Periscope Depth

I got so many that I can’t close my safe at night

Fellow marketroid Liz Caradonna wrote a blog post on how to be an improviser on Facebook, a post itself inspired by another excellent article on why your friends are not (or shouldn’t be) your fans. The advice therein doesn’t just apply to improvisers. It’s useful to any performer, or any form of creative business, or anything where self-promotion through social media is SOP.

Spamming your friends is not only poor life etiquette; it’s also one of the least effective ways to promote your work and your shows. Because you know who’s receiving all of these notifications? ME. THE BUSY IMPROVISER WITH 500 OTHER IMPROVISER FRIENDS. You are tagging, inviting and notifying all of the people who are being tagged, invited and notified by every other improviser they know. They are currently invited to 22 improv shows taking place in the next week, and they don’t even live in the same city where half of those shows are happening. They are not RSVPing to these invites; I’d be amazed if they’re even reading them. Everybody’s over-spammed and nobody cares.

You should take 15 minutes to read both of them. But if you only have time for one, read Liz’s. It’s full of practical advice in clear language. It spells out the ways that self-promotion can make you an asshole. It’s good stuff.

I agree with every single word of it except for the conclusion.

Liz’s point is that promoting your work by messaging all of your friends, creating events that everyone gets invited to, and asking everyone to “Like” your fan page, is kind of an asshole move. That is beyond dispute. Doing this doesn’t make you an asshole, but it’s asshole behavior.

And yet.

Our Next EP, “The Object Lesson”
I know a guy named Mark plays keyboard and guitar for a band called The Brother Kite. They’re based out of Providence, about ninety minutes south of where I live. That’s sixty minutes farther than my private mental window of how far I’ll go to see a friend’s band. It’s not that I don’t like Mark. He’s great! We always have fun when he comes up to visit. But I have a lot of friends in bands, or in plays, or in improv shows, and if I go ninety minutes out of my way to see all of them my body will disintegrate.

Last Friday, TBK was playing downstairs at the Middle East, one of Cambridge’s better rock clubs. The Middle East is about a fifteen minute ride on the T from where I live. I had a free evening. And the Middle East is a prestigious enough venue that it’d be worth supporting a friend there. So, for the first time ever, I went to see The Brother Kite.

And it turns out they’re good! Good enough that I hit up the merch table afterward and picked up their latest album, which I almost never do.

Here’s the point: Mark has been messaging me about his band across various media for at least four years. I have ignored every invitation he’s sent until this most recent one. And then it finally paid off, because I’m now a fan. A legitimate fan. I am not a fan of all of my performer friends, but I’m a fan of The Brother Kite. And it took four persistent years of unapologetic messaging to get me here.

I pick Mark as an example because of recency, but there are others I could use. As a friend and supporter of ImprovBoston, I’m swamped in regular invites to come see someone’s improv, sketch or stand-up performances. What determines the ones I go to see? The ones that I’m thinking about when I have a free evening. What determines which show I’m thinking about? A lot of things, but the frequency with which I hear about it definitely helps.

Liz’s point is that spamming your friends is asshole behavior. My point is that, if you want to get word out there, you have to be an asshole.

Famous Assholes of History
I’ve made this point before, in talking about Tim Ferriss’s Four-Hour Work Week and how Tim Ferriss is an asshole:

All great motivators are assholes. They have to be. A great motivator cannot let you sit where you are. You have a thousand excuses to keep doing things the way you’re doing them; he has to tell you they’re all bullshit. He has to get you uncomfortable. Change requires change; it’s not something you can do from your armchair.

Gandhi was an asshole (“stop buying British-made clothes? sure, Bupu”). Dr. Martin Luther King was an asshole (“I already gave $10 to the NAACP; you want me to take a fire hose to the face too?”). Anthony Robbins is an asshole – he tells an anecdote in Awaken The Giant Within about encouraging a chocolate addict at one of his seminars to go ahead! stuff your face! eat as much chocolate as you like! And he did for two days’ straight, got miserable and never touched the stuff again.

Tim Ferriss is no different.

I’m not going to win any points comparing your improv show to the quest for black civil rights in the U.S. (unless it’s a really good Armando). But getting people off the couch and into your audience takes persistence. You need to impress yourself upon them enough to be front of mind when they turn to their significant others and ask, “Hey, what should we do on Thursday?”

If you want people to choose your art, you have to be a bit of an asshole about it.

Don’t Mind Me
I stress this not because I want to be bombarded by more invites to shows I won’t see (though if I didn’t, would it stop you?). I stress this because I’m a tremendous introvert. Many of the artists I know are, if not introverts, very insecure. They harbor a lot of doubts about how they appear to others. They want to be liked and they spend a lot of time thinking about how to be more liked.

I believe that promotion is one of the most crucial variables in determining whether an artist succeeds or fails. And I think telling insecure people, “Don’t use these means to promote yourself,” is the worst thing they could hear. They don’t need another reason not to talk about their passion. They already have a hundred.

Cost vs. Yield
On the grand scale of promotion, spamming your friends is low cost and low yield. You message 500 of your Facebook friends about your open-mic night at P.A.’s Lounge. Maybe five of them show up. Of those five, one is impressed enough to become a genuine fan. Not a “fan” as Facebook calls it, but a fan in the conventional sense: an enthusiast, advocate and patron. This is low cost (Create Event, Invite Guests, Select All) and low performance (0.2% “fandom” rate).

(There’s also the added noise pollution of one more invite in your inbox, but that’s a negative externality which the performer doesn’t bear the brunt of)

At the other end of the scale, you have more restrained efforts. You create a mailing list that’s opt-in, rather than opt-out. You notify friends but don’t pester them. And you only target friends who’ve expressed a clear connection to your style. You reach a dozen people in this way, but their level of commitment is much higher. This is high cost and high yield.

There’s a whole conversation that could spawn off from this about whether low cost / low yield strategies are worse than high cost / high yield. I’m not going to have that talk here. There are more informed writers on the subject (Liz being one) who can discuss it in depth. I bring up the cost/yield analysis to point out that the asshole strategy is a strategy. It’s a way of getting fans. It’s not something improvisers brainstormed to make our lives miserable, along with Being The Loudest at Parties, or Arguing With Director’s Notes.

Throwing Friends in the Boiler
Liz’s point (and the point of the Grindstone article she linked to) is that you shouldn’t cannibalize your friends to look for fans. My point is that you have to.

Granting that what Liz says is true – spamming your friends is annoying; it clutters the promotional space with noise; it has little chance of paying off – sacrificing the goodwill of your friends in order to get a few more seats in your audience sounds like a great way to lose friends. If this bothers you, that’s normal. It means you’re a human being.

But that’s a decision you have to confront regardless.

If you’re truly committed to art, you have to sacrifice a certain amount of friendship. This doesn’t always come in the form of annoying Facebook invites. But Louis C.K. has made a career out of calling his kids morons and his (now ex-) wife frigid. Picasso, the archetypal starving artist, must have bummed hundreds of meals off his friends during his “Blue Period.” Part-time performers with full-time jobs need to duck out of work early to get to rehearsal, leaving their coworkers to pick up the slack. And any writer knows that finishing a novel means turning down a lot of chances to drink with friends.

Every artist who’s passionate about their art has to reach the Art vs. Friendship crossroads. Most art is private in its composition, and all art is self-indulgent. Especially performance. To get up on a stage and not only demand everyone’s attention, but insist that you’re worth paying for, is so conceited. And friendship can’t long survive conceit.

At some point, you will grapple with your friends lying about whether they thought you were funny, or making up excuses not to come see your show, or talking behind your back about whether or not they think you’re any good. This does not mean they’re bad friends. All human beings do this. These are people who would help move your couch up three flights of stairs but who don’t want to see you fumble through another Harold variant. And they’ll be the best friends you ever had if you quit ditching their parties for your stupid rehearsals.

You will have to decide which you want more: your art or their friendship. If you stick with it, sweating out the open mics that no one comes to and the off-night shows that no one laughs at, you might one day find your voice on stage. If you abandon it, you get to have all your friends back. But the path to art is paved through your friends. You have to choose between friends and fans.

“Don’t” is not as useful a conversation as “should.” The self-promotion space will become more rewarding if performers evaluate competing strategies, not if everybody settles on one. Social media has slashed the cost of reaching everyone you’ve ever heard of. Liz might deplore the loud, lossy noise that fills our inboxes as a result (I certainly don’t love it). But while cheap is not a substitute for good, there’s still value to it. Especially if you’re an amateur performer, as most of our mutual friends are.

But more importantly, performers should not be afraid to reach out to me. Yes, yours is the sixth invite to an improv show I’ve received this week, and it’s only Wednesday. No, I’m probably not going. But keep telling me. Because one of these days I’ll have a free evening, and I’ll come see your show, and I’ll laugh and tell all my friends. If you don’t tell me, out of some concern for my bandwidth, I’ll never know. I don’t know whether your radio silence means you’re not spamming me or that you don’t have a show going on. In either case the result is the same: one less body in the audience.

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