Chuck Klosterman once made a point that I think has a lot more importance than it might seem at first. His thought was that any given piece of creative work only has a limited number of people who will really, really care about it in a personal way. Everyone else is just ... there for the beer, I guess you could say.
I think one of the key things about cultural experiences in the current moment is that they're extremely "vertical". People are subdividing themselves into smaller and smaller demographics, and creative work is becoming more and more targeted at those groups. Once stuff was pitched generally at "science fiction fans"; now it's being pitched at people who like specific sub-sub-varieties of SF. And stuff that's ostensibly "mainstream" is now in competition with other kinds of entertainment that didn't even exist a generation ago.
All this produces some side effects. One, a fan looking for some really, really specific fix can find it. Two, audiences for specific pieces of work are now all the smaller for that reason, albeit all the more devoted and intense and sincere.
Still, even the size of a "niche" interest these days can be pretty damn huge, and that means there's a fair chance some of the people floating around in that niche are just ... there for the beer.
Whenever I go to an anime or other pop-culture convention, I notice a lot of folks who are mostly there to just hang out and treat the whole thing like a three-day rave party. They're not particularly interested in the culture; they're there for the atmosphere, where you dress up all day and run around the hotel all night.
I have no inherent problem with this, because it's not like you can get them to knock it off (and what good would it do, anyway?). But it's telling. There's no way you can ensure that people care about the substance of something even when they turn out in droves for it. Sometimes they're just there to be social, and we all need someplace we can sit back and relax our socks and feel like we're in welcoming company. We all need someplace where we can just go for the beer.
Creators, though, need to be really conscious of how this works. If you are nobody — like me! — you generally don't have to worry too much about situations where most of the people that show up for your work are just there for the beer. Because the audience is small, most of the people that bother to show up will tend to have the right motivations.
It's when you get more popular that I think the problems start. That's when you run the larger risk of having people who are just there for the beer. That's also when you start to entertain an incrementally larger chance of being tempted to do things that attract a broader audience.
If you try to make something that is self-consciously designed to "cross over," you're going to fail. As one of my favorite record reviews of all time put it, that's "talent wasted in trying to make it, instead of trying to make something." Don't burn oil trying to get all those people hanging out in the lobby of whatever it is that you're doing to come inside and become True Believers. Just make the thing and connect with the most sincere people that are drawn to it.
There's also a good chance your work is going to attract a number of people who will be indifferent to it, or flat-out hate it, or raise objections to it that are mostly about trying to compensate for the fact that you created something and they didn't. The best way to handle all that stuff is to politely ignore it. Don't get nasty, don't get into heated arguments, just nod and move on. Just make something and let the sociology take care of itself.
One last thing. If the thing you're making is vile, and you have vile people show up for it, I got nothing. If that's what you wanted, then I got doubly nothing.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind