I rarely watch television, but since it’s faster to find out about the weather via TV than it is to load one of the pop-up ad-laden weather URLs, I usually tune into NY1 in the morning for their extremely convenient “Weather on the 1s” segment. Inevitably I wind up turning the TV on at, say, 8:03 a.m., so I’m subjected to hearing other kinds of news until the minute hand lands on a number ending in 1. Today I got sucked into hearing their TV critic’s review of a new sitcom called Back To You, which I’m pretty much convinced I’ll never watch, despite the rave it was given. The only reason I even remember this segment was because the critic mentioned that the program was not doing well with its ratings because it had only seven million viewers.
Seven million viewers is actually a failure! Did I hear that correctly?
With all our recent talk here about careers and success, how can anyone succeed when the bar is set that high? We already know at this point in history that the monetary cost for taking an orchestral composition from conceptualization to realization is unduly prohibitive. And to create a permanent document of a performance, e.g. a recording, comes with an even higher price tag. Opera raises the stakes higher still.
Yet all of those daunting numbers are miniscule compared to the advance monetary layouts and the projected returns in the commercial arena of popular culture. Think of the cost of maintaining a show on Broadway (with the current stagehands strike, it’s hard not to), producing a motion picture or—case above—a television show. Even a heavily promoted pop album has an astronomically high budget. But in order to justify any of the money spent, in all of these cases folks need to make a significant profit. And if they don’t, they can no longer afford to keep doing it.
In the final analysis, it’s a question of scale. How many people does your music reach? How many people do you want to reach with your music? How many people can be reached with your music? And ultimately, how people are there out there who will be interested in the particular niche your music fits into? Substitute music with dance, film, book, sweater, pasta sauce, you name it.
While once upon a time it seemed crass to equate artistic endeavors with commodities, now it seems crass to think of any commodity—or indeed any endeavor—as not having some intrinsic worth. You might not like everything there is out there, but somebody does and that’s why it exists. And in an age where markets are more and more fragmented, the notion of a mainstream seems quaint and outmoded. In fact, the notion of seven million people doing the exact same thing feels almost nostalgic. Remember when Elvis had 50 million fans who couldn’t be wrong? But even having that many fans has its limits in the market place. Earlier today a real estate developer bulldozed an historic hotel where Elvis had his Vegas debut; apparently more money can be made on larger, posher suites than on remembering the King.
So since it seems impossible to win no matter how high the numbers are, forget about the numbers. Find your audience and speak to it and hopefully you’ll be successful even if there aren’t that many people listening yet.