How it Used to Be vs. Where it’s Going: On Being an Artist… Today

I watched an excellent film today called Pause Press Play. Great documentary on the current state of creating and consuming art and the implications for the future. If you’re an artist, you should watch it.

Yesterday, I watched a thought provoking presentation on TED by Larry Lessig called Laws that Choke Creativity. They both, in different ways, are discussions on something being referred to now as the Democratization of Art. Very heady discussions.

It’s a topic that has been kicking up a lot of dust. Much debating among artists I know and organizations I belong to.

Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, California, USA

For the last few years, I’ve been giving this topic a great deal of thought. Sometimes too much thought. Occasionally, thinking gets in the way of doing and if I’m not careful, I find I get too hung up on the how or why, and I stop the do. I get paralyzed with the possibilities. Sometimes you just have to pick a direction, even if it turns out to be the wrong one and see where it leads. But you never know until you try.

I’ve been thinking about how what once took a great deal of time spent learning craft and even more money, now takes less time and even less money. That really all started more than 10 years ago and I certainly personally benefited from it. The democratization phenomenon is, at the same time both a good thing and a slightly scary thing depending on where you happen to be standing at the moment. What used to happen behind close doors in dark rooms run by… well, frankly, a bunch of older white guys, is now available to anyone with a half way decent computer and an idea. That’s mostly a good thing.

As someone who would identify myself as in the slightly older white guy camp, the tricky part of it is that if you’ve been even mildly successful doing it the old way, the new way can seem incredibly scary. Threatening. You may even want to fight against it to protect what you think you have. More often, however, fighting progress (good or bad) is eventually a losing battle. It’s swimming upstream. Unless you’re a salmon and only then perhaps you’ll succeed.

When I was first starting out in the film business as a film editor in the early 1990s, I remember being frustrated that I had difficulty finding footage to experiment and learn my craft with. Either I wasn’t allowed to use it because it was owned by an ad agency or client and I couldn’t show anything I made with it to anyone, or the footage I did have access to, just didn’t speak to me. Not inspiring.

I was already a still photographer since college and so I decided to shoot my own footage using whatever crude video gear I could get my hands on. The footage looked pretty bad due to both my skill level and the limitations of the technology of the day. What I imagined in my head were beautiful 35mm motion picture images. What I had was second generation VHS. But I shot with it and I got better.

N. Garland Street at Lake Street, Chicago, IL, USA

It taught me an important thing. There’s always something in your way of whatever direction you’re heading in. You never have exactly what you need to create what you’re trying to create. Money, gear, facility. But if you are passionate about it, you can still make it happen. You just have to turn that creative brain of yours to problem solving your limitations as well as your vision. Sometimes going around an obstacle allows you to create something more amazing than if you had no limitations. The oft-told story of the issues with the mechanical shark from Jaws comes to mind. Let me Google that for you if you’re not familiar with it.

These days, I find myself coming full circle from those early days of making what I needed to when trying to realize a particular vision I want to express. On any given day, I might be a director, still photographer, film editor, graphic artist, director of photography or music composer. Some of those disciplines I’m much better at than others, but it beautifully points to the idea that I’ve gone back to creating what I want to create, by any means necessary.

Happily, twenty years of working in the film industry gives me a few advantages over those newcomers, who like me, now have a myriad of inexpensive tools to achieve our creative goals. But those same inexpensive tools have made the business I’ve made a good living in, much more uncertain to navigate going forward.

The way we’ve always done things is most certainly going away. The tricky part is not throwing the baby out with the bath water, unless we have already done that, which may be the case.

It’s become somewhat of a humorous given that no matter where I’m working, I’m always the guy telling everyone else,

“Hey everyone! Look at this. This is a cool new thing! We should try this!”

And often, I’m met with the powerful inertia of,

“But we do it this way. This is the way we’ve always done it.”

Stefanel Billboard at Quadrilatero Della Moda, Milan, Italy

I do a lot of pulling people up the hill behind me. I’m not saying I’m some kind of futuristic genius, because if I was, I’d be making bank with my masterfully shrewd and groundbreaking ideas. But I’ve found that eventually, some of the smarter people do end up coming along for the adventure… often when they have no choice.

So I guess I’m sort of a mid-level, Christmas help kind of futuristic genius. But I’ll take it.

For me personally, it’s been fascinating to see what has been snowballing toward the-way-we’ve-always-done-it. I seem to have one foot in both camps. I’m still making a living with how it’s always been done, combined with finding new ways to create in the direction that we’re all inevitably headed.

It’s been a wonderfully blissful and terrifying journey. But it’s happening. Make no mistake. It’s never going to be like it was. Hopefully it will be better. Different certainly. But better. We’ll see. Even the most forward looking of us will admit, if they’re being honest, that we have no idea where we’re going to end up. We’re all feeling around in the dark together.

So what do we do? We make our best guess. And jump. Or die fighting to stay where we currently are.

If we don’t jump, we end up being dinosaurs, straining to get unstuck from the tar pits. Look at the music industry the past 15 years. Millions of dollars and lawsuits fighting to keep things the way they had always been. They lost miserably. The same thing is happening with the film industry these days.

If I may digress for a moment, I’ve been doing some summer cleaning and decided that it had been more than two years since I actually put a DVD in my DVD player. So I ripped all of my DVDs to my computer (hundreds and hundreds of them) and I gave all the original DVDs to my assistant who was overjoyed to get an instant hand-me-down library of film history.

In the process I was reminded of something that really cooled me to the commercial movie industry. The DVD packaging. There were still a few DVDs that I had bought years ago that for one reason or another, I hadn’t opened. Raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember the mind boggling frustration of opening a new DVD. The impossible to get into plastic wrapping. The “Security Device” of three pieces of tape on three sides of the case, difficult to remove in one piece, let along a few pieces. It was like the movie industry was punishing their customers.

Fuck you. We have your money. Now we’re going to treat you like a criminal. Enjoy your security tape removing experience.

I stopped buying DVDs.

Now years later, as I resumed opening up those DVDs during my ripping project, it all came back to me. Damn, I hated whoever came up with taping the cases shut. Back then I thought, if the commercial movie industry was struggling, good. They deserve it. I was trying to do the right thing by purchasing my movies. And they made it so unpleasant that I stopped, all because they wanted to hold onto every last dollar they could in their losing battle against piracy. No matter what the experience was for their customers.

Like the music industry, the movie industry has been pulled, kicking and screaming, into the new world. It’s never going to be the same as it was. It has changed.

So back to today and the democratization of art.

And that baby and bath water thing. As I mentioned before, I have one foot in both the past and future camps. But I’m already shifting my weight to the future foot.

Berlin Wall Guard Tower, Berlin, Germany

As an artist who makes a living from what I create, I completely understand the reluctance to unravel How it’s Been. Art and music and movies cost money to make. People have to eat. If we completely make all art available for free, no one who doesn’t live in their parents basements will be able to create it. There will be no art made by anyone under 23 years old. That would be bad. A rich life of experience helps to shape great art. How much rich life experience do you have when you’re 21? I had very little.

At the same time, Pandora’s box is open. There is a whole generation of people who aren’t used to paying for anything. Not their news, not their music and not the movies they watch. Can we un-teach that? The music industry had a chance to snuff that learning out right around Napster by adopting new ways to distribute their music, rather than turning their future customers into criminals. Music Industry Greed = Missed Opportunity.

As Larry Lessig notes, most kids, not a few bad apples, but most kids in their twenties and younger, on a daily basis, violate the law in a number of ways, be it appropriating copyrighted art to re-create with it or the old stand by, stealing music and movies by downloading them off of the internet. They have been conditioned to be, literally, criminals. And for the most part, they seem to be okay with that.

I remember as a kid in my early teens, going to the drug store to buy the cheapest blank cassette tape I could find and raiding the music library of the cousin of my best friend. We would walk out the door with as many albums as we could carry down the street and spend days recording them. Were we stealing or sharing? Without exception, our cheap tapes would get eaten in our cheap tape decks after too many plays. But by then, we were hooked on our favorite bands and as soon as we had a few bucks scraped together, we’d go legit and head down to the record store and purchase the albums we loved. We eventually grew out of our thieving ways and the record industry had new loyal customers. It’s how we all learned about the music we would buy for the rest of our lives.

When the music industry claims that the financial loss for stealing a .99 cent song by illegally downloading it is $150 million, per song, as Rob Reid noted in his TED talk, The $800 Billion iPod, that’s an amount that is so out of proportion to the crime that it doesn’t even compute with the kids. They’ve seen Dr. Evil. He’s a funny guy.

If it’s easier to steal something than to jump through the hoops and limitations of watching or listening to something through legitimate means, perhaps the legitimate system needs to be re-worked. Steve Jobs had it right when he battled the music industry and created the iTunes Store. As he noted in that keynote address in 2003, it became easier to be a legitimate customer at the price that most people felt was fair, .99 cents.

Of course, when these same kids become artists themselves and have bills and rent to pay, perhaps it will hit them.

“Ohhhhhh. That’s why you were all so freaked out when we downloaded your art. Yeah, I get it now. Sorry.”

And they’ll be upset when the same thing happens to them when kids steal their work and they can’t pay the bills. It’s been going on since music, art and film first met blank tape. And now digital. People usually do grow out of stealing. And they more or less become legit customers. Be it their conscience, realizing their favorite artists won’t be able to keep producing if no one pays for their work or whatever reason, most people, if given a fair and reasonable choice, will do the right thing. If any industry stays greedy and refuses to adapt, then not so much.

Do I want people stealing my photographs and using them to make money without my permission? Of course not. I’m very careful with what I put online and use invisible watermarking to track where my images are showing up on the internet. Sometimes it’s just someone re-posting one of my photographs on a blog and saying they like what they see. Sometimes I get a photo credit for it, good, and sometimes I don’t, less good. Bad even. That’s why you always see my Billy Sheahan Photography logo in the corner of every image I put out there in addition to the watermarking you don’t see.

If someone is making money off it my photography without my permission or proper licensing, I do go after them. They shouldn’t reap the commercial benefit of my hard work and the money I spent to create what I did without compensating me for it in some way. But if someone is using my art to create new art, saying something different than I was originally saying, perhaps I have to rethink releasing the hounds. I’m still debating that in my head. But it’s an important discussion to have with myself.

We all have to put our precious art out there. Becoming known for the work you create, begets more work and success, as long as the work is good. You can’t keep your light under a bushel, as the saying goes. Navigating the fine line between promotion and the risk of having your work stolen is a battle all artists struggle with these days in the wild wild internet.

All I know for certain is, the way we’ve always done it is gone. What it becomes is up for all artists to collectively decide as we jump into the unknown. No one wants to be stuck in the tar pits.

The photos in this blog really have nothing to do with our topic here, but sometimes it’s nice to have pretty pictures to look at while you’re digesting a lot of information and points of view. A visual sorbet, if you will!

As always, thanks for reading.

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2 thoughts

  1. You’re more than welcome Von.

    There are few of us film dudes still kicking around. Two of the above photos originated on film. One with my trusty Nikon F3 (1983 vintage) and the other with my longtime traveling companion, my Hasselblad 500C (1968 vintage).

    Both still alive and kicking, just not as often.

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