon probably doesn’t either – despite all the talk of supporting creators. What gets done for the public good anymore?

Do we have to search for our public good in hidden pockets of digital platforms? What are we going to do when there’s no more art – only brands? No more artists, just content creators? No more art scenes, just income generation?

And as lovely as the good people who work at Patreon are (and they are very lovely) their salaries are paid by a cut of all of the patron’s money once a month. It’s more like a bank than a mecca of creativity. I adored every employee I met while at PatreCon AND I have a lot of questions about what all this is for. But then – that IS my motherfucking brand.

For example, at the final talk of conference, the CEO asked for the creators to ask hard questions. The first question was what the company was doing about the Hate still on the platform. (Last I checked the guy who made misogynist harassment videos was making $8k a month on the platform.) The CEO hedged and said they were doing their best but it’s hard, you know, because it’s somebody’s living. The next question was what he planned to do with the money once the shareholders had been repaid. And he said “This is what keeps me up at night.”

And there it is. It’s the profitability concern that keeps him up at night. Not the misogynist hater making his living destroying the livelihoods of women. But about how to raise profits for shareholders. The Second question was the actual answer for the first.
All of that gives me the creeps.
But it is coupled with a charmingly candid conference closing speech and a CEO who makes things and seems to have his heart in the right place even if it fails to deal effectively with misogyny. The creeps are counter balanced by a staff of many bad ass women and everyone just trying to do their best.

I see all that and I really appreciate it but I am twisted up by the questions. Which is, of course, my motherfucking brand.

Digital platforms aren’t neutral. They are businesses. Hopefully we all know that now, after the revelations about Facebook. None of them are perfect. Not even the ones that provide structures for us to survive.

We are all striking a kind of devil’s bargain to continue our lives on line – and possibly off, as well. We know Facebook and Twitter have some major problems but for those of us who still use them, the good outweighs the bad. I’d like for Patreon to be exceptional – to be of real service to artist, to be the true new patronage but I know it’s ultimately most accountable to its share holders.

I know this seems ungrateful – but biting the hand that feeds me is very on brand for me, wouldn’t you say? The thing is, Patreon doesn’t actually do much for me besides process credit cards. They provide the structure that allows people to feel comfortable giving people like me money on a regular basis – which is not nothing. Giving people a way to support me is huge. No one was giving me money once a month before Patreon came in to my life, believe me. And having a platform people trust helps facilitate that. I’m clear that there isn’t any other structure in place that has people’s trust enough to fund me through it.

This whole rant here might lead you to think I’m mad at Patreon but I’m really not. I’m super grateful (in a questioning way.) What I’m mad at is the sidelining of art, the blending of art into commerce, the branding of art and the branding of humans. I’m mad that when future generations look back at art movements of our time, they’re more likely to look at brand evolutions than art revolutions. I’m mad about the branding of culture and the dissolution of art for art’s sake. I’m mad that almost every artist I know feels inadequate about how impossible it is to make a living as an artist. And sure, I’m mad that Patreon, that I thought was an artist driven structure is just a money making content container – made for the management of porn, hate and commerce, like everywhere else on the internet. But I’m not mad at Patreon. It’s just doing like everyone else does.

Patreon is not a non-profit. It’s a business. Currently, it’s a business that provides a structure that allows people to support me, hallelujah. But businesses are not neutral. They exist to make money. Art does not make money. “Content” does. “Content” needs branding. How am I to know which content fits my personal brand if the content doesn’t have on-brand packaging?

And still, I know enough about branding, from just living in these times, breathing this capitalist air, to recognize when I’m falling into branding tropes. I can’t help feeling like not having a fucking brand is just another way to have a brand these days. Like one of those ironic ad campaigns. And what the hell am I selling?

My Patreon page? My second Patreon page that I just launched? I don’t actually think I’m doing a great job at that if that’s it. Though it is sort of on-brand for my Gen X anti-selling selling. Ack! Is there nothing unbranded anymore? Can we not live without labels and brands and logs and such? Is my motherfucking brand really not having a motherfucking brand? How do we shake free of this branded world?

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This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you’d like to listen to me read a previous one on Anchor, click here.

Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs, an album of Gen X Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

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Generation X Part 6 – Selling the Drama

We are the few, the proud, the brave members of Gen X who continue to make our way through the world while many of our peers have given up.

Do you remember, before we were Generation X, when we were the Pepsi Generation? Right about that time that Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire? We were told that Pepsi was the choice of a new generation and there were videos and apparently our generation bought into it hardcore. We were also Peppers. Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too? But that Pepsi Generation technique was actually a marketing campaign for Baby Boomers first and it worked so well for Pepsi when Baby Boomers were kids that they thought they’d try it out on us, too. And all the generations after. How you like Pepsi, Generation Next? Feel like joining the conversation since you “are the movement, this generation“? A lot of the conversation about generations is actually driven by advertising.

I read an article about an ad campaign for Lululemon wherein they’re targeting “the Yoga generation.” And which generation is that? As far as I can tell, every generation is doing yoga. My grandmother was doing yoga in the 70s and she was the Silent Generation. So that’s dumb. But…that’s what I mean, they’re trying to put you in a generational category so they can sell you stuff. I say you, not me, because advertisers are apparently not targeting Gen X-ers, because there are so few of us.

And here I think we have the heart of why Gen X tends to resist being labeled. We somehow have always known that once a marketer could label us, they were getting ready to sell us shit. But what’s hilarious is that marketers worked this out about us anyway – so they got sneakier with us when they still cared about us. I once bought a record almost entirely because of it’s ironic cover.

What’s ironic is now that Gen X is older, some members of Gen X have more money to spend but advertising has (mostly) stopped trying to reach us. Which probably explains why there’s been a recent bubbling up of Gen X articles. Marketers are perhaps getting interested in us again. For good and ill, I imagine. Just google anything to do with advertising and Gen X and you will see such an extraordinary trove of weird articles about how to advertise to us. Actually, search how to market to any generation and you’ll see some eye opening stuff about what’s going on behind that advertising curtain and where you might be vulnerable.

So Millennials and Gen Z, just in case you’re still here…I think it might be useful to recognize that when you see articles and listicles and so on and so on that reference your generation, you are probably being marketed to. The condescending pieces about you that make you mad may be designed to encourage you to spend your money on something or just click on something to get an ad near your eyeballs. The imaginary rivalries between Gen X and Millennials, or between Millennials and Boomers, are essentially clickbait for the people trying to sell you stuff.

As we now carry devices that have the capacity to market to us everywhere we go, we all need to become savvier about our vulnerabilities to advertising. As marketing becomes more personal and more direct, it will become harder and harder to remember our humanity. It might be helpful for all generations to take on some of our good ole Gen X skepticism.

We seem to now live in a world of relentless marketing. And it’s not just businesses who are marketing at us. The new norm seems to be a kind of marketing of self. People have become brands instead of individuals.

Most of Gen X has a gut response to this trend and it is a strong-armed revulsion. To us, this branding of people carries all the horrors of the origin of the word – the branding of cattle with a hot iron. For most of Gen X, this branding of the soul is relentlessly uncool. We liked our icons reclusive, uninterested in self promotion, and intensely private. Prince once gave an interview to the BBC wherein he neither spoke nor showed his face. Both Kurt Cobain and David Foster Wallace were incredibly uncomfortable with their own popularity.Can you imagine a Cobain clothing line? A David Foster Wallace cologne? For us, as soon as a band became popular, it ceased to be cool.

But we live in a gig economy now and if we want to survive, we must do as the digital natives do and put out all of our goods for clicks and likes. We cannot be the reclusive geniuses we want to be because the world doesn’t work that way anymore – And maybe it never did.

Every Gen X-er I know is deeply uncomfortable with self promotion. We recognize that we need to sell our book or our record or our blog or our podcast or our show or our theatre company or our business or whatever it is but it is highly problematic for us.

If we do it, we tend to see it as a necessary evil. I’ve taken multiple marketing classes and despite having a lot of knowledge and skill at my disposal, I have generally yielded next to no results. While attempting to sell my show in the highly crowded market of the Edinburgh Fringe, I discovered that the only real marketing skill I had – that is, the only thing that would reliably bring people to the theatre – was making friends. Like, actual friends. This is the only successful marketing I have ever done. I made some friends who showed up for me because that’s what friends do for each other.

I have had a podcast for over a year and I am so bad at self promotion that most of my best friends don’t even know about it.

And maybe it is just me. Maybe I’m the only one (see part 4) that is unwilling to trade my authenticity for more likes or hits or shares. Maybe I’m the only one that closely guards my best work until I’m ready to share it. Maybe I’m the only one that would rather share my truth than a promotional photo. I don’t think I’m the only one though.

Gen X tends to see the world that has emerged behind us as a life-sized version of that SNL sketch “You Can Do Anything!” We see that kind of self-promotional vibe as not only terminally uncool but completely at odds with authenticity, which is one of our core values.

I really do admire the hutzpah of Lena Dunham in having her character announce at the beginning of her show that she is the voice of her generation (or “a voice of a generation.”) This is something that no Gen X-er would ever do, even if she wanted to. Even as a joke. And Dunham was definitely joking. I dig the gutsy self-aggrandizement of it and I dig that it made her extremely popular.

Most of Gen X would rather be authentic than popular. We would rather be true to ourselves than just about anything else. I wonder if, in addition to the small numbers of us, our general lack of interest in self-promotion is a factor in our invisibility. In a world where everyone seems to be shouting about how great they are, Gen X is sitting in the corner, making something totally cool that few people will ever see.

I wonder if this is part of why there have been so many think-pieces about how Gen X is going to save the world, how Gen X is our last hope, etc. I think this is how we like to be seen – as the quiet secret heroes – chronically underestimated but swooping in at the last minute to save (and astonish) a grateful world. This image appeals to us. But frankly, even after reading dozens of these articles, I have yet to be convinced that somehow Generation X has the secret world-saving serum. I’m pretty sure we’re going to all have to get together to get that done. Generation X would like to do it alone but this is a job that’s going to need all generations on deck.

This is Part 6 of a multi-part series. and

You can read Part 1 here Part 2 here  Part 3 here

Part 4 here

Part 5 here

Help a Gen X-er with this self-promotion thing

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Soundcloud, click here.screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 




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