[NetBehaviour] Culture Isn't Free

Edward Picot edward at edwardpicot.com
Mon Jul 13 19:29:37 CEST 2015


Alan -

There are particular problems with trying to market the unmarketable, 
and to some extent that's what we're up against. Firstly, a lot of new 
media work is very difficult to package and sell as a 'product', and 
therefore if anyone is going to make any money out of it, that money has 
to come from grants or commissions rather than sales. Secondly, even if 
it's the kind of work that can be packaged and sold, it doesn't fit 
conveniently into any of the mass-marketing categories to which people 
turn, for example, when they're thinking of buying Christmas or birthday 
presents. A painting, a print, a book, a film on DVD or an album on CD - 
yes. A piece of new media art - that's hardly ever going to happen. And 
even if people were interested in new media work, the infrastructure 
isn't there, or it's only in its infancy. The broader public aren't 
aware of this kind of work because it's under the radar, it doesn't get 
reviewed, it doesn't get talked about on television, etc.

Having said this there are now some examples of new media work in the 
commercial mainstream. There's a Peppa Pig app, for example (' tap the 
characters and objects to uncover animated, interactive surprises'), 
which is a proper, interactive digital storybook of the kind we were all 
discussing about ten years ago: available at £3.99 from Penguin Books. 
The 'Episode' interactive story app Dave Miller posted about yesterday 
looks like another example of the same kind of thing. The trouble is, by 
and large what seems to have happened is that big producers like 
publishers and app developers have cottoned onto new media ideas, and 
started to work on them in-house, rather than new media artists finding 
their way into the mainstream or being commissioned to produce 
mainstream work. Mostly the new media artists are still where they were 
before, on the outside looking in, and the fact that some of the ideas 
they've been working with for a decade or more are starting to get some 
commercial traction doesn't seem to be bringing them any particular 
benefits.

But there are underlying structural changes in the marketplace which are 
even more problematic. Just to look at book publishing as an example: 
we've moved from a situation fifteen or twenty years ago where 
mainstream publishing was in the hands of a very few big corporations - 
Penguin, HarperCollins, Random House - books were vastly overpriced, it 
was impossible to get published without an agent, and both agents and 
publishers were only interested in work that was likely to sell in 
guaranteed numbers. Then along came the self publishing, print on demand 
and ebook revolutions, and all of a sudden the rules changed completely. 
Shelfspace and production costs no longer mattered. Editorial controls 
vanished. The 'glass ceiling' which separated wannabe writers from those 
whose work had been accepted for publication disappeared. Anybody could 
get their work published, anybody could get it into the online 
bookstores - what they couldn't do was find an audience for it and sell 
it. And because the market was swamped, prices were forced down, 
especially for digital products - ebooks and apps. That Peppa Pig app - 
twenty years ago you would have expected to pay about twenty five pounds 
for something like that - now it's £3.99 - which means it's only 
commercially viable to produce something like that if you can expect to 
shift it in really big numbers - which means that small independent 
producers can hardly get a toehold in the market.

What has happened is that the Web, which initially seemed to offer small 
producers a level playing field with the big ones, has been carved up by 
the new digital mega-corporations: Amazon, Google/YouTube, Facebook, 
Apple, Twitter. All of these are content-hosts: they make their money by 
offering a hosting framework within which people or businesses can place 
their content or products. Apple and Amazon make profits by actually 
selling product, whereas Google/YouTube, Facebook and Twitter milk their 
audiences via advertising, but all of them are trading on the fact that 
they pull in so many viewers/consumers every day. On the Web, money 
follows attention, and if you can set up a site or a service which pulls 
in millions of visits per day, you'll be in a position to make a 
fortune. The people who use the host services - who place their videos 
on YouTube, who put their self-published books on Amazon, or who release 
their musical offerings on iTunes - may or may not be able to build 
themselves a sizeable online audience for their work: the vast majority 
of us won't: but essentially, whether we make any money or not, we're 
just acting as cannon-fodder for the big corporations.

So, as artists we're caught in the middle of a double-whammy. Grants, 
funding, commissions, higher education placements and so forth - 
top-down funding - are drying up because of the economic crisis. But 
bottom-up funding - the possibility of being able to make yourself some 
money by selling your work directly to the public - a field in which the 
Web initially seemed to offer such enormous promise - is drying up too 
because of the restructuring of the marketplace.

It's clear that we need alternative marketing models, and actually there 
are some out there. I attend the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival every year, 
and every year I find myself buying poetry books, by which I mean proper 
old-fashioned books printed on paper, at the festival bookstore. The 
store's always thronged with other people doing the same thing. The 
field of poetry publishing is an interesting one, because in the UK at 
least it's dominated by small specialist publishers - Anvil, Enitharmon, 
Bloodax, Carcanet. All of the big publishers, with the exception of 
Faber, have given up on poetry. As a result, the barrier between 
'proper' poetry publishing and the 'little presses' has noticeably 
thinned, and the 'glass ceiling' separating amateur poets from published 
poets has thinned too. The literary magazines (such as Rialto and the PN 
Review), the literary festivals, the poetry presses and the 
ever-thriving amateur poetry scene constitute a self-sustaining 
subculture, a kind of electric circuit of artistic activity. I don't 
suppose anybody's making much money, or at least very few people are, 
but it's an alternative model all right, one in which the 
content-producers, the content-hosts and the content-consumers are much 
closer to each other, more interchangeable and more organically 
connected with each other than they are in the mass marketplace of the Web.

I might add that in my 'other life' working for the NHS, there's 
something very similar. There's an organisation called GP Update which 
runs courses for GPs, bringing them up to date with the latest medical 
guidelines. There's a medical publisher called Scion Publishing, who I 
know about because they published a Dr Hairy book a couple of years ago, 
and they run a bookstall at the GP Update courses: in fact if it wasn't 
for the update courses I think they'd probably lose more than 50% of 
their business. When the GP Update course breaks for lunch, all the GPs 
come swarming out of the lecture hall, and they all go swarming straight 
to the bookstall and start buying books. So I suppose the lesson is that 
if you can stage some kind of event which will pull in a decent audience 
and concentrate their minds on a particular subject, and you then have a 
store there stocked with products associated with that subject, you're 
going to do a decent bit of business. Festivals are effective 
selling-points.

The other alternative model that comes to mind is crowdfunding. I don't 
really know very much about crowdfunding, but as far as I can gather the 
theory of it is that you fix on a project you would like to complete, 
and instead of (or as well as) trying to sell it as a product after it's 
finished, you advertise it on the Web and ask for people to chip in some 
money to help finance it, thus not only getting your money up front but 
encouraging an audience to become involved in the project and to feel 
that they've got an investment in it, which in turn will encourage them 
to publicise it to others. And you reward them for helping out by giving 
them a free copy of your DVD, inviting them to your premier, or whatever.

But I come back to my point about infrastructure. If you think about the 
emergence of punk and new wave music in the UK at the end of the 1970s, 
the music didn't come to public attention all by itself without any kind 
of support. You had an established music press, notably the New Musical 
Express and Melody Maker, which was already interested in alternative 
music; you had progressive radio shows, most notably John Peel, which 
were accustomed to giving airtime to underground sounds as a legacy of 
the 1960s; you had venues which were prepared to give the new bands 
somewhere to play; and very quickly you had punk fanzines springing up 
all over the place. Similarly if you go back to the 1960s in Liverpool, 
you had the Cavern Club (along with a handful of other venues), Brian 
Epstein's record shop, and the Mersey Beat fanzine, all of which helped 
to propagate and publicise the 'Mersey Sound'. If something new and 
different is going to catch on, you need not just the artists 
themselves, but a circle of commentators, enthusiasts, people who are 
prepared to display and discuss the work, maybe even evangelise about it.

As far as digital/new media art is concerned, in the UK at least, we've 
got Furtherfield/NetBehaviour which combines news, reviews and the 
staging of art events, but beyond that there's not very much media 
support, discussion or publicity. Having said that, we've got The 
Literary Platform, which is a website devoted to new technological 
developments in publishing; and we've also got the New Media Writing 
prize; so actually the new media writing aspect of things is relatively 
well covered. But we could certainly do with a lot more shows, 
festivals, and websites/organisations like FurtherField.

Sorry to ramble on at such length. It's an interesting question, and 
writing about it has given me a chance to sort out my ideas a bit.

- Edward



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