Zachary Alden Smith

What Problem is the Artist, Musician, Poet Solving?

I love this question. I’ve been asking it for years, without words. I would love share a few resources I found recently, because this has been one of the most interesting things I’ve ever studied. Trying to piece all of it together has been great fun, very freeing.

1. Ann Rea says traditional business plans don’t work for artists, because traditional businesses sell products or services. Artists sell emotion. I think that’s how I use art: to experience whatever emotion I want to have at the time; be it wallowing in self pity, celebration, contemplation, hope, or heartbreak. There is something beautiful in all of them. If you take her course or read her process, she gets into how to build a product or service from the potential emotional transaction which serves a specific group of people. Complimentary to what we are learning here.

2. Donald Miller says that no one is actually buying your product or service. If you go to buy a drill at the hardware store, you are not buying a drill. You are buying a hole in the wall. But you’re not buying that. You’re buying the feeling of being the person who put up that shelf. The drill maker who is most skilled at showing you a picture of yourself having had that success, is most likely to sell you the drill. So his method gets into how to set your customer up as the hero of their own story, with a problem, and yourself as the guide, with a plan for success, and a picture of what success and failure look like. Also he says there is an overarching transformation, that, once clear, is compelling. The potential transformation is possibly the driver of all decision making. So if you can articulate that story, your solution becomes clear, and you find your clientele easily.

3. Add this to Seth Godin's version of it: Your customer is buying the right to tell themselves the story of who they are with your product or service. I think you could make the case that people are actually buying the desired personal transformation, or at least the belief that the transformation is possible and effective.

4. Now, looking back at all three: Aren’t they all saying the same thing? Artists sell emotion, but not really. Aren’t we selling the transformation (or at least the story of it) that the experience of the emotion gives us? The belief to tell ourselves confidently that we can become, have become, or are becoming the people we would like to be? That’s why, with art, a concert (service/event) is valuable, as is a painting (physical product). Both are just the packaging for the experience people want to have. And we want experiences to shape ourselves into the people we want to maintain or become. And we will participate if we sense and believe (even subconsciously) the story of the connection between those two things. We will trade money for something of greater value to us: transformation.

5. Someone once told me that the value of art is that anyone can use it however they choose; the value is dynamic, and that makes it invaluable. I agree with that. Which is scary! Because it means we are not completely in charge of the problem we are solving. It could be different for everyone. How many times has someone gotten an unintended meaning from a painting, song, movie, or dance? As artists we can have a hobby if we don’t want to share. But if we want or need to share, letting go of the piece or the performance itself is part of that equation, for sure. Letting go of the right to define the problem specifically for everyone could be as well.

6. But that doesn’t mean we are not solving a problem. In fact, it could mean that we are taking a risk at putting a dent in a huge and universal problem. Art can change people. Everyone needs hope. Or a new perspective, sometimes. The courage to move forward. The knowledge that they are not alone. That someone knows how they feel. Even if it’s just a story they are telling themselves, it still works, is still valid. (See Seth’s Akimbo episode on the placebo effect?) And I had better believe it can solve a real problem for that person. Otherwise, my art will only ever be about me and my small little world.

7. Humans are affective beings; our affections fuel our choices, and our imaginations inspire our affections. Some say that humans are purely intellectual beings. I don’t buy that. How many times have I filled my head with information I knew would help me get through a tough problem, and it didn’t change my behaviors or my fears at all? Instead, when I experience something that helps me to imagine what’s good, true, and beautiful, then I chase whatever that thing is with all of my being. Humans fall in love with something and then pursue it. The doorway to the heart is the imagination. Further, the mind fires in the same way whether we witness an event or participate in it. That means we are all are uniquely gifted to open a person’s imagination, through the stories we tell. May we use this wisely.

All of this is why it makes sense to me that business is art and art is business. Maybe all of our businesses would be great if they balanced on the tightrope of a) calling out a specific community, and b) then letting that group be in charge of how our solution is used.

This all leads me here, to the deepest problem we can try to solve: To be seen.

Did you know what I just learned? That of the three people who give, receive, or simply watch an act of benevolence happen, they all have the same hormone (oxytocin) of the same amounts fire off in their brains at the same time? They all experience the same physical feeling that comes from goodness shared.

So… Maybe I can get the good feeling I want to get from being seen, by seeing others first, instead. That actually might be a more reliable way of getting what I really want.

When an artist shares their work, they say, “I see you” to their audience, however great or small. The audience responds with “Thank you for making this! I feel seen and known.” And the artist can now say, “You know what, that you responded in this way, makes me feel seen and known, too. Thank you for that!”

This is how it’s been valuable to get so particular on what it is that I and an audience actually want. It helps me to see other people. Which is what they really want. And seeing them and appreciating them for who they are, actually makes me happy, as well. When I see them, I can communicate with them in a way that gets their attention. (As the subtitle of Seth Godin’s newest book This is Marketing goes) I can’t be seen until I learn to see.

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