We’re playing a show this Saturday at Club Fred. It’s only five bucks to get in and we’re playing all night.
I used to throw out this line nigh on every week back when I was 19-21 and gigging in rock bands regularly. After that it was different venues, more friendly to my classical and flamenco stuff, but the pitch was always the same, as were the responses, which something like this:
Awesome! I’ll totally try to be there. My girlfriend/boyfriend loves that kind of music! It’s so cool that you’re out playing.
When the gig rolled around, the audience would be filled with strangers. Occasionally a friend would show up (I’m thinking in my head of the few who actually would), but mostly the room would be filled venue patrons and random genre fans, virtually never anyone with whom I had a personal relationship. Most of my friends were, like me, musicians and were (I thought) just as dedicated to the art and the business as me. They feigned interest in my projects when I talked about them, but that’s where the support ended. Ultimately, my market always became strangers.
My own actions, however, did not mirror those of my friends and colleagues. When they talked about a passion project, I encouraged it, I asked to listen to recordings, and I went out of my way to go to gigs, even driving towns away to see them play. I sat in the front row at the concert. I clapped and cheered. I always paid the cover. My friends’ projects really mattered to me, but that sentiment didn’t seem to be returned.
I’m not bitter about it now, with so much perspective behind me, but in my younger years the disparity between words, attitudes, and the failing of actions in those I thought close to me were hurtful. I questioned my quality, my direction, my goals, and my means, all while receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback from the strangers that became my audience. I made a bit of money at the music craft too, but the music community still gave me a great deal of self-doubt.
Fast forward ten years and it seems that the same themes are repeating themselves. I write books now rather than music, but I receive the same set of mixed signals. My family and friends are excited about what I’m doing and act impressed, but few of them will ask for a copy of one of my novels. If somebody asks for a copy, they usually won’t read any of it. If I actively ask a person to read it, he or she will usually throw out an excuse as to why they can’t or didn’t. This website is free, and I know very few of them will stop by to actually read these words.
Perhaps I have at last found an avocation more detestable than music. Perhaps I am actually quite bad at what I do and what I did. Maybe nobody cares about me.
I just had a very bad set of assumptions and expectations about people, relationships, and art.
Love of Person vs. Love of the Art
For me, going out and seeing a friend perform wasn’t just seeing music or a play. It was witnessing part of that person’s being. I felt like understanding what a person did through art, or how they expressed themselves through art, was fundamental to understanding who they are. I went to performances, looked at paintings, and read poems because I thought it would bring me closer to that person. Likewise, I express myself through all of these things. With me, there is no separation between art and person.
These were not good expectations to have for my relationships, and worse still was my projection of the same expectations onto others. I assumed my friends and family had the same attitude toward the person and the art as I had toward them and their art. Part of this was because of who I was: an introverted and resigned artist that expected his art to speak where his words directly would not. I made the leap that when a person was dispassionate about what I was doing artistically, they were dispassionate about me. I thought if they disliked my art, they disliked me. If they were critical of my art, they were critical of me as a person.
The truth was that most people, even fellow artists, have particular tastes in art. They like certain kinds of books, music, and drama, and are not compelled to experience that which they know already lies outside of their preferences. They like classic rock, and even if they like me they probably don’t want to come see a black metal concert. They like Nora Roberts, not brutal samurai fantasy. I shouldn’t expect everybody I know to like what I write just because I wrote it. If somebody doesn’t like the genre of work I do, that doesn’t mean I am bad at it.
I have also moved from music, an experience of limited time, to novels, an experience of extended time. I might be able to convince someone to try out a 1 hour gig of music they don’t love, but I really shouldn’t expect someone to dump 10+ hours of their life into reading a book that they already know isn’t their usual thing. It is a bad expectation, and it can strain relationships in ways that just don’t exist with other professions.
Also part of this separation of person and art, and my mistakes in it, are the ways in which people get to know each other. Most people have conversations to get to know a person. They ask direct questions; they don’t ask for a piece of music expressing who the other person is. They ask about family, houses, cars, and work. I have a hard time talking about myself (I still can’t stand talking about what I do), so these sorts of interchanges feel awkward and overly direct (and therefore impersonal) to me.
I want people to understand me through my expression of art, but this is not what most people prefer.
Growth of Artist and Audience
Most people don’t pick up a pursuit of an avocation out of nowhere. They have friends and family that see a piece of talent, encourage it, and the person responds by developing skills and working on passions. Their father buys them a guitar, or their mother gets them into painting, or an parent pays for tennis lessons. Where guitar and tennis differ, however is in the way that they grow and develop within an individual. To root for your child in their tennis career, you only have to root for them to win. If you win, then you are progressing in success. The terms are easy to understand. Art, however, is subjective and self-expressive. There are competitions in art, but these are few and are usually just as subjective as all other experiences. The art itself might improve insomuch as it closer to the artist’s wish and vision, but it may not yield an obvious and external signal of success, such as money.
Actually, art that achieves the highest success for the artist might actively decrease income generated, because the artist becomes his own audience, rather than appealing to others. For a long time I considered this absolute an artistic ideal. The artist that can express himself perfectly in the mode he desires and get paid to do it is lucky indeed, but this is again a bad expectation. What is usually necessary for the rewards in art is an audience: a group of people whose tastes align with what the artist is outputting. An artist doesn’t just need an audience to make money, but an audience also provides a strong source of validation. An artist doesn’t just want perfect art for himself, but he wants that art to mean something to others, to stand apart and have meaning of its own. Lack of external validation can also cause some real ego problems, as I discussed last week.
After a while the artist develops tastes as well, both for what they prefer to consume and what they prefer to output (which may be different). The friends and family, those who encouraged and supported the talent they saw early on, may at some point find the artist’s work far from their own sphere of preferences.
In this sense, the artist outgrows his supporters and must at some point cultivate an audience.
Finding the Audience
This one is a little harder to tackle. I know a little about growing an audience as a musician, but not so much as a writer. As the content on this site began to grow very large, I started wondering for whom I was writing all these words. Looking at my site, my traffic, and my revenues, I can see that finding my audience will be a bit difficult. I primarily write fiction, but half of this site is non-fiction. Of this non-fiction, most of it is philosophy or reflection, not topical content like many other blogs.
I am experimenting in many ways and along many different paths to grow and support this site and its content. If you are a fellow creator like me, you may be struggling with the same difficulties. I do not have a clear set of advice yet for how to find and nurture your audience as a writer, but when I do, I will do my best to share it.
I do know that, if you have an artistic sense that is your own, you should not expect your friends and family to be your audience.