Post originally ran on Wired
These are the facts that we need to reconcile: Netflix, which recently touched its House of Cards strategy of original content released all at once, just surpassed cable giant HBO in number of subscribers. Kickstarter crowdfunded $5M for a Veronica Mars movie that would not otherwise get made. (This isn’t just one big outlier: it turns out that more than half the successfully funded projects on Kickstarter are for music, film, and art.)
Meanwhile, growing numbers of artists have been bypassing labels and going direct-to-fan for quite some time now. Louis CK did a live stand-up comedy show and sold it on his own site for $5 per download with no restrictions (just a don’t-copy plea: “Please bear in mind that I am not a company or a corporation. I’m just some guy…”). He made $1,006,996.17 in a few days.
Whether you call it indie capitalism or an indiepocalypse or something else, there’s clearly a not-just-Big moment happening in our economy right now — especially when it comes to the entertainment-industrial complex. The traditional, big organizational layer of intermediaries that help filter, fund, and cultivate talent to create big hits is changing … and it’s changing quickly.
But while we’re touting this new cultural-creative ecosystem, let’s not forget its nuances — and especially its consequences.
First, it’s not like the revenue lost by the traditional players in the entertainment-industrial complex is actually going to artists. In many cases, it’s just going to different, sometimes even Bigger players — digital platforms like Amazon, Apple, and Netflix. (And let’s not forget that the internet, for all its disintermediation, also brings with it a different, instant kind of control over our cultural faire: Remember when “cartoon boobs” led to Apple removing an illustrated graphic novel version of James Joyce’s Ulysses from its iTunes store?)
Second, how many great artists actually make great business executives, too? Being creative at any standard of excellence is hard enough as it is, and takes a lot of time. Without the organizational layer of the traditional industry, creatives are required to spend time on other stuff instead: marketing, accounting, customer service, contracts, public relations, project management, and more.
Being good at both art and entrepreneurship is a rare combination — but a necessary one to survive in an indie economy.
Besides the impact on artists, however, there’s a bigger question around the shifting nature of entertainment. Because the best entertainment isn’t just fleeting fun: It brings us all together in a shared cultural space. In the past, with fewer entertainment choices, everyone was talking about the same shows. What we gain in variety we may lose in shared experience.
Generally speaking, indie, viral content doesn’t have the same kind of staying power or universal audience that highly produced, centrally coordinated entertainment does. Think about shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones, AMC’s Mad Men, or even shows that ended years ago, like ABC’sLost. These shows (still!) generate countless discussions, comments, recaps, tweets, likes, forums — and entire websites and communities dedicated to analyzing every aspect from production to plot.
But a single episode of Game of Thrones costs $6 million to make. A single episode of Mad Men costs approximately $2.3 million. You simply can’t Kickstart or raise that kind of money on Indiegogo … not Every. Single. Week.
Yet without the White Walkers, the Red Keep, the dragons, the lush landscapes, the awe-inspiring castles, and the cast of thousands,Game of Thrones would not immerse us in its world. Furthermore, watching these kinds of highly produced shows is not a passive experience: it takes work, and that work is what builds community. This is the age of television-meets-cognitive surplus.
And therein lies the tension: Some creative pursuits are big, game-changing, and expensive. But the indie ecosystem is better equipped to support quirky one-offs rather than the big-vision faire that the industrial-entertainment complex puts out. Add to this the paradox of risk-taking, where Hollywood isn’t willing to take risks yet is the best equipped to take on the big-impact projects.
So how do we reconcile the tension between “big” and the supposed “end of big”? How do we solve the Case of the Kickstarted Veronica Mars? Or resolve the fact that artists like Louis C.K. could only bypass the entertainment-industrial complex and take to the internet for million-dollar gains because they had already built up a fan base through the traditional ecosystem?
Perhaps there’s a middle ground. (This is not unlike the debates around the long tail and realizing that it never predicted the end of the blockbuster, but the end of the tyranny of the blockbuster.)
A movie like Zero Dark Thirty prompted a lot of discussion about torture and got enough attention to push cultural dialogue about the topic to a new level, yet it also failed to break the top 25 box-office hits of 2012: middle ground. Had it been purely an indie movie, however, it may never have come into more mainstream awareness. Our shared cultural space as a “public” shrinks as the production, distribution, and consumption of media fractures into ever-smaller segments with more variety.
Part of the answer may also lie in what Netflix CEO Reed Hastings observed in his most recent investor letter: Doing more production partnerships among unexpected players. Competing not for time — but on content. Realizing that watching one type of show doesn’t take viewers away from another.
Meanwhile, the traditional organizational layer needs to step in and experiment with new vehicles and models for funding, creating a new kind of intermediary — perhaps starting with the curated pages on Kickstarter. Digital platforms that seek to replace the organizational layer (like Amazon’s self-publishing) must also build better ways of encouraging and supporting artists, because without the traditional system we’re not focusing on the cultivation, care, and feeding of talent.
Still, we can’t rely only on the institutions, traditional or new, to put more intentionality into the future we’re building for artists. Artists have always struggled to make money and find an audience. But it’s not sustainable to have an “industry of one” for every artist. We — both artists and fans — are going to have to figure this out ourselves.