Sunday 11 July 2021

How can neurodivergent artists market themselves?

 "How can neurodivergent artists market themselves"?

This was a question I was asked during a webinar entitled ‘Neurodivergent artists and practitioners discuss how they work with digital’ last week. The Space, the BBC’s digital agency, had invited me to speak because of my recent commission for ‘Spectrum Sounds’ which will be broadcast later in the year.

Autism does present real challenges in this respect and I found myself giving a fairly downbeat answer. Reflecting on my compositional life, I realised that many of my contemporaries have carved out pretty successful careers, winning frequent commissions, prizes, recording and publishing contracts, broadcasts, and generally being talked about and listened to. My compositional career has been less obviously successful by comparison.

Why might that be? One possibility is that my music is not as good as theirs, but I would counter that argument with the evidence of all the fantastic reviews and comments I get whenever something is performed or broadcast. The most common epithet used to describe my music is “beautiful”, which can’t be too bad, right? I mean no disrespect to my friends and fellow composers now in their 60s when I say that my music stands alongside theirs perfectly well.

No, I think the real problem has been my almost pathological inability to “network” and “self-promote”. Funnily enough, I wrote about the importance of this in my book ‘The Digital Musician’, but I realise that I am lousy at practising what I preach, at least in this department. I’ve never set much store by fame, nor have I ever expected to make any significant money from composing, but I have wanted to communicate and express myself through music. 

I remember when Island Symphony premiered in 1995, a senior figure in the musical world declared it was “brilliant” and “a very important composition”. Then he said: “now what you have to do is to convince everyone else of its importance”. At that point, I realised that I had no hope of doing so. I simply lack the social and networking skills for that kind of endeavour. Island Symphony has a small and enthusiastic fan club, but it remains largely unknown, I think.

This is a facet of autism, I’m afraid. The whole system of marketing and self-promotion depends on one’s ability to get out there and talk to the people that matter. To be a presence on the scene. To indulge in the kind of back-slapping and mutual praise that makes the wheels turn. Performers rely on composers having reputations that will advance their own careers. Composers rely on commissions from organisations that can invest in them and expect a worthwhile return. Record companies and publishing houses are completely driven by marketing, of course. And then there are competitions, which form the life-blood of contemporary music these days. Panels of respected judges select works from a pool. What guides their choices? Some notions of musical excellence, no doubt, but these are surely shaped in no small measure by the reputations that precede people. Even judged anonymously, one can sense a zeitgeist in contemporary music that shapes opinion. If you do not make your presence felt, then you are not part of that zeitgeist. How do you make your presence felt? Through social interaction.

What can autistic people do about this? It requires constant presence. You have to be seen and mingling, so that when opportunities arise people think of you. You have to be visible, both online and offline, on the arts scene. How can you do this if social interaction is a challenge? I honestly don’t know. Some people say: get an agent. But that involves having constant and ongoing social interactions with the agent. Not to mention finding one in the first place. No doubt if you can get the right agent it will be great. But what happens if you get the wrong one? 

I do have something positive to say, though. Times are changing. There seems to be a new willingness to listen or to try to understand or include neurodivergent people. The Arts Council has woken up to this, but I also think wider society is engaging too. When I was young, there were very few people who identified as autistic. Now there are at least 700,000 in the UK. Many of those are working in music and the arts. It is hard to ignore so many people. 

I won the commission for Spectrum Sounds by entering a competition. That is only the third time in my life that I have submitted an application to a call like that. I would not have done so, were it not for some kind people at the Attenborough Arts Centre who pushed me into it. Of course, I am pleased to have won the commission (although still rather anxious about those who applied and were not successful). It has brought me back to composing in ways which are very rewarding for me, following my hearing loss. 

But I wonder what would have happened if the BBC, for example, had taken more of an interest in my work all along. I received several BBC commissions back in the 1980/1990s, but then they fell away. Because of my inability to network, I have never attempted to engage in any of the contemporary music festivals that run annually. Nor have I tried to get involved with performers unless they specifically asked me for something, or I could pay them from some commission money. Once I have a commission, I do hire people and pay well, but the commissions are few and far between. I’ve never had any idea how to approach a publishing house or a record company.

What’s great now is to see some young autistic composers breaking through and supporting one another. I saw it at the Sound Festival in Aberdeen recently, and I am seeing it around the place more and more. I wish them all the best and look forward to seeing the fruits of this societal shift that is going on. The increase in diversity in contemporary music can only be a good thing, in my opinion, and is long overdue.