Marketers, like Seth Godin, tell us that the route to success is to make things worth talking about. While I agree that it is always your best bet to make the most remarkable things you are capable of making and to continue to improve on that, over time, I think the connection between making something worth talking about and people actually talking about it is not quite as straight forward as “people won’t be able to help themselves from talking about your work”. It’s not that automatic or guaranteed.
I think believing in the spontaneous, viral, word of mouth effect simply coming into existence, just because you have made something worth talking about, is tantamount to a belief in magic. It is a gross oversimplification, which ignores the very real problems associated with getting your work noticed. For new entrants into any highly competitive market, like the arts, the belief is dangerous.
For a start, there are just too many channels of communication to get your message out into, effectively. No person, starting out making things worth talking about, can manage them all. How do you start word of mouth, even if what you made is the finest thing ever? Before, in the age of mass marketing, you could just put up a billboard and people would test your claim. Now, you’re offer is so lost in a sea of noise that anonymity is virtually guaranteed. There is so much choice available to people, for how they spend their attention, that it is vanishingly unlikely you will get any of it.
The conventional wisdom used to be, “If you build it, they will come.” These days, it’s more often the case that if you build it, nobody comes. Nobody knows or cares that you’ve built something extraordinary. There is no reliable way for people to find out. The discovery of things worth talking about is largely down to chance, with very bad odds.
In fact, there is ample evidence that what people pay most attention to and talk most about isn’t worth talking about at all. You can see this for yourself. The social media channels and conventional media channels are all crammed to the gunwales with trivia, sensation, gossip and distraction. None of this is particularly worth talking about, yet this is evidently what people actually do talk about.
When it comes to the release of new things that actually are worth talking about, there are too many of them and too much to talk about, so nobody does. Entirely worthy offerings sink without a trace. If there is a glut of things worth talking about being made, then it’s difficult to get your particular thing noticed in sufficient numbers for a rolling snowball of word of mouth to commence. Momentum is hard to kick start.
With obscurity comes another problem. If nobody knows what valuable things you can bring to the world, how and why would they miss you, if you were gone? You might as well have never existed. The things that you made, remarkable as they were, go unnoticed and unremarked, if there is zero awareness of your existence and your talents. Even having a body of work will not change that. It needs to be a body of work which was both remarkable and somehow was brought to the attention of enough people that an ongoing conversation was ignited. Making the thing worth talking about is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to get people talking about you and what you make.
It’s very easy to get utterly bored with the incessant self-promotion that seems to be a requirement of getting your work noticed, today, especially when it elicits little response. Most artists rapidly tire of putting information about their remarkable works in front of people, if there is no interest shown in the works or the artist. You cannot keep showing up, displaying what you made and taking a bow, when the audience is indifferent. It’s especially difficult if you are reticent and don’t like talking about yourself and what you do, in the first place.
An artist can even get bored with making things worth talking about, if nobody ever talks about them. It’s true that artists make what they do for the existential joy of doing so, more often than not. However, if the only person with any appreciation of your efforts is you; it gets to be a little disheartening. Some of the joy of making things is lost, if nobody else seems to care.
Making a ruckus about the things that you make that are worth talking about cuts into the time you have to actually make things worth talking about. It’s true that you have to spend some time marketing your art, but if the effort required becomes overwhelming, or you feel you must put so much time and effort into getting your works noticed, then the exercise becomes inverted. Instead of making things worth talking about, you spend all your time trying to get people to talk about those things. This is not why you became a maker.
Unfortunately, there is no choice. If what you make isn’t worth talking about, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be doomed to oblivion. Average and mediocre things don’t even register with an audience, these days, due to the sheer deluge of choice and general high quality of many of the offerings.
Sadly, making things worth talking about instead of mediocre works barely changes your odds. Things are better for you, if you’re already known and trusted for making remarkable things, but it doesn’t work so well, if you are an unknown, have been working in obscurity, or in situations where people are quick to prejudicially write you off as “over the hill”. For those with a reputation that already exists, making things worth talking about is a solid strategy and the only one likely to work. For the new entrant, though, this strategy is not enough.
To compound the difficulties of getting remarkable work noticed, the evidence is that people talk about products for the wrong reasons. They complain about how they break prematurely, how you cannot get them serviced or repaired, that there was price gouging on and so on. Yet, people still buy those products, because they know the maker (even if it is due to their notoriety) and don’t necessarily know an alternative exists. You can’t vote with your money if you can’t see an alternative choice on the menu. Things you make in obscurity are as good as non-existent, no matter how bad the incumbent market leader is.
As a maker of things worth talking about, you might not survive for long enough, if your share of attention doesn’t build rapidly. You still have to eat and keep a roof over your head. While nobody knows about your good works, or while they don’t care to notice their remarkable qualities, you can simply run out of funds and be forced to do something more remunerative. This is why pop stars so often encourage PR by scandal. Because of the short shelf life of a new musical act, if they don’t outrage, then nobody knows how good (or bad) their music is. Without being noticed, a very good musician will simply fade from the general firmament. I know lots of great musicians making fine albums and releasing them, who nobody knows about. It’s not the quality of their music that is at fault, it’s the fact that nobody notices it.
There are also a lot of intermediaries, even in the modern Internet, who aggregate content and works that artists have made, but keep the lion’s share of any earnings for themselves, while paying the creators a pittance. They’ve created nothing worth talking about, other than a repository of many other things worth talking about. Were it not for all that remarkable work, which they aggregate, their own aggregation service would be as mundane as actuarial data.
Consumers, for their part, have grown so used to the promise of unlimited free stuff, they don’t really think about where the money goes and whether or not it ought to go to the aggregator/gatekeeper, or predominantly to the makers. Most assume it does. The truth is that it does not.
Maybe if you keep making things worth talking about, people will eventually talk about them, when you’re dead. That’s not a very comforting thought to somebody trying to make their living from what they make, while they’re alive. Just as likely, though, those remarkable works will be consigned to the dustbin of forgotten personal history, like so many lives and works of great significance ultimately are. It’s sad, but true, that much truly remarkable work ends up as landfill.
This has not been a very happy post to write. It is clear that making things worth talking about isn’t any use, if those things remain undiscovered. It is also clear that getting noticed is harder today than it ever was, simply because everybody can broadcast their message to everybody else, at virtually no cost, today. There is nobody curating and presenting only the best of the best. I doubt there will be, ever again.
We face fragmented markets and tastes and it has become exceedingly difficult to find and reach those that would appreciate what you make most. In the throng, we just don’t know that the other even exists. Because we cannot make a lot of money from our own works, we cannot spend money supporting other exceptional artists either.
Meanwhile, billionaires baulk at paying what their limited market ought to be paying, to support the few artists they patronise. They still think in mass market, mass produced pricing terms. They’re buying things of outstanding quality ridiculously cheaply, in reality.
I don’t have the answer. All I know is that the glib answer – that if you make something worth talking about, the market will miraculously find you – is hogwash. The other problem to solve is in getting noticed and building a reputation as a maker of fine things, in the first place. I don’t have the answer to this problem and I haven’t heard a convincing solution from anybody that thinks they have.
While a few superstar household names are the winners that take all, the rest of us are almost all in a vicious circle of obscurity and making things of the highest calibre isn’t enough to break it.