bandcampI’ve had enough of mediocrity. I understand that we can all make art now; but most of us have no business doing it. Spotify is paying musicians pennies on the penny, and laptop speakers on college campuses sleep in a haze of jangly indie sameness. Amazon is drunk on Kindle books whose covers feature jpeg compression and the finest typography that Word 95 could ever have mustered. Another talented indie filmmaker is posting a great film to Vimeo right now, but you’ll never see it. Among other things, I just promoted The Tower of Babel for about $270 and made $19.18 in return.

This is art today, in snapshot and panorama. The grave is dug. If you aren’t helping yet, grab a shovel and start making an album.

This is a two-edged sword, for both the talented and the untalented. For those who should actually be heard, it’s now easier than ever to produce a creative work. (I use the term technically. Production is not the actual making, but how the thing made gets from artist to you.) The infrastructure is there. You just upload your stuff. But the side of the sword that will kill you is the fact that everyone else can do it too, and this creates noise. You may have a right to be heard, since your stuff is excellent; but the nobodies all around you are cluttering up the airwaves.

For the untalented, life is great! You’re in a band! You made an album! You put it on Bandcamp! People listened to it! People gave it Facebook Likes! This is like Led Zeppelin, but you can do whatever you want! Yeah, you listen to them! You’re a rock star! You’re playing at The Musica next week! (Oh wait, it’s just Musica, not The Musica?) Sure, the “promoter” is making you sell tickets, but hey, you’re in a band! You made an album! You put it on Bandcamp! So what’s the bad side of the sword for you? The fact that the stuff you’re pouring into the wonderful art-sharing infrastructure of the Interwebs just plain sucks. You will never receive the recognition you crave, because you are not making something that people need.

We are living in unprecedented times for the world of the arts. To paraphrase a certain old-school guy, it’s a great time to be an artist, it’s an awful time to be an artist. It’s a great time to be in the audience, it’s an awful time to be in the audience.

I think it’s Monday.

4 thoughts on “Mediocrity

  1. I feel like this is less of a problem for the book industry than other media-related industries, for the simple reason that most readers (call them book fans?) still like physical, rather than digital books. Ebooks seem to have plateaued at about 15% of the market, meaning 85% of the market is whatever readers are getting from libraries and bookstores. And pirating doesn’t seem to be the pervasive problem among readers as it seems to be with other types of fans.

    That’s why, as an English major, I’m actually excited by the prospect of someday working as an editor at a publishing house, whether it’s “Big Six” or a successful indie press / small print name like Braddock Avenue Books. As much as I support and admire the self-publishing endeavors you pursue, to me, a book’s not published until I can check it out with my library card.

    I’m not saying that we “need” gatekeepers, or that there’ll never be a time when self-published books will be bought by libraries. Obviously, great books have been rejected, and it’s good that they can have an outlet that they wouldn’t have before. But I think there’s a lot to be said in favor of “the middle man” in terms of book publishing, at least as far as where it’s at today. As a reader, there are still thousands of great books being put out by top publishers every week, so unless someone specifically tells me to read a self-published book, I won’t pick one up on my own.

  2. It’s good to hear your perspective on this, Lucy.

    I don’t necessarily see self-publishing as my final destination. What I do know is that ebooks, particularly on Kindle, are an almost instant way to share your work with people. All of my reading has left me with the impression that, if you want to self-publish, the time is now, as Kindle Direct Publishing has changed the game for everyone (including the Big Six). Three years down the road, if the Vaulan Cycle has achieved moderate success in self-publishing land, a potential relationship with a traditional publisher might be easier to forge. But I’m waiting to see how the market reacts in the next few years. A traditional publishing contract may be even less attractive in a few years than it is now–or it may be the right thing at the right time. Who knows?

    As far as market share for ebooks versus print, I think the 15% number might be a little low for last year. This article says it was 14% two years ago and 22% last year, which gives me the impression that ereader use is spreading. But that trend may not last–hence my “let’s see in a few years” thinking.

    I’m with you, regarding print vs. electronic. I hate reading on a screen. I hate ereaders. But not all readers hate ereaders. I’ve spoken to many people (and talked online with people too) who just don’t use print books anymore. “Can I get it on my Kindle?” is the name of the game for some. As much as I would like to force everyone to keep reading well-produced, letter-pressed, cloth-bound books, I just can’t project myself onto my reader. I have to meet my reader where he/she is.

    I wrestled for a long time with the question of pursuing traditional publishing vs. doing it myself. In the end, the Kindle bomb that detonated over the publishing industry made my choice clear. I would lose nothing (other than money) by self-publishing now. If the traditional industry recovered in a few years, or if a new model emerged that worked better, I could sign on later. But for now, I can stretch all of my abilities to the limit and produce books for people’s consumption. Plus I keep all the royalties (small though they are at the moment). What’s not to love? :)

  3. That’s cool. I didn’t know ebooks were on the rise again, they seemed to stall out for a year or two. But I definitely agree that is makes sense to create a lot of options, so people can choose which ones they want to buy.

    I’m not against indie books, and there have definitely been some cool indie titles put out. And I’m very aware that royalties paid to writers are awful, believe me, I wrote a whole tumblr rant about it when Rick Hautala died (fair warning, my tumblr posts are pretty uncensored; tl;dr version basically is he sold millions of copies of his work and he still died poor.) My hope is that, somehow, traditional publishers will be able to offer writers better contracts.

    I guess I’m still at a place where, as a reader, I’m not typically willing to take the risk on whatever indie book Amazon is suggesting for me, whereas I definitely am with music.

    I wonder if part of the problem is, you talked about “noise,” you know, this flood of “mediocrity.” And I think the indie music industry has a lot of ways of helping fans cut past that mediocrity and get to what they like. For instance, I can listen basically infinitely to recommended music on spotify, YouTube, or Pandora, skipping past songs I dislike. When I do find a song I like, I can listen to the whole album, and generally can buy it if I want to.

    I can also get exposed to bands I might like by going to shows and listening to the opening acts. I discovered one of my favorite bands, Ludo, because they opened for a Relient K concert.

    So, perhaps there needs to be some mechanism like that for readers. A way to get a sampling of a lot of books for free, or a way to hear more than one author speak at an event. Both things seem, for now, pretty strictly in the Library domain (or a University’s), since I’ve never gotten free books or heard authors speak anywhere else. But libraries themselves have become sort of gatekeepers, in that very few libraries will purchase indie books.

    It’s a dilemma. GoodReads is a good start, but there needs to be more.

  4. There is nothing worse than Amazon’s ebook recommendations. People don’t read things that aren’t from a trusted source. The traditional publishing outlets are trusted sources (for good reason). The trick, as an indie, is to develop a reputation as a trusted source–to brand yourself as an author of a certain kind of thing. Personal networking+good writing then becomes the basis of whatever trust readers place in your material.

    Music and books function very differently. I think the Pandora equivalent for literature is walking around in a bookstore and seeing what happens to be on the shelves. This is very difficult to replicate online, for the simple reason that most screens (at least on Amazon and Facebook) are cluttered up with tons of distractions. The key is for your reader to discover the work in an uncluttered environment.

    Plus, our sensory experiences of music and literature are vastly different. While the greatest albums tend to build all songs towards a cohesive something that isn’t necessarily stated in the music, most music strikes the ears with an instantaneous aesthetic impression, whether pleasant or unpleasant. (Of course, the pleasantness or unpleasantness of that first impression has nothing to do with whether it’s good music… tangent off now….) But literature is more of a slow burn. A book might be so good, so incisive, that you aren’t ready to go where it takes you. It may actually have to prepare you as you go into it. These differences necessitate different distribution systems (and different discovery environments) for music and literature. Of course, maybe most of the music you hear is trite and dull, where it should have the depth of great literature… but that’s a discussion for another day!

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