Fans, Friends and Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age is a new e-book by Cambridge-based Scott Kirsner. He’s been writing, speaking, and connecting people involved in the uptake and spread of innovations for many years, including a column in the Boston Globe (together with its companion blog), and he also writes regularly on music and technology for Variety.
Fans, Friends and Followers focuses on creators and artists that are thriving in the age of digital distribution, and what can be learned from them. While there are framing chapters which pull out some of the important themes, the heart of the book is a series of creator interviews, which are fascinating reads, showcasing as they do the wide variety of stories, approaches and goals of the artists. These case studies span a wide range of fields, including documentary filmmaker Curt Ellis, comedian and writer Eugene Mirman, and zed equals zee fave Jonathan Coulton.
Scott Kirsner was kind enough to answer some questions about the book for zed equals zee:
So, one of the themes that I took from the book is the ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ approach – that there is a diversity of ways to use the Internet to share your creative efforts. Anything that you think is an absolute necessity? Anything that you would recommend against?
One thing that’s a necessity: carving out the time and the energy to spend cultivating your fan base, and communicating with fans. There should definitely be a dedicated person in any band who’s responsible for audience-building (that’s a term I like better than “marketing”), or maybe someone you know who isn’t in the band but really understands the Web and social media well. I think in the 20th century, your label took care of all that stuff. In the 21st century, it’s your responsibility. One thing I recommend against is building a super-fancy, expensive, Flash-heavy Web site that no one can update except for the original designer. I can’t tell you how many bands do that — and the result is that fans visit your Web site once or twice, but never come back because it never changes. (And people assume that because your last gig listed is in 2007 that you must have broken up!) Even if you have a bare-bones MySpace page or blog, it’s better to have something you can continually add content to than something better-looking that stays static.
Another of the themes is what I call ‘hookers and taxicabs, not limos and supermodels,‘ after the scene in the movie Hard Core Logo – that the age of the gigantic arena-filling star may be over. What do you think the biggest a native-to-the-Internet artist can get? Do you think that the definition of success has changed, and if so, how?
I do think we’ll eventually see Internet-driven artists playing arenas and stadiums. Today, there are lots who are playing pretty big clubs or opening in bigger venues. To me, the definition of success is making a living without having to work a day job, and more importantly, making the kind of music you want to make — contributing something unique to the world — rather than compromising your vision. All of the artists I interview in Fans, Friends & Followers are doing that. Few are jillionaires (yet), but most have more creative freedom than artists who are signed to labels, which is really important.
On a related note…while I’m happy about seeing entertainment dollars go to more artists, do you think that the pie can be sliced too thin? Do you think it’s harder or easier for an individual artist to make a living?
I think it’s getting easier for individual artists to make a living, and perhaps harder for artists to wind up on the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest people. But to me, there’s a cultural and societal benefit to having more people (rather than fewer) earning a living making music or movies, writing books, or engaging in any kind of artistic endeavor. [debcha’s note: Sing it, brother!]
What was the most unlikely or counterintuitive story in your book or from your research?
One of the bands I use as a case study is OK Go. I love the fact that their homemade videos for “Here It Goes Again” (featuring them dancing on treadmills) and “A Million Ways” (featuring them dancing in someone’s backyard) have probably been seen by more people on YouTube than any videos their label made for them. And those videos basically had no budget at all — just the cost of a videotape. Damian Kulash, OK Go’s lead singer, told me that their online success really has built their reputation globally much more than anything their label has done. When they went to Taiwan, a country where their record hadn’t been released, they were headliners. In Korea, where they opened for the Chemical Brothers, thousands of people knew the words to all of their songs. What made the videos successful, Kulash says in the book, were that “they didn’t bear the stamps of this kind of top-down marketing push. They were very clearly homemade.” (Though eventually they were shown on MTV.)
There are a number of visual artists interviewed in Fans, Friends and Followers. Unlike music and video, which are considered to be low culture, success in art has been more about critical approbation (inclusion in curated shows or collections) rather than about popular appeal. Do you think that the art world is changing in response to the rise of the Internet? If so, how?
I think there are two groups of artists today (and maybe there have always been.) Those who want acceptance by the art establishment probably are finding that the Internet doesn’t really help them much. But those who want to make a living — whether you are a fine artist, graphic designer, cartoonist, or illustrator — can be hugely helped by understanding digital tools and strategies. I do believe the Web will help launch the next Keith Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat, and I think the art establishment is going to have to pay attention to that.
Any final thoughts?
I think there’s a pendulum shift happening that everyone has to acknowledge, whether you’re a writer or indie filmmaker or musician. In the old world, you could spend 90 percent of your time on your creative work, and just 10 percent promoting it. In the new world, I think the split is going to be more like 70/30, or even 60/40. Rather than gritting your teeth or complaining about the time it takes to cultivate a fan base, I think the best approach is to figure out how to make the marketing and promotion part of your art — don’t feel like you’re selling out somehow — and enjoy it. Artists like Andy Warhol and Frank Zappa and David Bowie and Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway were (and are) all great self-promoters, too.
Check out a 35-page preview of Fans, Friends and Followers here, or buy the full book here. Also, check out (or contribute to) this wiki, which collects all the online tools listed in the book and more.
MP3: OK Go – Letterbox (They Might Be Giants cover) [buy]