Content Creator of the Month is a new project from the Copia Institute that we'll also be highlighting here. Each month, we'll profile a new content creator who is doing interesting and compelling things, often using the internet in innovative and powerful ways. Here is the very first installment...
A few weeks ago, a couple of friends friends were tweeting about an incredible new YouTube video in which some people created a "real life first-person shooter" and hooked it up to Chatroulette, Skype and Omegle. Random people on the services were transported into this game, which they controlled with their voice. If you haven't watched it, find ten minutes to check it out (or just 5 if you speed up YouTube to 2x speed). It is incredibly detailed, and awesome beyond words:
My first reaction was to marvel at how much effort must have gone into setting all of this up. I had initially assumed the "game" couldn't go very far beyond the tiny room where it started — but it goes much, much further. My second thought was about how hard it must have been to coordinate all the sounds, effects and movements (even while recognizing that the final version is cut together from the takes that "worked"). Thankfully, the people behind it — Realm Pictures — also put together a behind the scenes video that reveals the inner workings (and doesn't make the original any less magical):
I started looking into the team, and realized I actually knew a bit about them, as this is hardly the first time that Realm Pictures has done cool stuff online. Years back, while based out of their home in Devon in the UK, these guys filmed their very own zombie flick called Zomblies, which they posted for free on YouTube. For a bunch of "amateurs" (at the time), the production value is amazing -- they even got someone to donate time in a helicopter, allowing them to film aerial shots. But there's another important piece of the story: while they were making the film, Realm Pictures was also using the internet to build up a community of people who were interested in the process, with their daily blog about the work acquiring a big following.
David Reynolds, the founder and creative director of Realm Pictures (and the voice in the first person shooter above), told me that "building a community has always been instrumental to both our process and our success with projects thus far." The community has followed them from project to project, such as the team's next giant undertaking The Underwater Realm, a series of five short films with large segments taking place underwater — an incredible challenge for any filmmaker, let alone relatively inexperienced independents. The team originally tried to use wires and a green screen, but realized it just wasn't realistic enough. Eventually someone donated a special casing for a camera, allowing them to actually film underwater (mostly in a local public swimming pool). Here's the first of those films (and they also have a behind the scenes video):
In order to make that movie, they also embraced another useful online tool, Kickstarter, to cover some of the production costs, eventually raising over $100,000 (they had sought $60,000). While Reynolds is supportive of crowdfunding, he does worry that it may be peaking, and that "the bubble is beginning to burst, as now it seems that everybody and his dog has a Kickstarter campaign."
One of the things that struck me personally about Realm Pictures is their ability to create visually amazing narrative film projects on relatively small budgets. For many years we've been debating the question of "the $200 million movie," in which traditional Hollywood studios keep asking how they can continue to make movies that require such huge budgets if people are unwilling to pay to watch them. And yet, as we've seen over and over again, technology and basic creativity are enabling the creation of incredible movies for a lot less. Much of Realm Pictures' work shows how that's possible. Still, Reynolds has talked in the past (notably in an interview with Kevin Smith) about being interested in doing a much bigger, Hollywood studio-funded version of Underwater Realm, which he estimates will cost somewhere in that $200 million range. So far, studios haven't been willing to pony up — but Reynolds insists there are lots of fun projects the company will be working on, even as they hope they'll one day be able to create that underwater epic.
Throughout these projects there's a strong thread: building a community and bringing it along for the ride. Reynolds tells me this is very important to how they've been able to succeed and, at the same time, give back to those who have supported them:
It is a practice we hope will always continue through our career, and at the same time give back to the community which has supported us by giving back in the form of a transparent insight into our work and things like the free tutorials we have released on our YouTube channel.
Reynolds points out that, in the end, none of this matters if the content isn't great, and that's always been the key: create great content for your community. Without that, the community won't last either. This is the combination that we've seen work for so many successful creators today. Creating great content is always at the core, and building up a loyal community around it helps spread that content and open new doors.
In terms of this latest video, which went viral super fast (I first saw it when it had about 3,000 views, but now it has over 7 million), Reynolds says it was just a fun project that they did in a weekend, with "one practice run, with a member of our team on a Skype call... to check that the system was working, and then straight into finding strangers on the internet." They ended up doing about 50 runs, with the few players who completed the whole "level" taking about 20 minutes. This is one of the first really "interactive" film experiences I've seen where the interactivity fits right in and doesn't feel forced (though of course now everyone is just watching instead of playing — but watching how others interact still feels kind of interactive). Reynolds points out that they're really just taking what makes video games so engaging, and moving it to video.
Oh, and Reynolds also notes that they're now working on level two of the game, so stay tuned (and maybe start using Chatroulette, if you want to play!)
You can read below for my whole interview with Dave Reynolds of Realm Pictures, our very first Content Creator of the Month.
With more and more internet adoption worldwide, collaboration and sharing as a genesis for creativity is becoming the norm. The marquis example is Wikipedia, of course, although we've noted a general theory that great ideas can spring from sharing and collaboration, often leading to unexpected (but fun) results. That's one of the reasons it's so fun to see things like the following emerge (completely NSFW, unless you're employed by Dark Helmet Inc.):
Yes, that's the trailer for a new video game to be released shortly, and it was inspired almost entirely by an online group and the resulting internet meme the group produced. Included amongst this list of video games resulting from internet memes, the entire premise of the game began with what was essentially a bitch-session online over how awful shooter game sequels are.
It all started with a joke on a forum. One NeoGAF forum user, annoyed with how lazy shooters had become, complained that he was tired of games like 'Dudebro 2: It's Straight-Up Dawg Time.' It grew from there.
The phrase became a byline for tired, me-too games, but it was so absurd that it got people thinking. Soon, it had mock cover art and a storyline. Before long, a team of fans were working on an entire game, a 2D platformer, and it's on the way soon. It even stars Jon St. John, the actor famous for voicing Duke Nukem.
Apparently, somehow, the entire premise for what looks like a hysterical game was generated spontaneously online in a collaborative format, as was the trailer, cover art, and storyline. Now, it may quickly be pointed out by some that the end product of this creativity is subject to copyright by default, but that misses the point entirely. This is simply another example of how creation occurs and how sharing and exchanging ideas freely can produce an interesting project as well as a great deal of fun. As collaboration of this nature expands due to the ability of people to connect on the internet, the overall need to lock up ideas relative to creative output is going to weaken. There may still be some "artists" who create simply for monetary gain, but their ranks are lessening.
Erin McKeown, a wonderful musician who has been very involved in some discussions on copyright and internet access -- and who was especially helpful in the fight against SOPA -- recently wrote the following thoughtful, heartfelt piece concerning the emotional roller coaster of having someone copy your work, and how all of this relates to copyright law.
I always knew my song "Slung-lo" was a hit.
It just took longer than I expected.
"Slung-lo" came out on my 2003 album, grand (Nettwerk). It found its way to the Brittany Murphy masterpiece "Uptown Girls" and into episodes of "Roswell", "Gilmore Girls", and "Privileged". It also found its way into a Tesco F&F commercial, which ran in the Czech Republic in the summer of 2008. Though not a hit by any means, it was a remarkably long life for a song that came out in 2003.
And then last year, I received two separate emails through my website pointing me to this video for a song called "Touch The Sun" sung by the Czech artist, Debbi. (editor's note: we tried to embed the official video for this song, but Sony Music refuses to allow an embed on the song).
"Have you seen this?" both emails asked. I hadn't.
From the first moment I heard "Touch The Sun," it was as clear to me as anything that someone had taken the DNA of my song "Slung-lo" and turned it into another song. At this point, my lawyer wants me to make very clear that IN MY OPINION, THIS IS COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT.
I don't want to spend a lot of time technically breaking down the two songs, but I'd like to point out a few things. Among the many substantial similarities between them, check out the lyrical content (weather as metaphor for happiness), the almost exact song structure (solo verse, band verse, double-tracked vocal in the chorus...), and the vocal cadence in unison with the descending instrumental line in the chorus. I could go on.
Debbi's "Touch The Sun" isn't the proverbial "kid in the bedroom with a laptop" who remixes pop culture and makes mash-ups to show how alike we humans really are. No, it turns out the song was written for a commercial scale beer campaign by the giant European alcohol company Metaxa, which itself is a subsidiary of the global beverage conglomerate Remy Cointreau.
And it is a hit. A huge one. Debbi was the runner up on the Czech version of the "Idol" franchise. The song won "Song of the Year" at the Czech version of the Grammys. The original video that was sent to me has almost a million hits. A quick search of YouTube reveals karaoke versions, animations, "how to play versions," and plenty of people in their bedrooms playing the song and singing along. The beer ad with the song aired across the Czech Republic more than 1200 times in September of 2010. That's about 40 times a day.
So, after all this time, "Slung-lo" is finally a hit.
The easy part of this story is that I work with an amazing publishing administrator, Duchamp, who has stepped in to help me. We've retained Czech council who have been in contact with Metaxa, Debbi's record label (Sony!), and the Slovak production house that produced the track. All have denied any infringement, declined to settle, and at this point, court proceedings have started. My lawyers estimate that this could take anywhere from one to five years.
This spring Remy re-launched the ad campaign across all of Europe.
By the way, the writers are Tomas Zubak, Peter Graus, and Maros Kachut. Let's #kony2012 them.
Actually let's not.
Instead, I want to talk about the whole host of emotions this experience has brought up for me, and the way it's forced me to confront and articulate my beliefs about copyright.
After watching the video for the first time, I was certifiably apoplectic. I was physically shaking with anger. How dare they! I wasn't so much angry at Debbi -- who, from what I eventually read, really just sang the damn thing -- as I was at the writers. They had to know what they were doing, I fumed. I mean, the song was just in a commercial there. They had to know about it. How dare they!
And then I felt small. I'm nobody, I thought, so they probably figured they could get away with it. It's not like they ripped off Beyonce. Just small-time me.
And then I felt defeated. I've always wanted to have a hit like "Touch The Sun". And I thought I wrote one in 2003. It was such a great disappointment to me that no one noticed. There will never be enough people to notice me, I thought.
And then, I would find myself dreaming. Maybe I'll get a settlement. Maybe it will be large enough to make all my problems go away. I'll be able to pay for my new record. I'll be able to afford the best marketing and publicity money can buy. And then there will be some left over to buy a house. My life will change!
Finally, I disconnected. I couldn't tell very many people about what was happening, and the feelings were overwhelming me. Ok, I thought, I'll just let the lawyers do their lawyer thing. This is why you pay them. I am powerless. Breathe deep and exhale.
Very early in the process, my lawyers asked me what I wanted to be the goal of my settlement. Did I want 100% of the money made? Did I want a flat fee? How much? Did I want a public apology? Did I want to let it go? Did I just want credit?
These questions became a spiritual exercise. I began to think that how I answered them said something about who I was as a person.
I believe that creativity is an unpredictable, mysterious process. I often have no idea where a song comes from. Other times I am more aware of the hard work. It is not always an easy thing to know where influence ends and mimicry begins. But there is also a way we recognize ourselves in the faces of our children, and a gut instinct that tells me when I am hearing my own musical fingerprint.
I thought for awhile, and decided I would like 50% of all the monies made so far, and 50% on everything moving forward. I didn't need a public apology. I think this is fair, not punitive, and given the current copyright law system and options available to me, a reasonable request.
Now I just have to wait one to five years to see how it turns out.
Recently, I've ended up doing a lot of advocacy and policy work around copyright. This isn't because I am a copyright crusader, for or against, but because the issue gets tied up with so many other things I care about: media access, fair compensation for artists, creating a sustainable music business.
I actually hate to talk about copyright because, once it's brought up, it just seems to take over any conversation. Most of the time I feel like that conversation then becomes counterproductive. People throw around complex legal principles. The jargon resembles a foreign language. Often, the emotions get so heated that a room ends up divided at just the time when we need to work together. I've also noticed that most of the people crowing about copyright aren't individual copyright holders. They're groups of people who make money from the business of policing and administering copyright.
In my advocacy, I want to talk scale. I want to talk relationships and power structures. I want to talk about technology. Copyright is part of this, but it's not the whole enchilada. I've come to think that current copyright law is like an immovable boulder in the middle of a rushing river. It's not likely to change, so I'm going to have to work with it, as it is. And not let it stop other important work.
Yet here I am facing a difficult situation where copyright is the main issue.
I recently watched Kirby Ferguson's "Everything Is A Remix" series and found it really helpful to understand the feelings that came up for me around "Touch The Sun." In part four, Kirby makes the observation that we humans are easily and freely influenced and inspired by the world around us. However, when we feel like something has been taken from us, we get very angry and indignant. Our anger is as natural and essentially human as is our borrowing or being influenced.
Really how I feel about copyright is this: can you please just ask me? I am so easily found. One or two clicks, a badly mangled combination of "erin" and "mck" will get you to me. Let me know what you're doing. Let's talk. Take some time and connect with me. I know this is imperfect. Sometimes in the creative economy, there just isn't time. But how about we try?
I'd also like us all to acknowledge that the current copyright system, the unmovable boulder in the stream, rather than protecting rights holders and acting as a deterrent to infringement, is in its very complications a shelter for those who use others' material without permission and an obstacle to those who would like to legally use or remix content. Whether it is done consciously or unconsciously, nefariously or in communal bliss, given the complicated, arcane process, the myriad hoops to jump through, the length and cost of the process, who can afford to participate?
So Tomas, Peter, and Maros, I won't assume your motives in turning my song "Slung-lo" into "Touch The Sun." Instead, I'll say this: if you asked me, we might have worked something out. When I found you, we might have worked something out. Who knows, maybe we could have advanced the conversation around copyright and made a radical contribution toward a different type of economy. Instead, it will drag on in court. And I will fight it in court as long as I have to. But this could have gone another way. And for that, I am sad.
Erin McKeown is an internationally known musician, writer, and producer, releasing 8 full length albums in the last decade and spending an average of 200 nights a year onstage. She has appeared on Later with Jools Holland, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, NPR, BBC, and has had numerous film, television, and commercial placements. She's even written a song via text message with her friend Rachel Maddow. Lately, she has added mentor and activist to her resume. She is a board member at the Future of Music Coalition and a 2011-12 fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Visit her website www.erinmckeown.com for more info and to join her mailing list.
Special Thanks to Mike King, Andy Sellars, my lawyers, Lawrence Stanley and Vaclav Schovanek, and Erik Gilbert at Duchamp for their help researching and proofing this post.
We've written a few times now about the band Uniform Motion, who has been extremely transparent with their latest release, such as explaining how much they make from different streaming platforms. Andy Richard, from the band, has also been quite active over on our Step 2 platform, and recently shared the results of a survey the band did of fans after they experimented with "pay what you want," including his own analysis of what the results mean. Here's just a snippet:
5. What made you decide to download the music?
I wanted to sample the music before buying a CD/Vinyl: 28%
I wanted to sample the music before paying for the MP3ís.: 22%
I wanted to own the music but couldnít afford to pay for it: 22%
I donít really know. I just clicked the buttons!: 19%
I wanted to own the music but I donít think music is worth paying for: 4%
I wanted to write a review about your music: 3%
6. Do you have any idea how many times you have listened to our album(s)?
More than 5 times: 45%
2-5 times: 30%
More than 50 times: 15%
I have no idea: 3%
I didnít even get past the first couple of songs, you guys suck! 0% (thankfully!)
7. What made you decide to pay for our music? (multiple responses ok)
(Only people who had made a purchase were asked this question)
I wanted to support the band: 100%
I wanted to own the music: 61%
I wanted to own a tangible version of the album (CD/Vinyl): 61%
The key take aways are summarized here:
People who buy music do so to SUPPORT you.
So the interaction with fans is key. In today's business, you need to 'deserve' people's support and just making good music is not quite enough.
The value is in the relationship not the MP3 file.
We keep hearing from critics that the music is the "only thing of value" that a musician really has to offer as an argument for why any business model should be solely focused on selling music. But, as we've explained over and over again, that's not accurate at all -- and Andy's summation here encapsulates what we've been trying to say for years much more simply than we've ever said it. None of this means the music doesn't matter. The music absolutely matters, and the relationship is only built if the fans like the music in the first place. But the real value isn't in the mp3 file... but in the relationship.
More and more musicians seem to be recognizing that having a record leak is not a bad thing. Even as some artists decide to send leakers to jail -- others are recognizing that it's yet another opportunity to connect. The latest is the Beastie Boys, with their (long-awaited) latest album. There's been a buildup over the past few weeks, with the band "leaking" stuff as they go. While I have a hard time believing the claims from the band that these leaks were not part of the "plan," it really seems to have built up anticipation for the album. First the band offered up the single after it had already started to be found online:
This wasn't really part of the plan, but since this track is out there we wanted to let you hear it here first, or maybe second. Enjoy
Of course, the band has also been promoting the combination half-hour movie/five minute music video thing they put together with more famous actors than any music video in the history of music videos. If you're in the US (yes, I know regional restrictions suck, but I didn't do it), you can watch the full video here:
The five minute music video is here:
There's also a two minute "trailer" for the longer movie here:
And, finally, earlier this week, the band started streaming the entire album using SoundCloud, claiming that it was in response to the "clean" version of the album being leaked:
Good people, unfortunately due to circumstances beyond our control, the ďcleanĒ version of our new album, The Hot Sauce Committee pt 2 has leaked. So as a hostile and retaliatory measure with great hubris we are making the full explicit aka filthy dirty nasty version available for streaming on our site. We hope this brings much happiness, hugs, and harmony.
Again, whether or not this is all planned out (and I'm still betting it was), it's interesting to see the band embracing so many different ways to promote and share its content. If you look at just the content here, we're talking about video, audio and text... and a ton of different platforms. There's Tumblr, Hulu, MTV, YouTube and Soundcloud. I find this interesting, since many bands seem to pick a single platform and stick with it. I'm not sure why the Beastie Boys are going with a different platform for different pieces, but I'd be curious if the band ever explains some of the thinking behind these choices. And while the different limitations on different platforms (mainly Hulu -- no permission for TV browsers? WTF?) it does seem pretty clear that most people should be able to access at least some of all of this. I particularly like the use of SoundCloud as it really makes the audio more interactive in allowing fans to comment at specific time points in the songs.
Once again, I have no idea if this particular strategy will work, but it's always interesting to see how bands -- new and old -- look for better ways to embrace the internet.