Technology is helping aspiring writers, musicians, artists and filmmakers go from amateur to pro. Who needs an agent when you've got the net?
By Tara Pepper
When Singer Gilli Moon moved from Sydney to Los Angeles 10 years ago, she flung herself into meeting record-industry execs, arranging gigs and scraping together a living. "I didn't know anybody, I didn't have any money, but I worked very hard," she says. In 1996, she created one of the earliest artist Web sites, offering a bio, pictures and an online diary she wrote; later she linked to MP3.com so people could download her songs. "That made everything possible for me, in terms of getting my music out there," she says. When an indie label signed her just two years later, she thought she'd made it. But gradually, Moon started to wonder if she couldn't do a better job of promoting herself. Three years ago she decided to break away from her record company and give it a try. Now she writes and records in her Los Angeles living room, gazing out at palm trees and her pool. Online, she arranges and promotes her tours, sells tickets, CDs and ringtones, and chats with other songwriters about upcoming festivals.
Since then, Moon has sold 20,000 records, and is steadily building up her business. Last month her Web site received 133,000 hits, up from 86,000 during the same month last year. Moon is hardly the only artist singlehandedly turning herself from amateur to pro. New technology means creative types across the board—from filmmakers to visual artists to authors—are finding it easier to bypass traditional middlemen, like record labels or galleries, and reach out to appreciative audiences themselves. The market has become so fragmented and audience tastes so specialized, it's no longer possible for big companies to cater to every niche. But individual artists can. The "indie revolution," as Stand Alone records label manager David Cool calls it, means amateur artists don't have to wait to be discovered. "There are still some who want to be plucked from obscurity and made into a star," Cool says, "but they're an increasingly small percentage. More and more, artists are realizing they can do it themselves, build up a fan base and keep control over their art as well." Some artists—painters, for instance—have always been able to produce work themselves, relatively cheaply.
Others, like musicians and filmmakers, had to pay for studio time, which proved prohibitively expensive for those without corporate backing. Now systems like ProTools enable musicians to produce top-quality recordings from a home studio for a fraction of the outlay. Indie filmmaker Jonathan Caouette didn't even use Apple's sophisticated Final Cut Pro software to put together his recent film "Tarnation," an account of his abusive childhood, which includes old home-movie footage and audiotapes; run-of-the-mill iMovies, standard on all Macs, proved perfectly adequate. When "Tarnation" was released, director Gus Van Sant commented that Caouette's technique had opened up the field to new talent. "No more excuses or filmmaker's block or procrastination," he said. "Either they start shooting or they're waiting for the vanity crew or they aren't filmmakers." The new technology has given aspiring artists an unprecedented degree of control over their careers. Until recently, labels, publishing houses and studios had a monopoly on distribution. There wasn't much point in creating a work of genius if no one could access it.
Then, after the 1998 launch of cdbaby.com, Web sites specializing in selling CDs by unsigned or indie artists mushroomed. Sites like tunetribe.com and karmadownload.com enable bands to sell CDs directly to fans around the world, without the backing of a global corporation. Gilli Moon offers ringtones on her Web site through a partnership with the Web site bandaideonline.com. Last year filmbaby.com launched, selling only movies received straight from the filmmaker—rather than from an agent or a distributor—and giving the artist 80 percent of the purchase price. For a monthly subscription of $9.95, artspan.com provides artists with an elegant personal Web space. Though she joined only three weeks ago, retired U.S. art professor Chrisa Craig Kumnick has already received inquiries from as far away as Africa for her $3,000 oil paintings. "I always knew there was an audience out there for my work," she says. "I'm amazed already at how far-reaching the visibility is." web sites and online communities are also replacing corporate publicity machines to create buzz around new talent. Festivals as far afield as Iran and Poland contacted London-based filmmaker David Bond after seeing his Web site, which features a downloadable version of his short film "Lions Are Green."
Moon used sonicbids.com, which creates an online press kit for artists, to help her pitch music to festivals, conferences and songwriting competitions. On myspace.com, bands and other artists build their own sites, with songs, photos and a blog, creating a community of "friends" by cross-referencing sites that list similar interests. "Fifteen years ago bands would have had to build up that audience with constant touring," says Paul Smernicki of Fiction Records. "Now you'll see groups without a record out, and 300 people will turn up for a gig." The British band the Bays, for instance, have never released a CD of their sparkling, ethereal music and generally operate outside "the traditional music industry," says London DJ Nick Luscombe, who programs live music and club nights at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. "Yet most festivals have them playing, and they'll be a real draw." Increasingly, artists can make a living without ever coming into contact with a bricks-and-mortar publisher or record label. "Sales of 20,000 on a major label would have you kicked off because of the enormous overheads," says Cool. "But as an indie musician, that's a good living. You have to pay for a good computer, some office supplies, and as long as you educate yourself on how to run a business, you're set."
When self-published author Angela Hoy started offering her readers the option of print or electronic books in 1998, she was surprised to find 75 percent bought the latter. She says that though fiction readers prefer traditional paperbacks, readers of nonfiction prize speed. "I converted all my titles to electronic files, and my profits soared," says Hoy, who has written nine works, including "The Emergency Divorce Handbook for Women" and "How to Be a Syndicated Newspaper Columnist." With no paper, printing or postage costs, she clears about $5,000 a month—and doesn't have to share it with a publisher. Not everyone thinks the digital revolution is unequivocally good for art. "Anything that allows people to express themselves outside the mainstream is fantastic," says Michel Shane, executive producer of "Catch Me If You Can." "It's a great training ground, and we will see some brilliant things come out of it. But in the long run I don't think it plays out as something that's a realistic career," since audiences will always be partial to big-screen movies with special effects and high-quality editing. Others question whether high artistic standards are being sacrificed. "I see editors as sculptors and color graders like watercolorists," says filmmaker Bond. "If the digital revolution focuses all these crafts into one individual, unless they're really exceptional, it will mean lower quality." And for consumers, the flood of amateur options can be overwhelming. "There's a tremendous opportunity right now for sites that want to set themselves up as frameworks, offering context and meaning," says Peter Spellman, author of "The Self Promoting Musician."
Some, such as musicdish.com, or the Internet radio show "Groovesalad," already act as trusted filters, picking gems out of reams of amateur material. E-book sites such as fictionwise.com offer ratings and reviews; Debbie Ridpath Ohi, author of "The Writer's Online Marketplace," recommends looking out for e-book award winners. The Internet has already spawned its own tastemakers, who spot promising acts long before they ever reach the mainstream. Singer Stephen Fretwell used his Web site and other music sites to create a following years before being signed to Universal Music's new, small label Fiction. A series of tiny, underground Webzines loved his songs, and his career "just took on a life of its own," he says. Smernicki says these online communities, often composed of teenagers, are very savvy about music. "They're early adopters, they listen to bands before they break and lose interest once they become bigger," he says. "But they have good taste, they're music connoisseurs, and it's something [record labels] are very aware of because it's very hard to fake it on those sites. You can't market your way into that community." Artists are increasingly using technology to revolutionize their work as well as their business. Though artist James Ford found early Web art irritating, when flash technology developed he realized its potential as a medium. So he started creating global, collaborative projects such as "Six Degrees of Smoking," in which he sent lighters around the world and encouraged recipients to photograph them via mobile and e-mail him the images. Contemporary art should always feel outside the mainstream, drawing its audience into a world away from everyday life. The lone troubadour, the writer scribbling away in his attic, are stereotypes of creative genius.
For artists like Gilli Moon, penning pensive ballads in her living room using nothing more than high-tech tools and good business sense, they also represent a viable path to success.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.