Stop saying “artists need to be media businesses”

Did you see those tweets by Wendy MacNoughton? Making content 2x/week is not what emerging artists need to do.

Stop saying “artists need to be media businesses”

This thread about modern digital artist careers from Wendy MacNoughton caught my eye last week.

Wendy writes:

"I’m not sure artists/writers are meant to produce and distribute regular creative content 2x week to optimize audience growth and retention.

"This isn’t how making good art works, in my experience. It is how a media business works. I’m afraid we’ve conflated the two.

"Also, value in art is largely determined by scarcity. So, short term gain might not be worth the long term devaluation."

I saw some friends share this thread, and I asked the Instagram followers of Rhythm Changes if they had heard of it.

Many had, so I thought about it as best I could.

I've incorporated some of my friends' ideas into what I think about Wendy's thread, so if you responded to my questions about it, thank you.

First, I want to say what I believe Wendy means before I respond.

That means if I've misunderstood her, you can tell me where I've erred, and I can go back.

What she means is that pressure exists on artists to create content. Indeed, that's what caused an outrage in music labour politics over comments by Daniel Ek, the CEO of Spotify, in 2020.

The most cited thing that Ek said in his interview with Music Ally, back in July 2020, is, "You can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough," Ek said. "The artists today that are making it realise that it’s about creating a continuous engagement with their fans. It is about putting the work in, about the storytelling around the album, and about keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans."

Wendy's thread might as well be a direct response to Ek's much-quoted comment.

Pressure exists on artists to create often, and that pressure harms some natural creative process that they would otherwise have.

Content is communication, online, between the artist and their fans. It's what Ek says is necessary today.

So I think Wendy is claiming that the work of communicating with the audience necessarily interferes with the work that the artists must devote to their craft.

I think that's incorrect. In fact, thinking this way can destroy anyone's ability to conceive of a modern music career at all.

The problem with Wendy's statement is that while she says about artists and media businesses, "I'm afraid we've conflated the two," she is the one who conflates those two things, and they don't overlap at all in reality.

A firm and frequent content schedule is a bad prescription for an emerging artist, and we should all agree on that.

Making "creative content" twice a week is not what emerging artists need to do; it's what established artists who have proven demand for that very content, do to meet that demand.

On top of that, making content on a regular schedule does not necessarily lead to "audience growth and retention". That's putting the cart before the horse.

If you're an artist and you don't have money coming in, you don't need to build a schedule around supplying something with no proven demand yet.

No one is entitled to have their work reach a large audience.

But Wendy assumes that an artist can grow from metaphorical zero-to-sixty, can get up to speed, by acting as a media business, and that's incorrect.

I enjoy the media side of artistic careers. In fact, I find artistic satisfaction in the details of tracking unique visitors, watching them change, and planning accordingly for the future.

And although I don't have a big audience at this time, I understand the difference between art and content.

Again, content is communication. Art is art. Communicating around yourself and your art does not devalue your art. It doesn't even lead to "short term gain" unless you have already proven yourself through a history of commercially-successful art.

Just because a musician says or does something does not mean it becomes an artist's statement, a part of their musical catalogue.

The skills you need for communicating with your audience are not the same skills that you need to make your art. And for the past century. musicians have entered into business partnerships with other actors who trade their communications skills for access to the musicians' artistic skills.

In this era of independent musicians and digital distribution, we don't need to do that as often as we used to, for many good reasons.

We have decoupled being a musician from the obligation of choosing music as a career. You can invest your personal time into music, and get that music out to the world, without the need to show up as a career musician for a partnership with labels and promoters.

There are musicians all around the world who practice their craft without firm career ambitions. If Wendy wants to hear them, she can do that — and the number of post-industry platforms that aim to service these alternative artists, like Ampled or Resonate, grows every year.

You can have plenty of artistic fulfillment without reaching much of an audience. It's at your own risk that you mix together the artistic ends with the communication means.


On the Rhythm Changes BC YouTube channel, I upload video essays like this every other Saturday. You can subscribe to the channel here.