How love and integrity made Welcome to Night Vale a massive success
To celebrate the release of my new book, Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age, I've invited some of my favorite creators and thinkers to write about their philosophy on the arts and the Internet. Today, Jeffrey Cranor, co-writer of the amazing Welcome to Night Vale, shares the secret of his success. -Cory
I think it was late July 2013. I was in Astoria, Oregon, having a weeklong vacation with my family, not really checking in on the internet so much.
"How are you enjoying the podcast?" family asks
"It's good. Night Vale just had its first anniversary. Joseph and Cecil and I are having a lot of fun with it," I reply.
"Great. Also, congratulations. We saw you passed Marc Maron on iTunes," family says.
"I'm sorry. What?"
And two days later our podcast Welcome to Night Vale passed This American Life on iTunes. We were the #1 US podcast (not just comedy, but all podcasts) for the next 3-and-a-half months. And at one point in September, we were #1 in 9 different countries.
At first, we didn't know what happened. Maybe Glen Weldon mentioned us again on Pop Culture Happy Hour? John Darnielle had also mentioned us on twitter. So had John Green. We saw bumps in our download numbers from those very gracious mentions by very gracious men. But the jump we saw in popularity that July was nothing like we'd seen before.
After a few weeks, we figured out what happened: Tumblr happened.
Tumblr happened in a massive way. Basically, we had just over 100,000 total downloads in our first 12 months of doing Welcome to Night Vale (24 episodes). In the very next month, we had 2,500,000 total downloads. The next month alone tripled that number.
Looking back, I'm pretty positive the catalyst was the culmination of the romance between Carlos the scientist and Cecil Palmer, the radio host/narrator on Welcome to Night Vale. We receive a lot of feedback from the LGBTQ community about representation on our show, and we're happy people have these characters and stories have meant so much to so many. Very few other media storytellers have gay main characters in shows not specifically created for a gay audience.
But when talking about July of 2013, the questions usually revolve around numbers, rather than craft or social representation.
If you're a marketer, you probably have lots of meetings around wood tables under energy-efficient lighting discussing how to harness the young, energetic audiences of Tumblr (or Twitter, or Ello, or Telepathy Clubs, or ham radio, or whatever the kids are into these days).
"How did you do it," you might ask if you're a marketer, or my step-father, or just someone interested in things like demographics and art cynicism.
"How did your podcast, Welcome to Night Vale, become the number one podcast in the US for four straight months, topping the massive This American Life? What's the secret to your success?"
"That's easy," I might say, leaning in to a near whisper. "Here's the secret."
This is the secret to all success. You've heard a version of it before. It's a three-step process.
Make art. Make art with people you love. Respect the art you make.
By success, I presume you mean artistic success, because that's all I can attest to. I'm proud of Night Vale as a podcast, as a touring stage show, as a story. I'm very pleased that enough people listen to it that i can afford to work more on it by not having an unrelated day job.
I am happy and overwhelmed to have a fan base that has opinions and concerns and feelings and email accounts. (We learn a lot from our fans.)
But for 30 years I have been trying to write things I think are funny and interesting (still trying). I have made bad works and good works. All of them lead to the next work. None can exist without the previous.
One of those works is Night Vale, listened to by hundreds of thousands of fans across the globe (I write this from a hotel lobby in Helsinki the night after a sold-out show).
Another of those works was "This could be it," a dance piece I co-created with my wife Jillian Sweeney. We got a very good NY Times review and were personally ecstatic with the work. A total of 100 people saw that show, and that's all that will ever get to see it. It was a glorious success.
Make art. Make art with people you love. Respect the art you make.
From time to time I get to perform in NY with the Neo-Futurists, where a sold-out show is 99 people, and back in 2007, when I first joined the company, it wasn't unusual to perform for 9 people. The Neos do a fast-paced show that requires the company to write and perform new short plays every single week in a completely random order under a 60-minute time limit. It's theater as sport. They've written over 3500 short plays in 10 years in NY. I've written 125 of them. I've performed in over 1,000.
My involvement with the NY Neo-Futurists is an enormous success for me. (Make art. Make art with... etc.)
Here's the thing. You have no real control over popular success. You only have control over artistic success. If you're not concentrating on the latter, the best case scenario is you do not achieve the former. The worst case scenario is you gain popular success but you:
a) No longer make actual art, and/or
b) No longer love those you work with, and/or
c) No longer enjoy what you make.
More than any other question, I get: How do you become successful. This is it. Make a home for yourself in your creativity. Make a family of artists. Respect all involved. No amount of marketing success or lack thereof can destroy that.
This article is part of a series of posts occasioned by the publication of Cory Doctorow's Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age, with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer. Kirkus Reviews called it "a guide to the operation of the Internet that not only makes sense, but is also written for general readers."
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