Fans, Friends & Followers

Scott Kirsner’s Fans, Friends, and Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age uses interviews with a number of prominent artists who have been able to forge careers and gain widespread popularity primarily through promotional and distribution tools available online.  For those of us doing research on digital cinema, Kirsner’s book is a valuable resource, one that illustrates the ways in which content creators are navigating, and sometimes profiting from, what Chris Anderson has described as the “long tail” of digital distribution and what others have described as do-it-yourself (DIY) distribution.  While my own research, in Reinventing Cinema (Amazon) , focuses exclusively on filmmakers, Kirsner assembles a number of key figures from what he calls the “era of digital creativity,” including musicians, comics artists, visual artists, and novelists, in order to establish or explore how a set of practices have emerged that allow artists to escape the “gatekeepers” of traditional distribution and market themselves. While Kirsner’s book is generally optimistic about the potentials of DIY, a number of significant themes surfaced throughout the interviews.

One of the themes that a number of content creators mentioned was the desire to use digital tools in order to produce social change.  Kirsner interviews both Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed and Uncovered) and Sandi DuBowski (Trembling before G-d), both of whom used the house-party model as one tool not only for distributing their socially-conscious documentaries but also as a means for creating a conversation about them, one that could, especially in Greenwald’s case, turn into an active, politicized audience.  Greenwald also describes his efforts to move away from feature-length films and toward short videos that could have a more immediate effect on their audience (51-53), although Greenwald’s more recent project, Rethink Afghanistan, seems to offer a more subtle blend of both approaches by releasing short, timely segments online and then editing those into a feature-length film.  As Brian Stelter notes in the New York Times, Afghanistan is “being shaped both as a film and a campaign at the same time.”  Kirsner also makes a point of asking Greenwald to explain the collaborative process that has become such an important part of his documentaries, especially with much of the material on Brave New Films being produced by other video activists.

Kirsner’s interview with M Dot Strange also produced a number of key insights.  Strange, an animator and filmmaker, also discusses how he has cultivated an active audience, in part by openly communicating how he constructs many of his visual effects: “I’ve found that educational stuff can attract an audience. Share your techniques, and tell people about the software you’re using. You’re almost giving them the DVD extras before they buy the DVD” (54). Strange adds that many studios mask the “real” construction processes behind their films as “proprietary,” furthering mystifying the processes of production for potential filmmakers. While this theme isn’t explicitly addressed elsewhere in Kirsner’s book, this “pedagogical” component of DIY culture seems significant, and it is certainly implicit in the practices described by many of the artists he interviews.

Another question the book addresses–and I wish this had been a more explicit concern–is the energy required to promote the finished products made by these digital creatives.  M Dot does acknowledge that the new distribution models open up new models while reminding that everyone will not be successful and adding that “You’ve got to be like a carny: crafty and resourceful” (54).  Artist Natasha Wescoat acknowledges feeling “overwhelmed” by the promotional work and having “a couple of burn-outs” (78).  Similarly, DJ Spooky, consciously echoing former President Bill Clinton, suggests that he views his career as a “permanent campaign” (65).  Given the negative effects of the “permanent campaign” on governing, it is easy to speculate that such non-stop self-promotion may interfere with artists actually pursuing their creative goals, a question that was never satisfactorily addressed in the book. However, because I am also intrigued by the “extratextual” features that accompany most films (and because those extratextual features are important meaning-making devices in their own right), it’s worth treating the new distribution models and promotional practices themselves as forms of “creativity.”

Finally, I was interested in comedian and YouTube executive Mark Day’s discussion of “expertise” and the ability of successful digital entrepreneurs to turn that success into a second career as an “expert,” whether as a consultant or as a speaker at film festivals and other venues.  Given that many of these success stories are about timing and luck (among other factors), I found myself wondering about the other side of the digital coin, the less popular digital creatives who have remained on the periphery of this new DIY culture.  In most cases, I don’t think it’s fair at all to regard these figures as “failures,” but I wonder if there are other narratives that we call tell besides the digital Horatio Alger story, narratives that might emphasize the new forms of storytelling made possible by digital media.  Most of the people Kirsner interviewed were honest about approaches that didn’t work for them, so I’m not looking for a similar collection of failed attempts, just more narratives about what is possible.

That being said, I think Kirsner knows DIY culture as well as anyone, and he is well-positioned to document what is happening in a variety of digital media, to provide that crucial snapshot of digital DIY practices.  He is also aware that what he is providing is just that, a snapshot, pointing out that these practices are far from static and subject to alteration as new artists find new techniques for having their voices heard (and hopefully making a living from it).  The book also provides at least some statistics about what opportunities are actually available financially to even the most successful digital artists, making the book a useful guide to all of us interested in the ongoing practices of indie filmmakers, musicians, and artists alike.

11 Comments »

  1. Jeff Bennett Said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 10:28 am

    I am a big fan of Scott Kirsner. Sounds like some great work. I am off to get this book now.

  2. Chuck Said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 10:47 am

    It’s definitely a good read, useful for especially for people interested in the relationship between social media and entertainment. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Scott Kirsner Said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

    Chuck-

    Thanks for this thoughtful critique. I think you make a very good point about the amount of energy these artists devote to thinking about marketing, promotion, and business models. It *has* to steal from their purely creative time. And yet maybe this is a necessity of our digital age, when the old “sugar daddies” like record labels, movie studios, publishers, and art galleries can no longer provide like they used to…

    Best,

    Scott

  4. Chuck Said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 2:52 pm

    It likely is a necessity, but as I may have said in my review, there are other ways of thinking about “creativity” beyond texts themselves: after all the creation of new distribution models and new marketing techniques are also acts of creation and/or thought, just in a different register, so I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing.

  5. Amanda Said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    Not to harp on the topic of burn-out, but it came up at Scott’s SXSW session, as well — the panelists, most (if not all) of whom are featured in the book, described working 24/7. Which makes me wonder – while they’re creative, perhaps, with regard to marketing and distribution…are they strategic? Based on the # of anecdotes about “luck,” it doesn’t seem like strategy is really their wheelhouse. Which makes me think, Chuck, that maybe promotion and distribution aren’t the areas where their creativity shines… it would be cool if there was some sort of online service that helped connect dots between online entrepreneurs and “creatives,” so each group could focus on its unique skill set. Or is artist-as-direct-promoter/doer inherent to these folks’ success?

    (Should say, haven’t read the book yet, but just ordered it!)

  6. Chuck Said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

    These are some good questions, Amanda, and maybe one of the limitations of Scott’s book is that it focuses on interviews with individual artists and *not* with behind-the-scenes or below-the-line production and promotion personnel.

    I realize that such a book would not sell, but I think it would be instructive to have a collection of interviews with “unsuccessful” digital artists (whatever that might mean). I’d intended to include it in my original review, but I have some serious reservations about how “success” is being defined in these new DIY models. If it means working 24/7, promoting non-stop, in essence being a “carny” for one’s work, then that sounds pretty exhausting. If it means having relatively complete creative control over one’s work (and a sustainable work life) then that might be something different.

    I think there are some services that might be heading in this direction. SpeedCine, which will serve as a database of films available on the web, *might* be one place to start, but you’re right that more of these online services are needed. When I suggested that these promotional practices reflected a certain amount of creativity, I was probably thinking more of the kinds of promotional texts such as podcasts, vlogs, and other promotional videos that some DIY filmmakers have created, such as the Four Eyed Monsters video podcasts.

  7. Chuck Said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    To follow up, I think some of these questions are addressed in the recent Center for Social Media white paper on Public Media 2.0 that I’ve been discussing quite a bit here in the blog (issues that it appears you’re addressing in your work for PBS, etc).

  8. bonnie kyburz Said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 8:37 am

    in the C’s film i screened, i feature filmmaker Andy Blubaugh. in the context of our skype chat (which is what i used to “feature” him by recording it and importing it into the film — had a nice DIY feeling to it, imho), he talks quite a bit about how “such non-stop self-promotion may interfere with artists actually pursuing their creative goals,” and says he pretty much loathes the whole self-promotional aspects of being an independent filmmaker.

    since Andy’s agreed to join us for the MLA panel, maybe i’ll ask him to take a look at the book. so, this is great. interesting reading.

  9. Chuck Said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    I’m guessing he’ll probably know some of the subjects Scott interviews (or at least know their work). I can imagine that those self-promotional activities could be pretty loathsome if it’s not something you want to do.

  10. Uncompleted Works › Fans, Friends & Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age Said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

    [...] Chuck Tryon, author of Cinema: Movies in the Age of Digital Convergence review of Fans. [...]

  11. carol Said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 6:46 am

    I hadnt realised their was a book out now.. thanks for sharing this.

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