For our third Sputnik Brum Hub, we had a quandary. How exactly do you follow Ally Gordon and Luke Tonge? Not only are these guys two of the most talented, articulate Christian artists working in their fields in the UK at the moment, but they also both run national Christian art networks, making them well equipped to talk about pretty much anything related to art, faith and church (the three topics that Sputnik hubs tend to talk about).
Well, the answer was staring us in the face. We’d spent much of the early summer plugging Stewart Garry’s brilliant Sojourner project, and seeing as Chris Donald, who’d overseen the production of the project, had just landed back in Brum, we thought we’d let them run the show.
I mean, just to have Stewart playing in such an intimate setting would have been enough. But to have the two of them break down (and take questions on) one of the most interesting and well executed art projects I’ve come across this year was perfect.
As expected, their presentation and the ensuing discussion threw up all sorts of nuggets of gold, and I thought I’d summarise 3 of the main things I got from the afternoon for those of you who were unlucky enough to have been doing something else a couple of Saturdays ago.
1) The importance of the whole package
One of the main reasons that I was so keen for Chris and Stewart to come and share was that this project is so well executed from every angle. The music is obviously fantastic, but then again so are the videos. And the production. And the promo photography. And the typography. And the website.
This attention to ‘the whole package’ came through clearly in the afternoon and was a very helpful reminder to all of us. I’ve seen so many good projects fall down because even one element was lacking. You shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, but you do. And so does everyone else. And we all do the same to an album and even a free online bandcamp release. Similarly, for promotion through social media nowadays, a well shot video is no longer the icing on the cake. It is the cake (or at least the filling in the middle. Or the marzipan on the battenburg. I don’t know much about cakes, but you get the idea)
However, most of the artists I know have a tendency to try to do everything themselves. Perhaps it’s because of a shyness that causes them to choose to work alone. Perhaps it’s an insecurity in the quality of their work. Perhaps it’s simply because they don’t know anyone who can do the other bits that they’re not brilliant at.
Well, the first two of these reasons may still need to be battled through, but one of the purposes of Sputnik is to cross the third one off the list for more and more of us. It may be slightly intimidating to witness Chris, who is one of the few people I’ve met who has the drive and skill to do pretty much everything himself. However, for the rest of us, we need to rely on other people.
Just because you can write, it doesn’t mean you can art direct your book cover.
Just because you can sing, it doesn’t mean that you can engineer your music.
Where i fall short is always typography. Oh, just find a decent font. There’s bound to be one here somewhere. This approach always leads to trouble and I’d thoroughly recommend all artists who ever want to make promotional material for anything to keep their eyes peeled for typographers and graphic designers who know how to use a font properly.
Between Chris and Stewart, they presented us with what happens when you get it right.
2) Thinking through promoting your project
One of the elements that Stewart admitted to falling short on was promoting the project after its release. To be honest, he’s still way ahead of many of us and clearly put in some good work here as he certainly got the project into some of the right hands as a number of positive reviews testify (for example…)
However, this raised a few thoughts about how we promote our work in general. For Stewart, the problem was one of tiredness. For him, the project was done and his energy had been spent doing the important stuff- putting the actual product together. On the back of this, geeing himself up to promote the whole thing (a huge project in itself if it’s to be done properly) was a step too far. Chris mentioned the possibility of paying someone to take this on in future, and I know of others who’ve factored this cost into their budgeting and found it helpful.
Even if you don’t have an online marketing strategy or the money to employ a PR firm to promote your project, it is worth thinking this through whatever you are working on. Perhaps this is just an addition to the first point, but again our assumption is always that the artists should do their own promo and I think this is almost always a bad idea. I remember doing a launch gig for an EP I brought out a while ago and bringing all my nicely packaged new CDs to sell. However by the end of the show I was so drained by performing and at my absolute height of insecurity, making it almost impossible to burst into ‘in your face-buy my EP’ mode. I saw this work very well, on the other hand, when I was in a band years ago and one member of the group mainly worked on the music (which was pre-sequenced) so didn’t feature heavily in the performance but attended all our gigs. He was fantastic at flogging merchandise and was the main reason that our first two albums broke even (or would have done if only we hadn’t pressed up al that vinyl just before we split up. Grrrr….) The reality was that he was involved enough in the product to support it, but removed enough from it not to feel like he was putting his soul on the line every time he pushed for a sale.
How does this work with your art projects?
Do you have enthusiastic advocates who you can enlist to flog stuff?
This may sound very mercenary, but the fact is that if you don’t make at least some of your costs back you’re not going to be able to keep creating new work and putting it out. When you consider that financing your work doesn’t just depend on the quality of the work itself, this makes it all the more important to think through your PR plan, even if it just involves extroverted friends who don’t mind hassling strangers for money
3) Being a geek
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- to be a decent artist you must be a geek. Stewart is a case in point. His influences are all over the project (‘The Don’ being the foremost example) and even just a quick chat with him over coffee on the afternoon underlined this, as he quickly began listing off influences from outside of the world of finger style guitar (I’d certainly not spotted The Deftones influence before that conversation for example).
This is not just some guy with some pretty fast fingers who practised his scales loads. Stewart has fed on a diverse range of musicians for years and they all subtly bleed through his style.
The only genre many Christian artists claim any sort of geekness in though is in the contemporary Christian realm. Then, they want to win the world for Jesus through what they do. But, as the dieticians have told us for years, you are what you eat.
Stewart (and Chris) have been eating very well, and they are operating at the top of their game. I’m convinced that there is no other way to get there.
That concludes today’s lesson.