Give It Away And Pray: Maybe Not A Business Model, But Still Important For Artists

from the If-you-don't-know-what-you're-doing,-you're-doing-it-right dept

Mike has written that "Give it away and pray is not a business model," however, that doesn’t mean it’s not a good way for Artists to live.

Business models can emerge from "give it away and pray." When I gave Sita Sings the Blues away, the audience created modes of sharing and revenue streams I hadn’t thought of. Many fans, on their own initiative, set up  screenings and house parties, and sent me donations. Now that I know this is possible, I could call it a "business model" that could be replicated by offering screening kits and guidelines. But the audience may be coming up with new ideas and wanting to engage in new ways I can’t predict or imagine. Last year’s business model can’t describe next year’s zeitgeist; "give it away and pray" is eternal.

Because I surrendered any commercial monopoly on the film (truly gave it away with copyLeft rather than "sort of gave it away" with no-commercial-use and no-derivatives restrictions), it has been incorporated into some amazing creative projects I could never have imagined. Bill Cheswick’s every-frame-of-a-movie poster and Star Simpson’s MonkeyLectric bike wheel display are just two examples. If I hadn’t given the film away, I wouldn’t have even known about these amazing projects, let alone been part of them.

"Give it away" means expecting nothing in return, so whatever does return is also a gift. "Pray" means letting go of the results and trusting that giving is the right thing to do even if nothing comes back. This isn’t a business model, because it’s not about business; it is about Art, and Love. Economists may not be concerned with Art and Love, but Artists have to be, or else they stop being Artists. Of course Artists can be concerned with business as well. Art and commerce can be fully complementary. I pay a lot of attention to business models (that’s why I read Techdirt). But I can forget that I am an Artist, especially when "give it away and pray" is so often dismissed. 

It’s easy for me to exalt "give it away and pray", because so much came back to me so quickly in the case of Sita. We can analyze this material success and derive useful business models from it. That’s quite valuable, but it’s only part of the picture. If we forget the "give it away and pray" part, we regard audience gifts as commodities, which degrades the artist, the community, and the artist-audience relationship.

We never know what the world will bring us. Adhering to a business model may make us feel secure, but the most exciting possibilities and opportunities are in the space of not knowing. In Art, unlike Business, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re doing it right.

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Comments on “Give It Away And Pray: Maybe Not A Business Model, But Still Important For Artists”

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Anonymous Coward says:

It is safe to say, however, that giving it away was not your intention. Rather, it was the result of your mistake of starting out assuming you had rights to something that you did not have, correct? So perhaps you should thank the rights holder for setting you straight and getting you out of the groove of making movies for profit.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

it is important to understand this isnt so much a brilliant winning strategy but rather something that just happened in spite of so much ignorance. without securing the rights up front before making the movie the way the movie was distributed was forced by the rights holder. it wasnt ms paleys original intention it was suppose to be a commercial movie. what success it has now is mostly because of a huge fail up front before the first frame of the movie was made. not its a cause celeb for the masnick.

Michael Brutsch says:

So cool

I just have to tell you, you are so cool! I Googled my name the other day, and was surprised to find someone on IMDB shared my name (it’s not that common). Imagine my surprise when I found that I was listed under the ‘Contributors’ for Sita Sings The Blues. A little thing, but it made me feel great, and you can bet I’ll be back in the future.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Question for Nina

Have you thought to use googles tools (blog, e-mail, wiki) for random people, and fans to make suggestions on how to monetize your music?

Have you thought about using a contest to ask people and fans to submit ideas on how to monetize your music?

Have you thought about setting up a wiki and crowdsourcing a business plan?

My outside the box idea for you is to combine all the above ideas and let several business plans evolve over time via inout from your fans.

Nina Paley (profile) says:

Re: Re: Question for Nina

Well, you can negotiate with me to use the Creator Endorsed Mark:

And you can get the .fla source files here:

Basically you can do whatever you want with “Sita”, without my permission, but Endorsed projects have a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Terry Hancock (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 FLA format problem

Yes, FLA is a problem.

I wrote about it in detail here:

My conclusion since then is that the only way Sita is going to get converted to an open format is if somebody with Adobe Flash’s animator installed renders the files to SWF format and publishes those.

If/when that happens, I think I (as well as many other people) can probably get it converted to SVG (and after that, conversion to many different open formats becomes possible).

But I am NOT willing to install a proprietary operating system or to buy Adobe’s animation software just so I can make this initial conversion from FLA to SWF.

Nor am I willing to reverse-engineer FLA format and write a conversion library. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in doing that. In fact, AFAICT, the only reason SWF is supported is because you needed that to _play_ Flash animations (SWF was intended as an opaque distribution format — like a binary, and because Flash is a product of proprietary culture for proprietary animators, FLA, which was intended to be a source format, is generally not distributed, so there was little demand for reading it).

To clarify — we are talking about access to the original vector graphics, for the purposes of making more sophisticated derivatives. The _video_ is of course already available in several free/open standard formats on Internet Archive, if you are satisfied with video snippets or frame-captures from the film.

Barry Solow (profile) says:

Accident, Adversity and the Value of Ideas

Nina originally expected to license and distribute her film through channels that were “normal” for independent filmmakers. It turned out that, while there were no copyright problems with Annette Hanshaw’s recordings, there were (unexpectedly, to Nina) problems with “sync” rights for the songs. This led to a protracted, expensive period during which lawyers negotiated an expensive settlement (which, however, was less expensive than would have been the case without their efforts). Nina paid the numerous rights-holders. At that point she was free to go ahead as she had originally intended and release the film through “normal” channels. By then, however, she had learned a lot about the state of copyright law in this country (and others) and had come to some negative conclusions about the effects of the system on artistic creation. She did a lot of thinking and a lot of research and decided to take the bold step of copylefting her film. Since then, she has garnered more money from the film than anyone had predicted would be the case had she released it through regular channels.

So, yes, Nina made the film without copyleft in mind. It can be said that she arrived at the decision to copyleft it by accident, after a great deal of adversity. How does that in any way count as an argument about what she says above? She has learned a lot through her experience and now believes she can help artists avoid the problems she encountered. What’s wrong with that?

Penicillin’s discovery was an accident. Is it therefore any less valuable a discovery?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Accident, Adversity and the Value of Ideas

no but the invention of penicillin wasnt accompanied by someone ways “i intended that all along”, or that got more heart warming with each rewriting of history. this story has reach techdirt mythic proportions and the mountain climbed higher and the goal more noble on each round.

Anonymous Coward says:

What I like about the give and pray is that it spawn an eco system that can evolve to give more to the artist.

In this case people “ripping” her work knows where they will have to go to get more material or newer things so those with a little bit of sense know they have to treat her well by giving back in some way. I think it creates a symbiotic relation with users that can have very positive results. The key word is eco-system.

jsf (profile) says:

Not Just One Plan

I think “give it away and pray” is really just part of a broader set of activities that you do to make a living. It has been this way for most artists for decades. New bands play for free or at their own cost, authors do readings, book signings, etc. for free, artists put their works into shows for free, all to get exposure and build a following.

So in some ways “give it away and pray” has been around and successful for a long time.

The real difference these days is you can get much more and broader exposure more quickly because of the internet. You also don’t need a big company to help you get that mass exposure any more. And that is what has the big publishers, record companies, etc. scared.

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