[NetBehaviour] Culture Isn't Free

Alan Sondheim sondheim at panix.com
Fri Jul 17 23:22:14 CEST 2015

On Mon, 13 Jul 2015, Edward Picot wrote:

> 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.
Well, it depends on what you mean by 'ideas' - a lot of new media work 
that's of interest at this point has a critical or difficult edge to it; 
it's been supported in the past by grants or alternative artspaces, etc. 
In the U.S. the idea of culture wars, generally fought against this kind 
of thing by the Republicans, has taken hold; the money's dried up. At the 
same time the monopolization of social media has increased to such an 
extent that music/video/image are all pretty much enclaved. There's also 
the fact that in the U.S. it's traditionally been almost impossible to 
support oneself if one's not doing a bourgeois/institutional form such as 
ballet/symphony/etc. which all have their own problems. For me the image 
accompanying the article I sent out says it all - an erhu player who can 
only make a living, if that, on the streets.

> 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.

Actually for academic books, prices have shot up; for popular books, 
paperback or hardback, they prices seem to be holding steady.

> 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.

Yes and no; I agree with most of this; we're not cannon-fodder, though - 
the corporations pay no attention at all, period. Face-to-face works, if 
you're a band on the road you can make money or at least break even with 
paying gigs...

> 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.
They're drying up here because of policy shifts, no economic crisis. The 
U.S. is incredibly conservative now; people just don't want to see or fund 
things that are either ungodly or make them uncomfortable otherwise.

> 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.

I doubt this will work in the long run for a lot of us; we've all noticed 
at gigs we do play at, no one buys our cds - or anyone else's. That model 
is all but gone; people listen to what's available and popular on ITunes - 
it's hard to get much else across.
> 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.
This works for some people; it doesn't work for a lot of people I know. It 
does turn the artist/writer/musician into the promoter of a product, which 
is a far cry from, say, a residency, where one is give the time and space 
and resources to create freely. And I keep going back to that photograph 
of the erhu player - none of this would apply to him...

> 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.
There's been a lot of critical writing going on now about the lack of 
critical writing; it's difficult to do this now. On the other hand, punk 
etc. were, at the time, outrageous in a way things aren't now; there's too 
much outrageousness everywhere :-) so the result is a kind of levelling. 
In the U.S., the magazine Signal to Noise stopped publishing; we still get 
reviewed at times in the Wire, but it hasn't made a difference in sales or 
listeners as far as we can tell.

> 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.

I was saddened when Sue Thomas' trAce folded; I was a part of that, and it 
was a fairly large community.
> 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.
Sounds good to me, as do the ideas; I just feel corporate seepage is 
taking over everything, as is the naive hipster idea that culture should 
be free; it's easy if you have a trust fund...

- Alan, thank you!

> - Edward
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