What We Can Learn From P*Star

When I say “rapper”, what do you think of? Probably not a preteen girl spittin’ rhymes about how she isn’t ready for a boyfriend yet. This documentary might change that.

PStar (Photo Credit: ewphoto on Flickr)

PStar (Credit: ewphoto on Flickr)

P*Star Rising is a documentary by Gabriel Noble that follows the growth (literally) of a 9-year-old female rapper from Harlem named Priscilla Diaz, stage name: P*Star.  While I don’t know if I would have picked a name for a 9-year-old that produces google searches about the adult entertainment industry, I was instantly won over by this little girl’s wittiness and extremely apparent charisma.  The film recently premiered at Tribeca Film Festival.  Check out the trailer.

We can all learn a few things from P*Star, the artist, and Priscilla Diaz, the girl.

Connections make you or break you. P*Star wasn’t born rapping (although that would be pretty sick).  She didn’t get signed by a record label because of her musical genius.  She got signed because her father, an ex-rapper from the 80s, knew the right people.

While most of us aren’t lucky enough to be born into families with connections in the field of our choice, we can use social media to forge connections with people that will help advance our career.  Start seeking out people on Linkedin, Facebook, and Twitter that will provide you with an outlet for your work.  Maybe it is a museum curator, or a record producer, or an employer.  Join the communities that these people are part of and start a conversation.  Make a connection by asking questions or establish yourself as competent by answering other people’s questions.  The questions can lead to an email, the email to an interview or audition.  Most successes don’t come from luck; they come from someone saying “Hey, I know this great person you should hear about.”

You can’t do it alone. There are going to be hard times.  Really hard times.  I don’t care how strong you are, you can’t believe that you are going to make it without some support system.  Whether it is monetary or emotional support, you need someone that will always be stable, because there will be times when everything else is not.

Have an interesting story. The thing I like most about P*Star is that she has a story.  She grew up in poverty with a heroine-addicted mother and cocaine-selling father.  Her father cleaned up his act and took her in, teaching her how to rap.  She had her first gig when she was 6, was signed to a record contract at 10, and now has a leading role on PBS’s revival of The Electric CompanyFind some things, or a series of things that make people go, “Cool!

5 Rules for Artists Using Social Media

In my last post, you learned that no one cares how good you are if they don’t know who you are.   Social media literacy is an essential skill for all artists to master.  And by social media literacy, I don’t mean being able to create a facebook event, or tweet about your breakfast, or add friends on Myspace.  My 10-year-old cousin can do that.  I mean being able to effectively use social media to self-promote and create a lasting, active community that will continue to support you.

When using any social media tool, there are 5 important rules to follow:

  1. Don’t lead with tools, lead with relationships. You aren’t going to get anywhere by blindly twittering promotional material 20 times a day.  In fact, that’s probably a pretty good way to annoy your fans.  Instead of looking at these tools as a platform solely for spewing content, think of them as a way to get involved in the conversation of your community.  Amanda Palmer, lead singer for the Dresden Dolls, is a great example of what an artist should strive for.  In May, she made $11,000 in one night. She twittered her fellow “Losers of Friday Night” (fans who had decided not to go out on a friday), got together a group of people to hang out on the internet, chatted about stuff, made a t-shirt on the spot about the stuff they were chatting about, and sold over 400 shirts in the next few days.  That is how you harness the power of a community.
  2. Great Big Sea (Photo Credit: Cindy Funk on Flickr)

    Great Big Sea (Photo Credit: Cindy Funk on Flickr)

  3. Use tools as an aide to build community. When you are an artist, community is everything.  It is your bread and butter and if your fans are not strong and loyal, you will not survive.  You do not have to be a household name to be successful if you have a strong community.  Have you heard about Great Big Sea?  Probably not.  They are a Canadian celtic-rock band.  Last summer I went to one of their concerts and then saw the Backstreet Boys the following weekend at the same venue (don’t judge!).  Can you guess which concert was sold out and which one wasn’t?   It’s hard to believe, but a Canadian celtic-rock band actually beat the Backstreet Boys in ticket sales. Great Big Sea enjoys consistently sold out concerts because they have an active fan base that will travel thousands of miles to see them and they recognize the power of having this community.  An example: their website is titled “The Community of Great Big Sea.”
  4. Tell your story. You want to use social media to connect and engage with your audience on a personal level.  There’s an Indian Proverb that goes: “Tell me a fact, I’ll learn.  Tell me the truth and I’ll believe.  Tell me a story and it’ll live in my heart forever.”  People remember stories, so why not tell yours?  And I don’t mean a stale bio that you find on all these artists’ websites.  I mean something personal, written by you, about you, that readers will want to tell other people.  One interesting and memorable anecdote or fact makes it easier for your fans to promote you.  I can’t count how many times I’ve bragged that Lady Gaga was one of 20 applicants accepted into Tisch early decision ever.
  5. Create an incentive for users to come back. There was a Mashable post a few weeks ago about 5 great Facebook fan pages.  They all had one thing in common:  original content.  You want to make content that is not available elsewhere.  We yearn to be on the inside, getting the “exclusive sneak peek”. Make your fans feel special and give them something they can’t get anywhere else.
  6. Don’t sign yourself up for more than you can maintain. Having 8 different profiles on various media platforms won’t do any good for you unless they are all well developed and updated frequently.  If you have enough time to maintain 8 accounts, then that’s great.  However, if you are an artist, you probably are busy working on your, you know, art.  Focus your time on one or two platforms (using points 1-4).  And don’t ever hire someone to maintain your profiles.  There is nothing that will make you look more out of touch with social media.  Your fans want to connect with you, not your 20-year-old intern.  The whole point is to engage people, and you can’t do that if you are spread across eight different platforms or aren’t even using the tools.

Building community, making a personal connection, and actively engaging your audience is not only important, it is necessary to set yourself apart from everybody else. Be authentic and be yourself.

Anna and Teague at SILVERDOCS!

AFI Silver Theater, Photo Credit: Agnes Varnum on Flickr

AFI Silver Theater, Photo Credit: Agnes Varnum on Flickr

Anna and Teague, your faithful Still Indie bloggers, will be attending SILVERDOCS this week in Silver Spring, MD. For those of you who don’t know, SILVERDOCS is an 8-day documentary film festival and conference sponsored by the AFI that includes over 100 films and 25,000 attendees. We’re pretty excited.

Say hello if you see us! If the weather report for DC is correct, I’ll be the one in the bright purple umbrella.

Why Artists Need Social Media

Editor’s Note: I’m happy to welcome Devon Hopkins to Still Indie.  He is an undergraduate at a competitive liberal arts university studying social psychology and group dynamics through choreography.  He also manages and promotes an a cappella group and a dance troupe. We hope you will enjoy his insights on collaboration and the use of social media for performing artists.

This is my first blog post.  I’ve shied away from the idea in the past because of something I think all artists have: self-doubt. Because we grow up in a highly competitive atmosphere, we are constantly questioning ourselves: “Why do I deserve to do this?” and “Why should I succeed over that person?”  What I have come to realize is “Who cares?”  You probably aren’t unique, but even if you are, it doesn’t really matter.  The focus should not be on whether or not you deserve to succeed, it should be on how you can succeed with the skills that you have.  That’s where social media comes into play.

Movement (Photo Credit: Oneras on Flickr)

Movement (Photo Credit: Oneras on Flickr)

No one cares how good you are if they don’t know who you are. From a very early age, in any art form (dance in my case), we are taught that the only way to survive in the world of art is to be the best.  “Do you think people will pay to see that pirouette?!” “You think you can fill seats with that documentary?” We are constantly pushed to be the “best”, when in reality, many of the best artists fail. So You Think You Can Dance just started its 5th season and after auditioning thousands of dancers over 5 years, they are still finding exceptional talent, enough so that the show is already auditioning dancers for a 6th season in the fall.  There is an endless pool of talented artists in all fields and your job is not to be better than your peers.  Your job is to get noticed first.

Thousands of people are competing for the same success that you are. Marketing yourself effectively is about making people remember who you are in a crowd of people.  I recently got to work with a choreographer, let’s call her Anya.  After college, Anya knew that she didn’t have the years of technical training necessary to become a well-paid professional dancer, so she decided to try out choreography.  She, like dozens of other dance hopefuls moved to New York, put together a show, and invited critics and members of the dance community to view it.  She, unlike the dozens of other dance hopefuls, fed her audience food and got them drunk on cheap alcohol, convincing them it was “part of her Estonian background.”  Was it illegal?  Probably.  But by marketing herself and turning her art into an event, she enjoyed consistent rave reviews while most of her hopeful dance buddies did not.

Art is not just about creating something.  It is about effectively sharing that something with a larger community. Anya acknowledges that she is not the best dancer now, nor was she ever in high school, college, or in her graduate experience.  Yet now Anya is a very successful professor at one of the best liberal arts schools in the nation.  How?  She knew how to market herself and her works.  What Anya did to make her art look like more than just another post-modern dance piece, you can do using social media.  With all the social media tools (Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Blogger, Digg, Flickr, Youtube) freely accessible, it is now your job to distinguish yourself from all the other artists doing what you do.  Independent artists and labels won half of this year’s grammy awards, due in part, no doubt, to their talent, but also to their access to and skilled use of online social resources.  It’s easier now than ever to make a name for yourself, by yourself.

“How?” you might ask. Well, that’s what I’m here to tell you.  Subscribe to Still Indie so you won’t miss my next post.

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Joss Whedon at the Shasha Seminar, Part II

Last time, I gave a recap of Joss Whedon and Mark Harris’s thoughts on where the media industry is going, but much of our time at the Shasha Seminar was spent talking about the nuts and bolts of actually getting work produced.

Photo Credit: Malenkov in Exile

Photo Credit: Malenkov in Exile

Whedon talked about his own career, and how he got his stories up on screen. He started with Buffy, who he described like so: “This is my voice. This is my avatar. This is my girl.” Buffy, the story of a “bimbo” getting her revenge on big scary monsters, was the story he needed to tell. Being a script doctor was not enough for him – because it didn’t involve creating anything. Lucky for him, as he creates, he sees the title, the trailer, the one sheet and the marketing campaign all in his head. That probably goes a long way to explain why Whedon’s incredibly off-beat concepts worm their way into the pop culture landscape – he understands that media doesn’t just live up on screen, it lives in advertising, it lives in conversations online and in person. He claims it’s not cynical to think of these things as you’re doing creative work – because “It’s going to be a dialog between the audience and us.” In other words, he’s reaching out to his audience any way he can.

For Buffy, reaching out to the audience also meant a huge amount of multi-platform content – some of which he controlled creatively, and some of which he didn’t. In the case of the books, Whedon said, “Please don’t have Buffy deny the Holocaust in any of them, I’ll be over here.” In the case of the video game, he voiced an avatar of himself. Whedon put a lot of creative effort into the comic book series, because that platform interested him. However, he also addressed the announcement that Fran Rubel Kuzui, producer of the original (and failed) Buffy the Vampire Slayer film, intends to revive the series without Whedon’s creative input. Whedon said that Buffy “would not have happened” without Kuzui, and that the party who would have legal difficulty creating a new Buffy TV series is, in fact, him. When someone asked if he regretted not telling more television stories in the Buffy universe, he said “I’m not long on regret.”

Whedon’s shows are widely given credit as some of the first to have massive (and well-organized) online followings, Firefly was one of the first shows without a fully aired season to come out on DVD, and now his show Dollhouse is being renewed in part due to a strong web-based viewing audience. As I noted in my last post, Whedon started shooting the second season of Dollhouse on Monday. Budgets have been cut, and he’ll be shooting in HD video instead of film. Whedon actually seemed pleased about this, saying that “When they take money away from me – I get better.” (Fox executives, if you’re reading this, please don’t take it to heart). Whedon talked about the challenge of writing a show with six act breaks instead of four (which I understand is at Fox’s request, since there are more ad breaks online than on TV). He said it was challenging not to take the audience “out of the story” with so many cuts.

When you watch Joss Whedon speak in person, what comes across most readily is that he genuinely loves his job, and believes in his own work. Much of the weekend (which I’ll get to in a third, and possibly final post) was very tied up in justifying the artistic compromises that everyone makes in order to get art to make money. Whedon still believes that storytelling can, should, and must stand for something – even when it’s happening in a staunchly commercial enterprise. Whether regular folks can do what he does – create their own Dr. Horribles without the backing of experience, prestige and lots of famous friends – remains to be seen. But it’s nice to know that there are powerful people who are still in our corner.