Birdwatching

by Mark on April 21, 2009

The Stand_Stephen King

Covers for Stephen King by UK designer Jamie Kennan, interviewed at Faceout Books

Enraptured by Bioshock 2

by Laszlo on April 20, 2009

Bioshock 2

Bioshock 2 sneak peek. Original art direction by Scott Sinclair.

Subverting the Reader

by Mark on April 19, 2009

Since we here at Storybird are a) all about the children and b) all about the books, we could not help notice (and then not forget) My First Dictionary—a wry, dark, and subversive hijack of Dick and Jane Reader illustrations by British librarian Ross Horsley.

Evidence

Write

If you haven’t guffawed any coffee onto your monitor yet, we’re upping the ante with this anonymous redraft of the Ladybird Book of The Policeman.

The Ladybird Book of The Policeman_13

The Ladybird Book of The Policeman_6

Thanks to Amy Kraft for tweeting about My First Dictionary and our very own Tyler Payne for the The Ladybird Book of The Policeman tip.

Smaug

by Laszlo on April 16, 2009

Smaug

Smaug by Israel Sanchez

Are artists the new middleman?

by Mark on April 14, 2009

srboisvert_flickr

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.

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Subtle, if not clever

by Laszlo on April 13, 2009

The Secret Garden_ Brandon Schaefer_flickr

The Secret Garden by Brandon Schaefer. (Link no longer available.)

Paper birds

by Kaye on April 10, 2009

Dream of Flying - Bluebird

Dream of Flying – Bluebird by Selkirk Bindery

Vintage receipt paper bird_cottonbirddesigns_etsy

Vintage Recipt Paper Bird by Cotton Bird Designs

I love the idea of the written word taking flight, (so central to what Storybird is about) so I guess that’s why I like exploring the fusion of birds and books and these two examples. The first is a quite literal interpretation of the book as object. The second, made of vintage receipts, a bit more abstract.

Neither would take long to “read,” but they’re definitely charming enough to share.

Sneak peek #2

by Mark on April 9, 2009

A peek at Covermaker, a feature that creates gorgeous covers for your Storybirds without any work. (Toggle the full screen icon on the player for best effect.)

Story art from animal wrangler Aaron Berchild, a San Francisco illustrator and animator who is clearly a leg man.

Here’s Sneek peak #1 if you missed it.

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A testing we will go

We received three emails from a father participating in our technical trial.

Email 1: He’s on page 15 already and is making a stink about going to bed.

Email 2: I had to physically remove the laptop from his eager little hands.

Email 3: He just asked: “before I go to school in the morning, instead of watching tv, can I do that thing?”

We think this is good. Or we’re just going to start a lot of family fights.

Ode to Trent Reznor and Amanda Palmer

by Storybird on April 7, 2009

Nine Inch Nails_jtfdzn_flickr

What bullhorn Trent Reznor and cabaret-queen Amanda Palmer can teach artists about going it alone and the fan/artist relationship

If you watch the internets, you may have seen some recent link love going out to Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor and Dresden Dolls Amanda Palmer, both fast becoming poster boy/girl for “artists on their own.”

Reznor was featured in Wired unveiling the new NIN iPhone app and explaining his strategy for NIN.com and how to monetize his growing fan database. The singer has been untethered from his label Interscope for almost two years.

Palmer, using slightly less finesse but with great clarity, was featured in an industry pundit’s newsletter explaining her attempts to wrangle free from her label while simultaneously exalting life without the middleman.

While both posts are a must read for any artist contemplating how to make money on their own, here’s a quick analysis with some accompanying quotes.

First, Reznor’s thinking of the fan first:

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t think music should be free,” Reznor says. “But the climate is such that it’s impossible for me to change that, because the record labels have established a sense of mistrust. So everything we’ve tried to do has been from the point of view of, ‘What would I want if I were a fan? How would I want to be treated?’ Now let’s work back from that. Let’s find a way for that to make sense and monetize it.”

Second, he’s tweaking off-the-shelf tools rather than building new:

Over the past year, NIN.com has quietly evolved into a series of interlocking services designed to deliver maximum benefit to the fans at minimal expense to the artist. To build it out, Reznor decided to use off-the-shelf resources — Blogger, Twitter, FeedBurner, Flickr, YouTube — rather than trying to duplicate what other people had already created. “They’re going to do a better job than we are,” he explains, “and they’re going to have a lot more resources to put into it.”

Third, he’s using a Freemium model to make money:

To cover the costs of recording and distributing the album, Reznor also offered The Slip as a limited-edition CD for $10. Even as he urged fans to download and share the album online, he sold 250,000 numbered copies of the CD. The album is also available on iTunes for $9.90. “So we managed to permeate the marketplace,” Reznor says, “and we also managed to monetize the album.”

Finally, he recognizes that his database is his new core asset:

The one part of NIN.com that Reznor had custom-built is the piece that sits at the center of it all: the database of fan info that has been harvested from the registration process that’s required to take full advantage of the site. That database, created by Sudjam, is what makes the tie-ins with Flickr and YouTube work, but it’s also given Reznor 2 million e-mail addresses — which adds up to a pretty powerful distribution network.

This line from Peter Jenner, once manager to The Clash and Pink Floyd, sums it up:

“There’s an enormous value in having a relationship with your fans,” he says. “More value even than in selling your records. I think old Trent’s a sharp cookie.”

The Dresden Dolls, Amanda Palmer, crazyjaneski, flickr

Palmer’s open letter is much shorter, but equally studded with insights.

First, she’s recognizing that a middleman is just that: someone between her and her fans:

i had to EXPLAIN to the so-called “head of digital media” of roadrunner australia WHAT TWITTER WAS. and his brush-off that “it hasn’t caught on here yet” was ABSURD because the next day i twittered that i was doing an impromptu gathering in a public park and 12 hours later, 150 underage fans – who couldn’t attend the show – showed up to get their records signed.

Second, she’s seen the power of direct engagement:

i brought a troupe of back-up actors/dancers on the tour (we were only playing 300-1000 seaters) and had no money to pay them, so we passed the hat into the crowd every night. each performer walked from each show with about $200 in cash. the fans TOOK CARE OF THEM. they brought us dinner every night, gave us places to sleep. (i couldn’t afford to put up that many people in hotels). all sans label, all using email and twitter. the fans followed the adventure. they LOVED HELPING.

Finally, she’s understanding the value of Freemium:

the times they are a-changing fucking dramatically, when pong-twittering with trent reznor means way more to your fan-base/business than whether or not the record is in fucking stores (and in my case, it ain’t in fucking stores).

While there’s a whack of business lessons here for established and emerging artists, what stuck with us most was Palmer’s final comment and how it captures the fan/artist connection:

my fans hung out with me all day on twitter today while i unpacked weird tour shit, fan art, gifts and paraphernalia that usually just ends up in my closet or in the trash and took pictures of it for them.

Indeed, the times they are-a-changin’.

Photo credits: Trent Reznor by Joel Fauorte | Amanda Palmer by Crazy Jane