The biggest lie your teachers ever told you was “you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”
Don’t get me wrong – I agree with the metaphor, because what we’re really saying to kids, when we warn them against judging a book by its cover, is “you shouldn’t judge a human being merely by their outward appearance.” And what could be a more valuable lesson – for kids and adults alike?
The problem is that – unlike people – books have covers specifically for your judgement. The author wants you to read her book – why else did she write it? – the cover is a handy little way for her to hint at what might be inside, and seduce you into opening it.
Are you seducing people into checking out your work? If not, why not?
So much art, so little time
If you don’t learn to market your work – to make your target audience both aware of your work and willing to give it a taste – you’re done for.
All the people that could potentially love the things you do are being bombarded, every day, by new movies, new songs, new books… If you don’t give them a damn good reason to check out your work, why the hell would they bother?
Which brings me back to book covers. And to illustrate the power of a book cover, here’s an analogy involving a German Shepherd.
The ham and the worming tablet
A German Shepherd isn’t stupid – he won’t entertain the mere thought of eating a little white worming tablet if you just put it in his bowl. He’ll laugh in your face.
But he will scarf down the delicious piece of ham you wrap it up in sooner than you can say “Here, boy! Look – some innocent ham!”
Your audience is no different to that German Shepherd. If your marketing is off – if it doesn’t make your intended audience want to know more – then it really doesn’t matter how great your work is.
If you don’t wrap your work up in ham, then all they will see is a worming tablet. And they’ll go watch Love Island instead.
All steak, no sizzle…
Most artists – out of a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided sense of pride – take the position that our art is our art, our work is our work, and that it shouldn’t matter how it’s presented. To think about things like marketing is seen as crass commercialism, as selling out… at the very least, as dumbing down. And we don’t want to do that. Never. We’d rather starve.
And… more often than not, people like us end up on a fast train to nowhere. We might genuinely believe our work is the greatest thing since The Marriage of Figaro, but since we were too proud to wrap it up in ham – we believed we were above that – nobody bothers to check us out. And since nobody bothers to check us out, nobody tells their friends about us, there’s never a buzz created around us… we die on the vine.
What’s even more frustrating for us proud types is the proliferation of the other type – artists whose work is banal and facile, but who at least know how to market their particular brand of tripe. This is the singer-songwriter who wears the right hat, and has the right beard, and takes the right sensitive selfies, and uses the right hashtags, and knows how to make the kind of music that daytime Radio 2 listeners wouldn’t find offensive…
They’re all ham, no tablet. And they’re everywhere. Not wanting to go down their road of “all sizzle, no steak,” we proud types tend to go down the other one – “If nobody likes our work, fuck ’em.”
Except that… they might have liked it, if we’d given them a sporting chance.
Make great work. Learn how to market it.
The happy news is that this is a false dichotomy – you can do exactly the work you always wanted to do, and you can market it without feeling like a common street-walker.
You don’t have to dumb down your work. You don’t have to make it lowest-common-denominator. You don’t have to move it to the middle of the road. I beg you, I beg you, I beg you on bended knee, please, don’t…
But you do have to find a way to make it appetising to your target audience.