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Why 2012 will be year of the artist-entrepreneur

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While 2011 was a big year for political unrest, another uprising was afoot in the world of content creators and artists. Everywhere you look, artists are taking more control over their own economic well being, in large part because the Internet has enabled them to do so. You see it in all forms of content, from books, to video to music.

A few examples from this year:

e-books: Probably the most active area in large part because there is huge shifts taking place in digital publishing. From former mid-list writers like Barry Eisler to superstars like JK Rowling, writers are increasingly making waves in digital publishing.

Video: The story of the year for artists-as-entrepreneur came at the tail-end, with Louis CK saying no thank you to corporate middlemen and putting his new concert video online for $5 a pop.

Radio/Music: All sorts of independent entrepreneurs are putting audio entertainment online, from the rise of podcast kings like Leo Laporte to a huge number of independents like Adam Carolla and Marc Maron. Music artists are being given freedom too, through new platforms to create and share their music like Soundcloud.

So what is driving this movement towards the artist-entrepreneur that will give it huge momentum in 2012?  Here are a few underlying trends:

The distribution chain is collapsing across content verticals

The middleman is under attack on all fronts, whether its in video, music/audio and e-books. As devices like TVs become connected, as books become e-readers and tablets, and music is now digital, the storefront is fast-becoming the entire distribution chain.  With e-books it’s Amazon (s AMZN) or Apple, (s AAPL) with radio it’s iTunes, with video it’s Google/YouTube, Netflix and other upstarts who are investing in original content, or simply direct-to-consumer efforts using web-payment platforms like Paypal (s EBAY).

Louis CK, who created his own site, paid for bandwidth, and used Paypal for payment, captured how many artists are beginning to think when he said in an interview with Bill Simmons that he “didn’t want to cut out the middleman, I just didn’t need one. There wasn’t any reason to have someone there. I just thought make this thing and put it up.”

Content production, distribution and monetization tools are becoming democratized through the web

In e-books, distribution and storefronts have already collapsed into one, but managing distribution across multiple channels is difficult since storefronts are still siloed (Amazon is separate from Apple iBooks, which is walled off from Barnes&Noble, etc). However, companies like Smashwords enable creation and distribution across multiple storefronts, while Vook, post-pivot, is working on SaaS tools to create e-books and manage their distribution, complete with reporting and management dashboards.

In music, artists are starting to embrace sites like Soundcloud to create music and share it, while others direct-to-fan sites like Topspin Media are enabling artists to create commerce sites to sell music in turnkey fashion. And it’s not just music sales, but actual concert tickets. The Pixies used Topspin to sell tickets for a recent concert, utilizing email campaigns and to notify fans and processed the tickets using an iOS app at the door.

With video, big middlemen still dominate, but that is changing as video creation and distribution costs come down in a world of connected devices. As Ryan Lawler wrote in a piece for GigaOM Pro:

“independent content creators stand to gain the most through massive reductions in the cost of recording equipment and editing software, as well as the greater availability of streaming video service on connected devices. They gain new distribution opportunities for their content and greater possibility for monetization. Consider any of the top YouTube video channels, which probably wouldn’t be able to survive in the pay-TV universe but have created thriving businesses due to the cost structure online.”

Generational shifts towards technology savvy-artists

As Matt Mullenweg put in in his New Year’s resolution on GigaOM:

“For a year now, I’ve said scripting is the new literacy. That’s something I strongly believe. In Douglas Rushkoff’s latest book, he talks about “program or be programmed.” That is, if you’re not in control of your inputs, you’re not really in control of your outputs either. You’re just a reactionary force.”

Matt is right, in that scripting is the new literacy, and a growing form of artistic expression. Tech-savvy artists are creating apps and developing sites to put their art into the world. Whether its Matt Inmann creating his work and coding his site at The Oatmeal or young app developers like Robert Nay, artists are becoming coders and vice versa, since, as Mullenweg states, scripting is “new literacy”.

No doubt, the vast majority of economic wealth is still distributed through large corporate media, but as new technologies enable artists to reach consumers directly through push-button creation and distribution, there is a movement afoot. Expect this movement to expand in 2012 as more artists take control of their own economic destinies and become part of the artist-entrepreneur generation.

52 Responses to “Why 2012 will be year of the artist-entrepreneur”

  1. richardkooyman

    Since Richard Florida hijacked the term “creative” for the business world artists have suffered the pox of everyone being called an artists and every business being called creative. There is a difference between a comic artists like Louie CK taking control of his own finances and a business person using comedy to make money. Using culture for pure consumption is called advertising says art writer Nato Thompson. Art is something different than business.

    • Rick Dahms

      Richard, you do realize that, in this case, “Louie CK and a business person using comedy to make money” are the same person, right? He’s producing the material and he’s selling it over the internet. Much like you are with your paintings – which I like a great deal. But I don’t think that makes you any less of an artist… that you’re using your art as a business, I mean.

      • richardkooyman

        Rick, Thats my point. Louie CK is a comedian. He makes money from doing his comedy. Do you consider a comedy promoter who make money promoting comedians a comedian? Would you call him a promoter comedian?

  2. Rick Dahms

    Here’s a thoughtful, professional looking article on artists doing well as entrepreneurs and it’s littered with photos that are not credited and have all the meta data stripped away – these are most likely photos stolen from other sites. The irony also makes a point: until there are safeguards to protect our work against theft, the new media will continue to cut out both the middleman and the artist.

  3. Great article! I intend to share this with my students & colleagues. In 2011, I made a big move towards self-marketing via the Internet. I’ve uploaded my music not only to my personal site but to SoundCloud & ReverbNation as well. In the world of contemporary classical music composition, more & more composers are turning towards self-publishing & Internet marketing. Pulitzer Prize winning composer, Jennifer Higdon is a great example of a high level composer who is self-published. All of this was unthinkable a few years ago! Thanks for the great article!

  4. In all honesty these self d2c sales and distribution models have been around for many years. Remember and cdbaby (still going). In music cdbaby has been doing cd and download distribution for artists for years. In addition artists have been able to sell tickets online for years as well via PayPal, etc. I used to do this. They main issue is scale. Some of the “middlemen” offer marketing support you can’t get elsewhere. Your example of Louis CK is great but the guy has been on tv hundreds of times and there is demand for him. Just like Pearl Jam, NIN and radiohead and other established artists cutting out the middleman works at their level. But if you want that type of scale and you’re a less known act you’ve got to be really creative with your marketing or maybe you just have to be an amazing artist and just hit the road.

  5. Press Pause Play

    I’ve been working with the documentary that interviews thought leaders like Seth Godin, Moby, Andrew Keen, Robyn and many more about this exact subject – the artist has the power and distribution is forever changed.

    We have made our documentary a free download to continue the discussion including an exclusive interactive version that contains all the interviews we made that did not make the final edit. Enjoy!

  6. Yes, 2012 is going to be great for content creators. Music distribution won’t be limited by mp3s, either. With broadband speeds increasing, indie artists can now distribute directly to music fans world wide in full size wav and dsd formats, sometimes 30x the size of mp3. New sites like provide retail stores for musicians wanting higher quality.

  7. peter worrall

    My start-up company Exhibbit is part of this revolution by allowing artists to manage their own art, online and showcase it in a really professional way.. It enables the appreciators of art to view it in way never before possible unless they went to the middle man galleries… within the coming months of 2012 Chrome and our platform will dispense with the need to install a player so it will be as easy as watching a video.. only far more interactive… We have made it the price of a cup of coffee!.. Embrace it now as we have enormous plans for our site and for you all this year… this is really just the beginning.

  8. As an artist entrepreneur I took the plunge this year and decided to create a profitable business called Startah that – take a wild guess- interviews successful entrepreneurs and translates their business building tips, ideas and strategies into actionable education through books, ebooks, and an extensive online video vault.

    There is vast sea of tacit knowledge locked away in founder’s heads, and our mission at Startah is to unlock this knowledge through compelling interviews that inspire and compel people to implement the systems and ideas in their own business.

    Let’s make 2012 an all-time year- the year of the artist entrepreneur!

  9. James McSparron

    My new book “Phud the Foft” will only be released via ibook. No printed copies will be available. Digital is obviously cheaper to copy and distribute. Not only is it cutting out middle men but also the middle machine i.e. printer.

  10. Bandcamp is a far better for musicians than Soundcloud because fans can buy directly from the artist via paypal accounts. I use it to sell vinyl, CD, digital, concert tickets, remix projects, and more.

  11. E-books may be cutting agents and editors out of the loop, but that’s not necessarily a good thing for writers or for readers. Agents and editors are very useful: it’s a huge advantage to have someone who has the motivation to really read your drafts in detail and the honesty to tell you what’s working and what’s not. E-books might allow anyone who wants to write a book to publish, but that might just get us a huge number of really bad books… and likely some good ones that just vanish in the tsunami of mediocrity.

    • I agree that agents and editors can be hugely valuable. This is part of the tradeoff, however, for established authors in choosing to use traditional New York publishing or using a more self-pub model – they lose a little of the support they might have in editing, etc, and have to be business minded enough to know they have to hire these services on their own. You don’t need a publishing house for editing, cover art, etc – but they do make this more turnkey (as Amazon is tryign to do with its imprints).

    • Steve, I’ve been saying this for some time. There is another dimension too (see what about those with genuine artistic talent who simply don’t have the gift for self-promotion? I still believe that the new distribution model offers an opportunity for partnership between the talented artistic introvert and the media-savvy entrepreneur.

      Sadly this is not an area that people seem to have any interest in exploring – I suspect because those involved in the online debate are those who gravitate naturally to social media and who “can’t see the problem”. But the problem is very much there.

      I say ‘sadly’ because one thing is certain – if we allow the talent of the artistic introvert to remain hidden, buried beneath the deluge of strident self-promotion and the “tsunami of mediocrity” as you put it, we will be immeasurably the poorer for it.

      Yes, I am extremely keen to discuss this…

  12. Goldie Hoffman

    As a young actor-comedian-writer, I’m looking forward to more of this and find it super encouraging. Aside from the problem of middlemen taking cuts off your pay, the middlemen will also never push as hard as you will for yourself; but with the old system, you had no choice but to use them to even be in the game. I’m hoping this spreads even more (re. agents, etc.) and we get full control over our lives (at least for those of us who feel capable of this and want to do the self-promo work, as I acknowledge that some artists really have no interest in doing this kind of work for themselves).

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  14. Salinda Green

    Are you kidding me? It’s fabulous that I just really met my Mr.Right at a wealthy romance site ‘Millionaiersocial.C-O-M . Are you still single and looking for perfect match to flirt with and much more? It’s is the largest club where women seeking sugardaddys men seeking suagrbabys.Try… Mo

  15. I expect 2012 to be a big year in this regard. Unfortunately few creative people are entrepreneurial. Any time in the past, an artist could make much more money creating their own products and marketing the products themselves. I was creating artistic software titles in the late eighties. A couple of thousand as start up cash and a months worth of work. Suddenly more than $40000 in the bank from cashed cheques. No thanks to Apple though. Waiting for them to confirm a technical issue delayed my release by weeks. They never replied.

    I have seen this day coming for three years now. I have been in preproduction for a TV show (net based) for the past 2.5 years. I am only a couple of months away from holding the pilot episode. 2.5 years is not unusual. Even the networks take a year minimum in preproduction for a new show… and thats if they throw tens of millions into the preproduction to speed it up.

    My problem is eyeballs. I cannot trust YouTube at all. Takedowns, signing away your exclusive rights (YouTube can sublicensee your content and opt to pay you nothing), and being at the whim of the YouTube staff who get to chose who to promote onto front page or top of common searches. Not to mention an advertising scheme where you need to be popular before they sign you up to paid advertising.

    Google TV are courting the networks. Sony TV courted the networks. The few independent Net TV distributers have courted the networks. Not one seems to be interested in independent content creators. Even ones like myself, who worked on TV as an international subcontractor for some of Americas largest studios. There are tens of thousands of ex subcontractors who are used to producing A Grade content. This untapped workforce is currently being overlooked.

    So the issue is how to get tens of millions of eyeballs onto my series, keep control, and get paid. I do not see a solution as yet. I trust though, that 2012 will produce at least one online TV network specialising in quality independent general content.

    • peter worrall

      Yes.. this issue is the issue that faces us all.. getting eyeballs.. seems still to be a dark art not yet in the control of the artist/entrepreneur.
      I’ve had to learn and understand so many skills.. (and I must say developers can be somewhat difficult beasts to deal with)… another mentality altogether.
      But we persist and do eventually understand.. then we can then place/create layers of tools on top of the code that the rest of can understand and use to create sophisticated content with.

  16. had to chime in, as a 61 year old, decades working-artist in images and words, it has been a thrill to discover that the door to ebook publishing had been greased enough for me to actually learn to format, upload, and start offering several decades of creative work

    i’d followed the technology changes “fairly” modestly since my first mac back in the early 90s, and this was, and is, the first time i’ve felt i can do more than simply create a page, and s.l.o.w.l.y. build a few people at a time to come see, come buy…

    i, for one, am grateful ;-)

      • peter worrall

        So true Michael..
        As an artist (oil painter/musician/animator etc) I embraced early 3d animation technology in the mid 80’s. Boy it was not easy and still isn’t . But graphically orientated tools now abound with more appearing everyday that allow the artist to more easily engage and create further tools that are useable by less code orientated creatives. I’ve watched this happen consistently over the past few decades and have hopefully help in this process and will continue to do so.

  17. Brian D. Meeks

    Last year I published my first novel, with the help of a very small publisher. He handled the print version, but I wanted to do all the work for the Kindle and Nook version, as this skill set seemed important to learn. Now, with two more completed (in edit stage) novels, and a third on the way, I feel confident that 2012 will be a good year for the Henry Wood Detective Agency series. Amazon’s sale of 5 million Kindles over the holidays only reinforces this in my eyes.

    Will I be hugely successful? The odds are still against it, but having a foot in the door, means the dream and possibility exist. That is all I ask.

  18. The time of the artist entrepreneur is already here. I’ve done recorded interviews with dozens of artists who are doing very well with their own business.

    Painters, sculptors, Sharpie artists, and others have built massive niche businesses run by just one or two people.

    It’s exciting to see this making news though. ;)

    • There has always been entrepreneurial artists. I think that now, however, the web and associated platform to create, distribute, monetize are so democratized you’re seeing a more significant share of content doing an end-run around traditional corporate media companies.

      • GigaOM needs one of those features that notifies you of comment replies. You’d get more engagement.

        I totally agree with you. The web has democratized distribution to a certain extent. Artists can build up a following of a few thousand, or even a few hundred, and make a decent living. Pretty fun stuff.

  19. It is the year of the Artist/Entrepreneur… Interesting enough I think that tech that makes lasting change can only be created by artist visionaries and I do not think that if you are an visual/musical/literary artist that you are excluded from creating/developing applications that can make change. To often Artist are put into boxes and categorized within a given Artistic filed….What should be understood is that Artistic Creativity can and has led to many great achievements in tech

  20. I’m a movie producer and an author – right in the middle of all of this. I have to admit that something clicked with me this year. I went from fear of the unstable distribution systems to seeing it as an opportunity. I’m excited about 2012 for us.