Ok Go on How to Be A Star in a Few Easy Steps

SpiralsAndSpokes, originally uploaded by carolsLittleWorld.

The other day, I was reading this article written by Damian Kulash over at the Wall Street Journal.

Who is Damian Kulash? You might ask and I might be here to tell you.

Mr. Kulash is not some boring economist, marking strategist, or dullard CEO, rather he’s the lead singer and guitarist for the rock band Ok Go (apologies if you do not recognize them sans treadmills, but they are one of the more popular acts of 2010.)

It dawned on me as I was reading the article that a lot of what he says about music also applies to photography. You could say the same thing about a lot of successful photographers nowadays, in fact, image if the article were written by a photographer. It might run something like this:

“My photography has been viewed by millions of people on Facebook, I’ve made videos on YouTube and thousands have watched me take a shooting vacation to the Grand Canyon, coming back with the most stunning of prints and a how-to video for aspiring photographers. I have several thousand followers on Twitter and my Flickr images are instant faves for hundreds of people.

For most people, the obvious question is: Has this helped sell [prints]? The quick answer is yes. We’ve sold more than 600,000 [prints] over the last decade. But the more relevant answer is that doesn’t really matter. A half a million [prints] is nothing to shake a stick at, but it’s the online statistics that set the tone of our business and, ultimately, the size of our income.

We once relied on investment and support from a major . Now we make a comparable living raising money directly from fans and through licensing and sponsorship. Our bank accounts don’t rival Lady Gaga’s, but we’ve got more creative freedom than we did as small fish in her pond.

[Pay attention-this is where the parallels get really interesting.]

For a decade, analysts have been hyperventilating about the demise of [photography]. But [photography] isn’t going away. We’re just moving out of the brief period—a flash in history’s pan—when an artist could expect to make a living selling [prints] alone. [Art] is as old as humanity itself, and just as difficult to define. It’s an ephemeral, temporal and subjective experience.

For several decades, though, from about World War II until sometime in the last 10 years, the [print] industry managed to successfully and profitably pin it down to a stable, if circular, definition: [Photography] was prints of [photos]. [Photos] not only made it possible for [photographers] to connect with [viewers] anywhere, at any time, but offered a discrete package for commoditization. It was the perfect bottling of lightning: A powerful experience could be packaged in plastic and then bought and sold like any other commercial product. [He says plastic, but it might as well be silver/paper, a frame, or a magazine subscription just as well.]

Then came the Internet, and in less than a decade, that system fell. With uncontrollable and infinite duplication and distribution of [images], selling [images] suddenly became a lot like selling apples to people who live in orchards. In 1999, global record sales totaled…[I’ve left the actual sales figures out, but you can catch the drift here.] [Photography] is getting harder to define again. It’s becoming more of an experience and less of an object. Without [prints] as clearly delineated receptacles of value, last century’s rules—both industrial and creative—are out the window. For those who can find an audience or a paycheck outside the traditional system, this can mean blessed freedom from the [photo] industry’s gatekeepers.

Georgia singer/songwriter Corey Smith has never had a traditional record contract, but in 2008 he grossed about $4 million from touring, merchandise and other revenue, yielding roughly $2 million that was reinvested in the singer’s business, according to his manager, Marty Winsch. Mr. Smith makes his recordings downloadable at no cost from his website, and Mr. Winsch emphasizes that they are promotion for his live shows, not the other way around. “We don’t look at it as ‘free,’ ” he says. “When people come to the website and download the music, they’re giving us their time, their most valuable commodity.” Recently, Mr. Smith entered a partnership with a small music company, but unlike a traditional label deal, the arrangement will give him 50% of any net revenue.

Mr. Smith’s touring success, unfortunately, isn’t indicative of industry trends. Live performance, once seen as the last great hope of the music industry, now looks like anything but. Live Nation, the largest concert promoter in the U.S., recently reported that concert revenue is down 14.5% since last year. A report by Edison Research found that in 2010, 12-to-24-year-olds went to fewer than half as many concerts as they did in 2000; nearly two-thirds went to none at all.

[The same can be said of the print world in the land of photography-a place where subscribers are drying up faster than water drops in the Sahara, magazines are folding at record pace, and books are no longer being produced at all unless they come from the mouth of Blurb and are completely artist funded.]

So if vanishing [print] revenue isn’t being replaced by touring income, how are [photographers] feeding themselves? For moderately well established artists, the answer is increasingly corporate sponsorship and licensing—a return, in a sense, to the centuries-old logic of patronage. In 1995, it was rare for musicians to partner with corporations; in most corners of the music industry, it was seen as the ultimate sell-out. But with investments from labels harder to come by, attitudes towards outside corporate deals have changed. [Same can be said for photographers.]

These days, money coming from a record label often comes with more embedded creative restrictions than the marketing dollars of other industries. A record label typically measures success in number of records sold. [Same is true for a photographer working for a magazine-you find yourself facing a staff of editors and have to “sell” an idea, often leaving little in the way of artistic freedom for the photographer.) Outside sponsors, by contrast, tend to take a broader view of success. The measuring stick could be mentions in the press, traffic to a website, email addresses collected or views of online videos. Artists have meaningful, direct, and emotional access to our fans, and at a time when capturing the public’s attention is increasingly difficult for the army of competing marketers, that access is a big asset.

My band parted ways with the record label EMI a little less than a year ago….[Many photographers no longer carry gallery representation, many do not have book deals, most no longer work for publications, either in the form of newspapers or magazines/print who once provided a stable income for the working photographer. Even stock photography, the once bastion of money making for struggling photographers, is now a well that has run dry. Thanks to the advent of micro stock and diminishing fees for stock photography, photographers can no longer depends upon the income from these revenue streams to support themselves and their creative outlet.]

Now when we need funding for a large project, we look for a sponsor. A couple weeks ago, my band held an eight-mile musical street parade through Los Angeles, courtesy of Range Rover. They brought no cars, signage or branding; they just asked that we credit them in the documentation of it. A few weeks earlier, we released a music video made in partnership with Samsung, and in February, one was underwritten by State Farm. [How many photo blogs, including this one, are sponsored or have some form of corporate sponsorship? Is it really going to be a big jump, if it hasn’t happened already, to envision corporations sponsoring, actually commissioning photographic work that exists only in the realm of new media? How long before Nike pays some sharp shooter to go and shoot the sneakers for Twitter or Facebook, without making it look like some kind of ad? Has it already happened? Probably so, would be my guess.]

We had complete creative control in the productions. At the end of each clip we thanked the company involved, and genuinely, because we truly are thankful. We got the money we needed to make what we want, our fans enjoyed our videos for free, and our corporate Medicis got what their marketing departments were after: millions of eyes and goodwill from our fans. While most bands struggle to wrestle modest video budgets from labels that see videos as loss leaders, ours wind up making us a profit. [How many photographers will start to turn a profit from avenues like Facebook or Twitter in 2011?]

The unsigned and unmanaged Los Angeles band Killola toured last summer and offered deluxe USB packages that included full albums, live recordings and access to two future private online concerts for $40 per piece. Killola grossed $18,000 and wound up in the black for their tour. Mr. Donnelly says, “I can’t imagine they’ll be ordering their yacht anytime soon, but traditionally bands at that point in their careers aren’t even breaking even on tour.”

What Killola is learning is that making a living in music isn’t just about selling studio recordings anymore. It’s about selling the whole package: themselves. And there are plenty of pioneers leading the way. Top-shelf studio drummer Josh Freese sold his album online with a suite of add-ons. For $250, fans could have lunch with him at P.F. Chang’s; he says the 25 slots he offered sold out in a day. One fan sprung for the $20,000 option, which included a miniature golf outing with Mr. Freese and his friends. [Ok, so why aren’t there photographers offering to sell lunch with them at P.F. Chang’s or private lessons, “go shooting with a pro!” for exorbitant fees?]

Not every musician takes the project of selling themselves literally, but the personality and personal lives of musicians are being more openly recognized as valuable assets. [Same for photographs. We’ve known for a long time that photographers lead interesting lives, travel a lot, work with glamorous models, etc. and there is a huge market opportunity to show the “behind the scenes” type of work-the artist at work, if you will. This demand, while it can seem outright silly at times to a working photographer, it can be a huge untapped marketing opportunity: show yourself at work, show the wizard behind the curtain to help sell the finished product.] The Twitter account of rapper 50 Cent arguably has wider reach than his last album did, and Kanye West has made an art form out of existing in the public eye, holding spontaneous online press conferences and posting rambling blog entries.

This isn’t so revolutionary an idea. Pop music has always been a bigger canvas than beats, chords and lyrics alone. In his early days, Elvis’s hips were as famous as his voice, and Jimi Hendrix’s lighter fluid is as memorable as any of his riffs, but back then the only yardstick to quantify success was the Billboard charts. Now we are untethered from the studio recording as our singular medium, and we measure in Facebook fans, website hits, and—lucky for me—YouTube views.

[The same is true for photography and the photographic medium. Look at how many artists were “personalities” in that they capitalized on some quirk or small aspect of their personality.]

I hope this article gave you something to think about or solidified some of the ramblings we read about social media and marketing for photographers in this new dawn of scattered Internet content.

Until next time…



  1. mythopolis
    December 27, 2010 / 11:48 am

    Well, for about 10 bucks anyone can have lunch with me and enjoy basking in the lifestyle of the poor and anonymous!

  2. Carol
    December 29, 2010 / 3:16 am

    You know, I was thinking the same thing. I can easily be bought for potstickers at P.F. Chang's, especially those nice veggie ones. Yum!

    Of course, after springing for my lunch, you'd still be poor and anonymous but, the fact remains, I can be easily bought and sold.

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