Writer and blogger Scott Kirsner, known for his CinemaTech blog and columns from publications such as Variety and The Boston Globe knows a thing or two about technology as it relates to the entertainment industry. His new book Fans, Friends and Followers takes a much needed look at new distribution models and ways of garnering a fan base for your work.
The old, large corporate distribution models are broken or are increasingly only working for few in dwindling numbers. We now, as Creative Professionals, can operate outside the confines of the old paradigm and are empowered to “pave our own way.” Fans provides a slew of concrete and anecdotal advice through interviews with Creative Professionals across the spectrum of movies, music, web, and books.
In likely the truest testament to what exactly this book encapsulates I thought I’d tell you just how I got a copy in my hand. I use twitter (follow me @uncompletedwork) and I followed @Cinevegas the twitter account for CineVegas Film Festival. They ran a brief interview with Scott Kirsner on their blog about the book. I commented and I won a signed copy of Fans along with a nice handwritten note from Scott. It was a result of an interactive and reciprocal series of events that empowered me to get involved — something key to garnering a fan base (more on that later.)
There is a largely recognizable shift in the exemplar of how films and music are being created and distributed. Many an article has been written, however, there are still unknown elements, partly because there is no “right” way to do it on your own. Kirsner does a good job of culling what has worked for other people with the caveat “not everything works for everyone.” There are new models always emerging.
Interacting with your Audience and Peers is Important
Long since past are the days where audiences are content only consuming content in a linear, one way path. While some portion of your audience will always consume passively, there are those who want to engage in a dialogue and be involved with you and your work.
For example, Jonathan Coulton uses audience driven booking via eventful through a “Demand It” feature that allows fans to request Coulton’s presence in any given city. If enough people in, say Washington D.C. “demand” he come, then it’s financially and logistically viable for him to book a show there.
Jill Sobule, best known for her 1995 single I Kissed a Girl, took a novel approach to getting the fans involved. Armed with the website JillsNextRecord.com, Sobule reached out to her existing community of fans to finance the album California Years. Through paypal Sobule raised almost $90,000 dollars to produce the album. She offered various levels of contributions all the way up to “Weapons-Grade Plutonium Level” which entitled a chance to sing on a track on the album.
Throughout Kirsner’s interviews a pattern emerges: If your work is good, those interested will seek you out. But that simply is not enough. The guys at JibJab hit critical mass with “This Land.” It was partly a result of building a mailing list overtime. Over five years they organically grew list of over 100,000 fans. When the “This land” video hit, they leveraged the mailing list to get the word out, soon they were receiving half a million views a days.
“… it was the most effective $400 marketing campaign in history. It showed that if you have a relatively small, hardcore fan base, you can get exponential growth out of them if the content is really relevant.”
Involvement with those hardcore fans can spell a closer relationship with the community and have its benefits. Dave Kellett, the artist behind Sheldon Comics, commented that his super-fans are willing to pick him up from the airport or receive shipments for book signings.
“I think that those 20 percent of your fans, the super-fans, produce 80 percent of the kerfluffle around your strip. They produce the most blog posts, they support it financially, and they go out of their way to see how they can help, both in the the physical world and online.”
Fans, hardcore or otherwise, will look for ways to interact with you. Reach out, leverage the social and video networks available to you as a way to initially garner a fan base or to keep in touch. First there was Friendster (remember them?) then came Myspace and Facebook, and most recently Twitter. I personally find Twitter to be an excellent tool to reach out and interact with fans and it is a good short form networking tool. I’ve connected with many screenwriters and filmmakers through twitter.
On the video side, YouTube is the soup-de-jour, but that’s quickly changing as smaller more niche based sites emerge. Vimeo, for example, is a great video sharing website designed specifically for creative content producers to exhibit their work. In fact, their uploading guidelines are very clear geared towards sharing works created by yourself. (Merrel note: Check out a music video I did a while ago on Vimeo.)
Undoubtedly one of the draws of not working for “The Man” is a lack of constraints on your creative control. Matt and Mike Chapman the brothers behind Homestar Runner and the lovably irritable StrongBad knew from the get go advertising wouldn’t be a part of their business model. Ultimately, they were able to generate revenue through DVD sets and t-shirts, but even then they remained very low key about the advertising:
“…we didn’t like ads … we don’t advertise the store at the end of our videos or anything. We could’ve made more money if we pushed the store more, but I wouldn’t have felt good about that.”
Jill Sobule shares a similar sentiment on the matter of having control of your creative endeavors. Her second album on MCA/Geffen, produced in part by Joe Jackson, never saw the light of day after Sobule was dropped from the label. She finds her newly adopted model better:
“Not to be cliche, but there is something really empowering about this – having your own schedule, your own timing”
Indeed, the record label game in the mid 1990′s was teeming with all kinds of opportunity at a price. Sobule relays what giving up that control meant to her:
“It’s the most awful thing in the world to go into a label and play things for them. I remember going into one label, and the guy said ‘I love your music but save your deeper lyrics for a book of poetry. And also, You’re not the youngest.’ I was, like thirty at the time. That just devastated me.”
Creative control also allows you the flexibility to experiment and reach out to the people and communities you’d like to without restraint. You don’t need permission from anyone to promote your work as you see fit.
Embrace New Ideas about Copyright Law and how People Consume Media
It’s no secret that fans don’t want to be arbitrarily restricted in how they wish to consume your music, book, or movie. Proprietary restraints that, for example, only allow you to play music on a single device are misguided attempts to protect copyright. The flip side is Creative Professionals (such as myself) obviously need to be paid for the work they do. It’s our life blood. So how does one strike a balance between protecting the rights of your works without alienating your fan base?
The Creative Commons allows you to specify licensing requirements for your work including attribution, non-commercial use and derivative work. It gives the fans greater flexibility in re-mixing or re-using your work. In 2008, Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor released the album Ghosts I-IV under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike License. He encouraged fans create and remix new music videos using the music from Ghosts. Though Reznor had the institution of a record label behind him for much of the last 20 years he went independent with this record.
Musicians like Jonathan Coulton have also embraced this model of interactivity and less restriction. He offers DRM free mp3 downloads of his music for sale through his site. More telling is his views on how people use his music:
“One really big thing for me is the derivative works that people have created, using my music. Everything I do is under a Creative Commons license. People have made videos using “World of Warcraft” characters and put them on YouTube, Some of the videos have been seen millions of times. I don’t know how you could even buy that kind of exposure, and I got it for free.”
Director Timo Vuorensola shepherded the collaborative science fiction parody StarWreck over seven years until completion. The team was assembled across the internet with contributors all around the world. When the project was released in October 2005 the full movie was posted for download as a torrent, and then later uploaded to YouTube and Google Video. Embracing this bold model paid off, Vuorensola muses:
“Selling DVDs despite the free version is a funny thing, but people do it anyway. I think you can double your income if you give something away for free. I don’t believe in piracy. It’s just people using the available technology… Some people watch the whole film on BitTorrent, but then want to support us by buying merchandise.”
“Be Remarkable and Create Remarkable Stuff”
I think what’s most important about the work that you do is that is must be uniquely and strikingly your own. As Kirnser puts it:
“In the crowded noisy party that is the internet, you don’t want to wear what everyone else is wearing… One of the secrets to succeeding in the era of digital creativity is doing something different.”
Make everything you do your own, keep at it, refine, tweak and interact. Eventually the organic growth will take you to the next level. Good luck!
PowerTools: A companion Wiki to the book. Check it out and add helpful links to the various sections. I have!
Buy Fans, Friends & Followers on Amazon
*All quotes come from Fans, Friends and Followers: Building an Audience and Creative Career in the Digital Age © 2009 CinemaTech Books. Excerpts are used for this review blog post and fair use purposes only.