How the Internet Has Changed the Game for Writers, Artists and Performers
It was true in 2009, when Chris Anderson wrote Free: The Future of a Radical Price, and it’s true today, perhaps even more so; the internet is the Industrial Revolution, writ large.
If factory towns and the Spinning Jenny represented seismic shifts in economic and social life, the last two decades’ worth of technological advances have gone further, into the realm of the tectonic, generating true global change.
There have always been revolutionary moments in production, from the release of the box brownie to Super-8 to the handicam and beyond, each step a lubricant allowing more producers to make content. However, it is in the last decade - since the expansion of YouTube as a commercial platform and the growth of new marketing and revenue streams through Facebook, Twitch, Vimeo and many more - that distribution has caught up with production: technology now allows anyone with creative skills to reach an audience, and get paid for their work. Moreover, it is an audience unfettered by the usual restraints of network broadcasting, transgressing national boundaries and cultural borders, in which artists, writers and musicians can set their own prices and interact directly with their fans.
Social media started the trend – the now-defunct MySpace provided a platform for singers and musicians to promote themselves, and iTunes gave them a route to market that sidestepped the traditional A&R guardians of the music industry gate.
Twitter and Facebook expanded on this model, putting creators directly in touch with consumers, while YouTube has become a lucrative and open marketplace, and the more recent arrivals Kickstarter, Indie GoGo and Patreon have made it easier than ever to square the circle of production, distribution and engagement.
DIY content, be it web-distributed comics, music recorded with affordable consumer technology, homemade audio and video, films, animations, web TV, even poetry and written fiction, is taking off across the breadth of what used to be referred to as “Web 2.0” – the hyper-McLuhanised user-generated internet.
It was social media word of mouth that made grime artist Stormzy a superstar. He remained unsigned while raking in awards and releasing hit records through his own independent label, and a canny use of Instagram and Twitter that propelled My Dad Wrote A Porno, the home-produced podcast about the ultimate embarrassing Dad moment, into an international phenomenon.
In fact, it is in the podcast arena - the new wild west of audio drama and comedic content - that the power of socialised media is easiest to quantify.
“We spent five or six years learning how to be funny, gigging all over London”
Take, ManBuyCow, an absurdist sketch show and sitcom entirely hand-made by its stars, Rufus Penzance and Howard Long, from their bedrooms on either side of London. Childhood friends Penzance and Long were old hands at writing and performing comedy when they hit upon the idea of making a podcast.
“We spent five or six years learning how to be funny, gigging all over London,” Penzance explains, until Long hit on the winning formula of being straight-up absurd and audiences started to respond. More years of work followed, with the pair writing, recording and editing hundreds of hours of podcast contt, determined not to release anything until they had something worth releasing.
“We didn’t know what it was going to be,” says Penzance, “whether it would be just conversation, or if it would have sketches, or songs. By the time we released the first episode, we’d been doing it for years.” This was the tail-end of 2013, and ManBuyCow began to find an audience straight away, boosted when the British Comedy Guide offered to host a re-release of the first few series and a spin-off podcast of Penzance and Long’s collaboratively written comedy detective novels, The Adventures of Grett Binchleaf.
The next big jump came in 2016, when Penzance had the idea of releasing more of their enormous back-catalogue of recordings on a subscription basis, and the pair decided to use the artist-patron platform Patreon to found their “Secret Gang”, a subscription model which allows listeners to interact directly with creators, paying a few pounds (or more) a month for access to various tiers of exclusive content.
"That one person who messages us on Twitter is worth far more than seeing that twenty thousand people listened to our podcast one week"
“We used to obsess over the listener figures,” says Long, but since the Patreon launch, their work is more focused on the Secret Gang, and the hard work of making ManBuyCow, Grett Binchleaf and the most recent podcast, The Worst Writer in the World, all of which are distributed for free. They see it as their job to make quality, free content, in order to get new members into their ever-growing - and paying - gang.
“Looking at the numbers means nothing,” Penzance elaborates. “It’s all about engagement. That one person who messages us on Twitter is worth far more than seeing that twenty thousand people listened to our podcast one week. And it’s not just about money, it’s more the fact that someone likes what we do enough to join our Patreon, and that means the world to us.”
Penzance and Long are part of a growing army of podcasters and artists, learning how to interact with fans and testing out new ideas, taking the first steps into a media landscape without borders, an open field where content producers can distribute their work directly to consumers. Perhaps this new model is a bright future, permitting creative independence and breaking the stranglehold of the Oxbridge TV comedy elite.
“In the future,” Penzance concludes archly, “there will be no editors.”
- ManBuyCow Series 5 and My Dad Wrote a Porno Series 4 are both due out later this year. The Worst Writer in the World Series 2 is available now from the British Comedy Guide.
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