The pandemic exposed an art market rife with deception.
The uncertainty the pandemic created is having a variety of unique impacts on different art sectors. While the traditional art world melts down mid-pandemic-phase-two, a new digital art sector fueled by the chaos is reinventing how artists create, and how collectors buy art.
The pandemic pushed the art world to full-frontal digital overnight. This massive shift is arguably the third art paradigm bump in about thirty years–the internet being the first, and the two Simons the second.
Simon Cowell, of POP and American Idols fame with partner Simon Fuller, very subtly exposed sleight of hand in the arts when they pulled the curtain on the Wizard making fake thunder. Dorothy was aghast when Toto exposed the charade in 1939, but in 2001, sixty-two years later, music fans never made the connection when they saw the Simons do the same thing on live reality tv.
Exposing the art industry isn’t something most people want to see, or acknowledge, but the reality is that there are more artists creating art today than at anytime in history. It’s a blessing and a curse.
Did the Simons know the impact their show would have long-term, or was backstage exposure simply a by-product of artistic evolution?
Brilliantly, their model featured a star-powered celebrity, bidding to mentor a new artist, and glossing over the manager and agent part–the middle players. It’s like a magician giving away the secret, which also happens more often on the David Blaine and Penn & Teller stages too.
It’s art evolution always building to steam in a scientific theory of chaos way.
Mentoring happens in the arts of course, and is important from a promotional perspective because it raises visibility and credibility for a project. Usher mentoring a young Justin Bieber is a great example, but “making a star”, mostly requires an agent and manager, and a load of money. Artist on artist was sexier though because who would want to watch music executives like Irving Azoff tell artists what to do as they get locked into what many describe as oppressive contracts that destroy creativity?
Even more brilliantly, the Simons rolled social media directly into the mix and let the world watch the feed. Fans interacted in real time and impacted the results. In one big breath, social media for the arts took on a whole new personality and depth. It quickly became the art promotion tool of choice, especially Twitter where journalists hang out like everyone else looking for a scoop. Not only is everyone a star today, more importantly, they’re also a crowdsource reporter, and pretty good too–scary good during the 2020 protests.
Music and the Simons ramped up the arts on social media and exploited a number of options. Film was always close behind thanks to file sharing like BitTorrent that made moving any type of art possible. Digital really leapt forward with film today now the vanguard using 3D VR. Traditional art, like painting and sculpture found it a longer stretch, until recently when contemporary galleries closed. Digital became the overnight solution to display and market art on every level–galleries and museums included.
The Simons shattered the carefully designed fantasy that an artist is some sort of ephemeral otherworld entity that kind of floats Bohemian-style through life. The deception, called an “act” is a big draw for fans because who doesn’t want to be carefree? From a viewer’s perspective, art of all types is often about escapism. As Cy Coben wrote in the 50s, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die”. It’s a common lament of art consumers who want the perceived freedom of being an artist, but they don’t want to give up the security of their 9-5. It’s one of the reasons audiences feel so good when an underdog is declared the winner. It feels like YOU Won!
The art industry from time immemorial, whether live or movie theatre, tv, rock stage, painter, sculptor, and now generative ai artist, worked hard to seduce its audience into believing that artists are unapproachable, and often a little erratic. It worked for decades. The slick, carefully crafted storefront was and still is how artists generated interest and excitement–style personified.
Interestingly, even though IDOL audiences saw what was going on behind the curtain, for some, the POP crowd, it was too much of a leap, and they wrote it off as inconsequential. The Monkees and Marilyn Manson were special, and nothing Simon Said, would change their minds. It took a few years for it to sink in, and today almost everyone has a good handle on what genuine means. The Simons knew then though, because they saw how MP3 and file sharing ravaged the big five record companies in the previous decade. They knew the music world was radically changing and never going back.
The first time I watched American IDOL I could see, along with millions of others in the arts that it was the beginning of the end. Simon Cowell, the man everyone loved to hate, but now mostly loves, knew what he was doing. In an early part of my life I co-managed an act that sold multi-millions of albums and concert tickets, so I was in awe of this giant leap, and the casual exposé of a decades long Hollywood fantasy that was made into a meme in less than one season.
The masses took longer though, mostly because the fine line between deception and manipulation is also hazy. Manipulation is an ethical sales communication tool used to motivate someone to make a choice that goes in your favour.
Deception is when you make a statement that is untrue and misleading.
Simon revealed to music lovers, inadvertently or not, that artistic talent is much more common than art consumers believed. Just looking at those long lines of contestants waiting for their shot at fame, spoke volumes about how many talented artists there really are in the world. A large portion of the IDOL hopefuls we’re surprisingly good, not great, but way better than most expected. It was disheartening for all the new talent, some who had never performed in public, to realize that competition was way tougher than they thought.
Simon also had amateurs competing with pros. When an artist of any stripe practices and performs in a professional setting over several years, the results are obvious. Artists who toured on the music circuit stood out. It clearly illustrated that natural talent is good, but practice is better. Surprisingly, it never immediately registered with most singers and musicians because they had been deceived for such a long time that they were blind to the exploitation. It took a few seasons for the quality to round off. But in the early years, and still today, when Simon put a big money deal on the table the mood intensified. Artists clearly demonstrated that they could be as competitive as sports stars.
Wait … what? Isn’t that counter to creativity? Apparently not anymore, which is actually a good thing, but not to starving artists who don’t understand the value of promotion.
Too many artists still believe in roll-the-dice popularity.
Simon’s strategy however was more like the classic “hostile takeover” you read about in Forbes or the Financial Post. It was also one of the first times the mainstream saw “disruptive” in action. In 2001 though, it was simply called “competitive positioning”.
Up until Simon and Simon, record-buying audiences were deceived-to-believe that artistic talent is scarce. After one season, music fans who paid attention could now see that the hard part wasn’t finding talent, the hard part was developing an artist in a way that generated fame and fortune. Young or inexperienced artists hate to hear this, and every week or so they rant on a Twitter thread about the roles they play in the supply chain. The smart ones sit in the background and take it all in. It’s an amazing lesson in sociology to watch experienced journalists get them wound up–that’s what art writers are you know, professional rabble rousers and shit disturbers.
Music moguls like Colonel Tom Parker, and Mr. Wall of Sound plus thousands of others manipulated artists and audiences for decades into believing that artists were otherworldly special, and that they had some type of natural talent that stretched far beyond the norm. Granted, there are a few prodigies and extraordinary artists for whom art flows naturally, but that “gift” isn’t the deciding factor, and it certainly isn’t what makes a star or sells art. Prodigies are often avoided because they are unpredictable and difficult to manage. The IDOL coaches chose artists who would listen, and work hard–in fact if you wanted to win, it was critical to listen and cooperate.
Simon was an experienced record producer and music executive and he knew how the art game worked.
So, here we are, twenty years later and once again the art industry is being turned inside out, EXCEPT THIS TIME ARTISTS AS WELL AS AUDIENCES ARE PAYING ATTENTION.
We all understand the game better today, thanks to the Simons.
Everyone now knows that natural talent is just the beginning. The hard part for an artist, is convincing an audience that is swamped by millions of other talented artists, to recognize that YOUR TALENT is the one to watch.
Creating art is hard, partially because it’s always a gamble to know if even one person will connect with your vision. If no one gets it, then all that time and money just ends up on top of the pile in an artist’s studio, and then eventually their basement, maybe attic, and even the storage locker where it collects until the artist dies and their family gives it to family and friends, or worse. There are millions of great art pieces gathering dust and mold, whether a painting, song demo, or generative digital masterpiece made with AI and machine learning.
The good news is that today, artists and collectors get it. Both camps realized relatively recently that they can form a direct relationship with each other. Artists are also starting to realize that relationships with fans and patrons is critical, and that the best person to forge this relationship is staring back at them in the mirror.
Leonardo Da Vinci was an art salesman extraordinaire, check out #11 in his sales pitch to the Duke of Milan.
The unfortunate reality is that artists have been so skillfully misled over the years, that they are frozen and hesitant to reach out. Many still are convinced that it’s sacrilegious to the arts to want to sell their work, like somehow it will diminish their creativity or credibility.
This overwrought feeling is a result of willful professional abuse.
When you tell artists repeatedly, that they are not capable of selling their own work, they believe it.
Thankfully, more artists are reaching out online, and also through Studio Galleries like Central Art in Victoria where art lovers and serious collectors can drop in to say hello in person, or virtually for a philosophical chat about art and life.
There are ways to stand out in the glut of artists in the market today, but first artists have to shake old bad habits and myths. They also have to believe in themselves, and their art, and especially that there is someone out there who appreciates their vision.
Simon Said Change, and audiences did, now it’s time for artists to catch up.
Technology provides solutions to help artists put their work in front of the right collector at the right time. Plus, do it in a way that excites and makes an art buyer feel comfortable making a purchase that will be enjoyable to experience, and with foresight and a bit of luck, increase in value.
It’s as difficult today for an art collector to find the right artist as it is for the artist to find a buyer. When presented properly, the art piece opens the door to a conversation. Just being seen by a collector is half the battle, and it’s why taking the first step is so important.
An artist has to separate from the crowd, which happens every day, but not by accident.