Wednesday, June 01, 2005

On Being Indie: Who’s Your Audience?

(The previous installment can be found here.) A question that is often asked by creative types is “Who’s your audience?” Who do you expect will enjoy or benefit from this work? This is usually asked during the creative process, as the artist is wrestling with various creative options. How can I communicate to these people? There are so many possible ways to answer this question. However, much as we artistic types hate to admit it, there is a very simple answer. Your audience is whoever pays you. Money talks, and that is as true in the arts as in every other endeavor of life. The creation of arts, especially the fine arts, takes time, and often the artist requires monetary support of some time to justify the time cost that he incurs while creating. This is not a new issue; one has only to think of the patronage by the Medici family of the artist Michelangelo to realize that money and the arts have been entwined for some time. Once money enters the picture, the question quickly becomes an economic one. A general rule of business is that you want to keep your customer happy. This makes sense if you want to maintain a positive cash flow. So, as an artist, who is your customer? Who is paying the bill for your work? In most cases, the answer is not who you think it is. In my initial post on this topic (found here), I referenced a speech by Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin & Hobbes. In this speech, Mr. Watterson talks about the syndicates. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t know a lot about the market for newspaper comics, but my guess is that the syndicate is similar to a wholesaler of comics. A syndicate buys a comic strip from the comic artist. The syndicate then turns around and sells the comic to the newspaper, which prints it so that it can be purchased by a reader. The distribution chain looks something like this:
The distribution system in hobby games is similar. The publisher of a game sells the game to a distributor, who then sells to the retail stores, who then sell to the customer. The distribution chain looks like this:
publisher-->distributor-->retailer-->end user
Of course, the reality is a little more complex. The publisher doesn’t usually originate the game. This is often done by freelancers, who then sell to the publisher. So, the actual distribution chain looks like this:
designer--> publisher--> distributor -->retailer-->end user
The book and movie industries works in similar ways. Each of those arrows represents a transaction. Thus, the general laws of economics come into play. Each buyer will be acting in his perceived best interest. As a result, each link in the chain acts as a filter. Ideally, good product passes down the chain, while bad product is weeded out by the market. However, the best interests of each group are not the same. What the end user of a product wants, for instance, is very different from what a distributor wants. So, the criteria used to judge the utility of a product change along the supply chain, and movement of the product can be interrupted at any time. All the end user sees are products that have leaped the hurdles of the publisher, distributor, and retailer. Moreover, each link in the distribution chain is really only interested in the links that connect to it. So, for example, the publisher is concerned about buying low from its freelance designers and selling high to the distributors. The end user barely enters the equation, and then only as a factor that might affect the distributors’ decision to buy or not. The end user is not the publisher’s customer; the distributor is the publisher’s customer. (There are other factors that could be discussed here, like the relative economic clout of publishers vs. distributors or the return policies of different links in the supply chain, but these factors vary in different markets and are not immediately germane to the topic at hand.) So, in this scenario, who is the artist’s customer? The publisher. Not the end user. Not even the retailer. It is the publisher who will decide if the product is shipped along the distribution chain. Therefore, who does the artist need to please? The publisher. Now, let’s imagine that we have a young, starry-eyed writer. Like, say, me. Let’s say that I were to be working on writing a novel. (This is purely hypothetical, you understand.) And let’s say that I were to be dealing with some emotional issues (like child abuse) and using some controversial techniques (like cussin’) to “fulfill my artistic vision”. (All this is hypothetical, of course.) My desire to maintain my artistic vision may be all well and good until it runs full tilt into these harsh economic realities. If I were to pursue a normal approach to being an author, upon finishing the manuscript, I would begin to shop it around to publishers. In other words, I would be marketing my product to my customers. They would evaluate the manuscript primarily on their opinion of its marketability (assuming it even gets read), especially its marketability to the next link on the distribution chain, which is either a distributor or a retailer, if the publisher is large enough to do its own distribution. So, a publisher might look over the manuscript and decide that certain content (including the cussin’) would reduce the saleability of the manuscript. Therefore, it either rejects the manuscript or returns it for further “edits”, if the manuscript might be otherwise worth the effort. At this point, protesting that my “artistic vision” is being stepped on will help me not a bit. The publisher is operating a business, and he needs to keep his customers happy. He doesn’t want to buy “artistic vision”; he wants to buy marketability. So, what’s the solution? This is where being independent is a strength. As an independent artist, the distribution chain looks something like this:
artist-->end user
So, who’s the customer now? The end user. The person who was supposed to be the audience of my work in the first place. The person who I wanted to impress when I set out to create my masterpiece. The end user wants me to be true to my “artistic vision”, because, unlike the other links in the distribution chain, that’s what he actually wants to pay for. He doesn’t need to resell my work; all he wants is to enjoy the product of my labor. In return, I will be paid by people who are evaluating my work with the same sort of criteria as I am. In other words, I’ll know who my audience is.


Blogger james3v1 said...

Of course, knowing many artists who are tacking this tack (with which I am in general agreement, the tack of being independant) there is the challenge of finding enough end users for yor product who are willing to pay the significanly higher price it costs you to produce the product yourself (say, 40-50% higher).

Some level of middle-man is helpful (and I say this as one who believes we have too many levels of middle men) in that the end user has someplace to go look for the work of the artist.

One way to maintain the direct link that you appear to be seeking (and with, again, I am in principial agreement) MAY be to replace the retailer with a consignment+mark up model of retail. That then reduces the risk for the "retailer" at that point and allows him to keep the markup small--but allows the artist to pay someone to, in effect, "hook him up" with the end user.

The artist can make this type of contract with a number of "retailers"--depending upon how far reaching he wants his product to be. The internet helps here--because one "retailer" can be found by large numbers of people.

Wow--this was longer than I thought it was going to be--and I probably didn't say anything you didn't already know but I thought some level of economic thought needed to be interjected at this point. :0)

6/01/2005 10:00:00 AM  
Blogger Seth Ben-Ezra said...

You're getting ahead of me, James. ;-) The issues that you are raising are exactly the ones that I intend to address in my next post on the topic.

I'll note that I am in general agreement with your thoughts, and I actually have several real-life examples of ways that independent artists are jumping these hurdles.

6/01/2005 11:20:00 AM  

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