Creativity Isn't Free

At a Silicon Beach conference recently there was a panel about YouTube celebrity: how to grow your following, how to keep it, how to make the analytics of that video platform bend to your will. Five panelists were celebrities by design; they took that analytics stuff seriously and made content they knew would hit big based on the trends among their target demographic.

The sixth guy had just made a cool piece of art that struck a chord so it garnered millions of views. He was the one who didn't know what to do next.

And I was struck by this distinction between running a business and being a creator: the first requires testing, a constant back-and-forth dialogue with the audience, the customer, because if those potential customers don't want the product or service then the product or service needs to pivot till it becomes something they do. Serving them is the point, making money is the means of knowing if that whole serving-them-thing is working, and it's a successful business if it does both as times change.

We creatives don't like to think of ourselves in those terms. We have a love/hate relationship with personal branding and ourselves as product (if the audience doesn't want what I have, well screw 'em). In our savvier moments we might think, "Of course. This is the world we live in now and branding is power. I'll make choices about what to do next based on what will be easier to promote and how successful I think the project will be." In our more vulnerable moments we think, "I just gotta make this thing. I'm passionate about it; I don't care if there's a frickin' built-in audience. Nobody made anything important from a place of fear."

As well we should. We can't really make art that surprises us, that surprises a generation, that changes lives like the best stuff that changed ours, if we're constantly A/B testing and checking the analytics.

But we might have to try.

Because we don't really want to screw our audience. We want to be relevant, we want to make something that speaks to people and goes viral, and we may even want to make money at some point. I'm heartsick hearing about talented, brilliant actor friends who've been at it for a decade and are beaten down by the industry, who've lost their confidence somewhere in the cocktails they mix for another stranger and the yeses they say to another unpaid web gig. And who maybe even think they don't deserve to make money, because poverty is an artist's lot in life.

I'm pretty sure there are two types of people in the world: theater people and non-theater people.

And theater people don't have to do -- or even have ever done -- theater to belong in that category. It's a mindset. It's an idealistic, we-spirited, gurgling river of "sure!" It's let's-put-on-a-show gumption and the-show-must-go-on perseverance. It's a profound belief that what a group can make together, even in an unassuming ramshackle room, has the power to break people open, uplift society, save the world. And that that's worth it even if there's no money when the group disbands and leaves that room behind. Non-theater people, of course, are too practical for that crap. "Pay me," they say.

And... they're kinda right.

I love theater people. But I hate when they -- when we -- undervalue our worth. When we take a gig that pays everyone else on set but us, because we'll be getting exposure. When we get defensive or flustered having to tell hard-skills types that we got a degree in theater, because deep down we're still a little ashamed of being romantics and embarrassed that we think poetry might actually matter. When we let agents, or execs, or anyone dismiss us because they can, because they assume there's a more pliable, more commercial, more symmetrical version of us about to land in LA -- and there probably is. When we're scared to walk away from a bad deal because will we ever work again?

Another panel at the Silicon Beach conference involved a website user-experience expert answering an audience question about cutting costs, with the response, "Remember, good content is expensive." Yeah, 'cuz web content producers have a rate and they don't work for less. They respect what they do so the whole tech industry is forced to as well, begrudging though they may be about it.

For us creatives, our unions set our minimum under certain circumstances, but I think we have to fill in the rest. Be a guild in our own lives and in our friends' and colleagues.' Train our industry to respect what we do even if it secretly begrudges us. Who cares. It's a business.

As this gentleman says:

Tell us what you've done to turn around an unpaid situation. Share your story.

Let's throw some gumption on our gumption.

A version of this article first appeared in Ms. in the Biz.