As someone who has always studied and practiced marketing along with design, I have developed a lacklustre relationship with the word itself. Most of my close friends and people I love to spend time with are artists or teachers, counselors, wellness professionals or social workers. Many people I talk to—some clients in the process of creating websites—struggle with the connections between their craft, marketing and another M-word, money.

There is an unconscious (and sometimes conscious) story in artist circles—that we must be a starving artist or we must be a sell out. That if we are caught in the act of promoting our art in any way, then it is akin to “slanging hotdogs” as Tracy K. Smith mentioned in a poetry reading at the Harold Washington Library. 

When some people talk about money

They speak as if it were a mysterious lover

Who went out to buy milk and never

Came back, and it makes me nostalgic

For the years I lived on coffee and bread,

Hungry all the time, walking to work on payday

Like a woman journeying for water

From a village without a well, then living

One or two nights like everyone else

On roast chicken and wine.

— Tracy K. Smith, “The Good Life” 

It was poetry month and somehow I had scheduled a weekend in the city of Chicago, the same time that the 22nd poet laureate was going to be in town giving a talk. I had two kiddos in tow but I wasn’t going to miss it, so I sweetened the deal by visiting the maker space in the iconic library that also gave Chance the Rapper his start. Thankfully, my littlest fell asleep. I remember feeling inspired by Tracy’s love ethic and smooth storytelling. When I heard her mention the feeling of disdain that comes with trying to promote your work as a poet, I felt a visceral response recalling all the other times I experienced that same sunken sense while being rebuffed as a “business professional” who wouldn’t get it or witnessing an artist in the act of self-deprecation promoting their craft.

How is it that art, in all its forms can connect us and at the same time make us feel dirty when we try to make a living from our work? I think our beliefs about marketing and likely our bad buying experiences hold us back from going about marketing in a good way and keep us from feeling empowered to ask for what we need when we share our work. 

“I think that’s always the role of art, to make people ask themselves questions.” — Chance the Rapper

Let’s examine and perhaps redefine the meaning of marketing for ourselves as artists.

The traditional definition of marketing is something banal like, the activities that a business goes about promoting and selling their product or service. In the, mostly, dated university textbooks, marketing education centered around price, product, place, promotion without regard to the interactions happening between people. Interaction was relegated to a Sales Department or Customer Service—where you go to deal with issues after they happen. In modern terms, marketing is more about methods to create value which attract others to your work. Marketing encompasses and touches all aspects of sharing our art and work with others. 

Any way you look at it, marketing involves process. Process is often thought of in linear terms or steps that occur rather than a circular process of ongoing reciprocity. When we give into linear processes, we end up objectifying our clients, customers or fans—and forget that we are in relationship with one another. We risk making people feel like another number or a cog in the flywheel. There are plenty of tactics that don’t go over so well or feel salesy and sleazy. Whenever I hear the mention of a funnel or building a list becomes priority over making sure what we have to offer throughout our exchange at every touch point is of value, we’ve become disconnected. When we are disconnected in our relationships with others, it cheapens our work.

“I think the biggest problem for artists is balancing a need for the market with a detachment from it.” —Tacita Dean, “What’s the biggest question facing artists today?”, The Guardian

When we think only about what we get and not consider also what we give, the integrity in the exchange gets lost. We can shift our thinking about marketing from our own attempts at some end result or need for our work to be seen to that of fostering ongoing experience. At the heart, marketing is all about relationships.

Marketing in essence is the ongoing exchange between people in relationship with one another. Marketing is the buzz of endeavors that supports a value exchange. A value exchange can be an energetic exchange, an exchange in conversation, an exchange of information, an exchange of goods or services. As artists, we exchange through the experience of our art form, the work itself, our time, through performance; we exchange when we answer questions on email or social channels, in conversations online and offline. The myriad of exchanges with the people that are connected to us, are a natural part of a marketing ecosystem which supports our work. 

“If we are concerned with our own lives, if we understand our relationship with others, we will have created a new society; otherwise, we will but perpetuate the present chaotic mess and confusion.” — Jiddu Krishnamurti, On Relationship

Our intention and behavior—how we go about our marketing activities—is important to how we are perceived and how we feel about our own work being shared, shown, and sold in the world. When we feel like what we are doing is slanging hotdogs, it might be time to look at what we’re doing—how we are going about sharing our work—or shift our perspective. There are diverse ways to share our work and make a living. How we go about sharing our stories, listening to our audiences and giving our gifts in exchange for something equally valuable to us is how we foster equity in marketing and dignify the word.