In Random Neural Firings, Thoughts on Writing

As a child, my mother taught me that it is impolite to talk about one’s self. It was uncouth and rude to boast. God forbid I should ever pitch my own abilities as better than someone else’s – even in a competitive situation. What sort of awful braggart would that make me out to be? This lesson must have really hit home, because to this day I find it queasily difficult to sell myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t lack for confidence. I have a healthy enough ego. (What writer doesn’t?) And I am more than a little competitive – way more. Yet even when I know I’m the best person for the gig, or my music is the best choice for the moment – even then, I am loathe to sell myself to the paying customer. Why? Because that is not what polite people do. Polite people don’t brag about themselves. Polite people are self-deprecating.

My aversion to self-selling was problem enough some forty years ago, while building a client base as a jingle writer. I cannot  describe to you my angst at making sales calls on advertising agencies and film production companies to pitch my latest demo reel. I secretly prayed my work would speak for itself without me having to talk about me. After all, if my work wasn’t enough to convince the customer that I was the guy for the job, what was I supposed to say about me that would seal the deal?

But here’s the problem: In this day and age, people in the creative arts either sell themselves or risk starvation. We all are salesmen now. Or to use the modern word – We all are marketers.

I suspect it has ever been thus. I can take a little comfort knowing that Beethoven, DeBussy, Gilbert & Sullivan, even Stephen Sondheim – all had do a bit of selling. Whether convincing patrons or potential potential backers, these giants were, for the most part, as uncomfortable with the self-marketing as am I.

For a significant period of my career, I had a publishing company that exclusively marketed for me. But even then I knew that it was ultimately up to me to help sell my work. (This was especially true when it came to placing songs on artist recordings.) But the days of sweet publishing deals have gone the way of the dinosaur, and the illusion that a company will do all my marketing has vanished, as well. In the end, I am on my own. And you are on your own. We are all on our own.

This aloneness is not a bad thing, per se. But it is a real thing.

My music is currently represented by a half dozen or more different publishing companies, as well as my own. But as much as I appreciate the partnership with those companies (and I do appreciate it), in the end those companies are not so much marketing Robert Sterling as a brand name as they are using Robert Sterling to market their own brand name.  This is understandable because the companies are logically more concerned with their own well-being than with mine.

That is not a bad thing, per se. But it is a real thing.

So if I want Robert Sterling to be a brand name that church musicians and musical theater producers know and seek out, I have to do much, if not most, of the marketing myself. I freely admit, I hate this work and I am not well-suited to it. The work of marketing takes time I’d rather not spend and talents I don’t really have. But it must be done. Frankly, it is why I am on Facebook. (And I know for a fact I am not alone in that reasoning.) It is why I launched a Youtube channel. It is why my website exists. And it is why I obtained the help and advice of an actual marketer – Scott Revo at R3VO Branding – to get the job done.

Even if I were to suddenly and quite mystifyingly gain a level of fame and fortune that would make my head spin (oh – if only…), marketing would still be necessary. Why? Because we live in a consumer age, and we are all products now. If you do out of sight, you will soon be out of mind.

If you are new to the professional writing game, I recommend you get comfortable with the idea of selling yourself. I suspect it will not be easy. It has been my observation that few creative people are at ease with this task. More often than not, we are too consumed with self-doubt to be be proficient at self-promoting. I’m no expert, only to say it’s necessary.

I’m trying every day (and failing on most) to strike a balance between my creative instincts and the necessity to sell the work I create. If I spend all my time creating, then nothing ever gets sold. That’s bad. But if I spend too much time selling, I’ll have created nothing. And that’s worse.

Because like mother taught – that would be impolite and rude.


Showing 13 comments
  • Stephanie Taylor

    Absolutely! Part of me being creative is that I can “hide behind the piano” for a while. But that does not get my music out there. I can promote someone else’s music easier than my own.
    I know I need to separate the roles of composer and marketer. I can sell anything I believe in! ANYTHING . . . except myself. Ugh!

    • rsterling

      A lot of us suffer the same malady, Steph. I wish I had an easy answer. But I’m still trying to figure it out myself.

  • DeWayne Adcock

    I concur and relate with every jot and tittle of this insight. Thank you for taking the time to reassure us we are not alone in this dilemma. Blessings!!

    • rsterling

      You’re welcome, DeWayne. And thanks for commenting.

  • Amy McNeil

    “If I spend all my time creating, then nothing ever gets sold…But if I spend too much time selling, I’ll have created nothing.”
    Yet another area in life where we need to try to find balance! Bleghh!?
    But a good reminder and encouragement!

    • rsterling

      “Bleghh” is right!

  • Don Whitt

    That’s so good. Thanks for that encouraging words of wisdom.

    • rsterling

      You’re welcome. Thx for reading & for commenting.

  • Marty Hamby

    Very well said and precisely on point, IMHO.
    I too, am another, and perhaps assumed most of my colleagues would not be carrying that same burden. After reading your post, I wonder if you haven’t spoken for the majority of us. Thanks for your candor! I hope we can meet one of these days. I’ve used your music for many years. “Jesus Paid It All” is one of my all-time favorites.

    • rsterling

      Thanks for commenting, Marty. Would love to meet. We probably know 1000 people in common.

  • Wanda Cooley

    We are bravest when marketing our friends?

    • rsterling

      Absolutely. And that’s maybe something to keep in mind – We should all be ready to spread a good word about our friend’s work. We are all in the same boat, after all.

    • Brad Croushorn

      How true! I do not hesitate in the slightest to pitch a friend’s music, and I have friends who would do the same, but my pernicious politeness (or marketing shyness) sometimes blocks the road in my own self promotion efforts.

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