“I’ve started several businesses. Maybe 17 have failed out of 20. I fail quickly. I fail frequently. Entrepreneurship is a sentence of failures punctuated by brief success.”

The words of a successful/unsuccessful entrepreneur.

It makes me think of joke writing. For “business”, substitute “joke”.

A good stand-up show is all your successes in one place.

With stand-up and entrepreneurship, the trick is to find ways to fail that mean you can keep playing the game.


Surviving And Making A Difference

My last couple of posts were about making money and industry. Money. Eew. Not very artistic.

For “making money”, read: eating. I haven’t yet been able to take my jokes to a farmer and exchange them for food*. I look forward to that day.

Just for the record, I reckon there’s only one area of life where you can concentrate your efforts to make these “how are we going to survive?” and “how are we going to make enough money?” conversations go away.

That area of life is called activism. Activism is not voting. It’s picking and getting behind a campaign with a goal, and it can be as creative as you like (see Banksy pic).

Sometimes the end is a long way off (see: women’s suffrage, civil rights, the end of apartheid), but it’s worth it because it’s right, not because you’ll be around to do the victory dance. The arc of history can only be bent so far in one lifetime, but you can still pull on it.

I hope you set aside time for activism, but I wouldn’t blame anyone who feels like it’s too overwhelming and that there are a million other things that need doing. All I’d say to that is that there are different levels of engagement, with different levels of time required.

I’ve picked my campaigns, I hope you’ve picked yours, but I’m not going say anything more, because I think people come to this stuff when the time is right for them.

That’s why I think it’s more useful for me to blog here about writing, comedy, surviving economically, creative tensions and all that jazz.

I’m happy to talk with anyone about ideological stuff if you want to get in touch, but it’s just a weird time we’re living in, where we have to be permissive about everything, but closeted about what we actually think!

*(Insert rotten tomatoes joke here!)


Selling Hot Air

Like a lot of industries, the comedy industry goes through tough times during a recession.

When this happens, comedy is not going through a tough time – people still want a laugh, but fewer are buying tickets and taking chances on lesser-known comics or club nights.

I reckon those of us who are committed to creating stuff and putting on a show will prevail, one way or another.

Just so you know I’m not wearing rose-tinted specs, I’ll say it – survival is the new doing well.

When the going gets tough, remember:

When you started, you had to be really resourceful to get gigs, fail at them, keep getting more, keep turning the material over, wrestling with negativity every day. There were no “how-to”s, degrees, or “Dummies” guides.

You are so resourceful, the hot air that comes out of your mouth now translates into food on the table. That’s quite something.

Maybe you’re newer at selling hot air, and haven’t made a sale yet. You’re facing down all of the above, just in the hope that it will lead somewhere*. That takes some rare and valuable qualities. I hope you recognise that you have them.

My point is: If we can slay these dragons, we can slay other ones.

When the going gets tough, just look at how resourceful you’ve been.

If we didn’t all have dad issues, we’d be quite dangerous!

*If you don’t quit, it will.


The “M” Word

Maybe you’re a poet. Maybe you’re an activist. Maybe you knit lampshades.

You spent a lot of time writing those poems, agitating and knitting. The one thing that we all have in common is that we all need to connect with people who might, at some point, want what we create.

If you want people to pay money, and even if you want to keep your art pure, by getting people to pay in attention rather than money, we all have to get our stuff to market. Eek. Marketing. (Please read on!)

(Please forgive me, ghost of Bill Hicks. Just trying to help.)

You might sing a better song than that person on TV, but they somehow (probably unfairly, using evil trickery) got their stuff to market.

Fame isn’t meritocratic. In the bad old days, all you could do was whine about monopolists and the TV-industrial complex. Doesn’t have to be like that anymore.

Some people don’t like the word “marketing”, and that’s why Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book about ideas spreading and called it The Tipping Point. It made people feel clever and became a best-seller.

Turns out people are interested in marketing if you call it something else. This is marketing marketing.

Where Gladwell wrote the The Tipping Point for the general audience, Seth Godin wrote Spreading The Ideavirus for people who wanted to get stuff done and out there.

He made it free and downloadable.

In All Marketers Are Liars, Godin suggests that if you have an idea, and you want people to engage with it, you’re in marketing, whether you know it or not. (He might be lying, though!)

But Seth’s early innovation was Permission Marketing. The idea here is that you shouldn’t bother people who don’t want to hear from you. It’s common sense to you and me, but some in the marketing world needed Seth to write a whole book about it!

The old model revolved around the right (purchased with bales of cash) to interrupt people over and over again until they give in, and buy Coke or vote for UKIP.

It still works, evidently, but the internet changes things a little bit – and it’s good news for you!

How many Viagra emails have you opened lately? How many ads have you skipped lately? Now think about emails and messages from people you want to hear from (anticipated, personal and relevant, as Godin puts it).

That Viagra salesman (it has to be a man, right?) that just spammed a billion people is getting his ass kicked, in attention terms, by your little mailing list, because everybody on it wanted to hear from you.

Your list (or however you prefer to connect) wins, because you made a genuine connection with people who like what you do.

Whatever it is you’re making, (poems, social change, knitted lampshades), if it’s for other people, you need to build a following and get it to them.

Yes, it’s a lot harder to do for those of us without powerful media connections, but it used to be impossible. Now it’s not.

So, just to round up, build away with the social networks, lists, and what have you, but build permission at the same time.

Good luck!

PS. Some of my best friends are marketers. Go easy on me if you read this, guys!


Creativity And Not Starving To Death

It’s tough to walk the tightrope of creativity and not starving to death, but there are some inspiring ideas out there. I’ll share these with you, in case you’re a bit late to the party (like me!)

In 2008, Kevin Kelly wrote a blog post enquiring into how many True Fans it would take to sustain an artist. We should all read it. If you don’t have time, he gave a vague rule of thumb. 1,000 True Fans.

In The Curve*, Nicholas Lovell wrote about (among other things) how the free price-tag is here to stay, and what’s more, artists and creators giving things away for free is a good thing. We should all read it.

If you don’t have time, the idea is instead of doing one thing at one price, like a DVD, or a show ticket, you treat different people differently.

The problem with selling one thing at one price means if you’re not making a living, you need to find more people to buy that one thing at that one price. Which means getting distribution, employing offices of people, setting up meetings with TV execs, paying your execs to talk their execs (we’ve all been there, right?) to drive up your profile.

Now the overheads are mounting, so now you’re only making 12p per copy of the thing your selling, but that’s okay because you’re Michael McIntyre and sales are through the roof.

Just in case you’re not Michael McIntyre…

What if you’ve already got enough people who want to sustain you, who love what you do, but want different things from you?

Clicking around on the 1,000 True Fans post, I see that painters know all about this. They treat different people differently. This commission is worth £200 to this person, so now I’m going to make a £200 thing. This commission is worth £1000 to this person, so now I’m going to make a £1000 thing.

Same paint, same canvas, same artist, different value to the buyer. Nobody’s being ripped off – the painter loves to paint, the buyer loves her work. In a world of meaningless froth, how much would you value a personalised, custom-made thing of beauty and meaning from your favourite artist?

Doing comedy here in the UK, I know I’m lucky. Some pioneering people came before me and built a comedy circuit and a culture has formed around it. But whatever it is you create (poetry, fiction, software, knitted lampshades), there’s a probably culture and maybe we owe it to the pioneers to do something with their legacy.

Unlike, say, a big media company, you don’t have to pay an office full of people to make you famous and connect you to True Fans. My Nana has an iPad. She might like your stuff.

All you need is a laptop (maybe not even that) and your tortured artistic soul (check!). You may as well dig in while you’re waiting to get picked by the Head of Go Away at Don’tLetTheDoorHitYouInTheAss Media Group**.

Make stuff. Get it out there (hint – people like free things that they can share with their friends). See who salutes. Try again. Don’t quit.

To sum up:

The Curve says: Use the power of free to reach audiences, build relationships with them, and create ways to let them spend money on your lovely stuff. (If you were creative enough to make a stand-up routine, or a script, or a knitted lampshade, you’ve got this.)

Kevin Kelly says: One thousand is a feasible number.

How far away are you?

*There’s also a free podcast out there of Nicholas Lovell talking about The Curve.

**If you can pull any strings at DLTDHYITA Media Group, please put in a good word for me.


Making Money And Stand-Up

So let’s talk about making money with our creativity.

I have a pet theory that whatever you were doing before you moved into stand-up, that’s how you’re going to do stand-up.

I was singing songs in pubs and clubs, so I approached stand-up like that. Write a bunch of songs (jokes), put them in a running order (set list). Drop the ones that don’t make people dance (laugh). Making money? I’m just happy to not have to pay to play.

Maybe because Jimmy Carr was doing marketing for a blue-chip company, he went straight in at the exec level, figuring out the power structure, befriending gatekeepers and getting ahead.

Before I was singing songs for a bit of money, I had a job. A job is where you have a boss, and if you make them happy you might get a better job, maybe better money.

When we got into stand-up, a lot of us had jobs. Then, when we started getting paid for stand up, we transplanted our job thinking into our stand-up thinking. There’s a boss (a promoter), if you make them happy (by making the audience happy), you get promoted (better gigs – nicer, or more lucrative).

This definitely works and makes sense. We would be nowhere without the circuit and the people who work their tails off trying to put audiences in front of our non-famous asses.

But how do performers like Daniel Kitson and Stewart Lee and Simon Munnery and Richard Herring and… (you finish the list) get to do the art they do? I can’t speak for them, but it seems to me that they didn’t turn it into a job.

It might be design, it might be default, but instead of (or as well as) building a list of bosses and thinking up strategies to please them, they built an audience. Sometimes one person at a time at fringe festivals, sometimes with the help of an accelerant, like TV.

There are two(ish) big companies who own all the famous people, and this duopoly works tirelessly to get their famous people on the TV shows that they make. Let’s not sit around waiting to get picked.

The internet’s a connection machine. “Publish” is a button on a website. You have your own TV channel. You have your own radio station. Go to it!