How to Use Instagram Well (Without Sucking Joy from Your Art)

“I thought I could reach a lot of people on Instagram, but I feel like it’s just sucking the joy out of my art.”

^That’s a lament I heard this past weekend from a friend who does portraits in oils and colored pencil. He’s really good (linking his Instagram here as proof).

But he’s been posting pictures of his stuff for almost five years and he only has like 1100 followers.

He was telling me that posting his art feels like a distraction; he thinks about how a piece will do on social media while he’s making it, and that takes away from the experience of making it.

Worse, Instagram often feels invalidating, because the stuff he’s spent days / sweat / tears working on gets minimal feedback.

I hear this kind of thing a lot. I’ve lived it, too. Hasn’t every artist (maybe every person with a smartphone)?

And I think, if you’re an indie musician, it leads to two big questions:

  1. Why should I use social media (especially if it’s draining my joy)?
  2. Assuming that I, like 99% of the population, am going to use social media – how can I use it well?

You can write a book to answer these questions – a bunch of people already have. Since this is an email, I’ll try to give you my thoughts in less than 20,000 words.

Why should you use social media?

To start: You shouldn’t use social media if it’s draining your joy.

That’s that. Just take a break or quit. It’s not worth it.

There are two reasons you should use social media:

  1. It’s the best place in the digital world to get your artistry in front of new ears and eyes.
  2. You can begin to build meaningful community on it.

You need to balance both of these realities against your health and happiness.

For example, I think the best social media platforms for indie musicians right now are Instagram and Tik Tok. But I kind of hate Tik Tok, so I’m not going to spend my time building an audience there.

You don’t have to be on every channel. Spend time on the channels you feel most filled by, and remember – these channels are tools toward the goals listed above, not ends in themselves.

How can you use social media well?

My friend the painter isn’t using Instagram well.

I’m not even talking directly about his account setup or the type of content he posts. I’m just noting that his goal was to “reach a lot of people” – and, so far, he hasn’t.

You can only use social media well if you use it in support of your goals.

If the reason you’re on Instagram is ostensibly to grow your audience – well, use it in a way that will grow your audience.

Here’s what I would do to my friend’s profile:

1) Do some research. Make a list of 10 accounts he thinks are “successful” according to his eye. Use the tactics that they’re using.

2) Set a goal and start tracking progress toward it. Based on the accounts he likes, he should set a reasonable follower goal. Would 2,000 followers qualify as success? Would 10,000?

Whatever his goal is, he should write it down, then track his movement on at least a monthly basis, along with the tactics used each month. This way, when he looks back, he’ll be able to tell what drove followers faster.

3) Collaborate. The only way to grow an audience is to tap into existing audiences. (This is what you’re doing with Instagram in the first place – tapping into an audience of people that uses the app.)

As far as I can tell from his Instagram, my friend has collaborated with two accounts: he’s been featured by @artfeatures2 and @awesome_cp_art.

Considering there are like, I don’t know, a gabizillion art accounts on Instagram, I think there’s more opportunity here.

I’d go through the 10 accounts he calls “successful” and look at the accounts they’ve collaborated with and how they’ve collaborated with them.

I’d investigate every account they’d tagged in a post / caption / comment and every account in their “Tagged” section (i.e. accounts that have featured their work). Then I’d reach out to every relevant account and ask about opportunities for collaboration.

He’d get rejected / ghosted a lot.

But this would almost definitely lead to features and new followers more quickly than his current approach, which seems to be just using a scattershot of hashtags.

(Note: Hashtags are just one more way to try to get in front of an existing audience.

They work similarly to Spotify’s algorithmic playlists – you’ll get the best value if the platform already has data saying that your account is worth showing people.

If the platform doesn’t know anything about your account, it probably won’t show your post in a hashtag with a meaningful following).

4) Engage. My friend gets a couple of nice comments on virtually every one of his posts. But he replies to comments on his posts about as often as the Pittsburgh Pirates win a series – rarely.

If he replied to every legitimate comment, he’d a) increase his engagement signals and get his posts shown to more feeds, and b) probably enjoy the platform more because it would actually be helping him to meaningfully connect with people.

Too many artists put effort into their posts and then ignore them once they’re out. The whole point of social media is connection – so engage with your fans!

(When you have a big enough audience, obviously, this gets overwhelming – but that’s a problem most artists would like to have.)

Here’s the bottom line:

The content my friend is posting right now isn’t bad. But he’s definitely not using Instagram in a way that makes him likely to get a lot of new eyes on his art – and so it’s sucking his joy.

He should either get off of the platform and decide he wants to make art for his own enjoyment…

…or…

…He should decide he’s dedicated to his goal and strategically use Instagram in the ways that are most likely to help him to reach more people.

Living in between is just frustrating; posting with a vague hope for virality is a recipe for consistent disappointment.

Unfortunately, most indie artists live in between.

Social media is a struggle.

It’s not designed to make humans healthy. But it is an incredibly effective way to reach an audience, and it can be used well – if it’s used intentionally.

As you work on doing that, here’s wishing you good luck.

I think we all need it. I know I do.

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