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April 23, 2012

Come on, get happy

Last Wednesday, Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian debated USC professor Jonathan Taplin, director of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab and former tour manager of The Band (watch the video). The topic: antipiracy, SOPA, and the current state of the entertainment industry. Taplin asserted that music piracy has impacted the income of musicians like The Band’s Levon Helm (who passed away from cancer last Thursday, R.I.P.), forcing Helm to have to tour in order to support his family and pay his medical bills. Ohanian countered that crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter could enable fans to help artists like Helm by directly financing their projects.

Taplin replied:

“You want to give every great artist a virtual begging bowl with Kickstarter. But Levon never wanted the charity of the Reddit community or the Kickstarter community. He just wanted to earn an honest living off the great work of a lifetime.”

While I can agree with some of Taplin’s views on piracy and how it has influenced the situation of someone like Helm (though one might also need to look at how The Band’s record sales royalty percentages are structured, and Helm’s publishing splits), I don’t agree with his assertion that Kickstarter is “a virtual begging bowl” for creatives.

Kickstarter is not a begging bowl. It’s a happiness machine.

About eight years ago, my girlfriend at the time was in the process of starting a non-profit literary magazine. We happened to be at a friend’s wedding, and someone we met there was asking us about the project. “Why would someone want to give money to help start this magazine?” he asked. We launched into a long pitch about how they’d be helping champion new writers, that literature was important, that we were educating people, etc. etc.

He paused for a second, then said, “No, no, that’s not what you’re offering them. You know what you’re offering? Happiness. A lot of people want to get involved in creative projects, but for whatever reason they can’t. You’re offering them a way to do that, a way to be involved in something important and creative. So don’t think of it as asking them for money, you’re providing them with happiness.”

Those words have stuck with me, because they represent a shift in how we as artists think about raising money for our projects, whether it’s a $10 Kickstarter backer or a $100,000 investor in an indie film. It’s not charity. What Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo have done is provide a large audience with an easy way to become part of the creative process and feel good about it. And with many projects now raising millions through crowdfunding, there’s no doubt in my mind that it will be a bigger part of how we all work in the future.

Obviously we’re in the midst of a major shift in terms of how artists should and can be compensated for their work. My films are illegally downloaded constantly, and I’ve tried to combat that by making the films as easy as possible to legally access (like by renting or downloading Urbanized directly from this site). When I went on tour with my second film, Objectified, I asked audience members how many of them had seen my first film, Helvetica. Maybe half the audience would raise their hands. Then I asked, of the people who’d seen Helvetica, how many had watched a pirated copy? About half of the people who had just raised their hands usually kept them up. On one hand, you could argue that I’d lost money from those people not paying for the Helvetica downloads. But on the other hand, they’d all just paid $20 for a ticket to the Objectified event.

So in my case I believe that file sharing has opened up a larger audience for my films, especially internationally. And how I utilize that larger audience to make my future films possible, and pay the rent, will be the key to my continued sustainability as an independent filmmaker. I believe that having a direct relationship with the people who want to see my films made, and making it easy for them to be involved in that process, is the best way to achieve that. Everybody’s happy.



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