Self-Promotion: An Artform and an Epidemic

If you were a musical theatre writer or a songwriter in the 1910s, you would travel to 28th Street between 6th Avenue and Broadway to sell your music at Tin Pan Alley. You would walk in with a finished song and hopefully walk out with some exposure (and maybe a profit). During the 1960s and 1970s, musical theatre writers would promote themselves by meeting the composers and directors who had already found success in the field (Sondheim was Hammerstein’s protégé, Hamlisch was a rehearsal pianist for Funny Girl, Kander was a rehearsal pianist for West Side Story, the list goes on…) But in 2014, we are faced with a new means of finding exposure: our computers.

Using the internet as a means of self-promotion feels so second nature at this point, I hardly take the time to question its own abilities, its pros and cons, and its effect on the modern day musical theatre writer. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and message boards are all seen as a means of promoting songwriters and their work. I’m just as guilty of it as the next writer (and I definitely do not mean to suggest there’s anything wrong with promoting yourself on social media or with online videos).  But after living in the post-MySpace world for a decent ten years or so, I think it’s time to take a step back and reflect on how such platforms can marvelously promote writers and yet painstakingly hinder them.

With internet connections and accessible devices to obtain such connections, it’s safe to say that social media platforms not only differ from previous generations in substance, but they greatly differ in quantity.  Overall the internet provides a general sense of “More.” Rather than a newspaper having 20 articles, a website has hundreds in multiple categories. Rather than a Blockbuster Video Store having 1,000 videos, Netflix has hundreds of thousands of videos. And rather than sharing an op-ed once a month in a magazine, you can share an infinite amount of thoughts in a single 24 hour period.

So now we have a multitude of theatre artists all promoting their set renderings, compositions, scripts, performances, and more. In fact, sometimes it can feel like the internet exists as a very, very crowded room with lots of people trying to be heard. And because of the abundance of artists each trying to make themselves known, a new kind of pressure can be felt in which writers and actors worry that their work is not being viewed enough. A friend of mine who has designed professionally in New York for decades recently said to me, “It feels like an epidemic with your generation.” He described many of his former students and younger collaborators that have dedicated their lives to advertising on the internet as opposed to going into a theatre or a studio and spending time and energy on the real work at hand.

Tin Pan Alley.

Tin Pan Alley.

After all, a songwriter at Tin Pan Alley would spend 30 minutes pitching a song, and the rest of their day would be spent writing the next one.  But in 2014, you could spend 30 minutes writing a song and then the rest of your day on Twitter. Now that may be a slight exaggeration, but the amount of time spent promoting a song in 1910 feels like a tiny fraction of the time spent promoting a song now. After discussing the topic, I came to an discouraging yet prominent realization. In a notable period of time, I had spent so much time promoting old songs that I hardly spent enough time writing new songs.

Obviously self-promotion is a necessary ingredient when it comes to having your work seen and heard. Too many writers and actors have thrived off of platforms such as YouTube or Twitter to discount it as beneficial. Collaborations have been formed, shows have been produced, and lives have been changed because of it. For many (though not all) it has supplied full blown careers and opportunities. That being said, I think it’s always healthy to remember that the work is more important than how it’s promoted. It’s a tough balance, due to the necessary nature of both. Nevertheless, if you’re promoting less than adequate work, why promote it at all?

New York Times’ theatre critic Pat Healy recently wrote an expose interviewing the 2014 Tony nominees for Best Lead Actress in a Musical. When asked if any of the women take financial failures personally, Kelli O’Hara (nominated for The Bridges of Madison County) brought up an interesting point in connection to the internet being used as a means of selling a work of art:

“It’s a different world now. When I came back to Broadway after having my kid, it had been two years away, and I did “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” They were all about social media. … But “Bridges” is the first time in my life where I opened a Twitter account. Because they basically forced me to. And I’m like, ‘Come see ‘Bridges’!’ ‘Here’s a picture of me with Sutton Foster!’ ‘Come see ‘Bridges’!’ And they were like: ‘There’s too much stuff about ‘Bridges’ on your Twitter account. Can you change it to be real cool?’ So then I just stopped. Because you start thinking, “I’m not a star, because I can’t sell tickets via my Twitter followers.” But you know, gosh, I rehearse, I do eight shows a week.”

This is a slightly skewed example, considering Ms. O’Hara is not necessarily promoting herself as she is promoting a Broadway musical. But nevertheless, the same idea applies. Kelli O’Hara has been acclaimed for her performance in Bridges, and even for a veteran like herself, she still put in substantial time and energy towards creating a thrilling performance. She wanted to focus on the work, not the means of selling it (and in commercial theatre, many people earn a living from doing exactly that).

It becomes a tough balancing act for anyone to juggle. Promoting a show and promoting yourself are two different territories. And once again, I can’t reiterate enough the significance of promoting oneself successfully and efficiently. But every once in a while, in our social media induced era, it’s healthy to question our internet-to-piano ratio. Promoting work as an artist is good. Promoting great work as an artist is better. And great work tends to require thought, care, and time away from that crowded room in which so many people try to be heard. 

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