Advice on Launching an Independent Career: an Open Letter to an Actor
I heard recently from an NYC-based actor friend who is undergoing an internal debate common to his profession. Should he move to LA to pursue an acting career (uprooting himself in hopes of getting cast in a major TV show or film), or stay where he is and do what he can outside of Hollywood? As someone who runs a web site focused on DIY/independent careers, I thought I'd write him an open letter explaining why I think 21st-century performing artists should forget about putting their careers in the hands of others, and instead take the reins -- and responsibility -- themselves. Here is that letter:
I realize there are countless stories published every day about an actor moving to LA and making it big. "So-and-so was waiting tables and then got cast in ______, and the rest is history." But I think that story is as old-fashioned as it is rare (when you consider how many aspiring actors there are, and how many of them ever truly "make" it). Here are some things I think you should keep in mind as you consider moving to LA.
Recognize the opportunities of the era
In Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell talks about the opportunities specific to a particular era. Of the richest 75 people of all time -- and I mean of all time, as the list includes the likes of Cleopatra and Nicholas II of Russia -- Gladwell finds that a disproportionately high number are Americans born in the 1830s. John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan... part of their success was due to being in the right place at the right time. More importantly, their success was also due to recognizing the new opportunities inherent to their time and place: the industrial revolution, transcontinental railroads, the emergence of Wall Street. The businessmen who were most successful weren't the ones who tried to duplicate the success of a previous generation -- they were the ones taking advantage of new opportunities. Here's Gladwell on the importance of timing:
If you were born in the late 1840's, you missed it. You were too young to take advantage of that moment. If you were born in the 1820's, you were too old: your mindset was shaped by the pre-Civil War paradigm. But there is a particular, narrow nine-year window that was just perfect for seeing the potential that the future held. All of the 14 men and women on that list [including Rockefeller, Carnegie, et. al] had vision and talent. But they also were given an extraordinary opportunity.
"The potential that the future held." "An extraordinary opportunity." You know who else these things apply to? Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Google’s Eric Schmidt and Apple’s Steve Jobs. They're all the same age, they came up during the same era, and they managed to capitalize on a technological revolution that they recognized earlier, or understood better, than their peers.
Okay, I know, you're not a businessman or a tech CEO, you're an actor. But the idea of recognizing new opportunities applies just as much. Plus, we all wear a lot of hats now. We're multihyphenates, and so it's a good thing you're multitalented. Because here's the other thing: if you get a part on a TV pilot (and then that pilot, against all odds, actually gets picked up for a full season -- much less a second or third), how many of your talents will you get to use on the show? Just the acting part. But you're more than that.
The online opportunity
Let's take Andy Samberg, for example. Ten years ago he could've gone around auditioning for TV shows, crossing his fingers. Maybe he would've found his way onto a long-running, well-paying show. I doubt it, as he's not exactly a master thespian. Instead, he started the comedy troupe/web site The Lonely Island, which allowed him to use his full repertoire of comedic talents outside of acting -- in his case, songwriting and singing/rapping. He was able to build up his online audience and turn that into an SNL gig -- an opportunity he never would've had if he walked in off the street and auditioned, without already having showcased his abilities online.
Andy's a good example for you, since you're also a musician and a comedian. But for other performers, the same opportunity applies. Hell, let's take newscasting, for example. Just the other day I was reading about those guys that started a news show on YouTube in 2005 and have now garnered 500 million views and $1 million in revenue. You think they would've reached that many people -- or that level of success -- if they'd spent their time auditioning for TV stations?
Let's talk about my own experiences, too. To this day I can't tell you where I might be if we'd done things differently with our Webby Award-winning web series The West Side (pictured above). What if we'd built an audience across multiple video sharing services, instead of keeping it bottled up on our own site? What opportunities might have arisen if an exponentially greater number of people knew about our show? What if we'd taken advantage of the just-launched (though we didn't know about it) Kickstarter and crowdfunded our way into completing the season? Instead, we got an agent, went to Hollywood, and put our fate in the hands of others. And you know how that worked out for us (and what it meant for our show).
I've learned about (lack of) control. I've learned about doing it yourself. The question then is, what exactly do you do next?
Find and build your own audience
My very first recommendation would be to go grab a copy of Fans, Friends And Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age. You'd know about this book already if you were a studious reader of No Film School, but I get that you're not a filmmaker and so I'll forgive you for not being a regular around these parts. Scott Kirsner's book is a couple of years old now, but it's only gotten more relevant since he published it. As I wrote in a post about holiday gifts for filmmakers:
If I had read Scott Kirsner’s book a couple of years ago, I’d be famous by now. I’m only half-joking!... Half of the book is a terrific overview of the state of independent, creative careers, and the other half of the book is filled with practical interviews with creatives who have managed to build a career and support themselves, outside traditional corporate structures.
After you've worked your way through that book, I'd check the comments here -- hopefully other readers will have suggested their own books/resources/strategies/links about making it as an actor (or any kind of independent creative).
Next I'd recommend Robin Schmidt's great series here on building an online video following through YouTube. He covered how to grow an audience, cultivate relationships, and motivate YouTubers to subscribe to your channel. "Audience relations" is almost a full-time job, and it might not be something you want to do as an actor/comedian, but someone on the team has to do it. If you want to have what other people don't, you have to be willing to do what other people won't. (I've said this before).
You know what else about "playing the YouTube game" is important? It's an opportunity unique to our generation, because the space is still nascent. The people making it on YouTube are our age (or younger). It hasn't been corporatized to the point where there's no room for the little guy. At the same time, it's maturing to the point where people are finally making a full-time living through ad-supported videos, which wasn't the case when Zack and I launched The West Side. In a lot of ways, I think we were too early -- that whole "timing" thing Malcolm Gladwell talked about. But in the three years since, web series have started to actually make money. Think about the history of what we're talking about here -- making money with online video is at a very particular juncture. Video creators are getting much higher ad rates than they were a few years ago. The opportunity wasn't there three years ago, but it is now. And it might not be in a few years once all the "old" media companies take over the home pages of video web sites and home screens of mobile devices.
Make your own luck
I'm not saying that you won't make it if you move to LA. If you do, you absolutely have my blessing. But I see all of your talents that don't fit into a neat little "LA actor" box and I want to see you use all of them. Create your own online presence, you own show, your own YouTube channel (hint: I'll help). I'm not talking about a personal web site, I'm talking about a bona fide series (hint: I've talked with you about this in the past). It's not going to be an overnight success. But I have 100% confidence that, with time and effort, it can lead to a truly independent, creative career. And once you've showcased your talents and built an audience online, you might end up on a big 'ole TV show anyway.
Of course, it's possible that if you move to LA, you'll catch a big break and end up on a network or cable TV show. I don't doubt your individual talent, but if it does happen, it won't be solely because of your abilities -- it will also be because of luck. And because you need talent and luck, a large part of your ability to succeed falls to someone else. You're not in control in LA, and that means you might fail. Don't take what they give you -- make your own luck.