I hope you all know and love the late comedian Bill Hicks as much as I do. If you don’t, then maybe you shouldn’t read this blog. I’m just joking. You should ALWAYS read this blog. But, one thing Mr. Hicks railed against frequently on stage was commercialism and its eroding effect on artistic integrity. In fact, the outlaw of comedy went so far as to say (and I’m paraphrasing here) that if you are a successful artist and you are still doing commercials or shilling for a company, then everything out of your mouth should be taken with a heavy dose of skepticism.
What Bill Hicks failed to realize, or perhaps just didn’t have the foresight to predict, is that the artist himself has evolved to become a walking talking consumer good. That’s right. Just as Coca-Cola is sold as a feel-good American syrupy carbonated soft drink, Bill Hicks is sold as a legendary and abrasive comedy icon who challenged social norms.
We live in a time where in order to make your self-expression financially viable, you need to market yourself to the powers that be–those gatekeepers that serve as the liaisons between content creators and content consumers. And to market yourself, you need to brand yourself. But what the fuck does “branding” mean?
Branding is basically marketing speak for developing an identity for which you want others to know you by. An example of branding as applied to consumer goods, for example, would be that we associate McDonald’s with fun, affordable and fast food. This brand identity shapes everything McDonald’s does, from the design of their restaurant interiors to their commercials. This same concept can be applied to people in what is often referred to as a “personal brand.”
More and more, this concept of a “personal brand” is leaking into mainstream discussion. I recently was watching an episode of Extra or Access Hollywood or something that is on when it is 2 a.m. and you are drunk or stoned and you have run out of back episodes of Louie to watch on Hulu. The host mentioned something about Kim Kardashian not changing her name post marriage and speculated that she made this decision in order to “preserve her brand.”
But the unfortunate truth is that an artist kind of has to develop a personal brand these days. And to do this, you kind of have to take a look in the mirror, swallow your pride and start deconstructing who you are and rebuilding yourself into who you want people to think you are. So say you are a fat inconsiderate, hypocritical slob, but you want people to see you as a beacon of reason and hope. Easy! Just position yourself as a true patriot who is helping the struggling class of white heterosexual underdogs.
The good news is that you don’t have to trade your soul for a personal brand. If you take the time to understand who you are and the assets you bring to the table, you can stay true to yourself and retain your artistic integrity. The goal is really just capitalizing on and emphasizing certain assets you already have in order to help shape your public identity. There is also a need to develop a consistency in your work. For instance, someone who has branded himself as the world’s most prolific horror novelist is going to have a pretty hard time selling a feel-good prison story.
In general, though, there are very few Stephen Kings out there. So it’s best to find your niche and run with it. And this should bleed into everything you do, from the way you market yourself via social media to the way you present yourself in public as a writer. Yeah, it feels a little contrived. And yeah, you feel a bit like a hack doing it. But like I said, be yourself, be true to yourself and just capitalize on attributes that you already possess and you’ll be just fine. The trouble starts when you try to sell yourself as something you’re not.