Firstly, you’ll need to read this, Richard Aslan’s piece for Theatre Bristol about artists being required to think and market themselves like businesses. I found myself wanting to answer it, not because I entirely disagree with him – I’m not knocking him at all – but rather to throw in a couple more angles.
Next time you are tempted to promote your product, try saying bollocks to business. Think about ways to meet people whose work you find exciting that might also find your work exciting, instead.
Firstly – most artists are rubbish at business. Really rubbish. I mean I’ve sat in a production planning meeting and worked out that the number of actors involved will be double the number of audience able to attend. That kind of ratio worked out for You Me Bum Bum Train only because they weren’t paying anyone. It’s hugely frustrating to have someone sitting there saying But why would we pay the writers? while planning a production that stands absolutely no chance of making any money because people are so wrapped up in their own artistic glory as to not give a shit about financial reality. It’s possible to create amazing work while still turning a profit. I’m now a single mother on benefits. To get myself down to Bristol for potential work means £10 in Bristol, and generally £10 in parking, on top of having to drop whatever else I was working on that day. £20 currently represents 2 days worth of food for me and the kids, so please don’t be offended if I poke you in the eye when you suggest that I work for free. For others, that means losing a day’s paid work. Working for free doesn’t mean working for free, it means that your input is essentially subsidising someone else’s project – you are losing out financially, not merely working for free. I’m fed up of getting dirty looks when I ask about money, as if my enquiry proves I’m somehow less of an artist, or less committed because I should be DOING THIS FOR THE LOVE OF IT. Oh fuck off. If you want to be a professional in this industry, then figure out where the money is going to come from so that you and everyone else can be paid fairly for your time. That might be ticket sales, G4A, profit-share, box-office split or corporate sponsorship for all I know, or getting your heads together with like-minded collaborators to create something now with the intention of getting paid for it later. But please stop putting together projects that stand absolutely no hope of being profitable while expecting other people to give their time and effort for free. If you’re going to start a business, you need to figure out how it can actually make money. I think a lot of artists could learn from that.
Next time you are thinking about ways to improve your marketing, try saying bollocks to business. Think about what it was in the first place that made you spend days, weeks, months of your time making work, and what it is that keeps you making work (clue: it probably isn’t the money) and then think about exciting ways to tell people about it.
Secondly – most artists are rubbish at business. They squirm awkwardly at the mention of marketing and networking and tell you that they’re hopeless at selling themselves, as if selling themselves really did mean standing on a corner of Easton in a G-string and asking passing drivers if they want any business. And because they are artists and are determined not to develop any business skills, because artists are artists and not business people dammit, they don’t look into how to improve their skills at stuff like marketing and networking. Which means that while they might be creating works of staggering genius, nobody’s heard of them, nobody commissions them and nobody gets to see them. So it’s all a bit pointless, ultimately. And if they took the time to learn a bit about how to market their work in a way which feels authentic, a way which honours the imagination and energy and sheer hard work it took to create it, a way which knows that there are people out there who will love coming to see it and get so much out of it – Jesus, that’s a win-win situation, surely? Let’s get a bit devil’s advocate-y about it; if your work never gets out there or never gets seen then is it really work or is it more of a hobby? If you’re inspired and passionate and creating something amazing then for God’s sake tell us about it. Marketing doesn’t have to feel like cold-calling or selling your sell, at its basic level it’s just letting people know that you’re doing something which they might like.
Next time as an actor, or a designer, or a director, or a producer, you are asked to interview for a position, try saying bollocks to business. Walk into the room as a potential collaborator looking for potential collaborators to make art with.
Thirdly – most artists are rubbish at business. Which means that the artists who sidle into administration and desk jobs don’t feel that they have to look very hard at productivity, schedules, planning, that kind of thing. Who hasn’t had the frustration of dealing with the woolly-minded Arts Professional? You know, the one who is nominally “in charge” of the Arts Centre, or at least the bit of the Arts Centre that you’re liaising with. I’m doing my best not to get too ranty, but Christ, the number of opportunities that are advertised with less than a week’s notice to get your application in, something posted up on Friday 7th that goes along the lines of “Send us your ideas, CV and letter of application by 6pm Mon 10th, all applicants must be able to attend interviews on Wed 12th.” Which basically means firstly giving up your weekend to get your application together, and then all applicants must either be sitting around doing nothing all week, every week – ideal candidates for the job then – or must be able to spend Tues 11th continually checking their email to see if they’ve been successful, drop everything at a moment’s notice, get time off work and/or sort out childcare, travel arrangements etc and rush to the interview to try to dazzle someone having had less than 24 hours warning. Sorry, but it’s a little bit shit. As is not being given enough time to put together a proposal because the Arts Professional has left it to the last minute before asking you. As is continually being messed around by people not doing what they said they were going to do, or turning up late, or cancelling/rescheduling at the last minute. I’ve had friends take time off work and travel to London at their own expense for writing jobs, only to have a phone call from the Arts Professional wanting to reschedule it to a different day. Um, no actually, it’s not possible for me to do that. Basically there’s a lot of Professionals in our industry who could do with being a lot more professional about it.
If you’re feeling really brave, next time you fill out an A4E application, try saying bollocks to business. Remember it’s A4E, not B4E (yet) and fill those grey pages with line after line of colour.
Fourthly – most artists are rubbish at business. You get my point? *Insert your own example here.*
I agree that we don’t want to develop a business mindset which crowds the creativity out of creating. I agree that it can feel a lot like your spine has been turned into a blackboard which someone is now raking their acrylic nail extensions down to have to turn an unformed morass of inspiration and ideas and exciting possibilities into a fully-planned G4A funding application. But do I want someone with a half-baked idea to win thousands of pounds from the Arts Council so they can play around for a week in a studio just to see whether it has legs, culminating in a naff showing of a work-in-progress before quietly dropping the idea? That’ll be a no, actually. I’d like that funding to go to someone who has put time and effort into making damn sure that their idea is as watertight as they can possibly make it before asking for money for it. The development process is uncertain, exploratory and needs to remain open and playful, but there’s no need to make it a piss-take. I agree that art shouldn’t have to be a commercial product in order to succeed, and how the hell do we define success in this context anyway? But at the same time, there’s a hell of a lot that artists can learn from business and about business in order to improve their own practice, productivity and chance of building a sustainable career.
The language of business is a tool like any other. It has a sharp end designed to do a job. We should make sure we grasp it accordingly, and never assume that it was designed to make us better artists.
Aslan might be talking about the language of business rather than business itself, but let’s not trip ourselves up with our artistic snobbery and assume we’re above all that. Funding and opportunities can be tight and competitive – in which case surely it makes sense for artists to have to be able to justify what’s being spent on them, or to be able to use the time and space that’s being offered to them in an effective, productive way, or to be able to plan their work so as to be able to make it actually happen. Being an artist doesn’t mean that you get to faff around all day. Play is vital, but so is productivity. And given the funding cuts and continuing squeeze on the arts, developing entrepeneurial skills might be the only way forward for many. Business could learn much from artists but there’s also a lot that artists can learn from business. And one of those lessons is that business doesn’t have to mean soulless jargon or joylessly mouthing the words to the corporate song in the hopes of conning some money out of someone. Business can be heartfelt, vibrant, colourful and authentic. It can also be profitable. If you believe in your work as an artist then business and entrepeneurial skills can enable you to be more productive, make shit happen, and get your work out to the people who want to see it. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It doesn’t necessarily mean defining your USP or creating a marketable brand either. Instead of saying bollocks to business, perhaps we should be expanding our horizons about what business is, or could be – challenging the status quo where necessary, but picking up the skills we need to succeed along the way.