I met Cole at a very low point in my life. I had just gotten let go from my big ad agency job and was floundering. On a whim I posted to my IG story asking if anyone had social media work I could do. Cole NeSmith immediately reached out to me, wanting to bring someone on to help with social media for his non-profit, Creative City Project. I had never heard of it, but I was desperate. Fast forward and I learn that this organization puts on a yearly event in Downtown Orlando called IMMERSE — weirdly enough, I had actually been a part of it the previous year, doing a project with local artist Halsi.
Fast Forward again and IMMERSE 2018 is THIS FRIDAY & SATURDAY. Over a thousand artists from all mediums are taking over Orange Ave downtown from 5 to 11. And it’s free. Now, imagine putting all this together year-after-year. I didn’t know how Cole manages to get it down, so I asked. There’s a lot of gems in this for entrepreneurs, artistic or not, on how you can take an idea and make it a reality. I hope you get as much from our conversation as I did.
Matthew Warhol: You have to speak this close to the mic.
Cole NeSmith: Ok
Matthew Warhol: I remember when we did [your podcast], I was freaking out about how close I had to be. And I had to stare forward. To me, that was so unnatural, having to not look at someone when I’m supposed to be talking to someone. But it turned out alright.
Cole NeSmith: It’s all theater.
Matthew Warhol: Okay, Cole. I’m going to start by letting everybody know that this isn’t a normal interview. This is with someone who I know. I love … because they give me money.
Cole NeSmith: I buy my love. All the people who love me are people who I pay to love me. We’ll start off with what’s sad — that’s what’s most sad.
Matthew Warhol: This whole interview is a gotcha thing. We’re diving into why …
Cole NeSmith: Why is Cole sad?
Matthew Warhol: No, but where I did want to start, because someone asked me what you do, and I know you do Creative City Project. I know you have a podcast called Artrepreneur. But I couldn’t give them all the stuff, because I know you do a lot. So tell me, what’s … what are all the things that you do?
Cole NeSmith: I would say that, big picture, the two things that unite all the little things I do are helping people think about things in different ways and creating experiences that build community. Those are the things that I love doing from a philosophical standpoint and that manages in a bunch of different ways. Creative City Project creates this annual event called IMMERSE. It’s a big performing and interactive arts event in downtown Orlando every October. And for me, that is helping people who live in Orlando — helping them transform the way they see and view Orlando, as well as shaping the global perception of Orlando to a place known for creativity and innovation.
Matthew Warhol: How many times have you said that? I feel like you rattled that off. You were very prepared for that.
Cole NeSmith: I have said that 712 times now. Well, 713 now.
Matthew Warhol: I think specifically what I’m asking, because that’s a good answer, but you talk about people making a livelihood out of being an artist. How have you done that?
Cole NeSmith: Well, I toured with a band out of high school and through college. We toured and played clubs. It was a fantastic time and I loved doing what we did, but I didn’t yet understand how to make that a business. And so I think in that process, I learned a lot about passion for art, passion for music, writing, the creative process. But I didn’t yet know how to marry it to turning it into a business. Obviously I’m not doing that right now, although I’m still involved in music. I do a bunch of gig work and sing and do private events. But my life is a series of contract slices. So another thing I do is I create content for brands and conferences. Whether that’s writing scripts or creating stage elements or interactive experiences that help an audience engage with the theme of the content or brand. So I partner with organizations that have something to say and create art around that.
Matthew Warhol: So we have this before life — you’re in this band, hustling hard — and then we have where you are now — doing contract work, creative work where you can pick and choose. Was there something that you weren’t doing in the band that you’re doing now? What did you learn from then to now?
Cole NeSmith: It’s all totally tied together. When we were touring, all of our amps were built into these wooden structures that also had monitors in them, and we created media to go with all of our music. Our show, what we were trying to do, was to create an experience that was a little bit different then the typical concert experience. And so that, I think, began this idea in my own creative process of wanting to create moments for people. I think that’s what it is about, creating meaningful moments that engage both the audience to the artist and also one audience member to another audience member, and the audience member to the built space, the environment. So in 2012, I produced my first theater piece for Orlando Fringe. It was an immersive theater piece where we were interacting with the audience throughout. We actually wired each seat in the theater with a pair of headphones. So when the story was unfolding with the actors on stage, there was a third-person, omniscient guide in the headphones that was leading people through introspective moments around the same themes.
Matthew Warhol: It’s all based around — pun intended — immersion. Immersing people into this performance, giving them a moment they didn’t expect. You’re always trying to build these moments.
Cole NeSmith: One of the things we talk a lot about with Creative City Project is that we want to create experiences that people can’t have anywhere else. So we challenge our artists to create something that their audience couldn’t experience at one of their shows.
Matthew Warhol: Why did you want to do that? Did you have these experience yourself that made you want to do this? Were you going to shows and got bored one day? Why is it important, creating a moment?
Cole NeSmith: Honestly, in my early-20s I was on staff with a church. And I was there as a creative director. And we would talk about these big ideas like hope or faith or goodness or love, and it was all talk. In my role, I was like okay, I can oversee a team of designers and we can create imagery around that, or we can craft musical elements, but there has got to be something more to help people engage more deeply with these really big ideas. In that environment, I started creating interactive elements where people would get out of their seats and participate with an art piece. That began the seed of informing a lot of my creative process.
Matthew Warhol: Something I see with Artrepreneur — and something I notice working with you — is discipline, setting a routine for yourself. It seems to be something you push a lot. You have to force yourself to write everyday, to draw everyday, if that’s what you want to do as a career. Have you always been that kind of person?
Cole NeSmith: I hate being alone, which is one of the most difficult things for me as a musician. I’m not somebody who tends to hold up in his room all day playing guitar and writing songs. That was really hard for me. And so I think it’s been a process of understanding that doing anything well, especially doing it as your job, is going to require a lot of stuff that you don’t like. And I think that’s the process of it that I’ve come to. I talk a lot about discipline because I understand that it’s the only way we can actually end up doing this thing that we say we want to do.
Matthew Warhol: Did you struggle with that for a long time?
Cole NeSmith: I struggle with that now. Yeah, of course I would much come home at night and lay in my bed and watch Netflix.
Matthew Warhol: That’s something that you talked about in the last podcast. How did you develop that? What are some tools that you use to get yourself up off the couch when you know you need to be doing something?
Cole NeSmith: I don’t always win at that battle. It’s part practical. I know a lot of people in my life who don’t use a calendar which is ridiculous. It’s fine if you want to work at Hobby Lobby for the next year or two years or ten years. Fine, you can keep your schedule in your head. But if you want to create something, if you want to have a career, that will require more things than you can schedule in your head. It’ll take meeting with a lot of people. It’ll take carving out time to do tasks and to write emails. Even today, when I was outside after I got done with my day of work, there’s a couple of things I need to do and I had to schedule them in my calendar. Because I knew that if I didn’t, I wouldn’t do the things tomorrow. I think that there’s practical stuff like that. Realize that if you’re saying you want to be an artist, you’re saying you want to start a business. And that’s going to create a lot of work. Have the tools to do it.
Matthew Warhol: I feel like a lot of “pure artists” when they hear something like, “to be an artist you have to be a business,” they think it’s disgusting.
Cole NeSmith: Well, name a pure artist.
Matthew Warhol: I don’t know. But I’ve met a lot of people who feel that way.
Cole NeSmith: Here’s what I would say…
Matthew Warhol: … I don’t think they’re right, but … go ahead.
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Cole NeSmith: Here’s what I would say. People who say they want to be artists or people who claim to be artists are the people who aren’t serious about the business of their art. People who are full time artists are people who are serious about the business of their art.
Matthew Warhol: That’s interesting. There’s a podcast I’ve been referring back to a lot, and they were talking about multi-hyphenates, which are people who say, “I’m a comedian and a writer and I do a podcast.” Something she said was that you’re not an artist, you’re not a writer, you’re not a photographer until you make money off of that. You’re just someone who likes taking photos and putting them on your Instagram.
Cole NeSmith: And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Matthew Warhol: Not at all, but I feel like especially today where you can create your Instagram bio to be whatever you want to be, people are saying they’re this and that.
Cole NeSmith: I think so many artists have this antiquated mindset which is that I need somebody else to make me be able to do this. And we, for the fist time in history, are living in an era where an artist can be an artist because they want to be an artist and they work hard to be an artist. It’s no longer a lottery where one in a million good musicians get a record contract. You can build and own your own audience.
Matthew Warhol: Something I heard recently was that you can sell a million records and make five cents each record or you can sell a hundred thousands and make five dollars off each one. And you’re making so much more money. And that’s a new thing. Back in the 70s there were three TV channels. Now, you can create your own TV channel and create your own audience. I wanted to go into how you took an idea and made it a reality, and that is IMMERSE. And just so people know, it’s not a show that happens once a year. We’re shutting down the Main Street in Downtown Orlando and having — how many artists were there last year?
Cole NeSmith: We had a thousand artists.
Matthew Warhol: Okay, thousands of artists performing. Where did this start? What was the initial seed?
Cole NeSmith: 2009, I was in Valencia, Spain and every spring in Valencia they have this festival called Las Fallas. The residents of this town build hundreds of statues around the city. And the last day of the festival they set them all on fire and there’s tens of thousands of fireworks going off for three days. It’s all built around fire. I was there and I’m standing in the heat of this 130 foot flame coming off this statue in the middle of the city, and I’m like “We do not do this in America.” This is a very European concept, an urban experience built around a creative element that brings people together. And the city of Valencia estimates that about a million people come to this festival.
Matthew Warhol: Wow.
Cole NeSmith: And that was kind of the genesis of this idea which is how can we create a meaningful, shared experience in the urban center of our city? You want me to keep going or do you want to ask another question?
Matthew Warhol: No keep going. I want to know how that idea came to life.
Cole NeSmith: That was 2009. In 2012, it was the summer and I started thinking that our city would be better off if the people of the city knew the amazing creative people that lived here. Because all of us have our little bubbles and outside of those — we don’t do a great job at getting outside of them. So I started calling a bunch of musician friends and visual artists and dancer friends and said, “Hey, just come out and do something on a street corner.” And everyday in October 2012 we just did a little thing. And we didn’t have permits or sound or any of that stuff. On a whim I called the marketing people at Cirque de Soleil in Downtown Disney. I didn’t know anybody, but they said sure. So we went down to city hall and the we were walking around talking about what they could do. That was the first day of October and they were performing on the last day. They brought like 25 of their performers and did this 45-minute original work they put together. I didn’t have any relationships at city hall at that point either, but I asked some people there and they were like, sure. A couple thousand people showed up to this Cirque de Soleil thing. And then the summer of 2013 came around and I was like, wow that was such a ton of work and nobody got paid for it. Literally our budget was a $3,000 check the Downtown Development Board gave to us. Then it was $5,000 the next year. But I didn’t want to do it everyday during October, so we condensed it down to one day and we saw a huge spike in interest from artists and audiences. That was kind of the first time that we thought we had a thing going here.
Matthew Warhol: So it seems like a lot fo what you’re saying is that you were just going for it, trying it out. And I feel like a lot of people, and I’ve been guilty of this too, they’re just afraid to try. You were like hey let me see if the marketing people want to do something. They could have just as easily said no thank you. And I’m sure some people did say no thank you.
Cole NeSmith: I’ll say this. Most people say no thank you. And that is true in 2012 and that is true in 2018. Most of the conversations I have result in a no.
Matthew Warhol: That kills a lot of people.
Cole NeSmith: Yeah, that kills me. It’s hard. It’s not easy.
Matthew Warhol: Especially then, now you’ve seen the result, you have some years that you know it’ll work out, but in those early days how did you take those nos.
Cole NeSmith: In 2015, I was waking up every morning before my alarm because I was so full of anxiety. And honestly, I had a conversation with a friend in Lincoln Plaza in Downtown in 2015 and I said, “Maybe we should just cancel this.” Because our budget that year was like $50,000. And that seemed unbearable huge. We were six weeks out from the event and I had like $40,000 still left to raise. And I felt the pressure of 800 artists on my back and this audience that had grown to thousands of people.
Matthew Warhol: So you needed to raise $40,000 in a few weeks?
Cole NeSmith: Yeah, and it was like 90% of our budget. It wasn’t like I needed $50,000 and our budget was $5 million. And I looked at her and I thought that maybe we should cancel this. If we take a year off and come back in 2016 that’s totally fine. I feel fine about that. But we pressed through the next five or six weeks and we got all of our money in and the event was great. I can’t guarantee that. I can’t guarantee that the budget this year — which is still super small for the thing that we’e making — is $520,000. It’s the end of May and we still have about $200,000 left to raise.
Matthew Warhol: What stopped you from canceling the event that time?
Cole NeSmith: I don’t know. Some of it was probably good. Some of it was probably bad. Some of it was probably pressure, so that’s a negative motivator. And some of it was good, like stick-to-it-ivness and gumption and continuing to go on in the face of adversity. I think everything is like that. How can I be healthy in the midst of something like the pressure of needing to raise $200,000 in the next three months.
Matthew Warhol: Yeah ………………………….
Cole NeSmith: And there’s not an easy answer for that. And that’s the thing. Nothing is easy. No matter what you do. Nothing is easy. And I think that’s what I’ve learned. Being a painter will never be easy. Well, painting stuff is easy. Being a painter will never be easy. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life is touring full time with a band. Being gone from home, sleeping in a van, eating Wendy’s over and over again. It sucks. But that’s where you start. It’s not easy. And I think people have this illusion that I’ll do Wendy’s and sleep in a van for six months. No, that might be three years. But the pressure is different three years from now, even if you’re on a tour bus and not eating Wendy’s. The pressure is different, but it’s still there. I think people who are at the beginning of their career that one day this will be easy. But if you’re continuing to grow what you’re doing, it’ll just as hard but for different reasons.
Matthew Warhol: So does it feel, even though you have to raise more money than you did back then, do you still have the same kind of anxiety?
Cole NeSmith: Ummm, last week I woke up early in the morning a couple of times.
Matthew Warhol: So sometimes.
Cole NeSmith: But, I think the thing that’s changed is that I’ve learned to trust the process. There hasn’t been a year — I’ve been anxious about meeting our fundraising objectives ever year, but there hasn’t yet been a year where we haven’t met those objectives.
Matthew Warhol: It’s hope. Somewhat.
Cole NeSmith: For sure.
Matthew Warhol: I’m sure you’re working with more people around you, so it feels like less. It’s not just you.
Cole NeSmith: Yeah, we have an amazing team but still, that team of people is always dreaming beyond our ability. We’re just kind of in it together, which is nice.
Matthew Warhol: Going back to what we were talking about earlier, it’s this toolbox of things. I think a lot of people look at something like planning an IMMERSE as this big thing. But if you have this day-to-day routine of keeping a calendar, you’re doing this, you’re doing that, you’re breaking it up into a day-by-day. And that makes a much easier thing to conjure.
Cole NeSmith: And that’s why I talk so much about consistency. Because if your write one song a week — which most musicians do not do — but if it’s your job, you should be able to do it. And I’m not saying write one good song a week. Write one song a week. So you write a song a week for a year, you have 52 songs to pull from to create an album of 10 songs. If you write two songs, you have 104 songs to pull from. If you have 365 songs to pull from, you’re ability to get 10 amazing songs for a record is way more feasible than trying to get a great record from 10 songs. Most of the stuff we write is garbage. It goes back to me getting 80% nos and 20% yes.
Matthew Warhol: So — I guess — you still growing and looking beyond what you do now, what in the future do you have planned for Creative City Project? I mentioned this earlier, IMMERSE is going from one day to two days. What about in 2019? 2020?
Cole NeSmith: Our objective by 2020 is to have a four day event that platforms artists from around the country and around the world for an audience of 100,000 people. If you looked at the things that I wrote down on paper in 2013, we would have achieved that like two years ago. I was totally naive and unrealistic on what it actually takes to make something. But I can’t let that discourage me or stop me so it’s adjusting expectations. If we’re able to secure the right partners over the next three years than I think it’s absolutely achievable.
Matthew Warhol: And through this you’ve been able to help other events. The Halsi thing, Secret Garden, you were able sponsor them. To me, that’s unheard of in DIY Orlando culture. I guess I just want to thank you.
Cole NeSmith: Yeah, of course.
Matthew Warhol: And that’s why I’m happy to be a part of Creative City Project.
Cole NeSmith: And I’m glad to have you. We made a presentation in 2017 to this blockbuster comity — which is a group of people who have gotten together at the county label who want to invest in something that can be a signature event for Orange County — and I asked Halsi to be there. In that presentation, I showed his work and talked about him as an artist. I said that until Halsi can make a career for himself in Orlando, we haven’t achieved our objective. There are two matrices. One of them is the Orlando Ballet producing more content and more shows five years from now and attracting more of our 72 million annual visitors. We have a role in that. And then, are artists like Halsi who are trying to make an art career — are they able to do that here? Those are the two metrics that I look at to see that our organization has been successful. Have we cultivated a thriving arts community in Central Florida? And that happens on the huge side and that happens on the individual artist side.
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