It’s really difficult to build an audience for your work, right?
Often, I hear people bemoan how things were better in “the good old days.” When we didn’t have social media, when there wasn’t so much distraction. They felt that back before the internet, they could more easily get their book read, have their music heard, or build an audience for their art.
I think it was painfully difficult to find an audience before the internet. At least, it was for me. So today, I want to look at how pathetically I failed at finding an audience for my creative work in the 1990s.
And here is the crux. So many people will say things to me like “I only have 60 followers on Twitter,” bemoaning what feels like failure to attract an audience.
Well, in the 1990s, I dreamed of having 60 followers.
60 people to show up to an event.
60 people who cared about my art.
60 people who would share my music.
Maybe your experience was different before the internet. I would LOVE for you to share it. But first… here are my awkward art years. In the 1990s, I ran a music fanzine, had a band, did a lot of art, and managed a bookstore cafe that hosted live performances.
Let’s dig in….
My 1990s Music Zine
A zine (or fanzine) is a mostly handmade magazine created by a fan. In the 1990s I had a music zine that focused on mostly British pop and space rock.
This is me laying out an issue on my bed:
A friend and I published around a dozen issues, filled with original interviews and reviews. We published it ourselves, spending late nights at Kinkos, and hefty printing fees at a time when I earned minimum wage.
Publishing this zine left me thousands of dollars in debt when I was still in college.
We had a single advertiser. Our distribution consisted of hand delivering it to local music shops, and occasionally in NYC.
By any measure today, this zine would be an unbelievable failure. The audience was mostly the reviewers we roped in to write for us, and the guy behind the counter at the record shop as we tried to convince them to leave a stack by the door.
The funny thing about all of this? The record labels loved us. They sent us loads of free CDs and tapes, gave us free concert tickets, and I was able to interview all of my favorite bands. I was able to chat with Blur, Oasis, They Might Be Giants, and many others, all at the height of their success.
I had total access. Why? Because it was impossibly difficult for the record labels to promote these bands. Seeing a couple of guys from New Jersey spend so much time putting together a zine was enough indication that they should treat us really well.
Even though we had pretty much NO audience.
At the time, the idea of having 60 dedicated subscribers was a dream.
My 1990s Band
For years and years I was in a band and spent long nights constructing songs on my 4-track recorder. Here is the corner of my bedroom in the 1990s with my recording setup:
During the years my band and I made music, we never played a single live performance in front of real live people. We never released a single song.
Instead, we tried to figure out how to make music, enjoyed the nature of hanging out and exploring.
Did we dream of going further? YES. But in the 1990s, it seemed impossibly difficult to release music — a huge financial expense. To play a show required us to convince some kind of bar or performance space to take a huge risk on us — having zero fans or followers.
To have 60 people we could release songs to on Soundcloud? That would have been a dream for us back in the 1990s. And maybe the kind of validation that would have propelled us forward to be more public.
My 1990s Art
When I was a kid, I was the “artist” in my family and in school. My brother always had me draw the covers to his book reports, and I was allowed into special art programs at school.
In the 1990s, my life was filled with art project after art project. I did illustrations, paintings, pop-up books, sculpture, photography and so much else.
Here is one of those projects in progress during the mid ’90s:
The markers in this photo cost me hundreds of dollars — purchased on excursions to Pearl Paint on Canal Street in NYC.
Whenever anyone talked to me or visited, I likely told them about one of these projects. I remember having a grand plan to do oversize sculptures akin to those by Claes Oldenburg, one of my favorite artists.
My dreams were always bigger than my reality. I made art late into the night, while juggling three part-time jobs, most paying minimum wage, or close to it.
To get my work in front of an audience required skills I didn’t seem to have, and resources of energy and money that eluded me.
Sure, I would visit The Center for Book Arts in Manhattan, or the Printed Matter bookstore, but I was mostly a tourist. I spent weeks preparing a book that was submitted to Printed Matter, only to have it rejected. I moved on to another project after that, then another, then another.
Back then, it would have been amazing to open a shop on Etsy for my art; or to post images of my works in progress on Instagram. Having had 60 people validate this work would have made a huge difference to stop dabbling, and really try to share this work in a bigger way.
Managing a Cafe & Event Space in the 1990s
In the 1990s I was also the manager of a local bookstore cafe that hosted performances.
Week after week, I watched people share their poems, share their art, share their music. Sure, some nights were grand — people flowing out the door. But many were a mixed bag, including nights of nothing but crickets as a response to someone’s song. Polite applause from the barista.
This was the storefront:
This is one corner of the world, one that had a limited advertising budget as well. Actually, I can’t even recall if there was an advertising budget beyond posting a flyer on the bulletin board listing the events for the month.
To have had an email list of 60 subscribers, or been able to connect with our customers on Facebook would have been wildly more effective than what we were capable of at the time.
Where does most of this art and music now reside? In cardboard boxes in my attic. Remember that final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark? That sums up the way my creative work from the 1990s reached an audience:
Did I gain valuable and enjoyable experience creating all of this work? Of course. The journey is the destination — I understand that.
But still, I would have loved to have had 60 followers for this work. To look out onto an audience of 60 people who cared. To have had 60 people waiting for my next painting.
If you have 60 followers, treat them like the most special people in the world.