Monday, June 9, 2014

Creative Tribalism

Rather than count on fame and fortune, 21st-century writers, filmmakers, and artists ought to concentrate on building tribes of 30-100 people who are deeply engaged in their work. 

I do a lot of non-fiction reading in the areas of emerging technology and evolutionary biology, subjects which don't seem to have a direct relationship to creativity.  However, as I consider the deep sense of frustration I see among artists/storytellers trying to "break in" and "make it," I sense a disconnection between our global, technologically-driven economy and the natural psychology of the artist - one that emerged over the last million years.

In a recent book, The Second Machine Age - Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies,  Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that we are in a second, digital "machine age" (the first being The Industrial Revolution.)  In this new environment, computer technology has produced an economy that favors superstars over local players.  Generally speaking, The internet and telecommunications technology have allows anyone in the world to take business from players who were once protected by barriers of geography and cultural access.

More specifically, or writers, filmmakers, and artists  this has created a "winner-take-all" marketplace in which a small number of superstars, like billionaire J.K. Rowling or franchise demi-god J.J. Abrams, reach a global audience and the rest of us, millions and millions of us, toil away in relative paucity and obscurity.  The internet may have allowed anyone to publish a book or upload a film, but the global flood of content drowns all but the lucky (and well-marketed) few.  Artists find their work reduced to memes struggling in a environment of survival-of-the-stickiest.

(Success is granted to a few top performers, with small differences in talent, effort or luck often giving rise to enormous differences in incomes.” Frank " and Cook, The Winner-Take-All Society)

Now, I myself loved reading the Harry Potter series to my daughter, and I'll be first in line to see the upcoming Star Wars film.  But, the problem for artists who don't happen to be global superstars is that the creative psyche evolved in a very different environment.

Frontier Magazine, No. 9.6, (2003)
In his books, The Third Chimpanzee and The World Before Yesterday, Jared Diamond reminds us that in terms of our DNA, we are basically a third species of chimpanzee, and for millions of years, until very, very recently, we lived in groups of only 30-100 individuals. Diamond suggests that many of our natural instincts that evolved in these small groups are ill-suited to the 21st Century, and that by looking back to our traditional way of life, we can shed light on basic human needs that are stifled in our technology-rich environment. Diamond covers areas like health, child care, and conflict resolution, but think that his strategy also applies to creativity.

Consider a Paleolithic tribe of about fifty members. Among the hunters and gathers, I'd argue that there were 1-3 individuals who were best suited to contribute to the group as a whole by being storytellers, mask-makers, or cave painters - in other words, artists.  Every tribe had there very own J.J Abrams and J.K Rowling.  I'd argue further that one out of every thirty or so people, has the genetic pre-disposition to be the tribe's "artist" and that this individual isn't likely to feel successful, happy or fulfilled doing anything else.

However, in our "winner-take-all" global environment of media superstars, an awfully large number of people are set up for for disappointment, frustration and even alienation.  For  one out of every thirty people on the planet, the chance of success and fulfillment is literally a million to one.

We all need a different model of success, one that requires creatively minded people to build circles of 30-100 people who are deeply engaged in their work.  Whether or not one "hits it big," this circle becomes the center-of-gravity for creative growth, psychological health, and spiritual meaning. I'm calling this "Creative Tribalism."

 You can think of it as a set of concentric circles. The first circle is 7-10 people, who are your core collaborators, people you have regular, face-to-face contact with.  This is your writer's circle, your acting troupe, or your gang of techies hacking I-phones in your garage.

The next circle is 30-100 people who make up your core audience - people with whom you have a direct two-way relationship and for whom you create your painting-film-whatever. These connections may be primarily internet driven, but this audience is deeply engaged with your work.

Further concentric circles may contain 3,000, 30,000 or even 300,000 passive consumers of your art, and the next ring in particular is necessary to make a living (more on that in future blogs.)

However, because our social behavior and emotional drives evolved in tribes of 30-100 people,  close relationships with the first two circles are what delivers the very sense of fulfillment and purpose that so many creative people crave.

In fact, I'd argue, the absence of a closely knit tribe is precisely what is missing from many "successful" artist's lives.  Without these relationships even superstars can become just as depressed, alienated, and unfulfilled as anyone else.  (This is a subject worthy of it's own blog article.) In order to continue developing and flourishing, artists at all levels must build a tribe.  (For a grim reminder, read
The Dangers of Success: Isolation and Loneliness)
Creative Tribalism is not the same as “networking.” I’m not talking about career advancement, attracting followers or inbound marketing. I’m arguing that direct and collaborative relationships with a small tribe — a group of people who deeply value an artist’s work — are essential to his and her sense of purpose and wellbeing.

In the upcoming summer issue of MovieMaker Magazine, I interviewed filmmaker Joe Swanberg and actress Melanie Lynsky.  In that article I argue that Creative Tribalism is precisely the model ALL emerging filmmakers should be using, whether they aspire to be the next Swanberg or the next Spielberg.

In future blog posts, I'll flesh out these ideas further.  Some might argue that artists-building-tribes is hardly anything new. But, I'll argue that Creative Tribalism is a distinctly 21st century phenomenon in which the artist uses the same globalizing technologies to build relationships and nurture a sense of fulfillment.

Specifically, for the first time, writers, filmmakers and artists have access to:
  • Affordable technology that allows a single individual to create a piece (like a film, a song, or book) that previously required an industry. 
  • The digital connectivity that allows an artist to identify potential collaborators. 
  • The digital distribution needed to reach a widely-dispersed niche audience. 
  • The social networking needed to maintain the engagement of that audience.
But more on that later...

Have thoughts on "Creative Tribalism?" I write this blog in order to connect with intelligent, ambitious, and creative people. If you leave a comment, you will inspire me to write more. If you liked the article, please share it. 


Elizabeth said...

Great article, Sean! I "preach" the concept of "creative competition" in RWG because it's better when artists help each other.

Geena Vivens said...

This is really great, Sean. I am very inspired by what you are putting forth and think it's a super important discussion around how to conceptualize new notions of community and old-fashioned connectivity in the digital world. I look forward to more posts about this!

sanjay sahgal said...

Your perspective is both insightful and useful for artists of any stripe. Thanks for crystallizing these thoughts and sharing them.

Stephen Heleker said...

Great post, Sean.

On the converse side, I think that a large slice of the population has a need to interact with artists directly, which goes partially unfulfilled when they spend $100 to watch their favorite musicians from 100 yards away in an echoey stadium. Timed with the implosion of the music industry and disruption of major publishers and studios, we are seeing an emerging audience that combines mainstream tastes with "obscure" or more specific artists/genres.

Unknown said...

Wonderful post, Sean and a great jumping off point for an important conversation. I have experienced both sides of the coin - suffering while trying to
"make it" in the global marketplace and thriving in a smaller, more immediately, gratifying environment. I haven't cracked the code on making a living within the tribal model yet, but it is a goal worth having - if only to prove that a creative person can live a sustainable life while being true to their calling. Thanks for starting this conversation and keeping it going.

Unknown said...

Hi Sean,
You asked for feedback from the FA tribe, so here's mine: this is a fantastic idea and one that I think is almost certainly true.

The trick, as always, is how to do it. Musicians have concerts, authors have book tours - I suppose filmmakers have festivals, but I've always felt like I get a little lost in the crowd as a filmmaker at a festival.

For me, the question is, how do I find the people who'll be interested in watching and following my work?

Any ideas?

Unknown said...

Hi, Sean- Posted your link on Ted Hope's FB page.

Janet Harvey said...

I really feel that the movie industry is at the same tipping point now that the music industry was at 10 years ago - when the big labels were bemoaning the loss of revenues while independent artists were starting to see some real traction on MP3 sales. You saw an environment in which the "superstars" like Britney Spears were losing market share - while smaller indies like Spoon, the White Stripes, Decemberists, etc found a wider audience - not as big as the "blockbuster" pop acts, but enough to sustain them and their smaller labels. The internet is at a point where it can be a legitimate distribution platform for feature films. Maybe smaller films can find their audience in the long tail, if they aren't lost in the shuffle. I look forward to your future articles on this subject!

Rise Against said...

This is The Monkeysphere-style thinking. (Look it up, it's epic)

Anonymous said...

I like the general idea, but if you're working on shooting a Horror film or a Mumblecore, there are a lot more 'collaborators' out there for you to find. If you're working on something off-Genre (or worse yet, a film that has two or three genres mixed in to form something more unique), it's much harder. Unless of course, you have money. But then you just hire people, instead of trying to wrangle them into doing projects.

Unknown said...

I do wonder if the numerous con's (ComicCon, WonderCon) are manifestations of this desire between the creator and his/her tribal fellows. You can look at these events as hubs of advertisement but there is definitely a true sense of interaction between the "fans" and the creators.

Which does bring up an interesting point by the way; you are much more likely to have a meaningful interaction with your fans if you are, say, a cult novelist/filmmaker with a small circle of passionate fans than if you are J.J. Abrams and your energy is spent dodging the mass audience of your followers. I do wonder if the "super-stars" artists wish they could interact with their fans on a more personal, meaningful level.

Also, the most obvious contemporary example of an artist cultivating a tribe is probably Dan Harmon. He has a weekly stand-up type show where he interacts with his fans face to face, a podcast appropriately named HarmonTown, and he even casually hangs out on the subreddit r/community, which is probably the closest modern equivalent of a tribe.

I do wonder why he's the exception though. Any thoughts? Wouldn't you wish to interact with the fans of your art work if you were a successful artist? Why isn't Matthew Weiner on r/madmen? Why isn't Bryan Fuller on r/hannibaltv?

Sean Hood said...

Hi all,

I can't directly respond to your comments so I'm bundling them all in one post.

Elizabeth - Yes, the Rocket Writer's Group is a great example of a collaborative tribe connected online.

Genevieve - Thanks!

Sanjay - Thanks for reading. Write more blogs!

Stephen - "I think that a large slice of the population has a need to interact with artists directly." This is ultimately central to the model, especially if an artist hopes to actually make a living.

Jessica - "Making a living" with this model is something I'm exploring by interviewing people who are actually doing it. More on that soon.

Adam - "how do I find the people who'll be interested in watching and following my work?" You articulated the problem of the "bottom up" model. If you just make a film and "put it out there," the work is liable to just be drowned in flood of other work. When everyone can make a film, films are reduced to memes in an environment of survivial-of-the-stickiest. In a future blog, I'm going to suggest a center-out model (as opposed to top down or bottom up) for audience building.

Heidi- Love Ted Hope!

Janet Harvey - There are a LOT of disruptions and emerging technologies at tipping points. Filmmakers (and all artists) must be extremely inventive and adaptive to survive.

Rise Against - A lot of people shated the The Monkeysphere link with me. It is HILARIOUS!

Anonymous - I'd argue that the model works for any genre, not just mumblecore and horror. The key is to use technology and connectivity to find people who share your peculiar interests. More on that as I write about audience building.

Levin - I think I'm going to try to contact Dan Harmon so that you can interview him! I think that "super-stars" are being self protective. I think that artists can have collaborative interactive relationships with concentric circles of 10 - 300 - 3000 people, but if you have millions of fans, it's easy to be overwhelmed. You also have to protect yourself from cabals of haters and trolls.

Graphic Novels are an interesting example of building an audience on a smaller scale before "scaling up" to a larger, big budget project.

Sean Hood said...

A bunch of questions have been sent to me via email. Here are some responses...

"Is Creative Tribalism creativity by committee?"

“Creativity by committee” is a corporate top-down process in which every decision must be ratified by a team of executives and market analysts, and which inevitably leads to safe and predictable choices. By contrast, this is center-out creativity by collaboration in which the artist is always at the center and in control. While s/he is open to the spontaneous and ongoing inventiveness of everybody s/he works with, his subject matter is highly personal, and the final choice of what elements to include and what elements to discard is entirely his/hers.

"Can misanthropy be an impetus for creativity or is it a shot in the foot?"

Yes, I think misanthropy can spur creativity, and well known creative people have been misanthropic. But, I wonder if there is a difference between making misanthropic art that expresses misanthropic ideas and hating humanity to the point that one refuses to engage with other like-minded people. Sarte ("Hell is other people") had his circles in the Paris cafes. Kubrick had his trusted collaborators. Even Kafka read his stories out loud to small groups gathered in Prague.

"What is the impact of ideology on tribe formation, cohesion and output? What are the potential benefits and pitfalls, do we risk creating echo chambers or cults?"

Ideology is something I think about a lot. If we take Zizek's model of ideology, then all creative output is ideological. There is no neutral ground to stand on. However, if an artist wants to subvert or critique dominant a ideology (Capitalism, Liberal-Democracy, Hipster-ism,) a tribe can offer an alternative ideological space.

Tribes can indeed become echo chambers and cults. But tribalism can offer a third opportunity beyond super-stardom (for the .001%) and total isolation and irrelevance (for everyone else.)

"What are the goals of art? Is there a bigger picture? Does art have a responsibility?"

On one level, art can be simply be what pleases the artist. Vivian Maier is considered one of American's finest 20th century photographers, and she took all her photos in secret. Nobody even knew about them until after her death when her massive body of work was discovered at a local thrift auction house. She apparently had absolutely no interest in sharing her absolutely stunning photographs with anyone.

I guess goals, responsibilities and the bigger picture are for the artist to define. Creative Tribalism - choosing and building ones collaborators and audience - is one way of articulating that definition.

I myself have made work in total isolation (stories, paintings) and I have worked on Hollywood movies to which I had absolutely no personal or authorial relationship. Both were really lonely, depressing and unfulfilling experiences for me. So Creative Tribalism is my attempt at figuring out some kind of alternative.

Sean Hood said...

More responses...

"What are the goals of a tribe? Who is in charge?"

"Who's in charge?" is a really interesting question, because we normally think of the artist/individual as the center of the creative universe. But couldn't an artist choose his/her tribe and then work in service of that tribe's creative/spiritual/ideological needs? I'm sort of investigating the idea of art as an social-act-of-service rather than a selfish-act-of-individualism - or more precisely as both.

"Can everyone be an artist? Should everyone be an artist?"

No. And No. I think that about 3% of the population has a real vocation. Somehow people who are not really artists have gotten the idea that being a writer/actor/filmmaker/musician is the most fun and desirable of all possible occupations. When my father takes on a new trumpet student he asks them, "Is there anything else you can possibly do? Do you absolutely have to do this?" If the student says yes, he sighs and say, "My condolences. Let's get to work." Being an "artist" can be really miserable and depressing.

That said, in the Jungian sense that we're all artists/warriors/muses/lovers and so on, I think everyone can have fun dabbling in creative activity. Almost every job from software engineer to housepainter has very creative aspects.

"What possible examples exist to model this after? How does Creative tribalism look in other cultures and segments of society?"

Whether or not you like "mumblecore," I think that Joe Swanberg and others in his "tribe" are working in small collaborative groups for a small but devoted audience, and while he is not getting rich, he is at least making a living. I interviewed him for the summer issue of Moviemaker Magazine. It was intriguing...

I also think that the 22-year-old creator of the Occulus Rift virtual reality goggles worked in a Creative Tribalism model. At 18 he decided to build and tinker with VR goggles in his garage with money he earned fixing i-phones. He kept sharing his results with a small tribe of fellow geek-gamers on posting boards. He offered to build people prototypes and send them his work at cost. Eventually he connected with important collaborators and launched a kick-starter campaign. Since then, his company just sold to Facebook for 2 billion, he has moved from tribalism to global superstar...and actually pissed-off his original tribe, but anyway... you can read about him in this month's Wired.

Unknown said...

WOW! Thanks for all that additional thought to chew on. My immediate response is that you've got quite a tribe going already - full of people asking all kinds of provocative and useful questions.
To speak further from my own experience - one thing I never expected was that the more closely I work within my tribe, the more I learn about what I want to say and the better I get about saying it. The feedback from my tribe informs my thinking in extremely valuable ways and inspires me to keep going more deeply into my "message" and to keep tinkering with my "form." I used to bemoan not having a proper "teacher" but in the last year or so I say "my clients are my teachers". I get better all the time thanks to the people with whom I share my work.

gspoljaric said...

Wonderful work, Sean. Topical, inspiring, primal.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Sean! I can't wait to hear your thoughts on a centre-out model of audience building.