It’s an interesting question, for an artist, I think. What makes it worth anybody’s time to pay attention to you and having paid attention to you, what’s going to make them pay you, or spend money to make the journey to see or hear you?
Once upon a time, if you wanted to get attention from an audience, there were limited, but well defined ways that you could simply butt in. You could interrupt, say your bit and hopefully sell something. That’s what mass media advertising was all about. That’s what mainstream radio airplay was. If you were able to pay for the slot, either with cold, hard cash or by less tangible value exchanges, you could put yourself in front of the faces of millions of people, at will, and there was little they could do about it. They’d have to listen to whatever you were saying, or look at whatever you were demonstrating, while they waited for the real programmes to start again. You could call them to action by sheer repetition.
It’s not like that anymore. For a start, the audience is now so fragmented, tuned into so many different channels and spending a lot more time with on-demand forms of media, that interrupting a mass audience, even for a few seconds, is becoming nearly impossible. You can’t cover all the different outlets. You couldn’t afford the slot, even if there was a way to deliver it to you. Not only that, but the more you interrupt increasingly information-overloaded and time-poor people, these days, the more likely you are to annoy and turn off potential customers, rather than cause them to buy something from you.
No, these days you can only command attention if you are interesting. Interesting can be in the sense of making something unique, or having a fascinating life story, or being so eccentric and strange that people are drawn like moths to a flame, in the quest to find out more. There is also the negative sense of interesting, where people are fascinated to see if you will really crash and burn this time, or die of consumption and sheer malnutrition. Both forms of “interesting” can help you build an audience, in a time when you can no longer just barge in and steal attention.
People have to want to hear about you or see what you’re doing. Ideally, they will also want to spread the word about you and share the fascination with their friends. You have to be a compelling proposition, as an artist, however you achieve that. You have to be worth watching or worth listening to (or both). There is so much choice available that to command any attention at all, you have to be the best show around.
That’s great, but there are plenty of interesting things that you can see or hear for free. Free media is offered because that’s one of the ways of making it interesting. If it’s free, the resistance to at least giving it a go is greatly reduced. Artists sometimes give away free stuff to get you to pay attention for long enough for them to sell you their premium wares. Unfortunately, we’re so spoilt for choice with free samples, these days that even that tactic has worn thin. There are people that won’t bother with free stuff anymore. It’s suspect. It can’t be very valuable. It’s just not that interesting anymore. We’ve seen it all before. Next.
So how do you, as an artist, command enough attention and become so interesting that people will pay to be with you, to see you or to share in your story, as an artist? How do you monetize what is most interesting about you and your art?
Bands found ways. They were often a combination of eccentric, yet different characters, performing with skill and deft aplomb, making music nobody had ever heard before. Add some big, chest crunching amplifiers, lots of bright, flashing lights, some pyrotechnics and lavish production values and there are unarguably bands that people will happily spend money to watch and listen to, for a few hours anyway. They’ll even spend money travelling to see such a band. But will they buy the album? Only if the album is interesting, too. The moment you include a track that bores, you dilute your ability to command and keep the audience’s precious attention and thereby dilute your ability to ask them to pay for the privilege of spending some time in your (virtual) company.
Painters found ways. Lavish New York gallery openings attract the glitterati. That’s an interesting place to be, but they’ll only gather if the art and the artist are interesting too. Once you have a critical mass of followers, the event – the exhibition – becomes as much a part of the attraction as the paintings. You might not like this, but it’s much harder to sell a painting in a sparsely populated gallery than in a crowded, buzzing hubbub. For one thing, in the empty gallery, there’s nobody to impress as you spend a fortune on an original, unique (and hence scarce) work of art. There has to be a crowd to make the purchase newsworthy, entertaining and, in itself, interesting. Be honest. If you had the choice of going to an exhibition where millionaires were parting with small fortunes to buy the works, versus quietly observing some paintings, however well executed, in stony, solitary silence, which would you spend money to go to?
As an artist you not only have to be interesting enough to attract attention, you have to keep that attention by remaining interesting. That often requires constant, radical change and reinvention. Artists with long careers are often very good at continually reinventing themselves and their art, writing new chapters to their already interesting life story. That’s what people want. That’s what they expect, of an artist. Stasis is invisibility.
Having caught attention and maintained it, you have to be still more interesting and a little sacred or scarce, so that people will compete to spend time with you, with their wallets. Limited editions are limited for a reason. It’s harder to charge a lot for something that there are millions of identical, highest quality copies of than it is to sell a single, brilliant piece, never to be reproduced again. That’s why the paintings of old masters continue to appreciate, while mass market prints and CDs of once popular musicians find their way to the discount rack. One art work commands astronomical prices, whereas you almost can’t give the other away, after a time. And guess what? It has nothing to do with the quality of the art work at all!
So, if you want people to part with money, just to be a part of your story, as an artist, you’re going to have to be mighty interesting to a lot of people, over a long period of time. However you capture and hold that interest is your own business. Being a drug-addled, self-destructive, egomaniac is one way, but it’s exceedingly difficult to successfully sustain or even survive. Even the most Bohemian of wastrels eventually becomes tiresome, if that’s their entire act. David Bowie is probably a more successful model. He never stays still. He has changed constantly, throughout his career, both in his music and his style. His life choices and values seemed to morph regularly too. That’s what keeps people coming back and brings new people into the fold.
What will you do to make yourself and your art, your back story and your vision for the future, so radically and startlingly interesting that people will find you worth watching and listening to? Can you be so interesting that they will spread the word, unasked, on your behalf?
How will you remain interesting? How will you keep your art interesting?
Once you’ve done that, what’s your plan to compel people to spend their actual money with you, to participate in your journey, in whatever small way you admit? What’s in it for your audience? What will they get, by spending their money, that will in some way give them a sense of belonging, comfort, rebellion, strength, hope, unity, connectedness, power, love, or any of a number of other different things that ordinary people value highly, when they buy into you as an artist and your art?
It really is a very interesting question, don’t you think?