In 2008, the founding editor of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly wrote a blog post where he proposed a new creative model. Rather than aiming for mass appeal, you could instead narrow your focus:
To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.
Kelly’s idea is simple. If you are able to produce enough material to earn $100 a year from each of these ‘true fans’, then that adds up to $100,000 a year. The numbers themselves are pretty arbitrary. It’s unlikely that you would see the full $100 from each fan, in which case you may need to increase the number of your true fans. Maybe your fans are only willing to spend $20 a year. Maybe you are happy to live on $40,000 rather than $100,000. But his point remains. It’s possible to find a way to make a living as a creative individual which by-passes mass celebrity.
During a recent interview on the Comedian’s Comedian Podcast, Stewart Lee talks about these calculations. He speaks in seemingly envious terms about Daniel Kitson. Kitson isn’t a name familiar to lots of people – he has deliberately avoided appearing on television – and yet he is viewed by most comedians to be the best stand-up in the country and his plays have caused the websites of the National Theatre and the Old Vic to crash as they struggle to meet demand for tickets.
On Monday night, I went to see Momus at Cafe Oto in Dalston. ‘Momus is a Japan-dwelling Scot who makes songs, books and art’ explains his website. I’ve been going to see Momus for the best part of the last two decades (almost exclusively at Cafe Oto). His shows often sell out almost immediately, no doubt to the same people each time. He seems to embody the Kevin Kelly concept (‘In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people’ he once wrote). Bringing things full circle, on Monday night, Momus made a joke about how he imagines there being some overlap between his fan base and that of Stewart Lee.
Aware of the fact that he has been performing shows at the exact same venue for years, on Monday, he decided to take a more playful approach to performance. With algorithms taking over so many elements of our lives, he opened up his back catalogue to the iTunes Shuffle algorithm.
This brought up a selection of songs which he had never performed live, hadn’t performed for a long time, or simply didn’t really like. He skipped through dozens of songs as he struggled to remember their words. He played along with some of them on the grand piano next to the stage. ‘It feels like I’m WRITING this song for you now’ he said, gamely trying to remember the piano line for his 1992 song Voyager. For many people watching, this could all become frustrating (‘Is this infuriating?’ he asks at one point), but he knows that he isn’t playing to a general audience. He’s playing to his audience. People who have come to see him be Momus. ‘You can buy the records if you want to hear them properly’ he jokes.
In How To Have A Lifestyle, Quentin Crisp talks about the difference between a ‘lifestyle’ and a ‘personality’. Your personality is just a rag-bag collection of qualities that you happen to have been born with. Your lifestyle on the other hand is when you pick one of those qualities and lean into it. ‘The search for a life-style involves a journey to the interior. This is not altogether a pleasant experience, because you not only have to take stock of what you consider your assets but you also have to take a long look at what your friends call “the trouble with you.” Nevertheless, the journey is worth making.’
I think this distinction is going to become increasingly important. It allows for creating an image of yourself, your brand, your product which is both true to life and yet distinct. A voice which is both honest and unique, even if that journey to the interior brings up something less than promising. ‘If, when you peer into your soul, you find that you are ordinary, then ordinary is what you must remain,’ Crisp writes. ‘But you must be so ordinary that you can imagine someone say, “Come to my party and bring your humdrum friend,” and everyone knowing he meant you.’