Thursday, December 22, 2011

Portraits, Vulgarity, and the Entrepreneurial Spirit

Near the beginning of the sixteenth century, Albrecht Durer decided he'd had enough of the guilds that defined the business model for his craft.  With the advent of the printing press a few decades before, and a wise investment in this new technology, Durer was able to maximize the distribution of his creative genius.  The Economist notes he "represented human talent and ingenuity made boundless by a machine."

Poor Fool of a Painter
This business model did more than allow cheap reproductions of his prints; it also enabled him to showcase his talents without risking the destruction of the originals.  Combined with preventing marauding bandits from stealing his work while they were in transit, he could transmit copies to the most influential artists of his day.  He grew his network without risking his most prized assets.

The advent of the printing press had some negative side effects as well.  His work was pirated at an astronomical rate. There was no way to prevent this, especially with the explosion of trade occurring in the midst of the Renaissance. 
Durer, like some before him, began to embed his work with a trademark "AD" in an attempt to keep his reputation from being sullied by substandard replications.  When this was not sufficient, he went to court to defend his right to have unique access to his copyright.   He twice won, forcing the defendants to remove "AD" from their substandard works.  Such imitation was the result of being one of the region's most accomplished artists, and it took a special kind of spirit to ensure his talent wasn't diluted.  It could only be done on the back of a personal brand, directed by the man himself.

Flash forward nearly five centuries, and a new era of open exchange has found the human race. Where mass markets opened only by large promotion firms once ruled, the individual now has the opportunity to break free of artistic limitations imposed by bureaucratic and rent seeking firms.

I can't believe this actually worked
The most recent example is comedian Louis C.K.  Sick of the limitations imposed by networks and sponsorship agencies, he went off the reservation on December 10.  He created, paid for, produced and sold his own online comedy special.  It was an experiment, and one done mostly because he didnt want to be limited in what he could say.  He used none of the industry standard anti-pirating markers.  "No DRM, no regional restrictions, no crap."

It's been an astounding success.

His friends told him he was crazy -- his work would be instantly pirated.  He would have no control over where it ended up.  He would never reach a large enough audience.  Yet in less than two weeks, he's already made over $1 million. So much that he has no idea what to do with it, and he is giving it away.

Sure, people pirated the show -- within minutes, it was on BitTorrent.  But many didn't.  It was the cost of a cup of coffee.  They were amused by his content and supported the off-color entertainment they couldn't get anywhere else.

From the WSJ
This comes on the heels of increased prices demanded by the publishing houses of e-books.  Their model is falling apart, as Kindles, Nooks and iPads are redefining how consumers look at printed material.  I wouldnt be surprised if in coming years, well known authors begin self publishing.  Not only will they be able to keep any residual sales and the profits of spin-offs, as Louis CK is now able to do, but they can also set their prices well below what publishing firms now demand. For a product with near zero marginal cost, e-books are ripe for significant price drops -- unless the collusion of established big firms remains intact.

Whether they like it or not, the big media firm's day in the sun is quickly fading.  They cannot compete or adapt to the rate of change induced by individuals able to easily and efficiently distribute their own creative works.  No doubt they will hang on, much as the British Empire clung to greatness for decades after its fall, but they are increasingly irrelevant. 

Creative destruction in the realm of artistic entrepreneurship is alive and well five hundred years on. We as the consumer, and the artists work that we consume, are all the better for it.   

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