The Artist and the Marketer

I feel a split between the joy and inspiration I get from doing primary, creative work and my uneasiness when I am forced to market, promote, and sell my work. These days, it has become commonly accepted that the artist or cultural producer is also responsible for his or her own marketing and promotion. Even now, I don’t find these aspects of creative work easy to reconcile. I still feel suspicious of most people who are great at marketing – I generally feel their work is not entirely authentic, somehow, that they are ultimately more interested in pushing themselves, in personal success, rather than universal truth or complete integrity.

I still tend to believe that marketing taints the purity of the creative process, that those who are adept or masterful at marketing are impure creators – that they are often at least partially shills or hucksters. I don’t know if this is an outdated view, but I can’t shake it. Often, when I review the work of those who have mastered the marketing machinery, I feel they manipulate people’s basic emotions or desires – for instance, by inciting fear (of conspiracy or social collapse), lust (by claiming to have answers to sexual or relationship needs), or some other primitive need. Often, they make sophisticated use of neuro-linguistic programming techniques. They frame their offerings with the right kind of hooks to reach into people’s subconscious – tapping their desire to belong, or to gain access to something exclusive or special. I sometimes feel a kind of sinking despair, because content that I find fake, fraudulent, or overly simplistic seems to have an easier time reaching a big audience than anything unusual, original, complex or courageous.

I feel this uneasiness, right now, in relation to my new talk show, Mind Shift, which is produced by GaiamTV. Like most companies today, Gaiam relies on the content creator to drive marketing and, in this case, subscription sales. Although they have a marketing department, I am personally supposed to use my network to drive 1,000 new subscribers to GaiamTV – otherwise the show may be cancelled, even though it is a high level of quality. I am supposed to be compelled to do this by the profit motive: I receive a small percent of the subscription fee if people sign up through my efforts. This also makes me uneasy – even though I accepted the bargain, as I require revenue to survive.

I think the show is great, even important – it is unique because it takes many esoteric and New Age ideas seriously, yet subjects them to skepticism and careful criticism. For me, the  conversations we have on it are a discursive art form, and I enjoy them greatly. Of course, I hope people will check it out and subscribe if they are inspired.

I would like to see the show flourish and succeed, whether with Gaiam or another network. It is natural for me to promote and talk about it. However I feel an inner resistance, an incapacity to push the marketing beyond a certain point. Quickly it starts to feel false, hollow, and empty to me to be doing this.

It is also painful because I know I have other important work to do. Deep down, I don’t believe it should be my responsibility to do marketing. I should be liberated to use my talents to do my real work: developing my ideas in another book, for instance. Another frustration is that I wish Mind Shift was available for free – not hidden behind a subscription wall. But we could never have produced it without a budget from Gaiam, so they own it now, and they control its destiny.

I already suffered through these issues over the last years with Evolver, the company I started, twice, first with investors in California and then with friends in New York. My goal with Evolver was to build a platform that would support a social and cultural movement, and I thought that the way to do this was to make use of the corporation, but repurpose it as an instrument of transformation. In my desire to help Evolver succeed, I used my “personal brand” and connections to promote work by many other writers and artists. I put a huge amount of my resources and energy into marketing and promoting the company’s products, to the detriment of my own creative efforts. I felt it was most important to build a movement. I now regret the time I gave to this, which has cost me a book, or perhaps two.

For many complex reasons, I needed to retract from Evolver, and distance myself from it. The entire enterprise ended up being a painful lesson in learning not to over-extend myself, in tempering idealism with realism, and in learning to be cautious about partnerships and collaborations. In the end, ironically, I managed to feel as exploited by my own company as I would if I gave my heart and soul to some distant corporation  – even though I have an ownership stake in it.

Perhaps, in the future, all artists or cultural producers will conceive of their marketing as intrinsic to their creative work – like Andy Warhol did. Perhaps there won’t be any sense of interiority, of an inner fragility or private sanctum, where the work is made, and where the artist also needs to remain protective of it. I have, perhaps, a particularly eccentric combination of insatiable sociability and solitary hermeticism.

Or, perhaps, the current state of affairs, where the artist is forced to act as his or her own marketing machine, is a temporary aberration. Eventually, the situation may resolve itself for the benefit of the creative person. Society, in the future, may see the benefit in giving its creative  and visionary people free rein, without being shackled to a financial system that distorts their work and alienates them from their own productions.

Lewis Mumford noted, capitalism forces you to wake up each morning and ask yourself: What part of my personality can I sell today? Considering the ecological and financial crises we confront, it may be the case that this form of capitalism is reaching its end point. What might come next? I found some answers in Oscar Wilde’s extraordinary essay, The Soul of Man Under Socialism. Along with Wilde, I believe the artist must have a primary role in envisioning and creating this.

What do you think?

Oct 2nd, 2013