Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The opening act dilemma

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Ronald McDonald

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “Have you ever gone to a concert just for the opener?”

Earlier this week, I described the initial stages of creating a brand, whether commercial or artistic, as a kind of charitable enterprise: you’ve got to be willing to lose money for years to produce anything with a chance of surviving. I was speaking primarily of investors and patrons, but of course, it’s also true of artists themselves. A career in the arts requires an enormous initial investment of time, energy, and money—at least in the form of opportunity cost, as you choose not to pursue more remunerative forms of making a living—and a major factor separating those who succeed from those who don’t is the amount of pain they’re willing to endure. David Mamet famously said that everyone gets a break in show business in twenty-five years: some get it at the beginning, others at the end, and all you can really control is how willing you are to stick around after everyone else has gone home. That’s always been true, but more recently, it’s led to a growing assumption that emerging artists should be willing, even eager, to give work away for free. With media of all kinds being squeezed on both sides by increasing competition and diminishing audiences, there’s greater pressure than ever to find cheap content, and the most reliable source has always been hungry unknowns desperate for any kind of exposure.

And that last word is an insidious one. Everybody wants exposure—who wouldn’t?—but its promise is often used to justify arrangements in which artists are working for nothing, or at a net loss, for companies that aren’t in it for charity. Earlier this month, McDonald’s initially declined to pay the bands scheduled to play at its showcase at South by Southwest, saying instead that the event would be “a great opportunity for additional exposure.” (This took the form of the performers being “featured on screens throughout the event, as well as possibly mentioned on McDonald’s social media counts.”) When pressed on this, the company replied sadly: “There isn’t a budget for an artist fee.” Ultimately, after an uproar that canceled out whatever positive attention it might have expected, it backtracked and agreed to compensate the artists. And even if this all sort of went nowhere, it serves as a reminder of how craven even the largest corporations can be when it comes to fishing for free content. McDonald’s always seeks out the cheapest labor it can, cynically passing along the hidden human costs to the rest of society, so there’s no reason to expect it to be any different when it comes to music. As Mamet says of movie producers, whenever someone talks to you about “exposure,” what they’re really saying is: “Let me take that cow to the fair for you, son.”

Ronald McDonald

That said, you can’t blame McDonald’s for seizing an opportunity when it saw one. If there are two groups of artists who have always been willing to work for free, it’s writers and musicians, and it’s a situation that has been all but institutionalized by how the industries themselves are structured. A few months ago, Billboard published a sobering breakdown of the costs of touring for various tiers of performers. For a headliner like Lady Gaga or Katy Perry, an arena performance can net something like $300,000, and even after the costs of production, crew, and transportation are deducted, it’s a profitable endeavor. But an opening act gets paid a flat fee of $15,000 or so, and when you subtract expenses and divide the rest between members of the band, you’re essentially paying for the privilege of performing. As Jamie Cheek, an entertainment business manager, is quoted as saying: “If you get signed to a major label, you’re going to make less money for the next two or three years than you’ve ever made in your life.” And it remains a gamble for everyone except the label itself. Over the years, I’ve seen countless opening acts, but I’d have trouble remembering even one, and it isn’t because they lacked talent. We’re simply less likely to take anything seriously if we haven’t explicitly paid for it.

That’s the opening act dilemma. And it’s worth remembering this if you’re a writer being bombarded with proposals to write for free, even for established publications, for the sake of the great god exposure. For freelancers, it’s created a race to the bottom, as they’re expected to work for less and less just to see their names in print. And we shouldn’t confuse this with the small presses that pay contributors in copies, if at all. These are labors of love, meant for a niche audience of devoted readers, and they’re qualitatively different from commercial sites with an eye on their margins. The best publications will always pay their writers as fairly as they can afford. Circulation for the handful of surviving print science-fiction magazines has been falling for years, for instance, but Analog and Asimov’s recently raised their rate per word by a penny or so. It may not sound like much, but it amounts to a hundred dollars or so that it didn’t need to give its authors, most of whom would gladly write for even less. Financially, it’s hard to justify, but as a sign of respect for its contributors, it speaks volumes, even as larger publications relentlessly cut their budgets for freelancers. As painful as it may be, you have to push back, unless you’re content to remain an opening act for the rest of your life. You’re going to lose money anyway, so it may as well be on your own terms. And if someone wants you to work for nothing now, you can’t expect them to pay you later.

Written by nevalalee

March 27, 2015 at 9:22 am

Quote of the Day

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Lessons in Play

If you are in a losing position, it pays to follow the Enough Rope Principle: make the position as complicated as you can with your next move.

Lessons in Play: An Introduction to Combinatorial Game Theory

Written by nevalalee

March 27, 2015 at 7:30 am

John Wick and the revenge of the underdog

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Keanu Reeves in John Wick

Over the weekend, my wife and I caught up on video with John Wick, the latest—and in some ways the most appealing—entry in a growing subgenre of modestly scaled thrillers designed to appeal to hardcore action fans. In era when even the latest installments in the Die Hard or Expendables franchises are cut to avoid an R rating, a cohort of smaller action movies, like The Raid: Redemption or Dredd, has emerged to fill the gap, using minuscule budgets and straightforward stories to deliver real bloodshed and gunplay. If John Wick is the most likable of the bunch, that’s due largely to casting: it’s as packed with welcome faces in supporting roles as a Michael Mann film, and it’s also a surprising showcase for the talents of Keanu Reeves. Reeves is often dismissed as an actor, but in the right part, in movies from Point Break to Speed, he has a precise, graceful physical presence, and it’s never been so capably used as it is here. Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch frame and cut the action to show us as much of their star as possible, and in scenes like the extended close-quarters gun battle scored to Kaleida’s “Think,” in which Reeves mows down scores of goons in a crowded nightclub, we’re close to the balletic ideal of gun fu. Even after an hour of nonstop action, we aren’t wearied by it, and much of this is thanks to the approach allowed by Reeves’s particular set of skills.

Yet there’s a touch of dissonance to the casting that undermines the premise ever so slightly. Wick himself was originally conceived as a character in his sixties—screenwriter Derek Kolstad envisioned him as Paul Newman—and while Reeves may be over fifty, he sure as heck doesn’t look it. As a result, Wick never comes off as vulnerable or outmatched, even when he’s up against a seemingly inexhaustible army of antagonists. The movie, to my relief, is clever about world-building and backstory, and elements like Wick’s late wife are introduced with a refreshing concision, but it miscalculates a little when it comes to setting up its hero as the ultimate killing machine. There’s an amusing monologue delivered by Michael Nyqvist, as a charming Russian mobster, explaining the origins of Wick’s nickname: “He’s not the boogeyman, he’s the guy you send to kill the boogeyman.” But the story comes before we’ve seen Wick in action, which spoils the surprise, such as it is, when he springs to life. The movie could have delayed that piece of exposition much longer, as Snowpiercer does, or even omitted it entirely. Reeves’s physicality, when activated, is more eloquent than any speech, as is Nyqvist’s initial muted response on the phone when told that Wick is coming after them: “Oh.”

Keanu Reeves in John Wick

And as much as I like John Wick, I can’t help but wonder how it might have played with a hero who seemed at genuine risk. I don’t think there’s a more exhilarating moment in all of movies than the scene in The Limey when Terence Stamp, beaten up by goons and dumped on the sidewalk, gets to his feet, pulls the gun from the back of his waistband, and totters back inside to wreak his unseen revenge. It’s a sequence that turns, crucially, on Stamp’s age: you can almost feel his bones creaking as he straightens up. Recast it with, say, Jason Statham, and it’s just another action beat, maybe a bit more inventive than most. Revenge narratives are inherently more satisfying when the protagonist’s resources are reduced to a minimum, but John Wick doesn’t have much interest in this: Wick is superbly trained, as well as possessed of all but limitless funds and access to weaponry, and his reputation precedes him. As a result, we’re deprived of one of the most satisfying conventions in any revenge story, as the villains slowly begin to realize what they’re really up against. Replace “John Wick” in every line of dialogue with “Batman,” as in “He stole Batman’s car and killed his dog,” and you get a sense of how foreordained the action becomes. It’s fun, in its own way, but it also denies itself a more delicious buildup, and for no particular reason.

Looking back, I feel like I’m being harder on this movie than I meant to be: in most respects, it’s a superb little exercise. But the script is written with such clarity and skill that we’re all the more aware of its acts of triangulation. John Wick begins with a nice, straightforward premise—Wick goes after the mob after they kill his dog—but it dilutes it toward the end, when Wick loses his mentor as well. I can understand the impulse to raise the stakes for the third act, but it would have been more effective to make the movie entirely about the dog: for most viewers, a dog’s death is more than enough reason to drive a revenge story forward. (About ten minutes into the movie, my wife, who clearly knew nothing about it going in, said in complete seriousness: “I really hope the dog doesn’t die.”) John Wick, at its best, is a reminder of the pleasures of economy, from the clean lines of its story to its striking, silent hero: Reeves probably has fewer words to speak here than any lead actor in years, and we don’t miss them. The fact that it works so well with its bones so exposed is a tribute to everyone involved. But it remains a slick, efficient toy, rather than a movie, like The Limey, that drills into something deeper about how we’d all like to carry ourselves with our backs against the wall. Perhaps that would have been too much to ask from a film content to linger luxuriantly on its surfaces. But in the sequel, I’m hoping that this young dog can show us a few new tricks.

Written by nevalalee

March 26, 2015 at 8:41 am

Quote of the Day

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Thomas Kuhn

History…suggests that the scientific enterprise has developed a uniquely powerful technique for producing surprises…Produced inadvertently by a game played under one set of rules, their assimilation requires the elaboration of another set. After they have become parts of science, the enterprise, at least of those specialists in whose particular field the novelties lie, is never quite the same again.

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Written by nevalalee

March 26, 2015 at 7:30 am

The Bollingen Library and the future of media

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The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

About a year ago, I began to notice that many of the books in my home library came from the same place. It all started when I realized that Kenneth Clark’s The Nude and E.H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion—two of the most striking art books of the century—had originally been delivered as part of the A.W. Mellon Lectures in Fine Art and published by the Bollingen Library. Looking more closely, I found that the Bollingen Foundation, whatever that was, had been responsible for countless other titles that have played important roles in my life and those of other readers: Vladimir Nabokov’s massive translation and commentary of Eugene Onegin, the Richard Wilhelm edition of the I Ching, D.T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture, Jacques Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Huntington Cairns’s extraordinary anthology The Limits of Art, and, perhaps most famously, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Intrigued, I sought out more books from the Bollingen imprint, looking for used copies online and purchasing them sight unseen. So far, I’ve acquired tomes like The Survival of the Pagan Gods, The Eternal Present, The Gothic Cathedral, and The Demands of Art. Along with a shared concern with the humanities and their role in modern life, they’re all physically beautiful volumes, a delight to hold and browse through, and I hope to acquire more for as long as I can.

Which, when you think about it, is highly unusual. Most of us don’t pay much attention to the publishers of the books we buy: we may subconsciously sense that, say, the Knopf imprint is a mark of quality, but we don’t pick up a novel solely because of the borzoi logo on the spine. (The one big exception may be Taschen, which has built up a reputation for large, indecently attractive coffee table books.) Publishers would love it if we did, of course, just as television networks and movie studios would be happy if we automatically took their brands as a seal of approval. That’s rare in any medium: HBO and Disney have managed it, but not many more. So it’s worth taking a closer look at Bollingen to see how, exactly, it caught my eye. And what we discover is that Bollingen was a philanthropic enterprise, essentially an academic press without the university. It was founded in 1945 by Paul Mellon, heir to the Andrew W. Mellon fortune, as a tribute to his late wife, a devotee of Carl Jung, and while it initially focused on Jungian studies—it was named after Jung’s famous tower and country home in Switzerland—it gradually expanded into a grander project centered on the interconnectedness and relevance of art, history, literature, and psychology. As names like Gombrich and Clark indicate, it arose out of much the same circle as the Warburg Institute in London, which was recently the subject of a loving profile by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, but with far greater resources, patronage, and financial support.

The Nude by Kenneth Clark

In the end, after publishing hundreds of books, sponsoring lectures, and awarding generous stipends to the likes of Marianne Moore and Alexis Leger, the foundation discontinued operations in 1968, noting that the generation it had served was yielding to another set of concerns. And while it may not seem to have much relevance to the problem of media brands today, it offers some surprising lessons. Bollingen started as an act of philanthropy, without any expectation of profit, and arose out of a highly focused, idiosyncratic vision: these were simply books that Mellon and his editors wanted to see, and they trusted that they would find an appreciative audience over time. Which, in many respects, is still how meaningful brands are created or sustained. Matthew Yglesias once referred to Amazon as “a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers,” and although he was being facetious, he had a point. It’s easy to make fun of startup companies that are obsessed with eyeballs, rather than sustainable profits, as venture capitalist Chris Sacca put it on Alex Blumberg’s Startup podcast:

That’s usually a bad move for an early-stage company—to get cash-flow positive. I have strong opinions about that. Everyone I know who pushes for cash-flow positivity that early stops growing at the rate they should be growing, and gets so anchored by this idea that “we need to keep making money.”

Sacca concludes that you don’t want a “lifestyle business”—that is, a business growing at a pace where you get to take vacations—and that growth for its own sake should be pursued at all costs. And it’s a philosophy that has resulted, infamously, in countless “hot” tech companies that are years, if not a lifetime, away from profitability.

But I think Sacca is half right, and despite the obvious disparity in ideals, he all but circles back around to the impulse behind Bollingen. Venture investors don’t have any desire to run a charitable enterprise, but they end up doing so anyway, at least for the years in which a company is growing, because that’s how brands are made. Someone’s money has to be sacrificed to lay the foundations for anything lasting, both because of the timelines involved and because it’s the only way to avoid the kind of premature compromise that can turn off potential users or readers. We’re living in an age when such investments are more likely to take the form of startup capital than charitable largess, but the principle is fundamentally the same. It’s the kind of approach that can’t survive a short-term obsession with advertisers or page views, and it requires patrons with deep pockets, a tolerance for idiosyncrasy, an eye for quality, and a modicum of patience. (In journalism, the result might look a lot like The Distance, a publication in whose success I have a considerable personal stake.) More realistically, it may take the form of a prestigious but money-losing division within a larger company, like Buzzfeed’s investigative pieces or most of the major movie studios. The reward, as Yglesias puts it, is a claim on “a mighty engine of consumer surplus”—and if we replace “consumer” with “cultural,” we get something very much like the Bollingen Foundation. Bollingen wasn’t interested in growth in itself, but in influencing the entire culture, and in at least one book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, it went viral to an extent that makes even the most widely shared article seem lame. Like Jung’s tower, it was made for its own sake. And its legacy still endures.

Quote of the Day

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Francis Crick

When times get tough, true novelty is needed—novelty whose important features cannot be preplanned—and for this we must rely on chance. Chance is the only source of true novelty.

Francis Crick

Written by nevalalee

March 25, 2015 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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Do media brands have a future?

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The May 13, 2012 issue of the New York Times

Years ago, my online browsing habits followed a predictable routine. Each morning, after checking my email, I’d click over to read the headlines on the New York Times, then The A.V. Club, followed by whatever blogger, probably Andrew Sullivan, I was following at the moment. Although I didn’t think of it in those terms, in each case, I was responding to a brand: I trusted these sites to provide me with a few minutes of engaging content, and although I didn’t know exactly what would be posted each day, there were certain intangibles—a voice, a writer’s point of view, a stamp of quality—that assured me that a visit there would be worth my time. These days, my regimen looks very different. I still tune into the New York Times and The A.V. Club for old time’s sake, but the bulk of my browsing is done through Reddit or Digg. I don’t visit a lot of sites specifically for the content they provide; instead, I trust in aggregators, whether crowdsourced by upvotes or curated more deliberately, to direct my attention to whatever is worth reading from one hour to the next. In many cases, when I click through to a story, I don’t even know where the link goes, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve told my wife about an article I saw “somewhere on Digg.” And once I’m done with that one spotlighted piece, I’m not particularly likely to visit the site later to see what else it might have to offer.

As a content provider—which is a term I hate—in my own right, the pattern of consumption that I see in myself chills me to the bone. Yet it represents a rational, if subconscious, choice. I’m simply betting that I’ll have a better time by trusting the aggregators, which admittedly are brands in themselves, rather than the brand of a specific writer or publication. Individual authors or sites can be erratic; on slow news days, even the Times can seem like a bore. But an aggregator that sweeps the entire web for material will always come up with something diverting, and I’m not tied down to any one site. After all, even the most consistently reliable reads can lose interest over time. I started visiting Reddit more regularly during the last presidential election, for instance, after I got tired of Andrew Sullivan’s increasingly panicky and hysterical tone: reading his blog turned into a chore. And I became less active on The A.V. Club, particularly as a commenter, after much of its core staff decamped for The Dissolve and Vox, although I still read certain features faithfully. To be honest, it’s been years since a new site grabbed my attention to the point where I wanted to read it every day. And I’m not alone: the problem of retaining loyalty to brands is the single greatest challenge confronting journalism of all kinds, even as musical artists deal with much the same issues on Spotify and Pandora.

The front page of Reddit

Faced with a future driven by aggregators, which destroy the old business models for distributing content, most media companies have turned to one of two solutions. Either you provide content in a form that resists aggregation while still attracting an audience, or you nurture a voice or personality compelling enough to draw readers back on a regular basis. Both have their problems. At first glance, the two kinds of content that might seem immune to aggregation are television shows and podcasts, but that’s more of a structural quirk. From a network’s perspective, the real brand at stake isn’t Community or Parks and Recreation but NBC itself, and with the proliferation of viewing and streaming options, we’re much less likely to tune in to whatever the network wants to show us on Thursday night. And podcasts are simply awaiting the appearance of a reliable aggregator that will cull the day’s best episodes, or, even more likely, the best two- or three-minute snippets. Once that happens, we’re likely to start listening to podcasts as we consume written content, as a kind of smorgasbord of diversion that isn’t tied down to any one creator. As for personalities, they’re great when you can get them, but they’re excruciatingly rare. Talk radio is a fantastic example: the fact that maybe half a dozen guys—and they’re mostly men—have divided the radio audience between them for decades now points to how few can really do it.

And there’s no reason to expect other kinds of content to be any different. Every author hopes that his voice will be distinctive enough to draw in people who simply want to hear everything he says, but there aren’t many such writers left. (David Carr, who passed away earlier this year, was one of the last.) Even I’m mostly reconciled to the fact that readership on this blog is largely dependent on factors outside my control. My single busiest day occurred after one of my posts appeared on the front page of Reddit, but as I’ve noted elsewhere, after a heady period in which a mass of eyeballs equivalent to the population of Cincinnati came to visit, few, if any, stuck around to read more. I’ve slowly acquired a coterie of regular readers, but page views have remained more or less fixed for a long time, and my only spikes in traffic come when a post is linked somewhere else. I do what I can to keep the level of quality consistent, and if nothing else, I don’t lack for productivity. All I can really do is keep writing, throw out ideas, and hope that a few of them stick, which isn’t all that different from what the major media companies are doing on a much larger scale. But I can’t help but feel that there must be a better way. Tomorrow, I’m going to talk more about one brand that caught my eye—in the form of a shelf of musty books by the Bollingen Foundation, most of them long out of print—to see if its example holds any lessons for the rest of us.

Written by nevalalee

March 24, 2015 at 9:03 am

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