go where the audience is

As a child in London, George Benjamin exhibited extraordinary musical gifts. As Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker:

Whereas other inventive children might ask to be allowed to make up a story before bedtime, [Benjamin] begged to be permitted to invent a song in his head before going to sleep. He worked his way through a Golden Book of myths, setting the stories to music that he composed in real time. “I would take an hour and make up some opera that was never to be written down, or heard, by anyone else,” he recalled.

How adorable. Benjamin went on to become a composer, naturally enough, but there was a small problem:

Benjamin’s passions were not especially consonant with the times. He was born in 1960, and when he was entering adulthood narrative had fallen out of fashion amid the European avant-garde, not only in music but also in fiction and in painting. Stories set to music, which Benjamin had generated so guilelessly as a child, were derided as facile, hidebound, and decadently nostalgic. What was the point of writing an opera, an art form beloved by the Nazis? Where did you go after that?

Nowhere. The answer is nowhere. Might as well write him off. Let’s close up the bridge. Let’s get out of here. Close it up. Lights out.

Right? I mean, if you enjoy composing musical narratives in the second half of the 20th century, you’re just…out of luck. It simply isn’t done. Tear up your composer card and get a job at the old mill. Hum on your water breaks. Nothing atonal, of course.

With Benjamin’s maturation and intellectual awakening, a crippling self-consciousness set in. The operas in his head were silenced. Instead, he wrote mostly for smaller ensembles or soloists, slowly and with great effort—that is, when he wasn’t blocked.

I read this bit and found myself nodding along, at first. After all, the plays and videos and stories I wrote as a young man were always inconsonant (?) with the times, where my teachers and then professors were concerned anyway.

Here’s the thing, though: I graduated from school and entered the real world. In the real world, you don’t have to please your professors or the European avant-garde or any avant-garde. You just need an audience who likes your stuff. I mean, hadn’t this dude ever heard of a musical? Britain has produced its share. Andrew Lloyd Weber didn’t spend decades writing music he didn’t want to write “slowly and with great effort” before deciding, the hell with it, let’s put Biblical figures in diapers.

Go where it’s warm. If the snobs don’t want your “musical narratives,” roll up your sleeves and adapt La Bohème for the AIDS epidemic, or turn a doorstopper on American history into a series of show-stopping rap numbers. You’ll have an audience. You’ll have money. If you feel guilty about taking money from audiences, take your audience out for milk and cookies.

(Don’t stick your nose up at me about musicals, buddy. They can avant the garde like nobody’s show business. Do I need to remind you of Seussical the Musical, the Un Chien Andalou of Broadway?)

Look, I’m glad Benjamin has had an artistic reawakening—I wonder if he used The Artist’s Way?—and that he’s happily composing operas again.

“I waited a long time to do it,” he told me. “And I would like, before I depart this mortal coil, to have written lots of operas. If I had started when I was twenty, or thirty, I would have written more. It’s something I wanted to do since I was a child, and something which I eventually accepted I would never do, and then gave up.” Having begun as a wunderkind, he has become a late bloomer. “When starting a new piece, every decision is as difficult as it always was, and I can’t see that changing,” he went on. “It remains a very strange occupation. But to have my pieces played to this degree—of course, it’s what I dreamed of as a child. Yes.”

My point is, we’re all vulnerable to the “making other people’s music” trap. As writers, we set ourselves on a certain genre or a certain milieu—”the European avant-garde”—and put all our eggs, all our self-worth, in that basket. Education plays a major role here—we want an A+ from teacher. Benjamin studied with the French avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen, “known for his radiantly complex harmonies.” That’s going to put an inflection on anyone’s sensibilities.

To survive as a professional creator of any kind, you have to reexamine your upbringing. You may think your milieu is somehow better or more elevated than the ones most people currently appreciate, but frankly most of us just go with what our teachers or parents told us were “best.” Have you really given the other stuff a try? The stuff people pay money for, not because they’re “sheeple,” but because the work brings them pleasure and enjoyment? You might prefer an 1898 audience, but 2018 audiences have the advantage of, you know, being not dead.

Plus, read any account of an actual theater-watching experience from the old days. People talked through the entire show and often threw rotten fruit. Sometimes they rioted.

Yes, go after your genre—assuming you genuinely enjoy it yourself, which is a big assumption—but if there isn’t an audience for the kind of stuff you’re making, remember: There is stuff with an audience. This is why I start every book proposal with a competitive analysis. Too many would-be authors don’t enjoy the kind of book they think they want to write. They have no idea what people want to read in that category and yet they want to spend a year writing in it. It’s a little hard to write something you would never want to read yourself.

Creators: If you don’t read or watch or listen to the kind of thing you’re making, why are you making it?

p.s. One more thing this week: I helped out with a book and I’m really proud of the end result. If you need clients for your business to succeed, I highly recommend The Snowball System by Mo Bunnell.

Yes, I’m biased because I was involved, but I have to say that I use Mo’s techniques in my own business all the time. I really wouldn’t be “too busy to write this newsletter” every week if it weren’t for what I’ve learned from Mo. His approach to winning new business is practical, utterly non-scuzzy, even fun.

I have no financial stake in the success of the book, by the way. I just think (based on experience) that it’s the best book out there on getting clients and doing more business with your existing ones.

p.p.s. It only took three years to work an Airplane 2 reference into a Maven Game. Check another one off the old bucket list.