On establishing an artist narrative in the digital age.
Last week I came across Lucy Blair Pettersson’s thought piece about storytelling for artists and what we can do to learn more about how fans respond to the stories we tell. It triggered a question in me.
I’ve recently been involved with young artists or new projects and aliases by artists who have already built a fanbase before, and one of the biggest creative challenges is often:
How do we establish a narrative with no historical context?
Why is a narrative important?
Attention is the scarcest good in the digital age, so in order to build a career as an artist, you need to figure out how to sustain people’s attention over long periods of time.
A narrative gives context to the stories you tell. A story is finished, a piece of history, but a narrative provides something that fans can become a part of, something that lives.
But constructing a narrative is not easy: it’s a creative exercise that needs input from the artist and often someone who understands the market for their music well.
The challenge is not necessarily in “what do we talk about?” but more in:
- How do we talk about the things we talk about?
- How do they fit into the overall narrative?
- How do we include fans in that narrative? By speaking to them directly, by implicitly including them, or do we let them aspire to be a part of it? The latter is a strategy often used by luxury brands.
- What do we not talk about? This is going to be way more than what you actually talk about. Sometimes you have to make explicit choices, especially when coordinating with a larger team.
All of these decisions shape your brand, and your narrative. And the question that your fans, journalists, and you yourself must be able to answer:
Who are you to be talking about these topics?
The answer may be simple: for Adele, it may be something like “I’m a girl like so many others, singing about the issues we all have.” Although, admittedly, I’m not that familiar with Adele.
If done well, your narrative should make your life easier, as it will make decision-making about content on social media, styling, tone, etc. much less difficult.
With some luck, a narrative can span an entire career.
The Marilyn Manson of the social media age
In a quick email exchange I had with Lucy Blair Pettersson, I mentioned Marilyn Manson. The guy has always been smart, eloquent, and very image-aware. He constructed a narrative that transcended a particular song or release and he did so in the 90s. Imagine if he had been born on social media.
What if Marilyn Manson was a YouTuber?
What I always loved about Marilyn Manson was how he used shock to win people’s attention and then showed himself to be thoughtful, intelligent and humorous. It’s a refreshing contrast among a lot of shock bands with no substance and it made him worth talking about.
Surprise is one of the foremost reasons why people share content.
Perhaps I’ll do a talk at a conference or a university on the topic of re-imagining Marilyn Manson as an artist born in the digital age (invite me and make it happen), but for now I want to leave it as something for you to think about on your own.
Understanding why people share
I have to make an important distinction here:
It’s not the narrative that gets shared, it’s the stories that are part of the narratives that people will repeat.
But your narrative gets turned into a story when people are telling their friends about you, or when journalists are writing about your new album or video.
There are a lot of good books about the topic of what makes things catch on, and Contagious is one of my favourites. The book proposes a STEPPS framework for why people share content:
- Social currency: makes them look smart, funny, politically engaged, or something else when they share this.
- Triggers: think of a context in which you can repeatedly be top-of-mind for people. The book uses the example of Rebecca Black’s Friday, which sees strong peaks in streams and shares on Fridays.
- Emotion: when we care, we share. Content that triggers a strong emotional response, like shock, surprise, or outrage, is more likely to be shared.
- Public: if it’s publicly visible it has a higher chance of catching on. Think band merch, but also things like festival wristbands that some people collect and keep on their wrists like trophies.
- Practical value: if it’s useful, it will get shared. If you’re a protest band, perhaps you can make a video about how to stay anonymous in this day & age and soundtrack it with your music. If you make electronic music, chances are a lot of your fans will do so too: tutorials are really valuable content.
- Stories: the book talks about the oldest stories in existence, which are often parables or fairy tales. They’re powerful tools to communicate ideas and some of these stories have managed to live on for thousands of years.
Your overarching artist narrative doesn’t have to include all six of these, but they’re useful to think about when crafting content based on your narrative.
“[Your name] is the artist who [story]…”
Think about what story you want your fans to share. Think about what they are likely saying already, if anything, and whether that’s exciting enough to actually make people listen.
Be brutally honest to yourself: “that guy from our hometown who was featured on the radio everywhere” may sound cool to people from your hometown, but nobody else will care if that’s the only story. You want people to tell your story and have someone reply: “did you know he’s actually from our hometown?”
Don’t overcomplicate it. If you create a very complex narrative, your choices for content, the way you react to interview questions, etc. will become more difficult. The point is to make your life easier.
Choose a direction and draft a narrative that is easy to support consistently. Your narrative is never finished. It builds, it grows, and who you are today may not be who you are tomorrow: the transition will be part of your narrative and just like your fans that moved through the transition with you.
Think carefully about whether you’ll get tired of something. Would you have the stamina to walk in huge boots all the time and put on layers of make-up like Marilyn Manson? Do you see yourself carrying on with the never-serious shenanigans of Die Antwoord for 10 years, even if you’re not nearly as successful as them?
If it’s not close to you, and if you don’t fully believe in it, it’s not a recipe for longevity. Most acts don’t make it as big as they hoped to, so it’s usually not a problem to abandon a narrative you don’t like.
But what if you succeed? 😱