Songs for the Struggling Artist


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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No One’s Asking for Your Art

Probably, there is no one who can’t wait to read your next play. Probably, no one is itching to read your novel. No one is clamoring for your new album or begging for your next dance piece. Probably you have some loved ones who are very supportive and tell you how excited they are to read your latest writing but 9 out of 10 people really don’t care and even the most supportive person you have on your side won’t see or read EVERYTHING. Your friends might feel obligated to go see your show or listen to your album but they probably won’t come every single time or listen more than a few times. Probably when you tell them about your latest creative venture, they’ll tell you they’re excited about it but they probably won’t come. (Life happens. To everyone. Everyone can’t see everything.) I’m not saying your people are not glad that you make art but the odds are they’re not clamoring for your latest thing. Especially if you make a lot of things.

This is why you have to untie yourself from your potential audience. If you have the instinct to create, you have to do it for yourself first because no one wants whatever you have in mind more than you.

I think this is true even if you’re a popular artist who people want to hear from. Let’s look at J.K. Rowling. Her fans wanted Harry Potter, now and forever. No one wanted her to write a book about a small-time English Village council election. No one was asking for that. But she wrote it anyway. If Rowling was completely tied to what people wanted from her, she’d have been writing only Harry Potter for the rest of her life. But no, not only did she write a novel about an election, she also went and wrote a whole crime series under a pseudonym. I bet you no one was asking for her to do that when she started.

If you’re not J.K. Rowling, your audience might not want anything at all from you. The most likely response you will get to your art is indifference. And you cannot let this stop you. Just because no one particularly wants you to do it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

If you’re called to create, you have to do it. For you. No one else. Or maybe one other person. It could even be an imaginary person. I have one dedicated fan of the podcast. I record it for him. And even he doesn’t listen to every single one. A more logical person might leave such an enterprise aside. But I don’t make a podcast for logical reasons – I make it for artistic ones. My reasons understand that not every artistic expression is for every one. And that as long as I feel inclined to create, that’s how long I should do it.

No one wants it. But if you DON’T express that unique sparkling thing in your soul, it will fester. Or at the very least, wink out of existence.

If you need people to want your work, you might just want to go ahead and work in advertising. You can go be “a creative” in marketing or some form of industry. They’re going to want your words, your ideas, your drawings, etc. They’ll give you assignments, structures and feedback. They’ll ask you for all you have. They will read everything you write for them. They will listen to all you record. They will look at all that you draw. And you will get payment, one way or another.

But if you feel called to be an artist, you’ll need to be prepared to go where no one is calling to you, where there is no encouragement but your own creative spark. The practice of a life in the arts is learning how to nurture your own spark, how to stoke your own creative fire and encourage it to blaze so it becomes harder and harder to ignore. Learn how to be your own match, your own oxygen, your own kindling, your own log and you have a practice for life.

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An Artist Might Be Good for Your Business
November 6, 2015, 12:47 am
Filed under: advice, art, business | Tags: , , ,

Through my Hamlet blog, an international organization found me and, after a few email exchanges, they hired me to help them “conquer America” with their Shakespeare project.

While technically I was hired to help them with some Shakespeare, I found myself coaching them on their business strategy, on their email writing, on website launching, on social media and several other things that are not on my resume. They hired me for my education/arts specialization and got a business coach.

Because the communication was nebulous and the job murky, I nearly quit a few weeks in. But I set boundaries and negotiated for clearer terms. I made a lot of suggestions which they were excited by but somehow couldn’t implement. Then it took them almost 2 months to pay me-with lots of back and forth with international banking difficulties and miscommunications. In the end, they fired me as easily as they hired me (and not insignificantly, they did the same for several other extremely accomplished people in the field.) The project, due to launch last April, is nowhere to be seen. I can’t help thinking that if they’d taken the advice of all the artists they’d brought in, they might have actually succeeded.

A few years ago, in the midst of trying to shift my day job life, I went to the Actors Work Program and was intrigued by the speeches they gave us about all the skills we have as artists that could give us an edge, outside of the arts. I felt that was probably very true, given what a wide variety of things we do to make an artist’s life work. But then we took a skills assessment test that just slotted us into the “Can you use Photoshop?” “Can you work in Excel?” world. It felt like the end result was that everyone was just well suited to become administrative assistants.

This international organization experience showed me how much deeper my skill set was than my ability to maintain a database. The fact is, I run several businesses. And they just happen to be in fields that don’t make a lot of money so I don’t see the returns that someone in another field would see. That’s art-making, I guess. And Education. And people like me have the ability to coach outside our field but other businesses don’t always recognize the ways we could help. And neither do we.

I’m not saying all us artists should go get business jobs (Good Lord, no!) but it’s often the case that artists are secretly embedded in businesses. They’re your temps. Your administrative assistants. (Thanks Actors Work Program!) They’re catering your company event. If you have an artist in your midst, it might be worth investigating how they can help you grow. They may have secret marketing skills. They may be great leaders. They may be untapped communication coaches. To say nothing of all the artistic skills they might be able to contribute.

Writer and Marketing Guru, Seth Godin, says we are all artists now. (Download a short e-book on the subject via this link.) He writes:

A revolution is here, our revolution, and it is shining a light on what we’ve known deep down for a long time—you are capable of making a difference, of being bold, and of changing more than you are willing to admit. You are capable of making art. Why Make Art? Because you must. The new connected economy demands it and will reward you for nothing else. Because you can. Art is what it is to be human.

Artists are all around you and if you need help adapting to this new way of doing things, reach out. We can help. I know it from experience now.

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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

 



A Feminist Theatre Identity Crisis
January 18, 2015, 10:10 pm
Filed under: art, feminism, theatre | Tags: , ,

Opinion Poll: Should I use the word “feminist” to describe my work? Let it be known that I am a feminist and my theatre company’s work is made through a feminist lens.
It has always been thus and will always be thus. It was in the beginning and will be until the end. Until recently, however, I have not publicized this fact. It has been an unwritten, but deeply held value.

In the climate we began in, it felt appropriate to hold our feminism close to the chests. Our thought was that people would hear “feminist” and immediately think “political.” They’d think signs and speeches and our work is none of these things. The work is mythic and classical and narrative. We’re not a sign-waving company. We figured those who thought like us would see the feminist ley lines and those who didn’t might have their perspective shifted without even knowing it had happened. Not to mention that feminist and theatre artist seemed to be mutually exclusive labels in that climate.

There’s been a general coming out party for us feminists in recent years and it is heady and thrilling to be a part of that party. Caitlin Moran’s book How to Be a Woman, lit a fire under a lot of us with her fierce advocating of the word. I love her instructions for finding out if you’re a feminist:

But, of course, you might be asking yourself, ‘Am I a feminist? I might not be. I don’t know! I still don’t know what it is! I’m too knackered and confused to work it out. That curtain pole really still isn’t up! I don’t have time to work out if I am a women’s libber! There seems to be a lot to it. WHAT DOES IT MEAN?’
I understand.
So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your pants.

a) Do you have a vagina? and
b) Do you want to be in charge of it?

If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.

I have been experimenting with how I talk about my company’s work. It sometimes feels like declaring a company’s feminism draws exactly the right people to our orbit. Some people light right up and get excited when I say it. But you may be feeling the “but” waiting in the wings of this. . .

But – I met with someone who coaches women in business. In describing my company’s work, I mentioned our feminist lens and she made a face that was either extreme horror or extreme excitement. It wasn’t clear to me which one it was until she exclaimed, “That word! Do you realize how much stuff comes with that word?” (I do, actually.)

And she tells me about the difference between “feminist” and “feminine” and the way feminist sounds like militant, because it ends in “T.” (This is the same argument I hear as related to its ending in “ist” – people don’t like it because it’s like “racist” and “communist,” etc. I wonder why no one ever mentions the positive things that end in “ist” like Impressionist, Surrealist or even the benign, “tourist.”)

I know she’s picturing bra-burning and shouting (nothing can be further from the actual images of my work) and the more we talk, the more I tell her about my work, the more alternate phrases she offers, (“Woman-centered” or “empowers women” or “Expanding women’s roles”) And all those things are true but it reminds of the same thing Moran talks about, that the best word for this thing we’re talking about is still feminist.

…for all that people have tried to abuse it and disown it. “feminism” is still the word we need. No other word will do. And let’s face it, there has been no other word, save “Girl Power” — which makes you sound like you’re into some branch of Scientology owned by Geri Halliwell. That “Girl Power” has been the sole rival to the word “feminism” in the last 50 years is a cause for much sorrow on behalf of the women. After all, P. Diddy has had four different names, and he’s just one man.

It feels clear that feminist is the most accurate description of my theatre company’s point of view. But I acknowledge that this accurate word is loaded with a whole world of things for a whole lot of people that have nothing to do with my work. I want to share my work with those people, too.

When I described one of our shows to this women’s business consultant, she got very excited and pulled out a photo of her daughter and herself to show me. She’s an advocate for women. Her job is to help women succeed in a field that has been traditionally closed to us. Yet she cringes at “feminist” despite clearly being engaged in the task of expanding women’s possibilities. This woman and I have a lot to say to each other and this one word is the only thing blocking our understanding of each other. Where she pictures screaming and chanting, I’m performing gentility. I have a marketing problem.

Some people encourage leaning into this thing that makes my company unique while the business woman encourages avoiding the word that describes that thing. I gain some supporters by using the word and alienate others.

What I have been doing is an experiment. Sometimes when I explain our work, I say feminist and sometimes I don’t. So far, it’s not in our marketing or advertising but I’ve been thinking of shifting that. I’m just thoroughly on the fence about it. Tell me what you think. Should we advertise our feminism or hold it close?

I’d really value your thoughts. Maybe I’ll just tally the votes and go with the majority on this question. To publicize or not to publicize.
Let me know.

(If the poll below doesn’t appear clickable – just go to the link HERE.)

Should my theatre company advertise our feminist mission?
Yes
No
Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No
Other
Please Specify:

Poll Maker

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Open Letter to American Theatre Magazine
August 31, 2010, 12:21 am
Filed under: art, business, dreams, theatre, Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

Dear American Theatre Magazine,

Recently, you asked me to fill out a survey. Your marketing team is clearly trying to figure out why subscribers cease subscribing.
I did it dutifully.
I tried to be helpful.
I answered the “rarely” and the “never” and the “not important to me”s.
I numbered 1 to 7.
I chose my priorities.
But when you gave me the opportunity to comment, I don’t think I really told the truth.
Yes, I quit subscribing to your magazine when I was painfully broke
but I’ve been broke before and kept it going.
This time, though, I thought it through and asked myself why I should.
And I realized that lately,
reading your magazine makes me feel bad about myself. Reliably.
It’s not your fault.
You’re the reflection of what is happening in the business of theatre. And in the past few years, I’ve begun to recognize more and more of the names on your pages. My friends are getting published in your folds; my old nemeses are getting your awards as I watch, laboring still in unpublicized fields. The magazine has moved from a world I was aspiring to, to the world around me, reflected in glossy photos. I’ve given up my ambitions to appear in the magazine myself. I can’t chase after publicity anymore. I can woo no more newspapers. I can come up with no more clever marketing ploys. All I can do is make theatre.
But my ambitious shadow follows me, waiting for the least opportunity to dwarf me and your headlines are its fuel.
I’m sorry American Theatre Magazine. It’s not your fault. There are interesting things to be found in your pages but I can not read them, not until I no longer long to be featured there.
I wish things were different, Magazine. If I could figure out how to change the limping system that you document, I would. I would find a way to help art be at the forefront, for the field to be recognized and valued in the eye of the general public, for every theatre artist to value his or her own worth regardless of fame or recognition.
I’m waiting for that cure. Meanwhile, I’m starving my ambitious shadow who longs for your news.
Til I’m happier and healthier,
An Anonymous Theatre Artist



Promoting. Selling. Getting Hits.

Art as commerce has been on my mind a lot these days. I took a show to Edinburgh this August and was amazed at what a marketplace it was. Theatre there wasn’t so much about theatre as about promoting theatre. Every day most artists spent an hour a day doing their show and two to eight hours promoting it. The festivals main drag (The Royal Mile) was full to bursting of artists handing out flyers to passersby. By simply walking two blocks, one could collect hundred of flyers in a few minutes. Gimmicks were legion. Pot Noodle the Musical handed out free Pot Noodles (cup-a-soup like things.)  Hamlet Experience gave out fans. Some valentine show gave out heart shaped candies. All of us were there scrambling to get people in to see our shows.

Now, I’m not opposed to marketing. I understand that people need help finding out about things they might like. My producer and I even took a marketing class a few years ago, which I actually enjoyed. I liked thinking about who would want to see our work and figuring out how to get in touch with them. But that felt very different to me than the practice just trying to get numbers in.  Sometimes making art can turn into a game of getting butts in seats, hits on a blog, plays on music sites, downloads or views.

What I’m wrestling with is the necessity of promotion and wondering if it actually works and if so, how. I learned a long time ago that if I wanted to “get somewhere” with something, I’d have to worry about promoting in some way or another. From sending out headshots, to handing out postcards, to sending out emails, I’ve done all of it. And cross-promoted some of that, too. Sometimes it’s even fun.

But, we were such unsuccessful promoters in Edinburgh that there were shows where no audience turned up at all. I’ve posted my music all over the web and there are still songs that have never been played by anyone but me. This puzzles me. I have friends. I even have friends who like my music. If I played a gig next week, I’m pretty sure I could bring in a decent audience. And yet hardly anyone listens to a thing I post. No one reads these posts on this blog when it comes to that. (This I understand, however, since I’ve only told a couple of people about it.) I try not to take personally people not showing up or not listening or not reading or whatever and for the most part, I manage that. I just find it endlessly curious. What tips something over from un-listened, unwatched, unexamined to hundreds or thousands people becoming interested in it?

The web feels a bit like Edinburgh, there are so many things competing for our attention on it, that it’s easy for the songs of our friends or their blogs or their essays or their You Tube clips to get lost in the shuffle. I guess I’m just wondering how much of my soul do I sacrifice when I get all promote-y and pushy about getting my work forward, and is it worth it? I’m happier when I can just make shows and not give a damn who shows up and who doesn’t. When I can write something and not care who reads it or compose something and not care who hears it. I guess that’s the answer for now – no more promoting until I’m in the mood for it again. At the moment, the thought of promoting even one more thing makes my stomach turn. Publicize this blog? Nope,  not yet.

This is a song that never gets any hits at all. Maybe putting it here will up its numbers. Not Your Type




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