Watching the big-money players take the stage at NewTeeVee Live yesterday, I was a little sad I wasn’t there, networking up a storm. I had to settle for watching the event on Mogulus (which, despite a few technical difficulties and some “live TV” moments, worked swimmingly, in my opinion). But I was also a little sad that much of what was being said indicated the abdication of the throne by content. As Steve Rhodes quipped on Twitter: “So is content ever queen? Or perhaps a citizen?”
Venture capital and corporate investment is going into distribution, social graphs and advertising. Meanwhile the online content getting funded is, at best, infotainment — programming in the public interest is still no way to make a living. I was reminded as much last week as I walked by the Almanac House, the spiritual home of the folk revival movement that was led by wandering troubadors with a social conscience, like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie (above, in one of only two extant clips of the man).
At a time when decadent, big-band jazz backed with syrupy strings dominated the radio, singer-songwriters could accompany their poems of protest with the most democratic instrument yet invented, the guitar. Maybe it was the ghosts of Seeger and Guthrie whispering in my ear as I walked the streets of the West Village, but it occurred to me that, thanks to the low cost of production tools and free distribution, this period might well be remembered as an era when there was a great flowering of folk art and social critique in motion picture form.
But without financial support from viewers and distributors, some of the most valuable work connecting communities and informing the public won’t be able to continue.
Alive in Baghdad, which brings the unvarnished truth from civilians in Iraq, is struggling to cover its costs. And after years of serving his local community, Chuck Olsen, unable to scare up a buyer among local media organizations, is shuttering Minnesota Stories — a model of online video aggregating, publishing and community in service of the public interest.
It’s an unquestionable success that these outlets even exist, certainly. And content producers looking to fund projects would be well served to use grant-finding resources offered by the likes of the Foundation Center and Michigan State University. But independent content production, especially if it isn’t strictly broad entertainment, remains a moonlight gig (and not just online). While that’s appropriate for the ephemera produced as part of NaVloPoMo, the outsider art created by participant Aaron Valdez and the rest of the Wreck and Salvage crew isn’t finding much commercial traction, and that’s a shame.
Seeing Brian Conley of Alive in Baghdad holding out the virtual hat like a busker at West 4th Street station makes me wonder what new media revolutionaries at large are really fighting for. If NewTeeVee content ends up being just like OldTeeVee content, except with lower production value and more product placement, then the only winners are investors and advertisers — not the viewing public.
The folk revivalists eventually ended up commodifying themselves, but it wasn’t pretty — think Bob Dylan selling SUVs and D.A. Pennebaker providing ‘viral’ marketing material. Hopefully there’s a more elegant solution, one that supports the more provocative, less commercial creators of today before they become footnotes in nostalgic cultural histories tomorrow.