Tear Down These Walls

In the entertainment business, we’re living in very interesting times. There’s a wave of momentum pushing forward a powerful new relationship between artist and fan.

At its most basic, there are only two important parties in the world of art and entertainment: the artist and the fan. However, over time, a wide variety of industries have set up shop between the artist and the fan. These middle-man entities took control of helping artists fund their art, helping artists market and distribute their art, helping fans discover and consume the art, and helping fans build a semblance of a relationship with artists they admire.

These industries used to serve incredibly important purposes. It was very expensive to make a lot of modern art forms such as music, Broadway, or film. It was very expensive to create and administer a distribution network that had to get vinyl records into thousands of stores or to manufacture and ship heavy 35mm film prints to hundreds of theaters. It was very expensive to market art to the public. And while some of these expenses are still here, the need for most of them have started to drop or disappear over the last few years.

Unfortunately as these expenses have started to disappear, the middle-man system has clutched harder and harder at the control it maintains over the creation and distribution of creative content. Studio executives wield creative power with a stronger fist than any time in the last few decades.

But over the last few years, the reality is that these middle-man positions have become less and less important. First the web and now the social-web (mostly Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr) have removed communication barriers between artists and fans. Platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo make it possible for artists to fund their work through a direct relationship with fans. Amazon, iTunes, Steam, and other initiatives make it simpler for artists to make their work available directly to millions of potential customers. Google and Facebook both have advertising systems that are incredibly powerful and user-friendly.

It’s possible today for artist and fan to have a direct relationship in terms of content consumption, communication, and commerce.

From my position as an independent film producer, it looks like we’re at a turning point. If you are creating content that appeals to an online-savvy audience, all of the tools you need for creation, distribution, and marketing are accessible and affordable. And clearly I’m not the only person to see this. There are success stories across all popular forms of art and entertainment:

This is something Patton Oswalt recently discussed in his keynote address at Montreal’s Just For Laughs 2012. Patton puts it incredibly well:

Our careers don’t hinge on somebody in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in our direction. There are no gates. They’re gone.

The old gates are gone, and new gates don’t try to control the content. Kickstarter, iTunes, and Twitter don’t try to fiddle with what an artist wants to create. They don’t try to own the content. They don’t try to insert themselves into a position of power in the artist/fan relationship. They have business models based on facilitating artist/fan relationships, not based on controlling the content of those relationships.

I believe that comedians and video-games are the best early-adopters for this new model, and that’s why we’re currently seeing the most success in these areas.

Comedians have been building direct artist/fan relationships for years, based on touring. This is what lets Louis CK reach his fans directly. This is what led to Kevin Hart’s huge success with his theatrically self-released standup special. As artists in other fields build these direct artist/fan relationships, they can start using the same powerful direct-distribution and communication models that are being pioneered by comedians. I suspect that music will come next, and then finally film.

In terms of potential business models, video-games are the most interesting example. The current state of video-game distribution gives a sense of where all entertainment distribution will go over the next few years. Video-games are ahead on this timeline compared to other forms of entertainment for a variety of reasons:

  1. Video-games appeal to people who are already online-savvy.
  2. The people in control of video-game production are already online-savvy.
  3. Video-game players are already conditioned to experience the content on the same platform where they discover and purchase content.

All three of these things will happen to other forms of entertainment over the next few years. So let’s see what interesting models we see in the world of video-games…

  • Steam is a hugely successful distribution platform for independent games.
  • Kickstarter has had multiple video-game projects funded for over $1m, proving the power of a direct artist/fan relationship.
  • Humble Bundle provide a powerful promotional and sales platform for independent games. They package multiple video-games into a limited time sale where people can pay whatever they want for the games. A business model like this would be laughed out of most board rooms a decade ago, but the last Humble Bundle video-game bundle grossed over $5,000,000.

Right now Humble Bundle are selling their first non-video-game bundle. The Humble Music Bundle includes geek-friendly releases by OK Go, MC Frontalot, They Might Be Giants, Christopher Tin, Hitoshi Sakimoto, and Jonathan Coulton. There are ten days left in the bundle, and they’ve already sold $300,000 worth. That’s a pretty significant chunk of change for a limited-time sale where people are allowed to pay whatever they want.

So I sit here in 2012, looking around myself as an independent film producer stuck in the traditional world of film marketing and distribution. Like Patton Oswalt, I have benefited and failed based in large part on the whims of people in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in my direction. And I’m stuck in this position despite the fact that I usually only show up in the plush offices with completely finished and releasable films. I could get into specifics, but there’s no real advantage to throwing people and companies under the bus. But I sit here looking at the film-industry around me right now, and I don’t like what I see.

I look over the fence at Louis CK, Amanda Palmer, and Double Fine. It’s not just that their grass is greener than my grass. It’s that their grass is growing, and my grass is dying. I want to be on the side of the fence where the grass is growing.

So I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I recently invested in VHX, a platform for artists and filmmakers to distribute video content directly to fans. I am a vocal supporter of Kickstarter, and have backed over 30 projects on their platform. I’m looking to support new platforms that will help build direct relationships between artists and fans.

And yes, my plan over the next year is to jump over that fence myself. I’m sick of relying on somebody in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in my direction. I want to live at the intersection of artist and fan. I want to help tear down the broken system so we can build something better in its place.

[You might also want to read my follow up post: “But They’re Already Famous…”]