Artists might not like to hear it, but there is little-to-no conceptual air between trying to launch a startup and trying to launch an art career.
We can boil down the goals of a product launch to:
- Finding a product-market fit
- Differentiating yourself from the competition
Think of any of your favorite artists. One that suits a mood or fills a gap that no other artist quite touches. As antiseptic as it sounds, I’m leaning into the idea of an artist finding a kind of product-market fit.
There’s no checklist for what makes great art. There are no predetermined criteria. But we know great art when it speaks to us. Just as entrepreneurs need to cycle through idea after idea before they find success, artists are tireless explorers because the first and most important product-market fit is internal.
Thousands of people are trying to do what you’re trying to do. Not all will be successful, but all will have access to the same information.
Information will not give you the creative edge. The only thing that will give you an advantage is bringing your creative edge to the information. This is where “differentiation” comes into play.
All advice, even the most granular and specific, will only ever be generic advice.
But you’re an artist. When have you ever taken generic advice? That’s not your calling!
Heed this advice like you would heed a blank canvas (or screen).
When someone says “promote your work,” don’t Google how to do that. Sit in the Discomfort Zone™. These are the moments when art is asking to be born. “Promoting your work” can be as much an act of artistic expression as making the work.
Lifting rote standard operating procedures is the clipart solution. The creative powers that bring life to your art must also be applied to the activities surrounding that art. Every bit of “advice” that follows is nothing more and nothing less than a prompt to create something from nothing, just as you do in your artistic life.
Develop your community-building style
Outside of making art, building community is the most critical thing for your career. This doesn’t necessarily mean hobnobbing on Twitter. Pak’s popular @Archillect Twitter account is a great example of a creative community-building style. It’s a bot that posts images based on certain parameters and functions as Pak’s personal mood board.
Standing out requires creativity not just within the medium but with the medium. Creative tweets are one thing; a creative Twitter practice is another. This is to say that it helps to find creative expression in the form as much as the content.
Is @Archillect wholly original and mold-breaking? Hardly. But it gracefully addresses community-building without leaning on traditional techniques or overtaxing the artist as influencer.
Create a practice of promoting others’ work
The best way to learn what’s out there while gaining an audience as an artist is to bang the drum for your favorite artists. Hype the work of other artists as passionately as you would for yourself. For many people, promoting others is more natural than self-promotion, so it could be a better place to start.
When you focus on promoting other artists, you’re taking the time — however fleeting it may feel — to study and learn about them and maintain momentum in your own creative evolution.
Meanwhile, the artists who see you promoting them will likely investigate your work. The ones who like your work will, in turn, follow and promote you to their audience. Don’t be spammy; it’s easy to see through and won’t feed into the goal of building a genuine community.
I’ll refer here to Brian Eno’s concept of “scenius” — a portmanteau of “scene” and “genius,” to counter the myth of the great singular mind moving an area of inquiry forward for the rest of us idiots. Instead, scenius refers to artistic and intellectual movements — a group of like-minded people whose work and ideas cross-pollinate and build upon each other.
Promoting others is one way to find your scenius.
Explore strategies for getting your work in front of others
One need only to learn of Anna Delvey’s recent art show to fully ingest this information — a well-known name will overshadow the quality of the artwork. That doesn’t mean you should want your work overshadowed by notoriety, necessarily, but it does vividly illustrate what name recognition and personal branding can accomplish.
One approach to consider is documenting your process and works in progress. Publishing updates on your work emphasizes your dedication and establishes credibility. This could look like sharing sketches and mockups and unfinished work. Also, consider a Beeple-style “everydays” approach of posting new work every day or at least on a consistent cadence.
Not only did Beeple create a name for himself with these posts, but he built up a following and inspired an entire generation of digital artists to approach their process with the same level of discipline and dedication. That’s more than any static portfolio can do.
But there are more ways to go about exposure, and none cancel the others out. Explore branching out into new social media channels. Create video teasers. Get creative with your personal website. Build a visual identity. Balance your digital presence with IRL ways of getting your art seen.
Test and learn from different promotional styles. Your enjoyment is your key metric, with things like Follows and Likes falling down the page to a distant, distant second.
Plan to stand out
Half a decade in, the NFT art market is already saturated with no signs of abatement.
I’m reminded of the rush on British rockers following early Beatlemania, and how a young David Bowie devoted equal energy to developing his musical skills and mastering the multifaceted art of commanding attention.
Consider the story you’re telling and how you’re telling it. Who are you — personally and digitally? Is there a narrative within your pieces? Around your pieces? In the development thereof? In conversation with figures from the past? In conflict with the powers that be?
What I’m hinting at here is the question: In what context would you like viewers to see your work? It’s liberating to know you have control over this.
If there’s one marketing book that every artist and creator should read, it’s The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout. (The link is to a summary.) Kept in check as nothing more than a book of creative prompts, The 22 Laws provides an insightful glimpse at every angle you should be inspecting in your efforts to stand out in the crowded art market.
Extend your artwork
Another thing to consider is “utility.” I’d like to suggest that we creative types instead refer to “utility” as something like “extending the art” or “overdelivering.” Different words bring to mind different ideas.
An access-only Discord or holder-exclusive merchandise may not be your style. Before you discard “extending the art” or “overdelivering” or “utility” as gimmicky, allow me to make a case for it as a new creative medium.
First, an example. In a recent and quite ambitious drop on MakersPlace called Peyote Ugly, a quartet of artists collaborated on a multimedia series of artworks. In their first drop, the physical pieces that sold came with AR functionality so collectors can see an animated version of the painting through their phones.
Now, a thought exercise. Imagine the thing you’re working on will be the last piece of art you’ll ever be allowed to work on. Once you’ve finished, that’s it. But you love art and never want to be done. Now, how do you continue to build on it so that you never need to stop, like some modern Scheherazade?
First, make a list of 100 ways (or 1001 ways) to extend the art, overdeliver, surprise & delight, and impart utility. Let the list rest. Come back to it and see what pops out. At least one thing on your list will be both good and untried in exactly the way you imagine it. This is the starting point for a new vision of what can exist in the world of art and “extended art.”
If there’s anything we have to leave you with, it’s that the process of building a career and standing out in a crowded market should be fun. Not easy. But fun. If it’s not fun, then you may be unconsciously trying to follow someone else’s rulebook. Turn the rulebook into a canvas — make the rules your own until the game you’ve designed is fun. Keep playing for the long term.