Last month, Seth Godin wrote a post that both illuminates and complicates the realities for Mormon arts and culture. He outlines what he calls the passion/pop curve (make sure you click on the figure in the post to make it bigger so you can actually read it). The curves live on two axes — the first is the number of users/customers/fans. The second relates to content and brand. One one end you have edgy/obsessed and on the other you have vapid/trite. As Godin explains:
That bell curve to the left represents acceptance by the focused/excited/tastemaking community. Those are the people who love microbeers and haute couture and Civil War memorabilia. Like all market curves, there’s a sweet spot. Go too nutsy on us ($90,000 turntables, for example) and even the committed will flee. Go too pop, though, and we’ll avoid you as well.
The bell curve on the right, you’ll notice, is bigger. This is a second market, a bigger market, the market of pop. These are the folks who go to the Olive Garden for a nice Italian meal instead of the authentic place down the street. They too want something that’s not too edgy and not too (in their opinion) trite.
And here’s the kicker
The reason you need to care is that gap in the middle. Every day, millions of businesses get stuck in that gap. They either move to the right in search of the masses or move to the left in search of authenticity, but they compromise. And they get stuck with neither.
One of the issues for the Mormon market is that we layer on a limiter to the graph — that is, not only do you have to deal with the passion/pop curve, but that the number of users is limited to those who buy into the Mormonism of a product (or of the product’s creator) as a viable category. Or in other words, the numbers on the y-axis go down. You have the same edgy/vapid issues that come with the x-axis, but it’s harder to hit the target because the y-axis has shrunk. This is less of an issue for those hitting for the pop curve because it’s always bigger, and this is definitely true of the Mormon market, e.g. Deseret Book. But even there, you still have to make the case to the consumer: you need this particular product because it appeals to your tastes AND it’s Mormon. You have to sell them (and reassure them) on both aspects of the product.
And this, of course, is why artists dream about crossover success. But crossovers are rare and lead to difficult decisions when it comes to the next work that the artist creates.
Certainly one solution is to minimize the Mormonism of your work and simply aim straight at the larger market. This is what many Mormon speculative fiction and YA authors have done; some with great success. Filmmakers, actors, visual artists and musicians have also had some success. I suppose you could argue that some of these artists have not minimized their Mormonism, and certainly the work they create is still worth seeking out, but even if you are Orson Scott Card, there are certain things you can’t do and remain a viable part of the mainstream market.
Let me give two examples of my perceptions of the passion/pop curves and the Mormon market to illustrate the difficulties of the market:
First example: There is a market for Christian punk. That means that there are enough Christians who are in to punk bands that define themselves as Christian to support CDs and live shows by Christian punk bands. There are many reasons for that. One is that there are a lot of Evangelical Christians in the U.S. Another is that as punk moved beyond it’s initial phase it developed styles and communities that could accommodate the idea of Christian punk — straight edge, in particular, with it’s emphasis on not drinking alcohol and doing drugs, opened room for young Christians to see punk as a viable means of expression. In addition, Christians began to understand the appeal of counterculture moves and to define themselves as counterculture. This doesn’t mean that it’s been embraced by the pop side of the Christian market. I don’t believe that the major Christian labels and the radio stations they feed (control and sometimes own) play punk, but as a niche genre, it’s big enough that a career is possible. In addition, neo-punk/third-wave punk (whatever you want to call it) is a vibrant and open enough genre that Christian punk bands that are good and that don’t push the preaching too hard can gain fans who aren’t Christian per se.
I don’t know that there is the same market for Mormon punk. Certainly, there was the mini-ska explosion in the early ’90s in Utah, but to my knowledge that market didn’t take hold to the extent that Christian punk has. Mormon culture also doesn’t have quite the diversity that Evangelical Christianity does. Certainly there are Christians who don’t like tattoos, but it’s definitely much easier to find a place as a tatted and pierced Christian skate punk than as a tatted and pierced Mormon skate punk — and esp. to find compatriots, to create/join a scene. In addition, because there is a real emphasis on youth outreach programs as well as so many different types of congregations, marketing the scene is much easier. You can find a place to play if you are a Christian punk and get youth leaders to bring their kids to a show. Christian punk is marginalized but the margins are much blurrier and bigger. With Christian punk, Christian is a limiter along the y-axis, but it’s nowhere near as limiting as Mormon is. The overall curve has more people in it.
Second example: I think Zarahemla Books has a gap problem. I love roaming around on the right side of the passion curve and especially just outside it in the left side of the gap. I’m not quite edgy/obsessed. I’ve always been a fairly lukewarm consumer of art with some pop sensibilities. But at the same time, I’m very much not pop. And so I love the work that Chris Bigelow is publishing. I’m a believer in the broadly appropriate/middle way type of Mormon literature. But it’s a difficult niche to be in if you’re trying to sell books like Chris is. It’s too edgy to be in the pop curve and sell many copies. But it’s not edgy enough to bring in the ex-Mormons, etc. And on top of that, it’s too middlebrow and not edgy enough to bring in the literary snobs. And then you add in the genre stuff — autobiographical fiction (On the Road to Heaven), short story (Long After Dark), cyberpunk (Hunting Gideon), Mormon folk realism/horror (Brother Brigham) — and you add another layer that moves you away from the standard middlebrow Mormon reader. Thus, we have Julie Smith complaining about the autobiographical fiction aspect to On the Road to Heaven while someone else writes to Bigelow to express discomfort with the talk of boobs. We have ex-Mormons writing negative reviews of Brother Brigham saying it’s for Mormon sheep who literally believe in evil spirits while culturally orthodox Mormons are complaining that it has nudity and adult situations. In addition, because there’s such a range of genres in their offerings, you don’t end up with the kind of easy variations within boundaries that can create a tight scene. What ties all the titles together is not as easy to define as, say, chick-lit or emo or cosplay or collecting Hummel figurines.
Now, even thought these two example suggest that passionate Mormon artists face difficulties in the current market, it’s not all bad news. As Godin reminds us, both the pop and passion curves are constantly changing (this year’s edgy is next year’s trite). And all it takes is one hit to change people’s perceptions of a market category. But right now, I’m afraid that the kind of stuff that I like is either very niche, and it appears to be a niche that’s either squarely in or very close to the passion/pop gulf, or it’s so niche niche that it doesn’t even exist*.
* Or maybe it does. Is there some Mormon punk/post-punk scene out there that I don’t know about?