Jul 24, 2013

Measuring Sticks and Process Glimpses

Chef as entrepreneur... sharing, teaching, selling.
"Sure, I want everyone to hear my album; I want everyone to love it. But the number of people listening actually makes no difference to my life, my art, or my ability to create more art.
Musician Kim Boekbinder has launched an interesting project. She has created an album with outer space as the theme and to ramp up for getting it out into the world, she has made a new persona and a new website: Impossible Girl.

Her first post involves a rumination about numbers. Her thoughts remind me of my own post from a few weeks ago about developing audiences. She explains how after raising $35,000 via a Kickstarter campaign for her album, she still couldn't get it into the big leagues... 
"My album actually cost me over $50,000, partly because I was working for a wider release. My goal was to have more than a DIY crowd-funded success. I wanted to do a traditional album launch. To leverage myself to a level where I don’t have to crowd-fund every single release. I worked hard, made gorgeous videos, paid for photo shoots, hired a fancy/expensive NYC PR firm, did interviews. I wrote to bloggers, journalists, scientists, musicians, labels, radio stations, managers, booking agents, and more. I played at SXSW. I had a big fancy album release show at Joe’s Pub. I ticked all the boxes I could. But most of all, I made an amazing album. I gave it everything I had. And more. 
My album isn’t selling now - a failure by industry standards. But my album did sell, it was pre-funded by a large group of trusting people who are now incredibly happy with the music. I dreamed of a wider release, but who really cares?
Her new plan is to start "a monthly subscription pass to my creative process..." (You can currently join for $2/month).
First off, I think Kim's music is awesome an she is a super-savvy internet-age entrepreneur as far as getting her work out to folks and raising money. She also hangs with a similar crowd (i.e. Molly Crabapple, Amanda Palmer, etc.). That said, her recent post raises some thoughts and concerns for me.
She offers a good cautionary tale on measuring success by outside parameters. She admits...
"I keep trying to re-create a version of success defined by huge investments for huge returns. Gambling really. And while I “gambled" on this album what is a huge sum of money for me, I just can’t compete with the numbers the industry throws at things. I don’t have access to any of the traditional tools, but I’m still using their measuring stick.
I believe this is an incredibly astute observation. Of course you are not going to reach "success" if your yardstick is the same as selling as many albums as Brittany Spears or Eminem. That's just not the sandbox Kim plays in. I relate with this. I have come to embrace the niche market of the Long Tail. I don't want to reach "as many people as possible." I want to reach those specific folks that will like and support my work and through it, me. It is a sniper rifle approach instead of a shotgun approach.
The other thing that sticks out to me is her plan to charge people a glimpse inside her creative process with a subscription service. While at first glance, this seems harmless enough, I think there is a horse-before-the-cart thing going on here. 
Sure, fans (.i.e people who are already really into her work) may subscribe. But if you come in new to Kim's work, I'm not sure how many will pay for the privilege of seeing how the song creation happens. I think the sharing of the process can be used to draw potential patrons in. They can get to know your thoughts, processes and working methods. This gives a foundation for appreciating your work. It also acts as a carrot to tempt people towards the final product.
Artist/Writer Austin Kleon equates it with cooking show hosts like Martha Stewart, Emeril Lagasse or Rachel Rey. They teach and share on their shows (read: blog for this analogy) and then sell the actual final products (i.e. linens, kitchen ware, cookbooks, etc.) to their developing fanbase.
Jason Fried of 37 Signals (the inspiration for Kleon) has a great talk on this... HERE (about at the 14.30 minute mark). He claims that chefs are the best business entrepreneurs, because they know that sharing leads to more sales. He suggests that businesses emulate famous chefs.

I would add that individual artists, non-profits or performance groups do the same. Imagine an improv troupe with a blog or website that posts little snippets of rehearsals, video travel logs about their trips to festivals and silly/interesting interviews with cast members. The improv group could shoot short improvised videos, record an improvised podcast or teach workshops or classes. The actual improv shows are the real performance (the product), but they generate anticipation and community by giving away a glimpse into the process and by sharing the extra bits beyond simply the shows. 
I guess the fact Kim is doing a subscription is not what bothers me. It bothers me that, by charging, she is making it a barrier to getting to know her process and, by extension, her. This is totally her call, though, and even though it is not the way I would do it, I applaud her continued efforts to get her album out into the world and support herself as an artist.
Read Kim's original post HERE.

UPDATE [ June 2013] - Kim seems to still be sharing openly with a bit here and there on her Tumblr. Her subscription service is still going. It is called Mission Control. It is now $5/month (minimum).

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