Poll 31: End Note, Part 2 (Promotions)

In 2021, I doubt it’s possible to overestimate the wearisome degree to which constant sustained promotion has become standard practice for public figures in all branches of the culture industry. For instance, my neighbor Wanda* is engaged in constant sustained promotion. She’s a wannabe influencer, and the whole block hears her hitting Instagram, TikTok, and Twitch every other day. Surely somebody with a how-to guide told her to: she was advised that in order to gain traction, she needs to be all over the Internet as much, and as regularly, as she can. This may or may not work for others. I am 100% positive that it’s not going to work for her. There is a limit to the amount of Wanda-related content that Planet Earth can handle. At a certain point, she’s going to be annoying people. Every subsequent post and dance and pitch past that point detracts from whatever profile she’s building. What Wanda needs is what nobody gets anymore: periodic targeted promotion.  She needs a marketing plan that gives everybody a break, including her.

There is no such thing as a great influencer. There is certainly such a thing as a great artist. Great artists will adapt to whatever the world slings at them: if the biosphere runs out of trees and there’s no more paper, they’ll scratch their stories into rocks. If participation in the industry requires the practice of constant sustained promotion, they’ll figure out a way to square that demand with what they do, no matter how awkwardly it fits.  

In 2021, this means being extremely online. That artist obsessively dropping new projects every two weeks has become an anachronism already – she’s lost ground to the artist who is constantly present via social media, and putting out an amalgam of tweets, posts, scraps of songs, backstage glimpses, whatever. We require the artist to remain in character 24/7, and to project a persona via social media in perpetuity throughout the universe. Great artists are acceding to this demand. I have the highest regard for Aubrey Graham and Elizabeth Grant, and I admire the discipline they demonstrate; they’re as brand-consistent as Reese’s Peanut Butter, and to me, that’s very pop. Then there are artists like Moriah Pereira, who has used the Poppy character as an instrument for commentary on all sorts of things, including constant sustained promotion. Yet Elizabeth Grant is one in a million. Her talent for keeping a straight face is supernatural. It is unrealistic to ask random singer-songwriters to do what she does. It’s become necessary to ask the question nobody seems to ask anymore: is it psychologically healthy for the artist to be behaving like this?  Is it right for people in the industry – heck, people in the audience – to demand that our entertainers never leave the stage? 

I think the answer to this question is that it isn’t healthy at all. For proof of this, it’s helpful to look to hip-hop, where we’re losing an entire generation of talent to constant sustained promotion. No longer is it permissible for the artist to put on a roughneck costume for storytelling purposes, and then take off that costume when the show is over and live to the ripe old age of 35. Now rappers must play to the cameras constantly, and actively indulge in self-destructive behavior in order to advance and reinforce the characters they’re playing. If an artist demurs, he risks losing his audience to somebody who won’t. So these dudes are dying of overdoses at 20 and heading to prison on gun charges, and even if people in the industry aren’t tacitly encouraging this, they’re clearly not doing enough to stand in the way of it. They’re burning through artists at a staggering rate, asking them to stay in “relatable” (read: self-destructive) character constantly, overshare on the Internet perpetually, and drop new material whether it’s ready or not. In teen-pop and Nashville machine country, the horror stories aren’t quite as graphic, or as visible, but they’re just as prevalent, and just as upsetting. As a big fan of all of this stuff, I am tired of seeing talented artists crash and burn because their handlers aren’t paying attention to the awful psychological repercussions of never-ending promotion. Human beings can’t be treated this way – especially creative human beings. It’s unsustainable.

I imagine that people in the industry might say that they’re just giving the audience what it wants: this is what the fan asks of the idol, and the executive’s role in the modern era is merely that of a facilitator. To me, though, that’s just passing the buck, and ducking culpability for the exploitation of talent that’s all too prevalent in ’21. We all have a moral responsibility to cool it – and an aesthetic one, too! – because I don’t think it’s difficult to see where this is headed. Those insiders who tell artists to work harder and accelerate the pace of their promotional efforts aren’t geniuses. They’re just amplifying a signal that’s already ear-splitting. A truly visionary thing to do would be to figure out how to reintegrate periodic targeted promotion into marketing campaigns; that’d be thinking long-term, which is something that nobody in showbiz seems capable of doing anymore. 

Honestly, it makes my stomach drop to hear people in the music industry call compulsion, addiction and addictive behavior part of the human condition, and talk so blithely about it, as if it’s something worth chasing. This isn’t merely because I’ve watched so many lives destroyed by addictive behavior. Addictive thinking is something cultivated by the vampires, dopamine-jugglers, and algorithm-runners at the social-media companies. It’s not something that arts advocates should have any time for. Addiction is antithetical to art. That’s true for many reasons, and none more important than that we’ve lost far too many great artists to it. If the artist’s representative isn’t there to stop the artist (and the artist’s audience) from racing down the cliff, what, really, is he good for?

*name changed to protect the not-so-innocent.