No, this isn’t a ploy to lower my bounce rate. If you read the page (NB: not “the post”), you will get a useful reminder about what to do if you change the URL of a post or page.
As a part of this change, I’ve started a “Sterling Lynch” Facebook page. You should like this page, if you want a one-stop shop for all my creative output or if you’re interested in the idea of using social media to make things happen.
I’m not sure who coined the expression “boob tube” but its implication has always been clear to me: people who watch TV are boobs, simpletons, and lack common sense.
Even as a kid, I never really understood this characterization of TV viewers because it was with TV that I first learned to express my autonomy. If I didn’t like what I was watching, I could always turn the channel, turn off the TV, or leave. I wasn’t compelled by the conventions of TV to sit passively and absorb whatever was presented to me. Even as a kid, it seemed to me that only a boob would do something like that.
I thought of this one evening as I sat feeling trapped in a performance I was mostly enjoying. … Read more.
I wasn’t a part of the Twitter conversation that was the catalyst for the hashtag that became the site, but I was tweeting with many of the key players around the time that it all began (Jan 2010). I thought the idea of a hashtag dedicated to a certain kind of conversation was brilliant and I adopted it as soon as I saw it being used. Eventually, a companion site was born.
A year and a half later #2amt is going strong. There are a few familiar avatars but tweeps come and go, appear and reappear, and so long as people respect the one rule that I know — no hard-sell publicity — you are always welcome to participate. The result is a 24-7, international, and theatre-focussed conversation. It is rare the time that I drop into #2amt and don’t find a valuable discussion, resource or idea.
Check it out sometime, even if you don’t care all that much about theatre. 2AMt is an excellent example of what’s truly possible with social media. Search “‘2amt” on Twitter, follow along, and find out why.
As artists it is natural for us to think that our arts marketing strategies should begin and end with our art. We are, after all, artists; we care about our art; and it is our art that motivates us to work. Shouldn’t our art — and the quality of it — also be the primary motivation for others to consume it?
I’m very tempted to play the part of the iconoclast and claim that our art — and the quality of it — is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether or not anyone will consume it; however, in order to avoid the inevitable softening of my position in the comments section, I will forgo sensationalist iconoclasm and make the much more plausible and far less provocative claim that our products — the art we produce — is the least important P of the the 4Ps: product, price, promotion, and place. Alternatively, I could make the same point by claiming that our art is the least important feature of the product we market.
On what grounds do I make this claim? Poor art often finds an audience, great art often does not, and people who claim to be passionate about the arts consume art they don’t like more often than not. We sit through bad play after bad play or attend one indifferent gallery opening after another because we are consuming a product larger than the play on the stage or the picture on the wall. Moreover, in a world with so many great people, places, and things, our great art is only one more great noun among many.
Unfortunately, if my claim is correct, many artists will be heartbroken.
Many artists want people to consume their steaks however they sizzle. They want people to consume their steaks because they are beautifully unique steaks. They want people to consume their steaks because the artists’ preferred experts and / or peers told them to consume the steaks. They want people to consume their steaks for only those reasons the artists deem appropriate. In sum, far too many artists want their steaks to be consumed for reasons that don’t correspond with the very many other reasons people eat steak.
Fortunately, if my claim is correct, some artists will find it liberating. I know I do.
Look at the claim again: an artist’s work is the least important dimension of the marketing mix or, if you prefer, the product s/he sells. Doesn’t that feel liberating? Whatever you create, assuming you approach the question of marketing in good faith, in this day and age, you should be able to find people who will value it. Don’t let the market determine your art, let the market determine your marketing. Make whatever art you want to make, find people who value it, extract as much wealth as possible from them, or partner with someone who will do it for you.
The trick, of course, is that no marketer or marketing strategy can necessarily guarantee that your work will be sufficiently valued by a sufficient number of people who are sufficiently wealthy to provide you with sufficient means to survive off the income generated from your work, however, if income generation is the measure by which you assess the value of what you do, you are in the wrong line of work. There are plenty of meaningful and creative jobs that will pay you lots of money. Go do them.
Instead, if you are passionate about making your art, whether or not you make an income off of it, make the best art you can by whatever standard you prefer, figure out the reasons why people will give you money for it, and accept — nay, embrace — the fact that their reasons for consuming it may be very different than your reasons for making it and that their reasons may even be reasons you don’t particularly admire or respect. Don’t ridicule them for their reasons (unless they want to be ridiculed); smile, nod, and validate their reasons as you take their cash.
Repeat after me: make the art you want to make; make the art you want to make; make the art you want to make.
Then, figure out which needs motivate people to consume your art and position your art as meeting those needs. If you don’t have the time, will, or inclination to market your art properly, partner with someone who will.
On Friday, March 19th, 2011, I saw the Ottawa opening of the NAC/Canadian Stage co-pro of Michel Tremblay’s St. Carmen of The Main, freshly translated by Linda Gaboriau. I enjoyed this production. It’s stylishness is glossy, illuminating, and revitalizes a classic from the Canadian canon.
I suspect — and a quick review of the reviews — supports my suspicion that the critical reception of this production will be divided into two broad camps. Some will think the production’s stylish, abstract, and universalizing treatment of a classic text, which has a clearly defined place in the Canadian canon, loses sight of what matters most in the play. Others, like me, will think the decision to diminish the play’s historicity revitalizes it for a new and broader audience. Personally, I think this division of opinion cuts to the very heart of what this production is all about.
Carmen has returned to the Main, after six months away in Nashville, where she has been refining her understanding of country music, a style of music she misappropriated, transformed into an escapist fantasy, and used to turn herself into a celebrity on the Main. In her time away, for reasons which are never identified, she decides to write new songs which retain the trappings of her country and western fantasy but are now rooted in the experiences of the people who live on the Main. The narrative of the play is driven by her homecoming performance and the aftermath of her decision to play the new songs at it.
For me, this production of St. Carmen is concerned primarily with the role of the artist in her community. Which of the Carmens is truly the saint of the Main? Is it the celebrity Carmen who creates a fantasy that allows her and her community to escape their misery but who also helps perpetuate it. Is it the redemptive Carmen who reinvents her community’s stories in a positive light but who may also be selling them a greater and even more damaging lie? Or is it the Carmen who refuses her celebrity, who really wants to be herself, and may prefer the oblivion of singing her own songs alone in the shower forever?
For me, the production effectively illuminates the tension created at the intersection of this trinity of questions. If Carmen truly empowers the people of the Main by giving voice to their stories, it makes sense that those empowered voices will learn to sing their own songs and Carmen’s relevance should diminish. Moreover, as each person learns to sing her own song, the unified voice of the chorus should also disappear. Art that truly empowers should, it seems, diminish the role of the artist in the community and should also undercut the hegemony and harmony of the community’s chorus. Art that is more than pure escapism, it seems, should eventually eliminate the community’s need for the celebrity artist.
For those of you who have long ago decided that The Main is a play about Quebec nationalism, this production and my reading of it may seem more than a little implausible and perhaps even a kind of betrayal of the original text. Indeed, other than the fact that the original text is widely understood to be about Quebec nationalism, there is very little if anything in this production which implies it is about Quebec nationalism or a very real street in Montreal. Indeed, for those of us who are suspicious of nationalism in any of its varieties, it can even be claimed this production implicitly illuminates the fact that the siren song of nationhood is as much a fantasy as Carmen’s songs of Colorado, as complicit in the exploitation of the people on the Main, and as prone to thuggery. Ultimately, this production succeeds because it pushes its politics to the periphery and instead focuses attention on the almost universal urge for redemptive and edifying self-expression at the heart of the artistic impulse, nationalism, and religion.
The origins of myth are complex, but it seems obvious to me that we don’t revisit Greek myth and theatre because it is a window to an authentic Greek experience. Whether or not Greek myth and theatre played an essential role in the creation of a distinctly Greek national identity, we revisit them only because they tap into something universal and because they allow us to see ourselves in their stories — just like Carmen’s implausible country songs about the people of the Main. This production, I think, is an experiment in myth; whether it succeeds or not depends on whether or not I, you, or we can see our story in it. To make that even possible, you will need to discard the assumption that this play is necessarily about a specific time, place, and history — a time, place, and history which is remote even to those who lived it. Like the people of the Main, you need to be open to the possibility that an implausible fantasy — like a local cowgirl just back from Nashville singing songs that edify your experience — might in fact be telling your story.
Did you see the production? Did you see yourself in it? How did you “read” the production?
Recently, it occurred to me, the human capacity to form personal attachments — for people, places, and things — is essential to understanding and predicting human behavior and, as result, for understanding the shape of society. If there is anything like an internal structure to communities and society, I’ve realized, these attachments are it.
Because I’m predisposed to think about human behavior from a neurological perspective, I immediately contacted a neuroscientist friend to find out what kind of research had been done on attachment.
Sure enough, lots of work has been done and researchers are closing in on the neurobiology of attachment. With respect to chicks, rats, sheep, and voles, researchers can even induce attachment. With respect to humans, researchers have found that looking at a loved one or hearing him or her stimulates the same part of the brain as a cocaine induced euphoria. Human attachment, it seems, is highly addictive and, perhaps, there is something to the notion that drugs fill a void of personal attachment in an addict’s life.
When I mentioned to my friend that it’s only a matter of time before researchers induce attachment in humans and that someone will make a lot of money if they harness the means for commercial purposes, he replied:
I would think that the easiest way to throw the “neurological switch” and get someone to like you is to tap into that dopamine reward pathway while the person is in your presence. Then good ‘ol association will drive them to link that good feeling with you. People have been mastering this for years. When we go out on dates, we go eat delicious food and delicious drinks. We go to funny “date movies” and we are always attracted to funny people because laughing feels good. Personable people have a knack for making us feel good and comfortable so we continue to hang out with them. It is so much nicer to hang around with a positive person rather than a negative person.
Along the same vein, we come to like people as we become more familiar with them/repeated exposure. Advertisers use this: When I am watching the news in the evening they will play the same commercial 8 times. By the end of the week, we are “familiar” and comfortable with their product.
What he says makes sense and, I think, is a useful reminder for those of us who market goods and services. When all is said and done, our task is fairly simple: make yourself familiar to your target audience and associate yourself with pleasant feelings.
The real question, I guess, is why do so many people have such a hard time doing it?
[The first video is an off the cuff introduction to this post.]
[In the second video, I read the full text of the post.]
I’ve seen a lot of theatre in the last twenty-odd months and, for the most part, my reaction has always been the same. I would leave the theatre muttering to myself, “I’m not the target market. I’m not the target market.”
I’ve seen unquestionably poor productions receive a riotously positive response from an enthusiastic audience and I’ve seen well-executed but hopelessly banal and unoriginal productions become the toast of the town. Again and again, I would say to myself, “I’m not the target market. I’m not the target market,” because — at the time — I thought it was a diplomatic and ecumenical response to a frustrating experience. Officially, I love theatre but very little of what I saw was enjoyable to me.
Then, I saw Les Guerriers, which I enjoyed tremendously. On the one hand, I was relieved. OK, this whole loving theatre thing wasn’t something I made up. I really do love it! On the other hand, I was confused. Why did I enjoy this french language production when I could barely understand the words spoken. So, as I often do, I reflected. Then, it struck me.
Les Guerriers presents two ad men who are engaged in an extended intellectual debate about the nature of war and who also find the time to get intoxicated through a rich medley of means. Now, on any given night, this is more or less exactly what I do: engage in extended intellectual debates (on everything from war to identity politics to online marketing) while knocking back a pint or two. What I saw on stage, then, was essentially a well-executed and dramatically heightened reflection of my own existence. I enjoyed the play precisely because it held up a mirror which said to me when queried, “Yes, you, my beautiful unique snowflake, are the fairest of them all.”
So, despite my Nietzschian-last-man-at-the-end-of-history-pretensions, I realized after some reflection, I am not like everyone else and I’m exactly like everyone else. Yes, the mirror in which I prefer to gaze is not much like the mirror in which most other people prefer to gaze but, like everyone else, I prefer to gaze into a mirror that reflects me, oh glorious me. I realized also, when I was muttering to myself, “I’m not the target market; I’m not the target market,” I was also implying, “I should be the target market; I should be the target market.” There was, in fact, nothing ecumenical about my attitude at all.
Confronted with the cold reality that I was both like and not like the creamy middle, I really had only two choices: 1) I could become a vocal and public snob or 2) I could get off my high horse and accept that I’m like everyone else. I decided to get off my high horse and to start thinking about how I could best serve theatre and the arts in Ottawa, without necessarily only serving the stuff I love. Thanks to a lot of help from Evan Thornton, one outcome of this line of thinking is www.OttawaSneezers.com.
Remember, creating, producing, and supporting the arts is not a zero-sum equation. If I help people discover an arts event that they appreciate and enjoy — even if the event isn’t anything I’m personally excited by — no one is harmed and, arguably, a lot of good has been done for me and for others. Once people get in the habit of engaging with the arts, we can expect they will do it more often and we can expect that the audiences for arts events will grow. Moreover, if I can help foster a community or a city where a thousand flowers bloom, one of my own flowers could bloom and, eventually, end up in a highly sought after bouquet. Or, rejigging the allegory I used previously, a mosaic of a thousand mirrors should, I think, be a pretty impressive sight.
I should be clear: I’m not saying you, I, or, anyone else should attend or praise arts events we don’t like. I am, for example, absolutely committed to religious freedom but I don’t think baptists have any obligation to go to Catholic mass. I am saying, we should all encourage and support the effort to create and we should all do what we can to connect audiences to events they will enjoy even if we might not enjoy it ourselves.
Let’s face facts: yes, artists are narcissistic and inward-looking. Period. We kind of need to be to create the art we create. We don’t, however, need to be snobs. My art and audience may not look like your art and audience but we both share the common goal of creating art and finding an audience for it. There’s no need for you to attack my art or for you to be a part of my audience. We should, however, create an community where people can feel good about attending whatever arts event they want to attend because, after they attend my event without confronting ridicule for doing so, they will be much more likely to take a chance on yours.
In the back of my mind, I’ve had the itch for a post about the role of public criticism in the performing arts for a little while now, but I haven’t quite been able to find the hook with which to scratch it.
[NB: I recorded a video version of this post, if you prefer to watch and listen. Check it out at the bottom of the post.]
Then, I thought, “Wait a minute, you’ve written on this topic already. Go reread the post and maybe that will be the catalyst you need.”
So I did.
It turns out that old post was indeed the catalyst I needed but not for the reason I expected. Much to my surprise my opinion hasn’t much changed since March 11th, 2009.
Here’s the heart of the lengthy post:
… people very rarely respond positively to negative criticism or learn from it — especially when it is made publicly — even if it is constructive. So there seems little point in offering it. Good criticism takes a lot of time and effort and, if it simply disappears into the vacuum of wounded pride, it seems to me that the time could be better spent doing other things — like making good (insert performing art of your choice here). In other words, lead by example.
Add that pretty much sums up my view.
Now, I should say, every man has his price, and I’m certainly willing to write public criticism for the right price (and I have) but it’s not something I’m willing to do as a labor of love. In contrast, I’m quite happy to sing the praises of a work, event, or organization I respect or admire because that’s easy, fun, and always appreciated.
To which it might be said (and has been said), public criticism isn’t for the practitioners but for the audience.
To which I reply: I’m not convinced audiences want the kind of information critics are expected (by whom?) to offer and I don’t think audiences judge a work in the fashion critics are expected (by practitioners, I think) to judge a work. People go to arts events and enjoy those events for reasons that rarely have anything to do with the number of angels on the end of the critic’s pen and I don’t think there’s anything a critic can do to change this. What I describe in the text I quoted applies to audiences as well as to practitioners. When a person publicly criticizes an arts event that someone loves — or a friend loves — it will fall on deaf and wounded ears.
Furthermore, because there’s an audience (however big or small) for every instance of art, it seems to me the media shouldn’t commission a person to tell me why he or she likes an event but instead should commission a person to identify who will most likely enjoy the event.
In sum, there’s a role for public criticism (traditionally conceived) and those with the desire and patience to provide it should do so, but I also think the market for it is pretty small. In contrast, I think what audiences want and need is someone who vets whether or not an event/show/etc. is what the publicist claims it to be. In other words, I think audiences want arts journalism rather than arts criticism.
And, of course, I could be wrong.
So, I would love to hear what you, as a member of the audience, want from the media when it comes to their coverage of the arts. Moreover, I’m not really sure anyone has ever bothered to ask before.
With or without bothering to read the lengthy post and — if I do say so myself — the excellent discussion in the comments section, please answer me this when you have a moment:
What is the appropriate role of public criticism in the arts (either professionally or personally);
What do you want from the (formal or informal) media when one of its representatives writes about the arts?
Any and all thought always appreciated!
I’m also looking for feedback with respect to the video format itself. Does this work as a short video or do you prefer reading it?
In order to improve my sales skills, in the spring and summer of 2010, I reviewed quite a few books on how to be a better salesperson.
Every book I looked at made a claim like this one: as a salesperson, you aren’t selling an apple, a smart phone, or a play. You’re selling a solution to a problem. To sell well, first, figure out a person’s problem by asking a lot of questions and by listening carefully. Then, convince her that your product is the solution to her problem. In many instances, you may even need to convince the person the problem exists, before you get a chance to sell the solution. The best salespersons identify genuine problems and offer genuine solutions.
With that as background, here then are two questions for you, if you have a few minutes to reply:
1. Which of the arts do you most often consume and what problem does it solve for you?
I recently finished Don Thompson’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art and I will happily claim that if you work in arts marketing — any manner of arts — and you haven’t read this book, you are not doing your job. Moreover, I think any person who thinks seriously about marketing will enjoy this book. Finally, if you’ve ever wondered how the hell someone pays $35 million for Andy Warhol’s painting of a Coke bottle, entitled Coca-Cola (4) (Large Coca-Cola), you should also read this book.
Don Thompson’s key claim is that the super-rich want the status of being art collectors but don’t have the time (or inclination) to do the work necessary to learn about art. As a result, a handful of famous collectors and dealers, a few big name galleries, and the two super auction houses are able to use their “brands” as a way to create value — tremendous value — in objects you and I might think are worth only a few hundred dollars.
Effectively, the art industry is in the business of creating super-high-end status symbols.
Hang a Warhol on your wall and everyone who is anyone knows you paid a fortune for it and the relevant opinion-makers agree it’s worth a fortune. Similarly, if someone questions your judgement about purchasing a more obscure piece of art, you need only reply, “I bought it at the Sotheby’s evening auction.” Amongst the crowd who go in for it, that’s a conversation stopper. There’s no reply. The art could be a jacket tossed in the corner or a pile of candies (both real examples!) but if the branded people say it’s a highly valuable piece of art, the super rich, say “OK” and transfer the cash. Sometimes, without even seeing the art in question!
To use Thompson’s words: “It is the dealer branding, and substitution of the dealer’s choice and judgment for the collector’s, that add value.” Art, in and of itself, is not particularly valuable. Art only becomes valuable — even super valuable — when it has been recognized as such by the recognized value makers. If this seems implausible, look no further than the $20 bill in your wallet, which is worth far more than the paper and ink from which it is made only because the correct people deem it valuable.
Ultimately, value does not exist without valuers. When it comes to the question of what to value, many valuers — for a variety of reasons — prefer to rely on the trusted judgments of others. As a result, some valuers can create value — even tremendous value — with their judgments because people trust that they value only those goods and services that others will also value. So, if you want your good or service to be valued, you need to get the trusted value-makers on your side or you need to become one yourself.
So ask yourself: what are you or what is your organization doing to create an experience — over time — that reassures your customers that other people also value your good or service. A great product or service is neither sufficient nor necessary for marketing success, unless “the reassurance and/or reaffirmation of value” is exactly what you market!