What is authenticity and what does it mean for artists and creatives and their own self-promotion?
Not just a marketing buzzword
In the world of business for the last decade or so, one of the big buzzwords has been “authenticity”. If you look beyond all the buzz, however, it’s something that everyone does need to focus on to be successful, especially creatives. Take away the jargon, and all it boils down to is simply “Be Yourself”.
When I first started my business, I made the mistake of going too far into the business jargon and formal business mode. I made my content and social media so industry standard and bland that, well, *I* came off as bland and probably incredibly dull, not someone anyone creative would want to talk to. My experience with “authenticity” had just been about making sure you and your brand were one and the same, but didn’t really seem to mean being actually authentically yourself. I was clearly a brand, and that brand was business business business. There was no ME.
It was through an online marketing course (I’m a sucker for online education, seriously. I’m always signing up for classes and webinars.) that what this phrase really meant for anyone promoting themselves as a solo artists business became clear.
What Authenticity means
Authenticity, for a big brand, might just mean a consistent professional message and image. While it means the same thing for you and I, it comes across in a different way since we’re individuals. It means staying true to who you are, what you do, what you’re passionate about, and who you’re doing it for. It means being HUMAN, someone others can relate to and want to engage with.
How to be authentic
Being yourself means being genuine, don’t b.s. your audience, they’ll know. So be real, share your goals and your mission, share your successes and also share disappointments. It’s good to be consistent – if your personality or message seems to contradict itself, it can scare people off. This doesn’t mean you can’t have ups and downs, it means don’t say something you don’t believe in just because you think you “should” or it will be what people want to hear. Be responsive to your fans and interact with them honestly.
On social media, being authentic means showing your own personality, sharing candid photos of your art or process and even certain aspects of daily life that are part of who you are as an artist (maybe your trip to the art supply store or the stack of boxes of materials you just ordered, or even how you spend your down time). In between all those, of course you want to share your actual art and product, and let people know how they can get their hands on it.
Why it works/what it does
Being authentically yourself helps people relate to you, encourages engagement and interaction, and helps turns people into fans and advocates spreading word of mouth about your art.
How much is too much?
Succeeding in being authentic also means knowing your limits – you don’t HAVE to share every detail about your meals, your family, your health issues – unless you want to. If it’s muddling your message too much, completely overshadowing your art, or just making you uncomfortable, then don’t.
One author, Adam Grant, suggests that striving to be too authentic can lead to a lack of filter, and that we should instead aim for sincerity, and to make sure that our sharing is a way to help us push ourselves to continue to improve and become our ideal versions of ourselves.
I have listened to some business coaches who tell you “be authentic BUT maybe don’t share politically controversial things on your branded social media or openly call out social issues”. To that, I say bullshit. If you’re a traditional business, like a car dealership, or a large company, then yes, there are some slightly finer lines to tread in regards to mixing activism, social justice, politics, and business. But especially as creatives, who are mostly solo/personal businesses, I think it is actually essential to be honest about these things. I will always be vocal about where I stand and what I believe in, “controversial” or not. For me, as a queer creative, if someone violently disagrees with my stances, then I know they probably aren’t someone that I would work well with or want to sell to. And since my business involves a lot of one-on-one communication and insight, that’s a big deal. If you’re an artist who exclusively focuses on queer art, you’re probably not going to be aiming to please the local ultra-right community group, so I think you’re just FINE to be honest and open about where you stand.
The line between authentic and performing it
Many people maintain a facade, especially online, making sure they always appear succesful and on top of everything, but being authentic can actually relieve anxiety many of us don’t realize we are holding onto. Maintaining that kind of a false front takes up a lot of energy we don’t need to waste.
Sometimes those who are pretty good at being authentic in regular daily life struggle with it in business, like I did. You feel like you have to appear successful, not struggling or in process of building a following and business. You feel like if you don’t have the appearance of being a “real successful artist” you’re going to be self-sabotaging your chances of succeeding. The truth is we’re all works in progress, we can always improve, we all have questions and doubt and insecurities and struggles. Sharing them helps us be more believable, shows that we’re human, and shows us all we’re not alone. Besides, no matter how good we think we are at hiding our secrets, the truth will find a way out anyway. Faking it till you make it may work well for some company marketing, but it’s not the best option for us.
Authenticity as a creative
Especially as creatives trying to make a living from your creative endeavors, I think we struggle with this whole idea of true honesty and authenticity – imposter syndrome (I plan on writing about THAT soon, too) is especially strong in artists so sometimes the urge to appear like “EVERYTHING IS PERFECT, HAHA” is strong. However, I have seen personally so many times when an artist shares their doubts, both fans and fellow artists coming out of the woodwork to clamor “me too!” and it becomes a group fest of praise and promotion for each other. Sharing when you succeed is great, but you should also be willing to share your struggles, rejections, and failures. Again, this is not meant to imply that you have to share every detail, but don’t be afraid to say “things didn’t pan out like I hoped, and I’m bummed about it.” And when you succeed or get a big win or contract or publishing deal, don’t be afraid to be excited and happy! Don’t feel like you have to play it cool to look “professional”.