I’ve been hearing from some quarters that there is a new day dawning for animators, that the big animation studios are collapsing or not worth working for, and that we need to look to musicians to show us the way. Musicians are embracing self marketing and self production amidst the ruins of the big labels. Here’s musician Dick Dale explaining things on youtube:
This is great advice . . . for musicians. It sounds sooo seductive — shun the big blood-sucking corporations, create your own stuff, market and sell it yourself, keep all the rights, play your music locally, play for free until you build up a following, give your work away until you can sell your CDs, sell ‘em out of your car or on the web or at your free concerts. Soon you might be getting good live paydays, and you’ll keep all the money from your CDs, and your t-shirts yourself.
If I were a budding musician, Dick Dale would be my mentor. I think he’s right, and I’ve seen it work. For musicians who play popular music, that is. There are others equating self-produced animation with self-produced music, and suggest that Dick Dale’s advice shows animators the way to the new animation paradigm.
Here’s Ralph Bakshi saying essentially that at the 2008 Comicon in 2008:
So, does this advice apply to us? Is Ralph right? Should we be like modern musicians, shun the ‘asshole studios,’ and embrace self finance and self production?
Before we answer that, let’s look at the crucial elements of the music scene, past and present.
1) Although music is primarily an auditory art, our enjoyment of music is enhanced by being in the presence of the performing musicians. People will pay to see a live performance, even if (or, especially if) they’ve heard that music many times before, even if they own the CDs, even if they’ve been to similar performances before. The enjoyment of musical performance has been part of virtually every culture for centuries, even millenia. Performing live music has been a viable way to make a living for about as far back as mankind goes, and most cities have venues designed for live musical performances. In the new economy, live performances have (again) become the primary revenue stream for many musicians.
2) Giving music away has long been part of the business model. Musicians gave music away on radio (or even paid to get DJs to play it!), and now the same goes on the internet. It builds awareness. Once people are interested, they might buy your music. People will actually pay for music they’ve already heard for free! In fact, they will often ONLY buy music they’ve already heard. Plus, that awareness also builds value for the live performances. In this way, internet piracy becomes a two-edged sword for musicians, with stolen song revenues helping promote live performances, direct sales, and even merchandising.
3) Despite getting music for free (primarily ad-supported radio), there’s a long history of people paying for physical versions of their favorite music. This had been the case for a full century, whether it was wax cylinders, 78s, 8-track tapes, cassettes, vinyl, or CDs, and goes back further if you include sheet music. Despite piracy, people continue to pay, at least modest sums, to have songs in formats that they can play again and again (CDs, mp3s, whatever). Recorded music can be enjoyed anytime — in the shower, while jogging, in the car, and so on. The portable mp3 player is only the latest in a long line of technology driven by our desire to have music whenever and wherever we want. The appetite for music is almost infinite.
4) There’s publishing and royalties. Create a song, and you’re an author. As an author, you get royalties whenever someone else buys that song, performs that song, buys the sheet music to that song, puts that song in a film production or commercial, or puts that song on a CD. There are well-established organizations and systems in place to allow individual songwriters to make good livings without ever being performers themselves, and there’s a tradition of this going back quite a ways. Piracy may take a bite out of this, but it doesn’t eliminate it.
5) Then there’s the nature of creating music. Becoming a talented musician is as hard as becoming a talented animator, but what about the production process itself? Once you have the skills, how long does it take to create a song? Is it unusual for a songwriter to create many songs in the course of a year? I don’t think so. There are quite a few musicians who are credited with creating hundreds, and even thousands, of songs (here’s a song list for Bernie Taupin and one for Bob Dylan).
6) There is a huge desire among the public to learn to play music as a hobby, just for personal enjoyment. This opens up significant freelance opportunities for musicians to make a living as teachers, often giving private lessons as their schedules allow. Many musicians have used this income stream to get them through lean times, or to support their desire to play less popular (and less lucrative) forms of music.
7) Finally, there is also a long history of musicians becoming famous, revered, and sought after, as personalities. This is another element of the music scene that goes back pretty much to prehistory. Many musicians have achieved enough fame to market not only their music and their performances, but themselves. Even a modestly successful musician can sell lots of t-shirts, and more successful ones can license their very image.
Now scan back through those above seven paragraphs, and see how much of the music scene applies to animators. Let’s go through the discrepancies:
1) No one will pay to watch us work.
2) Our work can’t be enjoyed just anywhere while consumers are doing other things, and the appetite for animation is far more limited.
3) People rarely want to see our work more than one or two times (toddlers excepted).
4) Our work is virtually never performed again by others, and there is no royalties mechanism. We might generate residuals, if we keep the rights to our work and get it in theaters or on TV.
5) Full animation is staggeringly labor intensive and slow, dramatically limiting our potential output, no matter how much computers might ease digital ink and paint and editing.
6) We do have the ability to make money teaching animation, but the market for freelance animation teachers is fairly limited because very few people learn animation as a hobby.
7) The list of working animators who can market themselves in other venues, as personalities or icons, is pretty much nil.
Also, the consumer payment structure has never been remotely comparable. Most of us grew up watching classic Warner Bros. and MGM shorts on TV for free, and paying to see a couple of animated features a year. Compare that to the musical buying and consuming habits of recent generations. Buying individual songs (as singles 50 years ago, as mp3s now) has an established tradition, as does buying collections of songs as albums, CDs, or digital downloads, and paying serious cash for live performances and concerts.
In recent times, the home video/dvd market has unleashed a wave of animation sales directly to consumers, but this has almost exclusively benefited the high-end animation market — the most popular animation, created by crews of the best animators at top studios. The animation home consumer market has been driven by reissues of very popular animated TV series, or popular animated features released a few months after the theatrical release, not the personal work of individual animators.
To just partly follow the model musicians are following now, you need to somehow make people aware of and excited about your animation, then sell your DVDs or digital downloads through websites, eBay, and iTunes. Lots of musicians are doing this. Very, very few animators are.
Paying a small amount for a digital download of the music of a little-known musician is a natural evolution in the buying habits of the music-loving public, but paying a small amount for the personal animation of an unknown animator is almost unheard of. The iTunes model and musician direct sales fits nicely with the history of music consumption, but not so well with the history of animation consumption. And there is virtually no animation analog of consumers directly supporting independent, long-form animation in a significant way. That might change, sometime in the future, but I don’t see any signs of it happening now. I have to say, what Plympton and Hertzfeldt are doing, and what Bakshi is advocating, looks like a tough slog.
Nina Paley is trying this system with her feature, Sita Sings the Blues. Here’s what she says on the website where she makes explicit that the film is free for everyone to enjoy:
There is the question of how I’ll get money from all this. My personal experience confirms audiences are generous and want to support artists. Surely there’s a way for this to happen without centrally controlling every transaction. The old business model of coercion and extortion is failing. New models are emerging, and I’m happy to be part of that. But we’re still making this up as we go along. You are free to make money with the free content of Sita Sings the Blues, and you are free to share money with me. People have been making money in Free Software for years; it’s time for Free Culture to follow. I look forward to your innovations.
I hope she does well for all the time and money and talent she’s put into her film — she deserves it. In the music world, Nina would probably be a star, and she could tap into those revenue streams I described above. As an animator, she spent something like four years of her life on the film, and in the end also had to spend tens of thousands of dollars on music rights and on transferring her digital film to a 35 mm master. After all that, despite the long list of awards and accolades, she’s given her film away and will rely on selling merchandise, giving paid speeches, and the kindness of strangers.
Undoubtedly, our industry is changing. Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of the history of animation knows there have been tremendous expansions and contractions, dark periods and golden ages, and rapidly changing business models. And we’re in a transition phase now, with uncertainty about where the TV broadcast model will end up, how the internet will monetize content, and what will happen in feature films. We need to try to look to the future, we need to try to understand what’s happening now and what might happen tomorrow and the next day. But we also need to do it with clear eyes and a clear head, and not glibly latch on to red herrings in this quest for understanding. Looking to the music industry as a model for the future of animation is one of those red herrings.
Ultimately, I don’t think the animation studios will go the way of the record labels. I think, however, that it’s easier now for anyone who has the urge to create their own animation, or who wants to tell stories that the studios won’t pay them to tell, to just do it. In that way Ralph Bakshi is exactly correct. There’s very little stopping anyone, except time and lack of talent, from making their own animated films and getting them out to the public.
Just don’t expect that, as Ralph suggests, you can “make a film one year and be a millionaire the next.” That’s not likely. What might happen is you’ll get the satisfaction that writers have gotten for hundreds of years, writing works that they felt compelled to write, uncertain if that work would ever be published or embraced, but doing it anyway.
If your goal is personal fame and fortune, or becoming a rock star, I can confidently say that self-produced animation is probably not your best route. But if you have that bug, do it! Because there’s nothing to stop you.
And, if you’re creating from your heart, telling your own stories, and they’re really really good, you might hit the jackpot and find yourself in the shoes of a Mike Judge or a Genndy Tartakovsky, working within those ‘asshole studios’ and having a pretty good life.