Learning the Fine Arts of Publicity and Tastemaking

Earlier this summer, I sat around the table with Sergio and his friends talking about how to take Sergio’s photography business to the next level. I had an earful of “new media” ideas about how to create huge online exposure, but Sergio wanted none of it. When I reverted to “old school” tactics like targeted media relations and influencer outreach, he was buzzing. Why? Because Internet accessibility is mainstream – commoditized and average. Sergio wants to appeal to a particular audience, and broader appeal dilutes his brand. He doesn’t need or want to be known by everyone, just a small circle that wants to purchase exclusivity and style. If they fly first class, he wants to be their first-class photographer. Mass marketing just puts you out to the masses in coach.

I’m going to reference Seth Godin again because I’m the last educated marketer on earth to liken his philosophy, which is simple and redundant: Be remarkable and memorable. This translates into a lot of different terms like “niche” and “specialized.” Take that to an extreme and you’re so niche you’re misunderstood; you’re so specialized you’re inaccessible. These frays of culture define what’s cool and what's worth time, attention, energy and money.

He wrote in "We Are All Weird":

“During the age of mass (mass marketing, mass manufacturing, mass schooling, mass movements) the key was normal… But what happens when mass disappears? When we can connect everyone, customize and optimize--then what happens to normal?”

Normal is and always has been uncool. That’s why first wave punk rock and Star Wars influenced their generations. They weren’t normal. They were weird.

But what happens when normal changes?

The Atlantic published a story about this phenomenon in music: “For Indie Bands, the New Publicity Is No Publicity.”

“'Mystery’ is quickly becoming the default PR strategy for breaking indie acts. Over the past two years, groups like WU LYF, the Weeknd, jj, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and Shabazz Palaces have drawn attention even as they've turned down interviews, concealed their likenesses, and, in some cases, withheld their own names.”

Music, like photography, is widely accessible. Anyone with a computer and a voice can record a song. Anyone with a smartphone can be a photographer. So, how can you be unique amongst the masses with access to the same tools?

Avoid all likely paths of distribution.

The Internet has allowed us to have access to anything, and hiding in its outskirts are the artists and the tastemakers. Tumblr and Stumbleupon have become sensational tools to "stumble upon" those online gems that would be difficult to find, and remain difficult to find, otherwise.

Since Gutenberg and before him, we have tried to make communications, publishing and distribution as widely available as possible, and those that had access to the newest tools had influence. Musicians, let’s say pre-MySpace, were made big because they were the only ones that had access to mass communications and distribution. No band could come up and become Nirvana unless the labels granted that wish. That unattainable distribution model created bigger-than-life, aspirational bands, despite their actual talent. After we flipped on the Internet, mass communications and distribution were at the finger tips of the masses, and our taste quickly changed. We cared more about quality and talent. MySpace and YouTube made stars from the bottom-up. Then those became to easy and boring, so we all ditched MySpace and shit on Rebecca Black, the latest YouTube star.

We do not desire that which we can easily access. We want something alternative, something cool.

To be influential and sought after, you need to be as inaccessible as you are well-known, and that's a tough balance to strike. Above all else, it's about creating a product -- difficult to mimic -- better than anyone else and letting the quality of your work attract publicity for you and your corner of the world. That's the hard part.