Imagine the world is divided in the middle, by a huge mountain, reaching around our entire globe. And by coincidence, all the artists and creators live on one side of the mountains, and everyone that enjoys indulging art and culture on the other.
The artists spend their days making beautiful art but the only way to show it to an audience is to earn a spot aboard the Art Blimp, being sent over the mountains every month. Not everyone will be able to send their art over the mountains, only a few selected have the influence and money to pay for the trip.
The audience has access to relatively small and curated flow of art. Most of it follows the same rules and patterns and it develops slowly. Even though the creative side of the world is flowing with ideas, new exciting projects and art completely different from what anyone’s ever seen before, it won’t get past the gatekeepers, the Art Blimp Selection Board – a small group of people deciding what is shown and what is not.
But one day, someone realizes it is possible to drill a tunnel through the mountain. A direct connection between the creators and the audience, where you can pack your art on your tiny little bike, and pedal it directly to your audience. More and more independent artists start to make it cross. The audience gathers at their end of the tunnel and welcomes the new pieces of art coming through this new way of transportation. It is new and fresh and in the beginning, not a lot of artists have taken up on this opportunity.
But pretty quickly, the stream of cycling artists increases, and it is getting harder for the audience to look at everything. They still want to see every piece of art though and to be able to, they need to spend less time studying each piece of work.
Not too long after the first tunnel opened, more tunnels are dug. Now, the audience needs to go back and forth between the different openings to catch everything. More and more and more art is passing through the tunnels and soon it’s impossible for the audience to look at everything, most of it will pass them by, in a constant flow of art. So the artists are trying to catch the audience attention by making more art and buy bigger bells for their bikes.
Well, I think you get my analogy. We are the artists. The tunnels are the countless ways that we have been given to show our work since the advent the of the internet. And the struggle, well, I’m pretty sure you can relate to that.
How can you get people to actually see your work when everyone is trying as hard?
Like most creators online, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make the next cool, viral thing. Something that would make people stop and pay attention to me for a few precious seconds before they continue to scroll. It´s extremely draining when your main reason for creating is to get peoples attention. When the first question you ask yourself when sitting down at your desk is “what should I create to reach as many people as possible”. And it seems like that’s the question everyone online is asking themselves. It is a constant battle for who can woo the most people.
Aiming to “go viral” is a very short-sighted tactic. When everyone is trying to out-do each other, the bar is constantly raised and it will take more and more effort to steal the spotlight from the current champion in your field or genre. And you will never be able to stay in the limelight for too long before it´s pointed at someone else.
Do you know what happens if two people are trying to walk through the same door at the same time? Both get stuck. No matter how much they push, they just won’t get through. If too many people are trying to get through the same door, the best option is to take a step back and look for a less commonly used door.
Don’t aim to reach thousands, aim to reach one
A thousand likes are worth nothing. It is a thousand people clicking an icon at the relatively same time. And then going on with their lives, in the same way as before.
I’ve been writing my newsletter for several years. I tried for so long to craft the “perfect” title, keep the word count to a minimum, and to “be an expert”. Because people claiming to know wrote that it was the best way to get as many people as possible to open, read and click. Sure, I got a good amount of opens. Even a reply once in a while. But one day I decided it wasn’t the way I wanted to create. From one day to another, I stopped caring about word count and formatting. I wrote as many words as I needed to say what I wanted to say that day. I stopped trying to sound like I knew everything and started to talk about not only my success, but also my failures and problems.
What happened amazed me.
I started to receive ten times more replies after sending each newsletter. Readers saying “wow, you just put words on what I have been feeling for so long!” Do you know the difference between those people and the one that just clicks like on one of your pictures in their social stream? The former will remember you. They will relate to you. And they will actively re-connect with you to see if you have something new that will make them feel as good as the first time.
That day likes stopped matter to me. I understood that just making one person’s life different to the better, is why I love doing what I am doing. To affect one person. And when I manage to make a real connection with that one person, I go on to affect another one, and another.
I got my very first assignment as a photographer from reaching one person. I hung a few black and white pictures, mounted on foam board, at a small jazz festival (i took the pictures at the same festival the year before). An art director at a small advertising agency saw the pictures and asked if I wanted to shoot an assignment for his agency. I worked with them for half a decade.
It is not about the number of people you manage to get your stuff in front of, it is about the number of people you manage to touch.
Random acts of art
It is easy to get caught in the thought that every project has to be grand. You see it online all the time, where the next project is even bigger and better than the last one. But if your ultimate goal with making art is to touch people, it doesn’t have to be huge.
I do a lot of scribbling in my notebook (I do think I have some kind of a notebook addiction actually. Please help.). I make small drawings, write down inspiring quotes or short stories. I have loads of those journals from a decade or so at home, never looked in again by anyone else.
A few months ago though, I read a book about happiness. One of the takeaways from that book was that small positive surprises are almost always giving the receiver a strong feeling of happiness.
I decided that instead of just creating stuff for myself, I would try to make small pieces of art that I could share instantaneously, without pressuring me to make it “perfect”.
I’m trying to learn to draw people, so I often sit in my favorite café drawing cartoony caricatures of interesting faces. Or, I’m reading an inspiring book and comes up with an idea or smart thought which I write down in the notebook.
Before I get up to leave, I pick something from my journal and make a tiny piece of art of it. I might use one of the drawings as it is, or I go through the pages from that day and use one of the ideas to make a slightly more finished piece of work. I might put two ideas together, or develop a single one. Or just pick a color and draw something completely new.
I fold the paper in the middle, write something like “Hi, this is for you!” on the outside and leave it on the table. Then I leave. Maybe someone picks it up and takes it home. Maybe it will be thrown in the trash. But you have shared it with the world, now you have to trust the world to make the best of it.
Any kind of artist can do this, even the less obvious genres. You might be a singer. Lyrics without music is poetry and can be written down and shared. A sculptor might very well fold a piece of paper from a notebook into a three-dimensional piece of art.
Random Acts of Art can be shared in many other ways. Put a printed photo on a brick wall. Tape short poems on the inside of toilet doors. Carve small figurines out of scrap wood and place outside a kindergarten (please don’t stick around in your van to see if someone finds it, that is just creepy). Seeing something analog when everything in the world is digital, makes you stop for a while to pay attention.
Give it a go, and see if the fact that you aren’t getting any confirmation back makes it feel less good to create in the first place.
Know your Why.
I love meeting people with a passion for something. You know those kinds of people who just can’t stop talking about knitting, their vintage camping van or living without electricity in a small cottage in the woods. I find it extremely energizing to listen to those people.
One of the basic needs as a human, besides things like food and shelter, is to have a purpose. To know that what you are contributing with is making your community – and therefore the world – a better place.
Even from the first day of your creative career, you should spend time thinking about why you are creating. Of course, if you are a full-time or part-time artist, you need to make art to make money. But money should never be your main purpose. Trust me, there’re better careers for those looking to earn a lot of money.
What is it that you want to say? What do you want to change? What is wrong or right in the world? What feeling do you want your audience to feel? Happy? Sad? Shocked? Angry? What do you want them to do afterward?
If you have a clear idea of why you are creating in the first place, it will be easier for people receptive to that very Why to connect with your art, and therefore connecting with you.
Also, make sure to communicate your Why as often as possible. Write about it on your profile bio, talk about it in image captions or in your Instagram Stories. Talk to people on that you meet on the street!
When you dare to take a stand, you will attract people that care for something.
Instead of trying to push yourself through the same door as everyone else, stop and take a step back. Remember why you are creating in the first place and find a door that will help you reach that goal!