I’ve noticed something. This could just be my perceptions, so they carry my biases and some admitted sampling error and you can dismiss this observation out of hand, as if it were anecdotal, but I’ve noticed something I think is significant.
There is any number of institutions and bodies set up to nurture talent and to provide a pathway from emergent artist, to the big time. In high tech start-ups, we have incubators, angel investor advisors, mentors, venture capitalists, government grant administrators and a whole host of other “official” channels that the budding entrepreneur must approach, whose hoops he must jump through, but the unspoken idea is that if you navigate this pathway correctly, your success is assured.
In publishing, there is a similar pathway, involving perhaps a creative writing course, or an apprenticeship with a newspaper, a publishing house, a literary agent and so on. In music, its record companies, agents, Nashville, music publishers, promoters, royalty collection agencies, aggregators, online music marketers, etc. In painting and sculpture, there are the fine arts degrees, the accepted exhibitions, galleries, agents, auction houses. You name the creative endeavour and there are institutions and official channels that you are encouraged to partner with, listen to and impress, who act as gatekeepers to artistic success.
What they all imply is that if you make the grade with them, then you’ll be fine. Your artistic success is an achievable goal. The other side of this coin is that if you fail to gain the approval of these official pathways to success, you’ll vanish and die in obscurity. Their disclaimer, as ever, is that if you fail, even having made an impression on the institutions that exist to guide you toward success, then it is all clearly your own fault, your own inadequacy or your own indolence that is to blame, not their judgement in selecting you as a potential winner.
Because there is a lot at stake, it is exceedingly hard work and time consuming work to jump through the required official hoops. You can spend a lot of time and energy not creating your art, but instead applying for funding, impressing the requisite bodies, attending the committee meetings and volunteering as a neophyte, in the hope of networking your way to the top.
Some of them attempt to cajole you into giving real things away today (like your time, talent, original works) for imaginary things in the future (share options, options on future albums, a royalty based only on the net profits, after “expenses”). It’s surprising how many people fall for this trick. Why this isn’t simply categorised as theft, I don’t know. Somehow, people with funding think it is ok to penalise you financially, for doing what you love to do, as if that is reward enough and your children don’t need food or a place to live when you are creating what you enjoy creating. Worse still are those that have no funding, but pretend they have future access to funding. They take and never give.
Here’s the dirty secret, though. If you talk to successful artists of any stripe you care to consider, including entrepreneurs in high technology, you will almost universally hear stories of against-the-odds success, by quirky happenstance, finding a route to success that nobody previously suspected. Virtually nobody makes it through having followed the required, official, orthodox route. Real success stories almost never follow the script that is peddled.
Real success stories are almost always unlikely, novel, groundbreaking routes to success, involving serendipity, unexpected opportunity, preparedness, happy accident and blundering forward, unaware that what is being attempted cannot be done. Your favourite artists most likely will tell stories of hardship, struggle, almost giving up and then, through desperation, finally making it. They often see the story of their own success very differently to how other people tell it. In some cases, they’re not even aware they’ve made it.
So why do the institutions exist, if they almost never successfully nurture nascent talent into successful artist? Sometimes they exist for the noblest of reasons. By reverse engineering what worked once, for somebody, the theory is that recreating the exact same set of circumstances for somebody else will also result in their success. The problem with this theory is that it fails to acknowledge that you can never exactly recreate the circumstances that lead to somebody’s success. For one thing, the world is changed forever by their success. You can’t reheat the soufflé.
Secondly, despite their grandiose pretensions of altruistic intent, some of the institutions and official channels, even if subconsciously, act as a means of keeping the competition out. Some artists have staked out some territory and the last thing they want is somebody else encroaching on their patch, especially if they’re in any way better, brighter, more interesting, more innovative or more iconoclastic. I often feel the worst people to decide which paintings should be hung in a show are artists who hope to hang their own kind of work in the same show, yet the Royal Society’s summer exhibition is adjudicated in precisely this way.
Does it matter that these institutions exist and act as gatekeepers to artistic success? Yes and no. For one thing, they waste an awful lot of time and money, occupying countless talented people in what will ultimately be a futile quest. How many really great artists are never successful because they spend their entire careers trying to jump the arbitrary and never ending hoops placed in their way? But no, it doesn’t matter, because everyone who succeeded found a way around them, to an audience. Their monopoly over the gate is not actually that strong.
In earlier times, you needed a lot of money to succeed as an author, a musician, an artist, or an entrepreneur. It cost a lot to publish a book, record an album, put on a Broadway show, create a new piece of software, make a feature film, and mount an exhibition and so on. It cost still more to market the art and distribute it. Institutions derived their power from their bank balances. The only way for an artist to access that funding was to play by the institutions’ rules.
However, the costs of production, dissemination and promotion have radically fallen, due to the Internet and computer tools. Even artists on modest day-job subsidised budgets can make, market and distribute their art today. Because it is cheaper to make, more of it is rubbish, of course, so it’s harder to be noticed and it means you have to produce work of an even higher quality than in previous ages to be noticed at all, above the sea of mediocrity, but if you work at it, you can do it. The only other problem is that artists’ incomes have also fallen, with digital copying and a realisation that people of modest means can make great art. Why this matters is that the costs might have fallen, but the time and effort taken to make great art actually has not. If anything, it has increased. The quality bar is so much higher.
Looked at another way, though, one of the joys of art, today, is that you can produce works of high quality for not much money, so you don’t actually need to make commercial success your goal. If all you want to do is make great art for friends and family, while holding down a day job, you can do it. You can take it to a wider audience by giving it away. If all you want is for the happiness and beauty to be spread, the means to do so is now within your grasp. All you have to find is the time.
What this lowering of costs means commercially, though, is that publishers, agents, managers, record companies, movie studios, incubators, agencies, jingle houses, galleries, radio station playlist programmers and all kinds of previously powerful gatekeepers are now no longer quite as powerful. They’ve been disintermediated. These guys, to earn their keep, have had to massively increase the amount of value they add to an artist’s success. Most haven’t found a way to do so. Their contributions are no longer necessary or sufficient to break a nascent act. Their track record, as a group, of taking raw talent and creating commercially successful artists, isn’t all that spectacular anyway, given the fact that most artists made it in unusual and unique ways.
My bald prediction is that the last parasites on the artistic gravy train will also, ultimately, be disintermediated. It may be that, one day, the attorney that will only work for a percentage of the take might become an extinct species as well and not before time, if you want my view. Too many attorneys have made handsome livings simply dipping into their stock of boilerplate contracts. Only the talented negotiators and imaginative, innovative lawyers were ever truly worth their salt.
What too many middle men, in the artistic food chain, have done in the past is harvest things that were going to be big on their own, anyway, hitching their wagons to the next gravy train and taking their cut. Too many of these guys added next to no value to the artist’s career and success, but many took a large percentage. That’s not to say that some artist service providers didn’t do a brilliant job in providing a route to artistic success. There are some record producers that were indispensible in the careers of some very big groups, for example. But not everybody was on the level.
So what do you really need to make a commercial success out of your art? Well, you need an original approach to succeeding, preparation, something new and unique to offer, you need to produce work of quality and you need to sense or create opportunities somehow (wherever and however you make those). You’re also going to need a little luck. Mostly, though, you need to reach a mass of people that cotton onto what you are doing and who will demand it, with their money. That is what commercial success, in the arts, has always been about. Produce your work, but find your audience and be attractive enough to your audience that they will demand your work with their purchasing power.
What you need is your own brand of creative miracle, made your own way. And try to avoid the creative vampires, along the way.