Brick by brick, artists are removing the wall that separates them from their fans and patrons. But they’re not so much replacing the middleman as becoming the middleman, carrying the very load they hoped to avoid.
While it’s currently in vogue to trash the middleman and celebrate a life untethered from the labels/studios/publishers, the more intriguing aspect is not that middlemen are disappearing but that they’re changing form.
As a company that’s about to release a platform designed to further compress the distance between visual artists and consumers, we think a lot about the (middle)man and have had the opportunity to both research the topic and talk with folks in the field.
Here are some observations.
1. Your view of the man tends more to reflect your view of life than the service they provide. Artists who see commerce as a necessary “evil” tend to include agents, lawyers, CEOs, and the like in their pact with the devil. To them, the man stands rigidly between them and their audience, skimming the fat while adding no value. Not surprisingly, this list includes many artists who’ve been screwed over early in their careers and simply see no reason to wander back into a relationship upon which they can’t rely or trust.
Conversely, artists who don’t draw much distinction between what they do and how they sell are more likely to regard their dealings with studio owners, gallery managers, or art directors the same way they choose a brush for a painting: a decision that is functional and artistic and suits the goal at hand. Quite possibly because of this attitude, this batch tends to have good experiences with a proxy because they get good at vetting the quality of the middleman, rather than just saying no to all of them.
2. Your need for the man tends to reflect your career trajectory. Artists who are starting out don’t tend to need the man as much as those who are successfully embedded in their trade. A concept artist graduating from UCLA has little leverage or exposure compared to the art director wrapping up CGI tests for J.J. Abrams. Consequently, her need for an intermediary for her affairs is quite low. The art director, however, may have contract negotiations, a DVD in the works, a few art books, and an obscenely high mortgage in LA. To her, an intermediary is a necessity, even while it may be a necessary evil (see #1).
3. The man goes where the money flows. (See #2 and #4.)
4. The man is increasingly not a man but software. The proxy, intermediary, or agent in your life looks less and less like Kevin Spacey in Swimming with Sharks and more like Rob Kalin from ETSY, which is to say: the man is now a platform. As more artists cultivate their markets and boost their careers through platforms like ETSY, DeviantArt, or Amazon, they’re leapfrogging over the man and going head-to-head with Disney, Viacom, Marvel, and the like. Throw in a blogger account, a Flickr stream, and Twitter and artists can keep a presence in their fan’s life on par with a multinational—with nary a sight of the men in black and their contractual obligations.
5. You are increasingly the man. The irony, of course, is that as artists remove the middleman they become the middleman, replacing the external constraints placed upon them by negotiations and the limitations of others with internal constraints like time and scale and their own personal limitations. True, you can now be an always-on one-woman empire with blog dashboards, a full inbox, SMS, a loaded iPhone, a podcast, a 24-hour “buy this limited edition print” contest, and quirky status updates…but occasionally at the cost of your sanity or health.
Which leads us to our final observation about middlemen. There’s a reason we have them. They are buffers. And buffers are meant to protect us from the wear and tear of interaction and data overflow.
Really, the problems we’ve observed with middlemen is more the need to rethink how they operate in the interconnected, software-mediated world we live in rather than getting rid of them altogether. Yes, we can be leaner and rely on ourselves more and more. But there are diminishing returns from onloading everything to your shoulders, not least of which is enjoying the art you’re in business to create.
We’re curious what you think: How do you see the landscape? Is everything changing or is all the fuss simply a mirage? Drop your thoughts in the comment box below.
Update: the smart comments we received on this topic led me to this conclusion: if you’re small, then what was once the middleman (a publisher, agent, gallery owner) is replaced by your community; they take on the role of accepting, critiquing, and popularizing your work. If your goals are ambitious, however, and you continue to scale, it’s inevitable that you shift from being the talent to being the manager of talent, which is another way of describing a middleman.
On that note, I came across this post in Fast Company. In an interview with director McG (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator Salvation), they discuss the artist’s (?) goals to circumvent the studios and make movies on his terms:
If and when he does it—and he certainly seems determined to try—McG’s ability to leverage his own various forms of capital could push him over the invisible line between talent and titan. “That’s how you create a media company,” he tells me. “In an online era where movie houses have transitioned to digital projectors with cables sticking out the back, to fund a dinosaur studio system does not make sense. We as filmmakers are able to hit return on our computers and send prints the world over just like sending a blanket email. That is a revolution.”
But for McG, it turns out, it’s not all about his own control. “My dream is to create a new United Artists and a legacy that puts the people who create content at the top,” he says. “I would partner with J.J. Abrams and Danny Boyle and Spike Jonze and David Fincher and provide the vehicle where we can make movies our own way, distribute the movies our own way, and take a leap of faith that people are going to want to watch them. I believe it is content that drives the audience, not some multimedia conglomerate.”
“McG is a guy who is always going to be hungry and push limits,” says Abrams, who directed the new Star Trek film. “Smaller films are going to be realized by smaller homegrown entities and the studios have to acknowledge the fact that legitimate movies will increasingly be done by people they don’t control—and distributed in ways that circumvent what they do.”
The irony in this, of course, is that what’s described here is simply creative destruction. A legacy system buckles and a new one emerges. The new order looks new, but it still carries with it the burden of operating like the old middleman: making decisions about who to include or exclude, marketing a particular product to a particular audience, and managing the work of others.