(go ahead and watch the video first. you know you want to, and it’s totally cool with me.)
Yesterday I touched on Jonathan Coulton’s appearance on NPR’s Planet Money podcast, in which one of the participants argued that, on the whole, the internet has been bad for individual musicians. Then I made some easy jokes.
Today I saw a short video called “Cats In Tanks”, which is another demonstration of why the internet as it exists today is absolutely a good thing for creative people and organizations. In short, if you’re doing something good that people are interested in, they will be able to find you without going through a host of middle-men and gatekeepers, giving you the opportunity to directly profit from your creative output.
I don’t know a lot about the video post-production industry, but I imagine that historically it’s operated like most businesses do: you get work by earning a good reputation, which can take years, or because you know a guy who knows a guy. Yes, you could send a demo reel to producers, studios, ad agencies, and others who might want to use your services, but more often than not it would end up in some mouldering bin along with a hundred other reels, unwatched.
Enter the internet. The company that made “Cats In Tanks”, The Whitehouse Post, made a gamble that if they made something Awesome (astute choice of subject matter + high quality execution) it could go viral and eventually find its true target audience: those who are willing to pay good money for post-production services. PIXAR used the model successfully early on with its shorts (Luxo Jr., Knick Knack et al) sans internet, but it took them YEARS for it to bear enough fruit to yield Toy Story.
Did The Whitehouse Post achieve their goal? It’s too early to say. But I tweeted it and am writing about it now. And even though I’m not currently in the market for post, I very well could be in the future. Beyond that, many people that I know do require post-production help now and then.
I’d say the internet will likely work out pretty well for The Whitehouse Post.
So too is it the case with music. Would Jonathan, Amanda Palmer, Pomplamoose, MC Frontalot, Marian Call, ourselves, and a raft of others have achieved as much success under the traditional music industry model? Maybe. But probably not. Even if there were labels willing to take a chance on acts with niche appeal, it wouldn’t last long if it thems sitting in the cushy chairs on the top floor didn’t think there was big money in it (case in point: “Weird Al” Yankovic’s early experience with Capitol Records). Beyond that, how much of what a record label takes in do you think musical acts actually see? It varies, but I guarantee you it’s not nearly as large a percentage as when you handle production, distribution, and promotion by yourself. The only middle man Paul and I have is our penchant for staying in nice hotels when on the road (which we get a discount thanks to a basket of travel discount sites on the internet, of course.) And don’t forget the massive benefit to everyone who wants something different from what the record labels are offering.
I know I’m preaching to the choir, and if I receive 30 responses that say “The Internetters Suck Eggs”, it’ll be because y’all are good at ironic input. But then, this entire post was an excuse to show “Cats In Tanks”. Still, the point remains that anyone who would seriously question the internet’s benefit to individual creators either isn’t thinking things all the way through, or has money on the other side of the equation.
Mostly this short is a testament to the affordability of the sort of video effects that used to be out of the reach of small operations. Overall, I was more impressed with the Moontalk Productions video of “Re Your Brains.” Full disclosure: I had nothing to do with that short, though I know you’re friends with Bill and Sharon.
Pixar admittedly wasn’t trying to make money with their early shorts, though they were clearly fishing for a deal with a major studio, which they ultimately got. Back in those days, they paid the bills by doing commercials, i.e. lucrative shorts. Remember the Listerine and Life Savers ads from the 80s that had a distinctly CG look to them? That was how Pixar stayed in business before they inked the initial Disney deal. The commercials showed they had the technology; the shorts were mostly necessary do demonstrate that they had some aptitude in storytelling.
It’s worth looking back at the medieval guild system and the distinction between journeywork and a masterpiece, in the original sense of the word. The concept of the demo reel goes back centuries.