Audience of One


Years ago, when I went public with my music, a well-meaning individual gave me some advice. They told me the music business is a numbers game, and went on to explain that to be successful, an artist must do two things. First, an artist must aim to appeal to a broad range of people in order to find their crowd or audience and, second, once the audience is identified, the artist must broaden this niche as much as possible. 

This made sense to me back then and I pursued this strategy for a time, but with the benefit of hindsight, I now see it for what it is – bad advice. It is bad advice because it creates perverse incentives that drive artists to try to appeal to everyone, and the problem with trying to please everyone is that the art ends up speaking to no one. It has taken me a while to get to this place, where I can articulate this thought that I didn’t know I’d been feeling for years, but I got there, courtesy of an excerpt from Kurt Vonnegut: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” Stephen King was also a proponent of this view, and in an excerpt from On Writing, he said “…all novels are really letters aimed at one person…I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader…

Through this lens, the goal shifts from aiming to write for everybody to aiming to write for somebody, your ideal reader, as Steven King puts it. The thought that I don't need to please everybody, that not everybody will appreciate my music, and that it's not even up to me to target my art at a specific crowd, is a freeing realisation. All I owe myself is to make art that is true to me, for one single person. That person may be me, say when I'm writing one of these blog posts about the merits of authentic art, or my wife, when I'm writing a love song, or my friend, when I'm writing a song about difficult times. It's nearly impossible to know who it'll resonate with or how it'll land while I’m writing it, and I'm finding that time spent analysing and forecasting and guessing which audience will take kindly to it is time wasted, especially since I almost always get it wrong.

If that's not a good enough reason to make art for the individual, there's the fact that every time I've connected with an unexpected or unanticipated reader or listener, it has left me feeling warm and fuzzy. Just this past week I played in a familiar venue to a familiar audience. I remember coming off stage thinking I'd played a good set, and judging by the reception from my friends and the venue’s regulars, I wasn't wrong. I remember feeling good about my performance, but this feeling paled in comparison to how I felt when, after I sat back in the crowd, a man who I hadn't seen while on stage came up behind me and told me how much my set spoke to him. It warmed my heart to know I had reached someone without realising it. I didn't know it at the time, but looking back, that fellow was my ideal listener that day, he was my audience of one. It is impossible to say whether I would still have reached him if I played my set with the goal of appealing to everyone in the venue, but I doubt it.

This is all to say that art doesn't have to be a numbers game. Sure, there are industry players that focus almost exclusively on the numbers – I've met my fair share – but these folks have other goals and incentives that may be antithetical to your incentives as the artist. It behoves you to stay true to your art, to make it for your audience of one, and to trust that it'll find its way to that person.

PS: Just a reminder that my latest single, Feels Like Rain is out now, everywhere. You can listen to it on several platforms. Please share it with a friend, share it with your social networks, and consider subscribing to the newsletter (below), my YouTube channel, or wherever else you listen to music.

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