File this one under “Things that should have been obvious.”
One of my favorite routines from comedian Bill Hicks is his scathing assault on marketing and advertising. I can do it no justice, so I present it with the caveat that it’s quite NSFW as well as vitriolic and offensive. But hey, that’s how I roll sometimes (ok, a lot of times).
As the concept of networking entails marketing yourself and advertising your skills and availability, at some point I lumped them all in together. It should come as no surprise that I then began to loathe the idea of networking to increase my presence in the music scene. It seemed so fake; I was the Skymall catalog trying cheerily and with a straight face to justify my relevance in the face of common sense and decency. I catch on pretty quickly when someone is trying to sell me something, and I didn’t want to instill the same sense of sinking disappointment in another person. The false smile, aggressive handshake, and pandering made me feel more like a car salesman than an artist.
Instead, when I found myself in a situation with other musicians, potential fans, or people in the arts, I made connections based on other criteria. I connected with people who shared common interests with me, people who I found interesting, and people who found me interesting. Even though I wasn’t really networking, this felt much more organic and comfortable for me.
Is anyone’s obviousdar going off yet?
Recently I read a terrific book about making a career in music called Beyond Talent, by Angela Myles Beeching. There’s a ton of great information about how to succeed as a gigging musician, how to approach problems as a self-employed individual, and what to expect in the day-to-day grind of the music world. Naturally, there was a chapter on networking in which she talks about how to make connections. And naturally, she didn’t define networking as schmoozing and working the room as slimily as possible.
It was instead about making connections with people with common interests, people with interesting projects, and people who find your projects interesting. It was in essence, much of what I was already doing. The simple act of expressing genuine interest in what someone is doing puts me on their radar. From there my role could be anything from a fan to a friend to a collaborator in the future. I’m not trying to oversimplify here. I know that there are many ways to improve my networking skills and reach out to more people. However, I was surprised at how far along I already was, given that I had self-identified as an “anti-networker.”
Speaking of ways to improve, I started to make a connection between my new and improved definition of networking and something I’ve often discussed with Mike Ketner from Departure Consulting. One of Mike’s big points about developing a musician’s career is the concept of “added value.” If I am playing music solely for my own benefit, there’s really a singular “unit” of value to it; myself. When I connect with my audience through the music, there is added value: the value I offer to those who enjoy my music. When I offer my music to the community as a part of a series including local musicians, I add even more value to what I’m offering by connecting it with others and with the community as a whole. Even further along, when I team up with those local musicians to host a festival of the finest accordion and tuba players in the nation, there’s huge value to be generated from such a venture.
Networking also runs on the give and play of value. When I’m talking to a producer named, oh, let’s say Evelina McChurtles (I chose this name solely so I could choose a gender and avoid a string of his/hers coming down the paragraph; you’ll thank me for this later) and I like her projects, naturally I want to work with her. I can try to convince her to hire me by talking about my projects and angling for ways that she could produce them, but ultimately the added value of her doing so is probably not enough, even if I’m totally sweet. If I can find a way that I can be of benefit to her and her projects, I add value to my contribution and there is greater incentive for me included in her projects.
Once again, I’ve entered the realm of obviousness, but I see the principles of the previous paragraph violated constantly. I have proofread cover letters that enumerate the many benefits the applicant will RECEIVE from being hired at an organization. I’ve encountered Twitter feeds that are nothing more than impersonal pleas for followers. I’ve seen bands try to get to play venues when they have absolutely no following, and I’ve seen bookers schedule bands where the only people who will possibly come to see them are the 5 friends they invited. When we request something from someone, we need to ask what the incentive is for the person to fulfill that request. If the only answer is because I’m totally sweet, then odds are good there isn’t enough added value to make it viable.
Oh, and I’ve definitely also been guilty of not being able to see that I’m not offering enough to make a proposition worthwhile.
That’s a funny previous sentence for those of you with dirty minds.
Where this gets tied back into networking (for those of us who cringe at the word) is that the process of adding value is a template for making networking more successful and less stressful. I’ve already talked about how it can work better. The less stress comes from approaching communication less as having to sell yourself and more about being able to offer ways to benefit others. You can think of it as the hard sell versus the fun brainstorming session. You’re discussing a common interest and the creative challenges you encounter along the way. No selling of snake oil is required, and everyone can feel good about it.