June 21, 2024

When Rachael Kay Albers was shopping around her book proposal, the editors at a Big Five publishing house loved the idea. The problem came from the marketing department, which had an issue: She didn’t have a big enough following. With any book, but especially nonfiction ones, publishers want a guarantee that a writer comes with a built-in audience of people who already read and support their work and, crucially, will fork over $27 — a typical price for a new hardcover book — when it debuts.

It was ironic, considering her proposal was about what the age of the “personal brand” is doing to our humanity. Albers, 39, is an expert in what she calls the “online business industrial complex,” the network of hucksters vying for your attention and money by selling you courses and coaching on how to get rich online. She’s talking about the hustle bro “gurus” flaunting rented Lamborghinis and promoting shady “passive income” schemes, yes, but she’s also talking about the bizarre fact that her “65-year-old mom, who’s an accountant, is being encouraged by her company to post on LinkedIn to ‘build [her] brand.’”

The internet has made it so that no matter who you are or what you do — from nine-to-five middle managers to astronauts to house cleaners — you cannot escape the tyranny of the personal brand. For some, it looks like updating your LinkedIn connections whenever you get promoted; for others, it’s asking customers to give you five stars on Google Reviews; for still more, it’s crafting an engaging-but-authentic persona on Instagram. And for people who hope to publish a bestseller or release a hit record, it’s “building a platform” so that execs can use your existing audience to justify the costs of signing a new artist.

We like to think of it as the work of singular geniuses whose motivations are purely creative and untainted by the market — this, despite the fact that music, publishing, and film have always been for-profit industries where formulaic, churned-out work is what often sells best. These days, the jig is up.

Corporate consolidation and streaming services have depleted artists’ traditional sources of revenue and decimated cultural industries. While Big Tech sites like Spotify claim they’re “democratizing” culture, they instead demand artists engage in double the labor to make a fraction of what they would have made under the old model. That labor amounts to constant self-promotion in the form of cheap trend-following, ever-changing posting strategies, and the nagging feeling that what you are really doing with your time is marketing, not art. Under the tyranny of algorithmic media distribution, artists, authors — anyone whose work concerns itself with what it means to be human — now have to be entrepreneurs, too.

“Authors are writing these incredible books, and yet when they ask me questions, the thing that keeps them up at night is, ‘How do I create this brand?’” says literary agent Carly Watters. It’s not that they want to be spending their time doing it, it’s that they feel they have to. “I think that millennials and Gen Xers really feel like sellouts. It’s not what they imagined their career to look like. It inherently feels wrong with their value system.”

Because self-promotion sucks. It is actually very boring and not that fun to produce TikTok videos or to learn email marketing for this purpose. Hardly anyone wants to “build a platform;” we want to just have one. This is what people sign up for now when they go for the American dream — working for yourself and making money doing what you love. The labor of self-promotion or platform-building or audience-growing or whatever our tech overlords want us to call it is uncomfortable; it is by no means guaranteed to be effective; and it is inescapable unless you are very, very lucky.

The August/September 1997 cover story of Fast Company was “The Brand Called You,” its headline design a clever take on the orange Tide logo. The gist: If you’re not building your “personal brand,” a term coined by the author, you’re already being left behind by the new economy, one where career success isn’t defined by moving up the corporate ladder but by individual growth and self-promotion. “There is no one right way to create the brand called You,” writes Tom Peters in the kicker. “Except this: Start today. Or else.”

The sentiment was a rather unfashionable one at the time, if not for the white-collar workers reading Fast Company, then certainly for the young people who would eventually enter their world. If there was a decade defined by its obsession with authenticity and artistic purity, it’s the 90s, an era where trying too hard or caring too much about anything was embarrassing, where “selling out” was the ultimate sin.

In his essay collection The Nineties, Chuck Klosterman defines the term “sellout” not as someone who sells something in order to get rich, but someone who compromises their values to do so. “This action was particularly bad if the compromised person was still doing the same work they’d done before,” he writes, “except now packaging that work in an attempt to make it palatable to a less discriminating audience.” Even at the time, there was pushback against the idea of criticizing artists for “selling out,” that it was a naive and hypocritical concept that punished ambition and innovation. “It was a loser’s game and everyone knew it,” he writes. “But it was a loser’s game you still had to play.”

The problem is that America more or less runs on the concept of selling out. The stigma — if it ever meaningfully existed — didn’t last beyond the Great Recession, and by the time most people joined some form of social media, Peters saw his prophecy fulfilled. Over the last decade, mass layoffs in supposedly stable industries, stagnant wages, and general disillusionment with corporate work have made entrepreneurship increasingly attractive to young people, who say they’d rather just be their own bosses. Even for those who never wanted to become entrepreneurs, larger economic shifts have forced them to act as though they are.

Take publishing, where there are only five major companies who control roughly 80 percent of the book trade. Fewer publishers means heavier competition for well-paying advances, and fewer booksellers thanks to consolidation by Amazon and big box stores means that authors aren’t making what they used to on royalties, despite the fact that book sales are relatively strong. The problem isn’t that people aren’t buying books, it’s that less of the money is going to writers.

The same is true for music: People are listening to more of it than ever, yet artists say they can no longer make a living off royalties. Instead of discovering books or music from the press or radio play, fans are finding them on algorithmic platforms like TikTok, where a single video or trend can skyrocket a title to the top of the charts. There are trade-offs to this system: while it’s more difficult to create mainstream consensus on something, theoretically, anyone can go viral and bypass the traditional gatekeepers of creative success. Artists are scoring deals and record contracts based on their TikTok presences: a 27-year-old named Alex Aster sold the film rights to a YA book concept she’d pitched on TikTok before the book even published; the sea shanty guy got both a book and a record deal out of his brief viral moment.

Predictably, the same fate has reached the publications dedicated to reviewing said works of art: As ad-supported journalism continues its slow collapse and jobs for cultural critics dwindle — in January, Condé Nast folded the music review site Pitchfork into GQ and laid off staff — we’re losing smart, well-edited and fact-checked criticism (and, crucially, the ability for those people to make a living off of writing it). Even before mass layoffs, the professional critic lost some relevancy: a positive New York Times review, for instance, used to create overnight hits, while now it barely moves the needle, one agent told me. What has replaced them is, as Israel Daramola writes, “a loose collection of YouTubers and influencers who feed slop to their younger audiences, and fan communities that engage with music solely through their obsession with a particular pop act. This has all helped produce a mass of music fans who don’t understand the value of criticism and outright detest being told the things they like might suck.”

This model of the culture industry doesn’t exactly conform to the Romantic ideal of what an artist’s life entails. Since the late 18th and early 19th century, we’ve tended to think of “artists” not as artisans or master craftsmen, as we did prior to the Romantic movement, but as solitary oracles existing on a higher spiritual plane than the rest of us, explains William Deresiewicz, author of The Death of the Artist: How Creators are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech. When the US institutionalized its cultural power in the form of museums, graduate programs, arts councils, and awards after World War II, more artists were able to make a living from their work via grants, residencies, affiliations, and academic positions. While this model was certainly a departure from the persona of the “starving artist,” it still allowed those engaged in creative labor to work largely separate from the market.

Even when corporations did enter the picture, artists working with publishing houses or record companies, for example, had little contact with the business side of things. “Before the internet came along, artists not only could let their companies worry about the money, but they actually didn’t have a choice. The companies didn’t let them,” says Deresiewicz. That was until social media, where every single person with an account plays both author and publisher. Under the model of “artist as business manager,” the people who can do both well are the ones who end up succeeding.

You can see this tension play out in the rise of “day in my life” videos, where authors and artists film themselves throughout their days and edit them into short TikToks or Reels. Despite the fact that for most people, the act of writing looks very boring, author-content creators succeed by making the visually uninteresting labor of typing on a laptop worthwhile to watch. You’ll see a lot of cottagecore-esque videos where the writer will sip tea by the fireplace against the soundtrack of Wes Anderson, or wake up in a forest cabin and read by a river, or women like this Oxford University student who dresses up like literary characters and films herself working on her novel. Videos like these emulate the Romantic ideal of “solitary genius” artistry, evoking a time when writing was seen as a more “pure” or quaint profession. Yet what they best represent is the current state of art, where artists must skillfully package themselves as products for buyers to consume.

It’s precisely the kind of work that is uncomfortable for most artists, who by definition concern themselves with what it means to be a person in the world, not what it means to be a brand. There’s been a fair amount of backlash to this imperative, recently among musicians on TikTok. For the past few years, it’s been common for indie artists to make videos asking, in a kind of faux-bashful way, “Did I just write the song of the summer?!” In December, one artist made a TikTok in which she asked her followers to imagine, say, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke posting a video like that. Ricky Montgomery, a 30-year-old musician with 1.7 million TikTok followers, made a thoughtful follow-up from the perspective of someone who’d gotten a record deal out of a viral moment, saying that even when you land the record deal or have a few hit songs, you’re still stuck on the treadmill of constant self-promotion. “Next thing you know, it’s been three years and you’ve spent almost no time on your art,” he tells me. “You’re getting worse at it, but you’re becoming a great marketer for a product which is less and less good.”

The system works great for record labels or publishing houses, who can hand over the burden of marketing to the artists themselves. But that means, as Montgomery says, “If you have absolutely no knowledge of video creation, good fucking luck.” The labor of making TikToks — and if you want to reach the most people in the shortest amount of time, TikTok is pretty much the only place to go — requires both tedium and skill. You’ve got to get used to the app’s ever-evolving editing features, understand the culture of the platform, make yourself look presentable but not too presentable or risk coming off as inauthentic, prepare for and practice what you’re going to say, but again, not too much. And you’ve got to do it again and again and again, because according to every single influencer ever, the key to growing your audience is posting consistently.

More than that, you’ve got to actually spend your time doing this stuff on the off chance that the algorithm picks it up and people care about what you have to say. You’ve got to spend your time doing this even though it’s corny and cringe and your friends from high school or college will probably laugh as you “try to become an influencer.” You’ve got to do it even when you feel like you have absolutely nothing to say, because the algorithm demands you post anyway. You have to do it even if you’re from a culture where doing any self-promotion is looked upon as inherently negative, or if you’re a woman for whom bragging carries an even greater social stigma than it already does. You’ve got to do it even though the coolest thing you can do is not have to.

You’ve got to offer your content to the hellish, overstuffed, harassment-laden, uber-competitive attention economy because otherwise no one will know who you are. In a recent interview with the Guardian, the author Naomi Klein said the biggest change in the world since No Logo, her 1999 book on consumerism and inescapable branding, came out was that “neoliberalism has created so much precarity that the commodification of the self is now seen as the only route to any kind of economic security. Plus social media has given us the tools to market ourselves nonstop.”

You’ve got to do it even though the people rewarded for “putting themselves out there” are most often the same people society already rewards. You’ve got to do it even though algorithms are biased against poor people, against people of color, against people who don’t conform to patriarchal societal norms. “We all have access to these platforms that don’t cost anything, but that’s often mistaken for ‘there are no socioeconomic barriers,’” explains Christina Scharff, a gender and media studies scholar at King’s College of London who has studied expectations of self-promotion among women in classical music. “The barriers are much more hidden: You have to know how to present yourself and how to create visuals that are appealing.” Not only that, but by doing so, you’re exposing yourself to harassment and ridicule. “It’s harder for racial minorities, women, trans people, or other minoritized groups, because if you’re already vulnerable in one way or another, that can backfire,” she adds.

You’ve also got to do it despite the many mea culpas from influencers who say influencing sort of ruined their lives. YouTubers have said the pressure of posting their lives led them to deep unhappiness, depression, and anxiety, but that they feel like they can’t take breaks because they know the algorithm will punish them. In almost every interview I do with TikTokers, they want to talk about how burned out they feel, pretty much all the time. “I had made a product out of some of the most devastating moments of my life. In its aftermath, I felt pressured to continuously comment on problems in my private life that I didn’t know how to fix,” wrote Elle Mills, a former teen YouTuber, on why she quit. “I think I am a writer and an actor and an artist,” wrote Tavi Gevinson of her relationship to Instagram. “But I haven’t believed the purity of my own intentions ever since I became my own salesperson, too.”

When Brooke Erin Duffy, communications professor at Cornell University, asks her students “Who wants to be an entrepreneur?” they all raise their hands. Considering her book centers around how careers in which you “get paid for doing what you love” are often traps for being overworked and undervalued, this is somewhat ironic.

Or maybe it’s not. Maybe her students are seeing what older people don’t want to. “There’s this sense of, ‘How am I going to learn to engage in self-branding to monetize whatever my field of expertise is?’” she says of her students. “Young people are clamoring to learn about this, and a lot of them feel that the university is unable to provide it because of the distance between what their professors know and what’s going on now.”

Leigh Stein, an author and writing teacher, views the creator economy not as an adversary to arts professions but as a tool to make connections. “I try not to be a cynic. If this is the state of the creator economy, how can I thrive in it instead of wasting time complaining about how I wish it were better?” she says. “One pet peeve of mine is writers’ reluctance to get on social media because they don’t want to share their ideas in public. It’s like, well, why do you want to be a writer? Isn’t the whole point of writing that you have ideas that you want to share? You should be sharing those ideas in public all the time.”

It’s probable that due to the inescapability of social media and advertising, young people aren’t as allergic to self-promotion as older folks were at their age. Its roots were already brewing in 2011, when Deresiewicz wrote a New York Times opinion piece called “Generation Sell” in which he marveled at the ways hip millennials in Portland, Oregon, seemed naturally predisposed to salesmanship. Unlike youth subcultures in decades prior, he found them to be polite, friendly, and disarmingly earnest — “above all, a commercial personality.” It was entrepreneurs whom these people wanted to emulate, and the small business the social and economic model in which they wanted to work.

I asked Deresiewicz if he felt anything had changed in the 13 years since he wrote the piece. Back then, he says, “I was still in that mindset of ‘selling out is evil.’” When he began research on his next book, however, “I realized that was kind of an outdated, privileged, and intensely unrealistic attitude,” he says. “Now, you don’t have a choice, and that’s why that concept has disappeared.”

That book tackles how artmaking became an inherently entrepreneurial pursuit, arguing that while social media hugely increased the number of people who pursued art, it didn’t increase the number of people who can support themselves financially by making it. A world in which artists think like entrepreneurs, he writes in the Atlantic, is one where “You’re a musician and a photographer and a poet; a storyteller and a dancer and a designer … which means that you haven’t got time for your 10,000 hours in any of your chosen media. But technique or expertise is not the point. The point is versatility. Like any good business, you try to diversify.” It’s also a world where that art is “more familiar, formulaic, user-friendly, eager to please — more like entertainment, less like art.”

Is the labor of self-promotion making art worse? It’s sort of impossible to argue this; the internet has abetted the creation and exposure of infinitely more art than ever before in human history. But with less separation between art and commerce, Montgomery says, “there’s some self-censorship that happens. If you’re a little too knowledgeable about PR, you start to become way too aware of things like posting schedules, and it’s impossible to be punk anymore.”

Bethany Cosentino was 22 when she started her indie rock band Best Coast in 2009, and by the time she released her first album under her own name this year, the music industry was barely recognizable. In that bygone era, she explains, you had to be reading certain blogs, going to certain venues, and hanging out with certain people if you wanted to find a cool new indie artist. There was an entire cottage industry supporting the discovery of emerging talent; now, it’s been relegated to a playlist algorithmically designed to match your existing tastes. “Anyone can upload anything to Spotify, but Spotify has every piece of music that’s ever been made in the entire world,” says Cosentino. “You’re up against the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac.”

Where that’s left her — a musician who’s had a successful career for 15 years — is basically the same place it leaves any random up-and-comer: constantly promoting yourself online. “It genuinely feels like I’m clocking into work,” she says of social media. In the lead-up to her latest record, released this summer, she says she was online for hours from the moment she woke up, using an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of what she needed to post. Even still, she says that as soon as her album came out, “it basically went away” in terms of commercial success. Whether that was because it was under her own name instead of her more well-known band, or because it was a departure from her earlier sound, or because she didn’t hit the viral lottery, is impossible to say. The only thing that matters now, she says, are streaming numbers, and if a record flops, the artist gets blamed for not promoting it enough.

When Cosentino expressed her frustration on TikTok in December, her video caused a cross-platform discourse over privilege, labor, and what’s expected of artists. She’s hopeful that there’s a better way to set up the system. “A lot of stuff is broken,” she says, “And nothing’s going to fix itself. Everybody needs to be proactive and figure out a way forward. Of course, that’s challenging, but I don’t think the answer is to throw your arms up and go, ‘Well, it just is what it is.’ I’m not an ‘it is what it is’ person, I want to figure out how to make it better, or how to make it at least more fulfilling for me as a human being in my one God-given life.”

Instead of spending the majority of our time on self-promotion, perhaps more of us could be focusing on finding ways to form solidarity among artists or among disciplines, especially in fields where there is no single industry-wide union that protects individual creators. We can support independently owned media, we can make it more possible for artists to survive by fighting for a health care system that doesn’t rely on full-time employment, for affordable child care, and against companies that profit from stealing the work of unpaid or underpaid artists.

The burden of self-promotion isn’t only on creative people, obviously; much like Albers’s 65-year-old mom, we’re all expected to perform this labor now. If we’re fully employed, we know that the comfort of health insurance and a salary could be gone at any moment if our company decides to pivot or lay us off. Tech platforms, too, come and go, and the audiences we build there are unstable, impermanent. But what other choice do we have?

There are plenty of people who view this as a good thing. A society made up of human beings who have turned themselves into small businesses is basically the logical endpoint of free market capitalism, anyway. To achieve the current iteration of the American dream, you’ve got to shout into the digital void and tell everyone how great you are. All that matters is how many people believe you.


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