Today’s blog is about digital technology and the arts… I think. But that’s where I want to start anyway! It’s about giving things away for free and the value that people ascribe to things. It’s about how we see the world of art and business and how these two things can combine to trap people and to prevent things growing.
I admit, I was a bit of a late adopter to Facebook. I was blogging for about 2 years before I started with Facebook. I wasn’t too sure about this social media idea. I admit, a good few years later, my doubts have returned tenfold. In the beginning, everyone was so excited, read things, said ‘yes’ to stuff they actually then went to and generally interacted in a fairly straightforward way. But as Facebook in particular has made it harder and harder for people to actually make themselves heard and for others to see what they actually want to see, the cult of self and self-projection has grown and snowballed until most social media is all but useless except to those who might be considered pro-users. Unless of course all you want to do is be social and keep in touch with a few people.
I used to get more traffic to my old blog, The Chiz, just by emailing a few friends, commenting on a few other blogs I liked and generally the word seeping out, than I mostly can by linking to 3 groups on facebook, tweeting, sharing on my own pages and posting it to Linked in. My combined reach now is well over 10 000 people and yet, I get less traffic than when I was speaking to less than 1 tenth of that. It’s true my message has become more commercial, less personal. But more than that, I am now one of many, many such voices clamouring for eyes and attention. Unlike many of them, I refuse to resort to cheap tricks or ‘click farming.’ I do believe that the best form of SEO is quality content and yes, I believe that my content is quality.
Which brings me to books. In 2010 I published One, Two, One Two: A Step By Step Guide To The SA Music Industry. By then end of 2013, I had sold roughly 1 700. During this time I had conducted a national media campaign where my book and I appeared on TV, radio, websites, magazines, newspapers and newsletters are almost continuously for at least the first 24 months. Of course there was plenty of social media too. I also toured South Africa roughly 6 times staging workshops to share the information in the book and my experiences in the music business further. To all accounts an important and much needed exercise that was very well received.
All good. Cue January 2014 and I am travelling the world. I realized some time ago that my book just didn’t reach into the nooks and crannies that I needed too. It was too expensive (250 in a store, 200 from me direct) and that I just couldn’t get myself far enough off the beaten track to reach those that really needed it. So I made the decision to start giving it away for free over the internet. As a pdf download (find it here: ONE TWO ONE TWO). No e-reader required, just a connection and a device that can read pdf’s. To date, in more or less 2 months, I have given away approximately 800 free downloads. Yes, half my actual sales in one 18th of the time.
For the record let me state that I am totally OK with this. I am glad that 800 extra copies are now in circulation. What I did in those 3 years with One, Two taught me so much about the real South Africa and where we are as a people and about myself. It also paid for the development, design, layout, printing and distribution of the book and made cash available for me to do the workshop tours. It raised my profile, it gave me a reputation, all the good stuff. And that’s all good.
The next point is that then in 2012 I released my debut collection of poetry For You Or Someone Like You both as a physical book and as an e-book on Amazon (http://amzn.to/13hpRYI). To date, I think I have sold 5 e-books and maybe 200 poetry books. These books are properly priced. Poetry is a huge thing in South Africa… as a live event. But bookstores remain in high priced malls and most people do not set foot in them. For many, poetry is a luxury for the educated, middle classes, navel gazing being the primary luxury of the middle class. But it shows one very clearly how, without a clear and recognizable reputational platform, digital platforms do nothing for independent artists in their own right. You have to have a name, a budget and you have to work and perform regularly to get it to work for you. The poetry book is 99 American cents… not much as all. Yet it does not sell (well to be honest, it may not be that good, but you’d expect at least some sales). I am lost in the digital clutter.
But again, I am OK with this because that book got me playing guitar again, got me writing songs and performing. The 200 books I sold pretty much covered the expense of the design, layout, printing and distribution of the physical book and the e-book is slowly building my Amazon profile. This post is not about how much money you can or can’t make though. Nor is it about how good this can make you feel. It’s about observing.
Free Content, Free Ideas
Giving content away for free online works if people already know where to get it, or who to get it from. Giving it away for almost free does not work if no-one really knows where to find it. And even if you try and tell them, without other people backing up your message, people do not see enough value in what you say to make the effort to find it when so many competing, much clearer messages are bombarding them. What this says to me is that today, almost because we have so many options, most of us are not really very clear on what we actually want. What we are told to want is too loud, too persistent and too omnipresent to make that an easy call to make. So we kind of fence sit, vacillating between annoyance at the intrusion and marveling at the convenience. All the time though, what we really think, feel and want is being eroded.
So when I see and hear so-called experts telling us all how to cut through the clutter, how to really maximize our social media footprint or how to maximize returns on our content, our products and so on, I mainly laugh. Loudly and rudely. Yes what they say may have been true once. Is it still? Probably not. Using their techniques might get you going. But by the time you master them, they will be obsolete. The only way to stay on the wave, it seems, is to be out there surfing it. Which is a full time job. That’s the only way to stay current: Be out there.
Quality vs Quantity
These factors are the Scylla and Charybdis of the modern digital world. You must produce new content, you must grow and change. But to compete you must constantly promote. And your competition is sub-standard content with bigger budgets, more stuff and a more time. Users at this stage are not actively seeking out quality content that matches their desires. Mostly they remain unsure what their desires are. Too much time spent producing too much work in a short period is the death knell for many artists. Not enough time spent ruthlessly promoting your work is also the death knell for independent artists. Time spent crafting something new, innovative and far reaching can go unnoticed in the ever changing landscape of the modern world.
But here’s the kicker: It always has. So many of the writers, painters, poets, thinkers that we revere as being almost godlike in our age, died relatively unknown, scorned and rejected. No-one appreciated them in their life times and they too died bitter, uncertain, unfulfilled. With our society’s current focus on quick fixes, instant gratification and The Next Big Thing artists are feeling this rejection more immediately and possibly more keenly… where does this road lead?
I firmly believe it is unsustainable. Even the cream is being prevented from rising to the top by all the turds clogging the fresh air. If we want this to change, we as the consumer need to change our attitude to the turds and ask ourselves what we really need and want from our lives. Sure, the artists can change too. In fact they already are changing. But if the person at whom art is pointed does nothing, soon there will be no more changes to make.