by Bill Grandy
A couple of weeks ago the New York Times published a wonderful piece on Longpoint 2014. The article included a well done video showing off the longsword event. Within a day, the article went viral, appearing everywhere from MTV to the front page of Reddit, and was being re-posted and shared by many other news sources and blogs. Celebrities such as Lucy Lawless (of Xena Warrior Princess fame) and even the MythBusters were linking to the article on Twitter and Facebook.
If you have not seen it yet, it can be found here. You can also see a direct link to the video (minus the article) here:
The overall effect of this article was overwhelmingly positive. Public visibility was high and HEMA was shown in a professional and exciting light. HEMA groups all over the United States were reporting that they were being contacted by people who saw the Times video and started searching out groups in their area. My own school has seen numerous people seeking us out, and I myself ended up on the air of the east coast radio show Elliot in the Morning discussing the event and HEMA because they had seen the article. All in all, this was great publicity for those of us practicing historical fighting arts.
So… what now?
For anyone who has been in the Western Martial Arts scene for some time, you may remember that this isn’t the first major positive coverage of our arts. Major newspapers have covered events before, and television reporters have covered stories for groups in the past. The major difference here is that, due to the evolution of internet “sharing”, this article has reached a wider audience in a very short amount of time. Despite that, the recurring problem is, like most things on the internet, it’s yesterday’s news, and the public’s attention moves on. We’re excited right now because of the press, but if we sit on our laurels basking in the glow of our sudden popularity, then our 15 minutes of fame will fade quickly.
Worse, in its wake is the inevitable in-fighting between people in the community. Some complain that the article promotes the evils that happen when a martial art adopts a sport mentality, while others shout that this article is proof that tournaments are the only One True Path and that anyone who says differently is not doing “real” HEMA. People argue about what HEMA actually is, and people become too focused on their own needs and bicker about things that no one outside of the community can comprehend or even care about. I have already had a person contact me who was excitedly looking up HEMA because of the article… and then shortly after he messaged me again to say that due to reading childish arguments on Facebook from other HEMA people, he was suddenly less interested in, and I quote, “reliving 6th grade again”. (I thankfully have talked him back into his initial interest, but it’s sad that I had to do so.) Of those interested in joining the community, some will be more interested in scholarship and will likely gravitate towards the research side of the arts. Some may have grown up with competitive sports and may be more attracted to the tournament scene. Either way, they won’t gravitate towards either if they don’t join the community first. We should welcome all newcomers, not fight over them or tell them what they have to focus on, and let them filter themselves to where they want to be.
Of course, none of this is new, and all communities go through this. It happens in other martial arts, it happens in modern fencing, and it happens in activities from music to theater. But it is also self-destructive. The bottom line is that people outside of these arts don’t know or care about most of these issues. If we ignore how we present ourselves to outsiders, then we risk having this community die out after we’re gone. If we want outreach, then we have to stop focusing purely on ourselves and our own limited motives. We can’t pat ourselves on the back for the good press and expect new students to roll in forever, and we also certainly can’t waste time whining with one another about how what we do is more real than what other people do. Outsiders move on and don’t come back. Good salesmen succeed by talking to other people about their product, not by talking amongst themselves about themselves.
There are a couple of things that we should be taking away from this exposure. The first is outreach. Do you run a HEMA club? Are you organizing a HEMA event? Then you need to get your name out there and market yourself. You can’t wait for the media to discover you; You need to go to them. And lucky for you, this article is a wonderful stepping stone. It is a perfect excuse to be contacting the media about what you do. It’s very easy to say, “You know that article you saw in the Times? Well, I’ve got something you’d be interested in…” Even if you happen to dislike what you saw in the video, it doesn’t matter: It’s a frame of reference that can turn media into new students. Many groups are already doing this, and that’s fantastic. In fact, many people did this only to be ignored by certain media outlets, but they pressed on anyway and found their perseverance yielded to new outlets that are more than happy to promote HEMA. If we want longevity, we need a constant stream of new blood. The way we do this is with outreach, whether by doing demos, local newspapers or even YouTube videos. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t as big as Longpoint. It doesn’t matter if you don’t practice longsword. It doesn’t matter if you don’t do tournaments. Heck, if you feel that the video should have been more focused on “X”, then contact the media and use this as a springboard to get them to pay attention to whatever “X” is.
The other important point we should be taking away from this article is professionalism and the need for a positive image. One of the major reasons that the Times article became so intriguing to outsiders is that they watch it and say, “Cool, that’s something I’d do,” and not, “Wow, what a bunch of weirdos…” In order to be good ambassadors to these arts, it is important to make a concerted effort at looking professional. That doesn’t mean you need to do everything exactly like what was seen at Longpoint. Whether your group wears black modern jackets or historical clothing doesn’t matter. Whether you compete in tournaments or feel that martial arts should focus on form drills doesn’t matter. If you want new people, you need to choose a clean uniform look (even something as simple as a group of people all wearing matching club t-shirts), you need to have rehearsed “sound bytes” to say (“Did you know that medieval swords rarely weighed much more than three pounds?…”), and you need a clear message (“Our group is part of a wider community of martial artists who are bringing 15th century swordsmanship back in the modern world…”). Jake Norwood’s hilarious “Hey Red Bull…” comment wasn’t just funny… it was smart. It was marketing. And that’s exactly what HEMA needs: Smart marketing.
Think about what this article means for the future of our community. Think about the potential, think about the growth, and think about what we can learn from it. Even if your local newspaper isn’t interested in interviewing your group, it is still the kind of publicity that can open doors for us all if we just apply a little bit of salesmanship.
About the author: Bill Grandy is the Director of Historical Swordsmanship at the Virginia Academy of Fencing, where he has taught professionally since 2001. His HEMA studies began in 1998 (back before anyone called it “HEMA”), though he practiced modern sport fencing since the late 1980’s, and spent most of the 1990’s practicing Aikido before eventually giving up both when he found his true passion with the historical western fighting styles. His specialties are the German Liechtenauer tradition of swordsmanship as well as the Renaissance Italian rapier, though he tries to find time to work with numerous other weapon arts whenever he can. Bill has travelled extensively to study both period fencing treatises as well as antique arms and armor, and he is also invited regularly to teach at major HEMA events.