How It Feels To Release "Art" In A Time of Corporate Robots

The Anchoress reworks a Depeche Mode anthem with a frame by frame recreation of the original music video

How It Feels To Release "Art" In A Time of Corporate Robots

Or why "marketing" "content" in the modern age can leave you feeling estranged and like quitting if the algorithm doesn't kick in.

This newsletter is a confession of sorts.

I may have built a website read by millions and released records that did rather well but with each "thing" I go through a process of self-deception (a mixture of self-hype, denial about the chance of success and excitement) followed by a long tail of self-destruction (sometimes that involves listening to Lykke Li on repeat, so it's not all bad).

Now that the web has changed so much, the regularity and speed with which the process happens has ramped up. It happens with almost everything I work on whether it's an essay or a record release or whatever.

The process goes from goes from a dream to a sigh, a bit like this:
1. spend time dreaming up something special
2. invest time or hire talented people to create the thing
3. publish the thing
4. hope people think it's as magic as you do
5. sigh

It's the "hope" that causes the sigh.

With those pesky gatekeepers like music critics and radio hosts slain¹, we now must make offerings to our robot overlords. Forget blood rituals, they want your soul, sweat and tears (and cash), to decide whether they agree that what you have created resonates with their data-points.

You're not longer creating for your audience, you're fighting an army of R2-D2s to reach them.

The more algorithmically-friendly your content, the better. Often that means bland engagement bait, enragement farming or generating highly sophisticated 10-years-of-research-in-a-3-min-TED-talk-viral-video format with the perfect first three second visual followed by an intriguing 3 sentences that a few minutes after you post it is reshared by Paris Hilton and Mark Hamill before becoming the subject of a Guardian editorial and commissioned for a 5 part Netflix series...

Oh wait, no, that was last week's thing, this week the robots wants orange monster truck memes using Comic Sans.

Ok, so what does the algo want today? Well, erm...

You can - as I did for 4 years at the BBC - become an expert in all these things about the various platforms but it often still won't actually show your post to your existing followers, let alone the strangers beyond... much like not everyone subscribed to this newsletter will open let alone read this far (thank you for being you and sticking with me btw!)

Sometimes - if the wind is blowing just right - the algorithm will pick "it" up and airlift to thousands of people. For once, you don't sigh and maybe even smile before the dopamine wears off and you're crumpling your face because you don't really know why it worked this time, you've done all the best practice stuff you would usually do and boom, it wasn't a waste of your time and creative juices.

Maybe it wasn't down to you, it just caught a freak wave of human attention somewhere, then the golden robot surfed along with you rather than ignoring you. That cold shoulder of 3 notifications (not even a like from your mum!) can leave you feeling as if there's a riptide pulling your art² out to sea never to be seen again.

More likely than not, whatever your measure of 'success' (that's a whole other rambling) it won't be down to how special 'the thing' was as to whether it reached the people you hoped it might.

Luck plays a part, as does how big an advertising budget you have to drive that 'luck', which can often lead to drive-by vanity metrics rather than genuine fans or record sales or subscribers or whatever you're aiming for. And that advertising money may go on to fund far-right grifters, rather than go back into the music ecosystem or to independent publishers, but that's another rant for another day.

It feels like we're in the "insert coin(s) to continue" era of the internet.

Where once you would carry on playing an arcade game, now there's what's known as a sunk-cost fallacy, where you're in so deep that the best option feels like to keep going. To ride it out. Maybe it'll work. Maybe it won't.

Hopefully you're not in quicksand so that every (e)motion is working against you, sinking you deeper the more determinedly your react.

Perhaps there's a plot twist coming any minute. Or maybe you're just in Seth Godin's dip.

Pretty much every musician, record label or 'content' 'creator' you follow is quietly wrestling with knowing when to move on to the next project. Or when to just quit completely and do something else. Or pondering whether to spend a chunk (more) money on boosting posts in the hope that something changes.

These global corporations are relying on us playing the slot machines, investing our time in producing 'content' and spending our money when our 'content' doesn't resonate. They dangle carrots and hope that we'll keep leaping after them.

Knowing when to call it a night is the question of our times.

Sometimes we have to accept that the thing you made has had its moment and it's time to move on. But when is that? Do we try a different approach? Is it when 20% of your followers/subscribers have seen it or bought it? 10,000 views? 1 million plays? Is it when a certain time frame has passed? Do algorithms work on these time frames? And when everyone seems to move on after a week, why does YouTube keep showing me videos that are six years old?

So many questions that none of the machines will ever answer, no matter how politely you ask ChatGPT or employees at these monolithic corporations. So many parallel paths based on timing or small edits or different formats that you'll never know if they might have done better or worse.

Enjoy The Silence

I say all this because we're six months on from the release of the critically acclaimed album Versions by The Anchoress on the Drowned in Sound label, and whilst Bandcamp sales trickle along nicely and before thinking about the next campaign, I wanted to share this music video with you to start the week.

With all the above unfurling in my head, my confession is this: Despite how proud I was of what we created, I got so caught up in the album coming out and shipping 1000+ pre-orders that I didn't really share it when it was released.

The Anchoress (aka musician, producer and songwriter Catherine Anne Davies) didn't just rework Depeche Mode's majestic goth-pop anthem but with director JJ Eringa, made a frame by frame recreation of the original music video, which was shot and edited on about 1% of the original music video budget (not to shatter the illusion but see if you can spot the bits done on green screen in my tiny living room!).

You can pick up a copy of the album from Drowned in Sound's bandcamp here. And you can see the videos side-by-side on director JJ Eringa's Instagram here.

Can you think of any other music videos that have done this? Join the DiScussion on the Drowned in Sound forums where they've already reminded me of the connection between the Verve, Massive Attack and Fat Les.

The Anchoress: Upcoming Live Dates

31st May NEWPORT Le Pub (headline show)
17th August TRENTHAM LIVE (supporting Manic Street Preachers)

Further Exploration

¹ = in case you didn't clock the sarcasm in this comment, have a listen to season two of the Drowned in Sound podcast about the future of the music press. Available wherever you get your podcasts.

² = it sometimes feels important to put the things we create on a pedestal as "art" rather than reducing it to a cell of data on the infinite content farm.