by David Carus
Today’s artists may consider it a challenge to get noticed and build a fan base. You’ve heard that people don’t buy like they used to, there’s a million things competing for their attention and what you really have to do is know the right person. The picture being painted is that your chances of making it big are about as good as winning the lottery and you’re not successful unless paparazzi chase you. It’s easy to get discouraged if you think you need millions of fans to be a success. The truth is you only need one.
Ever hear of these four guys from Liverpool? The Beatles are widely considered the greatest rock band of all-time but before they had thousands of screaming fans waiting for them at the airport and the British Invasion taking full effect, they needed a hit record to catch on in America. Beatles records were sent to radio stations and they were all huge failures. Nobody was interested in listening to the greatest rock band of all-time! That is except for one 14 year-old girl living in Maryland who discovered the Beatles and called her local radio station and asked why they didn’t play their music. The DJ she spoke with obtained a copy of I Want To Hold Your Hand and the record took off like a rocket, establishing a foothold for the Beatles in America that quickly spread to other cities. In a short time they were the biggest musical act in the country and had thousands of screaming fans, but it started with only one true fan.
How about the story of Sixto Rodriguez? Who is that you might ask? He was a little-known folk singer from Detroit in the 1970’s with a couple of albums that sold practically no copies in the Unites States. He thought his music career was done and went back to working construction. But someone liked his music and began making copies of it and gave it out to friends. His music became huge in South Africa and an entire generation of people grew up on his music and he became bigger than Elvis there. Rodriguez had no idea until decades later. His story became the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man and the Dave Matthews Band has even covered his music. Dave Matthews, one of the biggest musicians in the world said he grew up listening to Rodriguez when he lived in South Africa. All of this happened because of one true fan.
Don’t focus on the fans you don’t have. Focus on the ones you do have. So David Letterman isn’t interviewing you on his show tonight and you’ve only got 24 likes on your Facebook Page and the only people that follow you on Twitter are from Indonesia — it doesn’t matter. Make great art and find one true fan that loves it. You never know who they might share it with and how far the word might reach. So forget the sold-out audiences that aren’t there and see the audiences that are there. You probably already have a true fan and have been too busy to notice. Speak to them. Smile and wave and let them know they’re important — because they are.
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It's been 35 years since the original Star Wars film first hit theaters in 1977. It was rejected by Universal and George Lucas made it go right by finding investment for the film and got it made. People hadn't seen anything like it before and it became an overnight phenomenon. They lined up for blocks to see it over and over again. Lucas scored a huge hit and at the time no one, including him, could have predicted that it would go on to be a cultural milestone, now valued at over $30 billion dollars. What was the secret behind the wildly successful franchise? What made it so different from other films, shows, books and creations that it took on such a monstrous size? Three things.
1. ORIGINALITY - Science fiction stories had been around for decades and science fiction movies had been made before but it was new things like the opening title sequence, newly developed special effects, light sabers, Wookies, the Force and a ton of others all combining in a wholly unique, aesthetically stimulating experience that drove people crazy. It was something new! They hadn't seen ANYTHING close to this before.
2. MERCHANDISING - Although the Star Wars films have grossed a couple billion dollars world wide, the bigger numbers come from merchandise like Star Wars toys, t-shirts, board games, lunch boxes, backpacks, coloring books, legos, video games, legos inspired video games, phone apps, posters, comic books, novels and a TON of other stuff. From the very beginning George Lucas, a marketing genius, saw the potential of every kid wanting to be Luke Skywalker and later realized he would grow to be an adult wanting to be Luke Skywalker.
3. FANNING THE FAN BASE - When people become fans of something they're usually left to their own devices to express their admiration for it. There might be an occasional fan club one could join where you'd receive a one time package of a photo and a sticker, but Star Wars fans had more, MUCH more. George Lucas realized there was enormous potential in the Star Wars story continuing in the hands of fans across the world. Most entertainment companies go after people when they use their characters' images in fan made creations, but not Lucas. He encouraged it. The result? Countless numbers of fan made movies, songs, websites, you name it and it's probably been made by a Star Wars fan. It is the guy that spends a couple years making his home-made version of Episode IV and shows it to all his friends online that keeps the franchise filled with an ever-growing amount of new content. And these guys buy movie tickets and all the merchandise, brilliant!
It all starts from an original idea, but then you need to make other products and create a vehicle for people to help you promote your creations. It's not enough to just make great art. You have to promote and sell it. You have to get others to help you, otherwise you'll be limited to how many people you can reach. Ideally, you want to create a world like George Lucas did, one others will want to explore and play in enough to help it grow and expand. One of the biggest challenges being an artist is being able to create outside of the confines of yourself, to get out there and create with others. I think George Lucas pulled it off and now, so can you. May the force be with you.
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Any artist that has ever faced criticism of their work or had to listen to very convincing reasons why their art wasn't good enough and couldn't possibly be successful needs to know the story of Elvis Presley and Rock n Roll. It may sound totally ridiculous now but when rock n roll music first hit the scene it was only supposed to last a year according to some critics. Singers were supposed to sound beautiful and the music had to match. When this new musical genre debuted it was not predicted to last more than a year, that is until Elvis Presley hit the mainstream with a song that every music executive at RCA hated.
Elvis had just signed to a major record company, RCA, and started recording new songs for his upcoming album. The second song he recorded was completely unlike anything he had recorded before at his previous record company, Sun Records. "Heartbreak Hotel" was a song inspired by a man that committed suicide and left a note saying "I walk a lonely street." It was not the upbeat rockabilly style of Elvis' previous recordings; this was a song that was blues inspired and talked about death, not the kind of song people were listening to on the radio. Elvis fell in love with the song when he first discovered it, however his version ended up sounding completely different, and when he took it to his producer, although reluctant to play a part in such a risky song choice, he believed Elvis knew what he was doing enough to record the young singer.
When executives at RCA heard the song and were told this was the first single, they said it was a horrible song choice and there was no way they could release such a song. The only one that was confident in the song was Elvis. Everyone else didn't understand it. It didn't measure up to what they were used to and so they did not want it. Eventually Elvis had his way and the song was released in early 1956 and once again a few critics called it morbid and bad. Remember, at the time, rock n roll was not supposed to last either, according to several of the same critics, but once Elvis performed the song on television and people heard it on the radio, it went to number one, charted high on three billboard charts, was the biggest selling song of that entire year, completely solidified rock n roll as a movement and is widely considered one of the greatest songs of all time.
Listening to "Heartbreak Hotel" made a couple of young men in Liverpool, England want to be rock n roll musicians and they started a band called The Beatles. Bob Dylan and countless others up to the present day were influenced by Elvis Presley and rock n roll music not only survived but completely permeated throughout the world and influenced practically every nation on Earth. And interestingly, this almost didn't happen if you remove Elvis' confidence in his artistic work. If he had just said, "well, these guys are the professional music executives and they know better than me, i'll just let them choose what songs I should sing," we'd be living in a completely different world right now.
Fortunate for us, Elvis was a true artist that knew what he wanted to create and didn't let an entire world convince him he couldn't create it just because they'd never seen it before. As an artist/creator I can relate to this story because my own music doesn't fit nicely into what people are used to, if you're interested in listening to it go to www.xraypoetz.com. I take a lot of inspiration from "Heartbreak Hotel" because if we as artists don't stand up for our art, we'll be the ones walking a lonely street.
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I recently watched one of many Beatles documentaries in my life and something stuck with me. In the film it was said that upon arrival in an Australian city, 300,000 people (half the city) came out to greet the Beatles. 300,000 people! That's a huge crowd. I thought back to scenes of fans waiting at the airport for the Beatles to walk out of the plane. I thought about Shea Stadium and how the screaming was so loud that you couldn't hear the music. And then I thought, why doesn't this happen anymore? Is it because, in a very high brow answer, "there will never be another Beatles?" No, that's not it.
In an age of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, StubHub, etc. shouldn't we have larger crowds forming for our artists because of the faster communication available to us, unavailable to Beatles fans? We have better, faster transportation too! What is stopping another Beatles-like invasion from occurring?
I acknowledge that in the era of the Beatles, there was Elvis, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan: very big legends. But do we have legends today? It seems to me that our biggest stars are artists like Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and Beyonce. There's nothing wrong with them as artists but they definitely are not The Beatles. What about U2 or Coldplay? Or Jay-Z and Eminem? They fit the mold a bit better but why aren't huge crowds awaiting them at every airport? Why aren't crowds screaming so loud these artists think about not performing live anymore? Is it the artists that are not good enough to garner the reactions the Beatles did or is it the people in societies across the world that have fallen into an apathy or boredom over music? Somehow I don't think it's either of these.
I don't have all the answers but if I had to choose one, I would say this: I believe there is a genuine effort on the part of some suppressive element on this planet to create an atmosphere where artists are kept in line and the public is kept at home. In my hometown there were hardly any live music venues so artists hardly ever performed there. We were forced to admire artists from afar while watching them on TV. There's nothing wrong with TV or the internet but I think there should be more encouragement to go outside and do something, to interact with other people just a bit more. If that happened I think our artists would become inspired enough to want to do more shows.
We should be waiting for our favorite artists at the airport. We should let them know what they mean to us in bigger ways because at the end of the day we don't go home and look forward to watching the evening news, we look forward to listening to our favorite band, watching a movie, reading a book, catching an episode of our favorite show. Let's make sure we catch more shows in person, because i think that'd create another Beatles Invasion, except we could turn it into an Artists Invasion, and that would truly change the world.
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I'm David Carus. From overcoming one of the most dangerous cities in the country and graduating from one of the most prestigious colleges in America to leading an educational movement as a teacher and running for Congress at the age of 25, I decided the best hope our world has is through art.