What can animators learn from the music business?

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.

12 Responses to “What can animators learn from the music business?”

  1. Michael Cawood Says:

    A very interesting article, and Ralph’s thoughts are worth considering. I’ll admit I’ve had the ‘bug’ for ever and I finally got back into personal film making mode again last year and started making ‘Devils Angels & Dating’ with a team of online artists… it’s going very well… but… and this is a big ‘but’…. it’s all for free, there’s little to no way to make money off it so we have to make sure we’re doing it for the love of it and the artistry. Because if you don’t love it, why would you commit years of your life to doing it in your free time?

  2. Kevin Says:

    Michael, thanks for commenting. What an awesome project! My hat is off to you. I cannot imagine how complex and time consuming it must be! I’d love to hear about some of the unexpected pitfalls and unexpected pleasures you’ve found so far. And by the way, I love your desk setup in your intro video.

  3. Lucas Martell Says:

    I’ll second everything that’s been said. I just finished my short which took 5 years to make. In the end, I probably won’t even recoup the small bit of money I put into it, let alone the thousands of hours spent on it. It was all done for the love of the game.

    However, I think there’s one important comparison that’s missing. In both the music world and the indie animation world, for every success there are at least a hundred failures. Sure you can make a movie/album for cheap. If its good you might even have a 1 in 100 chance of it being successful. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t try, but I think too many people mistake Bakshi’s words of inspiration for a viable business model.

  4. Kevin Says:

    Wow, Lucas, what an impressive website! I just watched your podcast on rendering and learned a ton! You’ve got a great teaching resource, and I’ve just added you to my links.

    And it’s good to hear the wisdom of someone who’s been there, done that on the subject. I’m glad to see that, even if you’re not going to get rich from your film, you’ve done very well on the festival circuit.

    I was also interested to read your blog post on the ‘Animation Pyramid.’ I’ve already written up a post covering similar ground that I’ll be posting shortly.

  5. Alonso Says:

    I’ve been interested in this topic for a while now. Sadly I haven’t come upon a solution. Lango and Mayerson have talked about it a bit (here’s a collection of links to their stuff http://monotremedreams.blogspot.com/2009/06/call-of-indie.html)

    Doing it for the love is fine and good. But what’s really interesting is finding a way to do it and not have to sacrifice your sleep or habit of eating regularly. I wonder if we can look at the original shorts economic system and readapt it? But then I wonder if we will just wind up where those esurance commercials are, fun, but tied to advertising.

    Seems like Pocoyo might have to be the hallmark of a style for doing it fast and cheap and still fair quality.

    There’s so much potential with the internet reaching around the world for coworkers and an audience. The days of the huge audience are over, if you can find a large enough niche that is willing to get monetarily involved then that’s all you need. Question is just how do you get them monetarily involved, does it come down to HomestarRunner and Making Fiends style and survive off of T-shirts. Or is there a better way?

    Looking forwards to any further thoughts you have on this subject.

    (Also I think you are right about the storytelling rules not all applying to a short film, 2 posts ago ;)

  6. Henk Says:

    In relation to the music business I`d like to point out this 1 minute 45 youtube video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuxMJ8lnYA4

  7. Kevin Says:

    Henk, that video reiterates some of what I summarized about the emerging music business. Note that there was a key phrase he used about how giving something way for virtually nothing can be economically viable: profit is achieved by “aligning the proper scarcities.” In the case of individual music performers, the scarcities he mentions (as does Dick Dale, and many others) is live performances and merchandising.

    Now, apply that model to making animated product. No live performances. Merchandising can be huge for some very successful feature films, but it’s negligible for the vast majority of individual creators.

    The only meaningful ‘proper scarcity’ individual animators have, as I see it, is their individual talent and creativity, which can’t be directly monetized.

  8. Daniel Rice Says:

    Interesting read but I agree with most of the points from everyone here. I’ve been apart of a few short films myself at Blur Studio. One of which got nominated for an Academy Award. We have sold a few of our shorts on Itunes but that amounts to very little when comparred to the cost of making the shorts.

    The biggest thing to come out of them are recognition and proof of concept so to speak. Basically an advertisement to say we are creative and can tell our own stories. It allows studios and clients to feel more comfortable coming to you with their own characters and ideas.

    I’m guessing it’s somewhat the same for individual creators. Helps you to get that next paying job so to speak. Like a demo tape in the music industry. They also give you a lot of experience and exposure so there are a lot of positives. Look at “9” and “District 9″ for good examples of that.

    As far as finacial models go… I don’t know. That’s a tough one. I guess if you had a high quality short maybe you could try selling it to a larger studio that may not have the bandwidth to produce one for a film. Most studios wouldn’t like putting up their competition in front of their film though. Because lets be honest, if you make something that fits their style of entertainment and they put it in front of one of their films you could one day either partner with them or be their competition. We were able to do this with Gopher Broke. I’ll have to find out how rewarding that was for us from a finacial standpoint and post it.

    Maybe if a group of artist who made shorts sold them together as a package deal sort of like “The Anthology Project” is doing with short comic stories. Just thinking out loud.

    I’m a huge supporter of short film making though. It’s a passion I think I will always have with me and feel the need to be a part of. They are very powerful from a creative standpoint. Not dictated by the studios. A way we all can have a voice in entertainment. So I wouldn’t discourage anyone from making them. I guess I kind of like that they are labors of love. Their is purity in that.

  9. Kevin Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Daniel. I, too, am a huge supporter of short film making — that’s what I mostly teach at Animation Mentor, and that’s what I taught at a wonderful two-week workshop in Taiwan last year.

    And I agree that if it’s not done as a labor of love (at least on an individual level), it’s probably pointless. The comics model (i.e., an anthology of shorts) is really another kettle of fish. There’s a well established market and system for comics/graphic novels/anthologies, even self produced ones, and a single creator can do a lot more comic book pages in their spare time than an animation can do minutes of short film.

    I know some animators who have done their own short films, and also contributed to art books/comics anthologies. I don’t think they got rich with the publishing, but they did sell copies, and some have made a few dollars for it. But the short films were really just for artistic glory, or as calling cards for bigger gigs.

  10. Daniel Rice Says:

    By the way, I do not recall how I found your site this week but since then I’ve been very engaged with all your posts and thoughts. Truly a fountain of knowledge. Thank you for sharing.

  11. alex vaida Says:

    Very interesting read… I’ve been working in the animation industry for a while now and I met a lot of people who “might” be interested in doing an aside project. But I have yet to meet those who are actually willing to do it.

    I am back to school to get better as an animator but I won’t get to do a short film in school. It’s being phased out. I still get to watch the critiques left for advanced students. Kevin, yours are golden.

    I am working on a short anyway. I have high hopes I will be able to convince other artists to join me on such projects.
    Am I being naive in thinking that they will be interested for real?

    Hats off to those who have already invested a lot of time into this…

  12. What can animators learn from the music business? - Chronicles of an Animator Says:

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch