At DragonCon I saw a panel with Voltaire. The link explains some more, but he’s a pseudo-indie musician who specializes mostly in fan-friendly work. I say pseudo indie because he does work with labels at least occasionally. Also, going indie on the music side of the business is different (harder, IMO) than going solo as a writer. He pulled in over four hundred people at DragonCon who came to hear him discuss his latest projects and answer questions, which is a respectable audience any way you cut it. His concert pulled multiple thousands of listeners.
One of the things he mentioned was the difficulty he’s always had trying to deal with agents. Or, rather, the difficulty agents have with him. He and they haven’t really gotten along, and he thinks (strongly) it’s because they can’t boil him down into a single pithy sentence. That he’s not easily encapsulateable and boxed for quick filing and quicker mentioning. And if you look at his music, that’s pretty much dead-on accurate. He’s more or less carved his own genre out, one that he’s built a career on. And not a Johnny-come-lately career either; he’s clocked nearly twenty years as a professional musician.
Part of how that’s worked is he’s filled a niche that spoke to him artistically. But it also spoke to his audience. These were people that very probably weren’t looking for the latest cookie-cutter whatever, something that fits so neatly into those boxes beloved by old-guards in all the content industries. Not everyone wants content designed for the lowest common denominator, or to appeal equally to both their parents and their kids, their next door neighbors, their dog, their Aunt Matilda who moved to Turkey and became a nun, etc…
In the modern content industry, broad appeal has become a curse. A poison. An insidious leech that sucks all the originality and spark and fun out of everything. From a business perspective, these people sort of have an argument; they want to make money. How better to make bucks than by scoring a widely beloved hit? Except, honestly, they’re missing the point. Maybe a few times a decade will something, in any form, come out and score such broad success. The rest of the attempts miss, and are more narrow in their appeal despite the desire that they spread their audience gathering powers far and wide.
Here’s one of the wonderful things about the ways indies – in any part of the entire content creation industry – are changing things. We’re focusing narrowly. Voltaire does it by following his muse. Naysayers would say he’s pandering, but I would counter-argue that attempting to hook everyone is just as much the same thing. Frankly, those are fighting words. Creators do what they want, and hope there’s an audience out there for it. Some few artists do whatever and don’t care in the slightest what others think; these are the people others call (variously) brave or crazy. I’m going to focus just on creators that actually want to pay their bills without having to resort to divine intervention. For that to happen, you have to try (at least a little) to serve your intended audience.
One of the problems with modern cinema is the cost of the movies keeps climbing and climbing. Studios and investors have forgotten how to create modest films. There are none with budgets of a few hundred thousand, or a couple of million, or even only ten or fifteen million. No, these days the studios fill their rosters with hundred plus million budget projects, banking on that wide success to pay it off. When that kind of money is involved, it’s next to impossible to argue for art or niche appeal to have any role.
Indie creators don’t have that problem, and it’s a blessing. I have a few stories I’ll be putting out before the end of the year that illustrate it. One is an idea I came up with about telling a part of a fantasy game’s story that usually isn’t even in the narrative. Another is a quick little idea I had that twists off Santa Claus and the letters he gets. I don’t expect either to rock the world, but I’d also be willing to bet that neither would get the time of day from a traditional short publisher. They’re not easily categorizable, they don’t fit into those convenient boxes. And you know what? I love it. I don’t care (either way) if they do or don’t file without effort in the big cabinet of stories. But I do care that I don’t have to write by committee.
Part of the joy of being indie is I can go where my muse takes me. I can go where I think audiences are. Quickly, decisively, on the drop of a dime. Here, right here, I’ll pivot. Not next year, not eighteen or twenty-four months from now; here. Because I choose too. There are a lot of reasons, a lot of very good and profitable reasons, to choose indie and ward off the old guard; but this one never gets old. It never gets shot down by people who suffer from ADS, who lack the vision to change with the times, or who simply hate being cut out of the process. They can try, but it’s pretty tough to craft a successful argument against it when it’s not their money they’re defending. They’re not writing checks, so they don’t get a say.
It’s beautiful. Once again, we’ll reference Joe Konrath. Everyone between a writer and his readers has to prove why he needs to be there, why he deserves to be in the middle. And that includes so-called ‘creative’ middle men as well.
Voltaire marches to his own beat, literally, and it’s a beautiful thing. There’s no place for him on modern radio, or even in the remaining modern music stores (at least, the brick-and-mortar ones). But he’s had a career for decades now, proving it doesn’t matter. Indies can dial into a narrow audience, and serve the hell out of it. Werewolf bounty hunter; sure, why not. Doll maker demon summoner; okay, write it. Suzy Homemaker who moonlights as an international superspy; go for it! Whatever you want, you can risk just yourself. You don’t have to convince an entire business and its apparatus of gatekeepers that you should be allowed to do something; you only have to write it, release it, and find the readers. It’s much easier to find readers than it is to convince any organization of anything. Committees suck. Readers rule.
When you can connect with your audience, when they love what you do, that’s what pays the bills.