So I have this friend who checks his Instagram feed in the middle of dark, quiet theaters.
It’s been his “thing” ever since Instagram launched. His phone is glued to his hand, rain or shine, sometimes even while eating. “Comments are how you know you’re making it in the industry,” he tells me in a sagely monotone, engrossed in a session of endless scrolling. He should know; he has a master’s degree in Music Business.
You probably know someone like this. When I ask him how much of his time as a musician is spent on marketing, he answers, “None of the hottest musicians today studied marketing.” But that’s a dodgy non-answer and this isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation, so I try to go back to enjoying my dinner while he enjoys his Likes. Today’s hottest musicians have agents, staffers, freelancers, groupies, and contractors eager to help them get the eyeballs they need to become stars, but when you’re an unsigned indie artist, you don’t see any of those people until the Lifetime biopics and ghostwritten memoirs roll in.
In the words of Hayao Miyazaki, “Instagram marketing was a mistake.”1
His dismissiveness frustrates me, since I pay my rent doing actual social media marketing for Wikipedia. At least eight hours each weekday are spent trawling through Wikipedia articles, wading through social feeds, filtering out the noise, clickbait and misinformation to find something interesting and shareable. I share up to 75 posts a day on five platforms, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I respond to those who comment, and try to help those who complain. When they ask for it, I bring readers the information they’re looking for. I enjoy it but because it’s “just work,” my self-esteem isn’t on the line if I fail a few times. Every week I check the metrics, not just to see What Went Viral but also to figure out how to make my campaigns more engaging and valuable to the people who interact with them. Checking Instagram for a validating comment every 15 seconds is not a marketing strategy, but homeboy doesn’t care either way.
This same friend, a musical artist, has since sought tips on achieving self-made status in:
- Filmmaking: “The director for my last video shot with a Black Magic camera. If I get one, I’ll have more creative control.”
- DJing: “It’ll help me to become a better artist.”
- Photography: “Instagram marketing doesn’t work without good pics.”
- Teaching: “If I take this rigorous full-time public school teaching job, I’ll have more money for my art.”
Never mind that teaching gigs are among the most emotionally taxing and lowest-paying jobs in the Bay Area; never mind that outfitting a Black Magic camera will run an expert videographer (who actually knows how to use the damn thing) at least $5,000; never mind that DJs exist to sample other people’s music rather than create their own, and that Rihanna probably updates her Insta with an iPhone while the DSLR crowd is mainly made up of niche influencers. His career (and life) would probably be easier if he considered my advice, but hey, do you, friend. No matter how loud the “COULD YOU NOT” bellows out of my marijuana-weakened, introverted lungs, lo and behold, money is wasted; classes are taken and abandoned; mistakes are made and, because I love this man, I can’t even reclaim my time with a self-righteous “told you so.”
If there’s one thing I could do without, it’s talking these precious artist friends out of the enticing social media-powered myths of “overnight success” and “jack of all trades” that all stars claim to be and zero actually are.
Y’all, I’m here to let you in on a not-so-secret. Yes, you can be multiple things at once, but I need you to know right now that it is absolutely, perfectly okay and even preferable to be…”just” one thing.
Well-versed in the fine art of Googling stuff, anyone can engross themselves in any number of captivating hobbies whenever they have five minutes of free time. But just because we can nosedive into something completely new and reinvent ourselves every year, doesn’t mean we should expect to butterfly stroke through waves of success and admiration with every new pursuit we glom onto. That’s just not realistic.
I’ve never been immune to this concept. When I started this blog, half of me wanted to find that mythical “tribe” every passionate early-2000s (remember Livejournal?) blogger opined about: people who are just like me, who love journaling and San Francisco and technology just as much as I do, people who want to be better citizens of the Internet, people who struggle to live analogue lives in a digital world, people who want hot takes about brogrammers and anime and wouldn’t mind meeting up on a Saturday morning to chat about “smart people things” over avocado toast and Prosecco.
Another part of me spent a few months struggling with the “blog boom,” in which every blogger now blogs to make money or build a brand. I was window shopping for my proverbial Black Magic camera: Hey, I’m a good writer, and an okay photographer, and my journalism career never really panned out but I was editor in chief of the school paper for a while and that was nice, and I’m smart and people like me, and wouldn’t it be great if I wrote savvy things about startups every now and then? Do you think TechCrunch-kun will notice me if I write about Uber?! Heck, if I Google policy reform enough times I could be the next Broke Ass Stuart or something!
Stretching yourself too thin is a fantastic, er, “learning opportunity,” but listen: you don’t depreciate in value as a person just for having too few interests or skills. Good at one thing? Congrats, you’re employable! Two or three related skills? Holy shit you’re amazing! To get the job I have today, snarkily tweeting facts for Wikipedia, I had to be good at all of two things: social media and heckling.
But if you think you can walk onto a Hollywood set to sell yourself as a costume designer, writer, lighting technician, cameraman, and offer to hold the boom mic, I’m gonna need to see your resume. And run a background check too, because you are clearly lying out of your ass.
Sure, I am an expert at snarky tweets, but I’m not so vain to think that I can take a break from tweeting to school experts on particle physics because I corrected syntax on the Wikipedia page once. I may write silly, mildly informative blog posts about tech and science in the first person, but I’m not so enamored by my own intellect as to stand in the way of seasoned professionals who actually know what the hell they’re doing.2
What are the chances of me becoming Ansel Adams by running down to the nearest Best Buy for an entry-level Canon DSLR kit, then taking moody backlit shots of white girls wearing flower crowns in the woods until I’m famous? Pretty low, though I could probably sell some lucrative stock photos to lifestyle bloggers. Ansel Adams was an undisputed pro and he died before learning everything there is to know about photography. Wilson Bentley spent 46 years of his life perfecting the process of photographing snowflakes. He died in a snowstorm while honing his craft. Am I that badass? No. Do I want to be? Also no.
Still, my odds of somehow improving on his technique in one week or less from my home in sunny California are slightly higher than me becoming a neuroscientist by re-watching Altered Carbon while reading my (actual neuroscientist) roommate’s dissertation.
Steve Jobs didn’t specialize in sales; he built. Beyoncé didn’t book her own gigs starting out; she sang. James Cameron didn’t run the boom or hook up lavalier mics; he directed. Directors need to direct, write, and manage teams, but they’ll outsource the audio to a sound tech because they need to focus on what they’re good at. You have to wear multiple hats in startups, but generally you’re hired because you’re good at something, not because you’re so-so at everything.
All this just to say…you do not need a goddamn Black Magic camera to sing. Delegate. Network. Give someone else a chance to be great, and you’ll both come out on top. In other words:
Just fucking sing, you idiot.
- Actually, he said “Anime was a mistake.”
…Actually, what he really did was express frustration over how infrequently anime creators sought inspiration from real life. So…yeah.
- …not anymore, anyway. I’ve been overestimating my proficiency in things since I was six years old. My first “I should write a novel” moment came in elementary school, after the initial exposure to Pokémon sent me down a dark alleyway infested with stray fire-breathing animals and Dittos shaped like used syringes. “I know; I’ll write a book about a dog! With water cannons on its back! Who only answers to one girl, because she’s the strongest and beat the Elite Four all by herself!” The book was a riveting masterpiece, but at the tail end of the Pokémon craze I had to force the other kids to read all 40 pages and I ended up in detention twice, which is how I know that creative genius isn’t always appreciated by the unwashed masses.