Startup explorations #24 / Reflection on audience building

Lately I have been reflecting a lot on the “journey” of audience building as it relates to this project I’ve been working on in the last couple of months. Now, the perspective I take on this subject is wholly my own, though I’m sure many people in my circle can relate—that is, that of a creator whose primary motivation is craft rather than making sure I’m noticed. In fact, much of the time, being noticed makes me uncomfortable.

I believe in the importance of listening to oneself carefully, no matter what one might find. There’s something about the words “audience,” “following,” etc. that still makes me recoil. Instead of dismissing this outright as a function of some undesirable quality that I have to snuff out—insecurity, unwillingness to get out of my comfort zone, or whatever—I’ve become very curious about it. And I find that much of it has to do with the images that these words conjure in the mind.

The images that come to my mind are celebrities, movie and pop stars, politicians, commentators, etc., all constantly under the prying eyes of their fans. On the internet, it’s blue-checks and high-follower accounts and their hordes of mostly pseudonymous followers constantly hanging on to their every word. There’s great power in having such an audience, but it’s also a liability—they have a cost to maintain, which is keeping them happy with lowest-common-denominator content that will keep them coming back.

In my first newsletter, I responded to an article that came out on Rolling Stone about how Juilliard, a classical music conservatory, must embrace pop artists in order to make itself relevant to the times. There is some truth to that, but I was critical of the article because while it made appeals to innovation, all it could offer as models were superstars who make millions in ticket and album sales and win big awards.

In fact, rather than innovative, I find such thinking old-fashioned—a vestige from an older time. This older time was full of gatekeepers and middlemen who defined what success was (usually related to money and fame), and decided who deserved it. The solidification of the creator economy at present has made all of that obsolete; creators of today no longer need permission to create and distribute. With the ability to define their own careers comes the space for more personal ideas of success.

By extension we are free to define what “audience” means. I don’t like getting hung up on precise definitions. I think I’m most inclined toward how Daniel Vassallo described it in his Twitter course (to paraphrase): having an audience means having people who are interested in what you have to say. This is difficult to quantify (unlike one’s follower count) but you know it when you see it.

This also implies the right kind of people, depending on who you are. Consider what value it brings you if have thousands of followers attracted by banal content designed only to appeal to the largest number of people possible. Maybe to some people, only numbers matter—this is all well and good. But I think a creator to whom their craft is the primary consideration would be more discerning.

The beauty of our current moment is that independent creators are free to maintain niche interests that are true to themselves; it is no longer necessary to appeal to “mass taste,” like that Rolling Stone article suggests, only to find a select group of people with whom you resonate strongly. Still I don’t mean to suggest that numbers don’t matter entirely, only that it matters much more what those numbers are made up of.

As the creator economy grows, I wish to see it be more inclusive; many creators are not businesspeople, marketers, nor social media experts. On the other hand, a creator, by virtue of the nature of their work, is an agent of human connection. They have the power to touch, move, illuminate, charm, and entertain. This need not always happen at scale; on the contrary, when it happens on a personal level it’s much more powerful.

I say all these things as a matter of intuition rather than scientific fact. I’m an obscure person on this earth, going on the journey myself of building my audience and growing my personal community, both on and off the internet, and from very little. This project therefore is a quest of betting on the ideas I have.

One important caveat, based on observation: audience building as such cannot be used as a proxy for something else. If there is a hole in someone’s heart to which they think having an audience is the answer, well, it’s probably not. This is slow and long work, and if one’s sense of self is coupled tightly with the size of their audience, it can be the cause of some great dissatisfaction.

The most successful people in this area would attest to the importance of giving rather than taking. This means that one ought to have something to give in the first place—and cultivating that must take precedence. When that foundation is in place, one can feel secure, and the rest is play.

Startup explorations #11 / Art and content: In praise of content creators

As I inch further into this whole business with which I’ve occupied myself in the last four weeks, I notice how my thinking has shifted squarely away from “musicians” or “artistic types” and, for better or worse, toward “content creators.” In the past I have been irritated by this rather unwieldy phrase, thinking it to be dull and meaningless. But now I’m inclined to think it’s a better term than “artist.”

Who is an artist? My formal education is in music so I’m used to narrow definitions of artistry. Sometimes people take it to mean profound technical mastery of some craft or other, or on the other hand, pure, uninhibited self-expression. But over time I’ve come to view it more broadly as the extent to which one dares take ownership of their work; how much of yourself—your own personality, beliefs, values, quirks—you allow it to reflect, no matter the form: literature, music, software, business, whatever.

Take the world of classical music, for example. Again and again one encounters people who are masters of technique, but are peons under established standards of acceptable expression. Unsurprising; after all this is an industry that appeals mainly to a specific kind of taste, rather narrow and unresistant to shock. They have their place in the world. But why are we so ready to call any of it artistry?

On the other hand, there are those masters of expression, to whom I’m generally much more sympathetic. The problem with them is that they’re no good at thriving in society, whether it’s their own fault or not. History is full of examples of great creators who went unappreciated in their lifetimes: Beethoven, Vincent van Gogh, Herman Melville, and the list goes on. That this is so says something about how society at large relates to artistry—that most of the time, when it comes to art, we probably have no idea what we’re talking about.

Now, we have content creators. I happen to think that genuine artistic talent is rather rare, just as the movers and shakers of other disciplines are rare. But the average content creator need not be concerned with such lofty notions—there is joy in creation, enough to reverberate visibly, even without reaching the highest possible levels of mastery. There is an element of artistry in allowing work to reflect even a little something of its maker; yet the quality of content is irreducible to self-expression only, but always tempered with needfulness. The word content itself implies that it does not and cannot exist by itself: it must fill a vessel, or a need, or else it’s irrelevant.

Content has no need either to be as polished as the great examples of art; but we are given the chance to see it become more and more polished over time. Perhaps when creators let go of the baggage associated with artistry, they are more able to create without fear of mediocrity, and not have to wait until they’re dead to find appreciation.