Digital Creativity

A great mistake people make is to think that other people are like them.

A great mistake that many creative people have made repeatedly is to think that everyone else enjoys being creative like they do. By and large, they don’t. Some do, but most either aren’t interested, aren’t capable, or are only interested to the point where they can produce some sort of giant flying penis, or whatever pointless meme is flying around this month.

One example: Second Life. It’s easy to admire the effort they put into making creation tools accessible to everyone, but few people take advantage of these tools. Creatives can have a good time, but the main complaint you hear — from people who don’t want to make anything — is that “there’s nothing to do”. Well, only because no other users have made something they wanted — or because they couldn’t find it.

Similarly, Macs come with a number of great tools to help you to be creative with your photos, videos, to create music and so on. I’d love to be able to say that everyone uses these to create great works of art, but most of them don’t. Those who do — and who want to share their work — are likely to come up against one of the great sad truths of the internet: promotion is hard.

Getting Lucky

A story you might have heard: my short film Airport was in the Sydney Film Festival in the Oz Digital Shorts program. It played once to an audience of around 100 in the basement of the Sydney Opera House, and that was it. I stuck it on my website, linked from my blog, and a few more people saw it. Then I showed Cory Doctorow and his partner around Brisbane, gave him my showreel, he liked it, and linked it from Boing Boing. Suddenly, thousands and thousands of people saw it, it was linked all over the net and shown in multiple other film festivals. Someone from Microsoft saw it and hired me to create an animation for them, culminating in their flying me to Boston to make a film for them and more work the next year. Clearly, you can get lucky.

Without that chunk of luck, a good movie/book/something can lurk in the shadows for ever. This is one of the great problems of distribution. A publisher of books or movies does play a role. Despite the modern idea that “middle men” aren’t necessary in this new age of self-publishing, promotion — their key strength — is critical.

Promotion and distribution bring such power that old business models, which seem doomed, keep on trucking. Free-to-air TV, for example. It’s trivially easy (though not, admittedly, free) to never watch another commercial again. Record it (somehow) then watch it back without ads. Get an EyeTV for your Mac, a PlayTV for your PS3, a TiVO or fancy pay TV box. Or just download all your TV shows from the net.

Passive Consumption

So, bang goes the business model for free TV, right? No.

Most people don’t think like that. While I’m sure at least some people reading this already download most of their TV, most people will just sit down and watch whatever’s on, or plan their evenings around whatever’s on that night. Sure, they could just tape it all and watch it when it suits them, but for many people that’s just too hard. They just want to be entertained with minimal effort.

If you’ve realised that you don’t have to watch ads, you probably don’t feel remotely guilty about downloading TV instead of watching it locally. On one hand, you could wait weeks or months to watch a show, then strip out the ads and watch it at the same time as your friends. On the other, you could download it now, ad free and watch it ahead of them.

Some specific cases: Lost is buried on a secondary channel here in Australia, and picture quality is awful. Downloads are in 720p HD, out the night it goes to air in the US. Another, to see the final episode of House to check out how good a Canon 5D looks — potentially important as I teach video editing and work with a DSLR myself — I can’t watch it locally as the local station devotes their HD channel entirely to sport. Other shows which aren’t even on here and will never be shown? Who does it harm?

Eventually, it will become so trivially easy to download that it will seriously threaten the local TV audiences, but there will remain a vast majority of people who just want to watch TV. Though anyone with a basic camera can make a simple show and give it away for free on the net, it’s very unlikely that a show made like that will make it onto a mass distribution channel like broadcast TV.

Making it Good

Making quality programming is hard. It takes money, a lot of people, and a number of failures. Yet even failure is relative. We all have niche interests that aren’t necessarily profitable to cater to. Your critical and financial failure is my favourite film and that director’s starting point. Mega hits fund failures, and failures breed successes.

Book publishing is more individually driven, with less incentive to support failure. You hear about huge advances — but they’re the lottery winners. An unsigned, unheralded author is incredibly unlikely to see their book published. Even if you get published, if your book isn’t a success in the first printing, there likely won’t be a second and you won’t be on shelves in a year. Retail space in real shops goes to blockbusters and new releases that might be.

Online distribution doesn’t have the problem of physical space, but there are limits all the same. Effectively, you won’t be much better off than the unsigned author doing what they can with word of mouth and a blogger’s write up or two. A very few will get lucky — usually through hard work, tireless self-promotion, determination, etc.

They will usually have made something worth buying — harder than it seems. Now that the old-world filters of editors, professional designers, cinematographers etc. are officially “obsolete” it’s easy to display what should have been kept hidden. There’s never been more crap out there. Good editors do a worthwhile job in keeping it out of mainstream distribution, but Google can find it all.

So, if you are creative and you’ve realised you can’t do it alone (make a movie, sell a book, etc.), who do you call? I wish I could tell you.

Making Money

I alluded to this earlier, but let’s make it plain: it’s very hard to make money from being creative for yourself. If you can get a publishing deal, you’re likely to make maybe 10% of the cover price. That’s great if you sell a million books at $30 each. Less exciting if you sell 5000 at $15.

If you want to make a movie, that’s great, but you’ll need serious money to fund it. Producers, who raise money for films, can end up more like salespeople than filmmakers. If you just want to direct, you’ll need to become very passionate very quickly, or lower your sights.

Music is already sinking as online distribution is so easy. If you hope to make money from music sales, hope really hard. Tour for cash. If you can’t tour or your music doesn’t play well live, I have no answers for you. The “unbundling” which iTunes has enabled means that your entire album now needs to be good, or users will just cherry-pick the best of it.

Ways you can make money? Freelancing or working for someone else who sells for you. Teaching your skills. Consulting.

Big companies will, I hope, continue to exist and occasionally produce something really worthwhile amidst the crap. Without the big mainstream blockbusters (in every medium) there would be no money for truly great creative products — blockbuster or not.

Back to Creation

The individual creating something at home has never been more fortunate. Each year, tools get cheaper. Computers become more accessible, cameras get better, and distribution becomes easier. But the same is true for everyone. If everyone who wants to pick up a movie camera now can, there’s that much more competition.

Skills are still hard to learn, experience is still hard to come by, talent is still not something you can buy. Attention spans are shrinking as all this new media invades our space. It’s unlikely that your work will ever be seen by many people that you don’t already know or are related to.

But… do it anyway. At some point, nearly everyone else will give up. The people who “succeed”* are the ones who didn’t give up. If you realise you’re not very good at something, take lessons or try something else. Ask for help, and not just on the net. Ask friends. And if you make something really really great, and tell enough people, then someone with a lot of friends just might see it and tell their friends too.

*I don’t know what “succeed” means in this context. I’ve had work on TV, I’ve been interviewed on TV, I’ve won competitions for money, I’ve been flown around the world to make things for very large companies and I’ve got regular freelance work in several different fields. I don’t know that I’m “successful” by most people’s standards, though. Perhaps I need to appear in more celebrity magazines?

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