Doug McLennan, founder and editor of ArtsJournal, has a new blog post up this week that I think takes a much-needed look at prevailing attitudes about artists and how they think about and market their work. Too Many Artists or Not Enough Value actually speaks to more than just artists — many of the concepts are applicable to any small businesses — but it’s particularly incisive in its views of some “conventional wisdom” that he believes, as I do, are based on old ways of thinking — or just plain lazy thinking.
A number of my clients are professional artists who depend on sales of their work for some, if not all, of their livelihood. I have had some interesting — and sometimes frustrating — discussions with artists about the need to consider their work as a business and to get actively involved in using the new online marketing tools to get the word out about their work. Happily, most are finally catching on. I’ve been really happy to watch one particularly intransigent artist of enormous talent stop fighting the idea of marketing and actually jump in with both feet to social media, and to see her apparent success with it over a very short period of time.
McLennan’s post from his Diacritical blog tackles the rather depressing ideas in Scott Timberg’s book Culture Crash, which postulates that the transformation of our current culture is killing artists’ ability to make a living making art. The book tackles the “everything wants to be free” mentality, and there is an issue there, but I maintain that it’s not a permanent mindset. It can’t be. The fact is, no one can work for free and eventually they’ll realize that you get what you pay for.
But McLennan takes the saner, longer view and actually addresses the larger question begged by the book’s entire argument: The implication that the world’s “good” art and artists get devalued out of a marketplace glutted with “crap” art.
The Sky Is Falling
I think his post demonstrates exactly how tight, narrow, unimaginative minds perceive any challenge: as somehow presaging the end of the world. Not because they’re actually world-ending events, but because the fearful party cannot comprehend a new way for things to be; because they like the way things are, and don’t want them to change, for whatever reason. Or, more often, because their lack of imagination simply can’t see another option. So it’s easier for them to just turn into Chicken Little, and run around telling everyone the sky is falling.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that going around these days, what with the immense and nearly constant changes to nearly every facet of life — and certainly of marketing — wrought by the Internet. And especially among those whose minds are hamstrung by generations in which art has been broadly devalued and original thinking and genuine critical analysis is highly suspect.
The fact is that the Internet is no more ending the world than it is the savior of it. It’s simply another tool to be used to reach potential buyers with our marketing messages. That is, and always has been, true for artists as well as every other entrepreneur in the world. We need to stop with the hysteria already and instead either commit ourselves to becoming conscious, intentional marketers or admit we can’t hack it and get out of the way of those who can. We need to, in effect, become rodeo riders; learning how to tame the power of this bucking, twisting, unpredictable beast under our saddles enough to provide the energy to power our promotional efforts.
Perceived Value Has Always Been The Bottom Line
If artists create art that is intrinsically of value, our only job is to get it out where people can discover it, because after that, the market will establish itself by people trying it out and experiencing it for themselves. That’s it, folks. No magic here.
The whole aged notion of top-down marketing and “establishing the market” is SO old school. It’s deeply entrenched in the patriarchal, power-over culture of the past, and depends on proven wrong notions such as market creation. Guess what? You can’t CREATE a market! You can only discover one, then try to fill its needs. The notion of creating a market is simply arrogance on steroids.
What artists do — and do well, I might add — is keep their thumbs on the emotional pulse of society and respond using their own imaginations to appeal to that zeitgeist. This is exactly what all good marketers do. Here’s a really good example:
With the advent of the Internet, we’ve seen bazillions of “content marketers” pop up, and I can’t tell you the absolute CRAP I’ve seen out there trying to leverage the numbers of potential followers into sales. Most fail miserably in a very short time, because they’re not creating value for their prospects.
It’s Actually Working
But then there’s Etsy.com, created by imaginative entrepreneurs who take artists seriously as businesspeople. It’s an imaginative little online bazaar where one can buy every imaginable kind of art, as well as art supplies and vintage items created before 1975. Those two latter categories evolved out of Etsy paying attention to what its culture was asking for, then delivering — classic sound marketing tactic! And that outlet is doing very, very well, both for its sellers and its buyers.
The business model offers a generous percentage for its sellers, while creating an easy, interesting, and — dare I say it? — enjoyable/fun shopping experience for its buyers. Its designers have paid close attention over the years to enhancing the ease of discovery for new products and many other facets of the shopping experience. And there’s no hard sell to be found!
The funniest part is I can’t recall HOW many times I read of the imminent demise of Etsy by the established marketing publications and pundits. “Real” business leaders have never taken Etsy seriously. And yet. Founded ten years ago, Etsy now supports 500 employees and services 43.9 million members with 1.2 million active shops that have listed 26 million items. Its gross sales in 2013 were $1.35 BILLION. Yeah, I’d say that’s success by anyone’s measure.
Free Your Mind, and the Rest Will Follow
I think what we’re discovering is that — like every other entrepreneur in the global marketplace — savvy artists who do their homework are coming to understand that modern technology has largely leveled the playing field, and what we need to do is learn how to leverage it for our individual artwork if we wish to sell it.
The broader message here is that while the tenets of good marketing strategy remain the same — make something people want, put it where they can find it and present it in the most attractive light — the old ways of achieving those efforts are dying out. It’s not an indictment of those old methods, any more than the automobile was an indictment of the horse-drawn carriage. It’s just a more effective, cost-efficient tool to get the job done.
And as with any class structure — don’t fool yourself, that’s exactly what’s going on in marketing as in social and economic culture, there are definite established strata — the ones on top will never yield their power and privilege easily or without a fight. So they first pooh-pooh the new methods, then fear them, then lash out in anger before finally either adopting them or succumbing.
We’re seeing all stages before us now. That’s always what must go on when anything is “democratized.” I sincerely believe we are seeing the death of an old regime that’s no longer useful or relevant. But it’s not something to be feared or cried over or fought against. It’s simply us needing to change in our minds and our actions according to the realities of our age. It’s called evolution, and history is full of it. The only ones who are really hurt by it are those who can’t accept it.