Sunday, March 14, 2010

Film and Music Distribution

Distribution is a word on many film makers and musicians tongues these days. The illusive "distribution deal" is something that so many artists hope for but many still don't understand. We live in a time where "self distribution" is a real and viable alternative to the old model, in which you needed a distribution company just to get your CD's and DVD's in a brick and mortar store or you film on the big screen. That era is indeed fading quickly.

When my band Freaks Amor released its first album in 1983- there was no internet, Amazon didn't exist and most people still bought Vinyl records and recorded them as mixed tapes. Punks communicated through late night college radio shows, band performances and photo copied fanzines. Bands who pressed their own albums (and thus started their own record labels) were still a relatively new thing, but fast becoming popular with Punks and fringe artists. It wasn't cheap to make an album at the time. Home recording studios didn't exist and even small studios cost an arm and leg just to get in the door. Add to that the art and pressing costs and you were out thousands of dollars just to release 500 copies of a four song E.P. After the Freaks Amor album was pressed (I recall we only made 250 of them), we sold them to friends, family and at vendor tables at our shows. It didn't take long to sell out of the short run and we never made a second pressing.

A year later when I joined the group Montage, we also recorded and released our own album- except we wanted to get serious about self distribution. We made calls to area record stores, including the chain stores, and were able to get our E.P. Montage - Celebrate The Misery into their record bins. Remember, at the time there were no internet stores, so to sell your album it had to be available in the brick and mortar shops, or you wouldn't stand a chance. Being this type of store distributor means making many contacts with buyers and stores, and takes a lot of legwork and directed promotion. You have to convince store owners to carry your little record. Why should they? They never heard of your band before you called them. We used to target stores in areas where we had upcoming shows or college radio interviews. This usually worked. Many stores required you to do consignment- basically giving them the album, then if it sells you get a percentage of the sale. You had to stay on top of consignments as many stores didn't give a shite about accounting, could loose records, destroy them if you didn't pick them up on time, etc. etc. Being your own distributor is hard work, but at the time, it did weed out the wannabees, poseurs and Johnny Come Lately's.

Now how does this apply to our current situation? To put it simply- I am seeing many bands and film makers who are allergic to hard work. They have been duped by the mega-media into thinking that their album, downloads or films should instantly be gobbled up by the masses, while they play video games and socialize on internet chats. The affordability of home recording studios, home video editing suites and inexpensive cameras has produced a glut of inept song writing and sub-student film content that is flooding the internet. In other words, the gates are open and everything is being dumped out there. The weeding processes of the past no longer apply. This is good, bad and ugly.

The Good: Now anyone can get their content to the masses. New delivery forms are completely internet based and available to anyone with a half assed computer system and DSL. On demand CD's and DVD's can be created as the customer orders them, stopping the dreaded Return Authorization and overstock. Companies like CreateSpace, Youreeerka, IndieFlix, CD Baby, DiscMakers and others give any artist (real or imagined) the ability to get their content out to the masses in a very big way. We are talking iTunes, Amazon and even brick and mortar stores who now buy from CreateSpace. This is not a way to get your film into theaters, but trust me, people are working on that as I type this. The accounting of these companies is excellent, with direct deposits to your friggin' bank account, leaving the artist/film maker to promote their work. When a potential customer asks, the artist/film maker can easily point them to places to buy their content. This is done with few, if any, upfront production fees for the artist/film maker, but that leads us to...

The Bad: Without the previous "work ethic" and "self investment" checks and balances in the D.I.Y. world, too much content is now available to the public- making it harder for would be listeners and watchers to sort through it all. How do they find the content they want? Where can they find something artistic, unique and heart felt? Of course all this is subjective- one mans wine is another poison. In the old commercial model, Record Labels and Film Companies would use Talent Scouts and A&R Reps to comb the world looking for the next big thing. When they found it (or thought they found it) they would forward the artist to their bosses, who would present a set series of hoops for the artist to jump through until, after much hoop jumping, the artist was deemed worthy of the company investment. This worked for generations but became flawed as the bean counters (in control of the system) were not very creative and thus, when one film or album sold well, they insisted on repeating that formula over and over and over again. Other companies would copy the formula and pretty soon everything these companies released looked or sounded exactly the same. Eventually the buying public would get bored with the trend and would force a changes in the companies repertoire by looking elsewhere. Many times this was the underground or fringe. Now the trends change real time (except in Hollywood, who insists on sticking to the old model- mostly to protect their investment). Things move so fast they are out of fashion hours after they become the fashion. Am I exaggerating? Maybe, but it sure feels like that. With the looming fall of the printed publication and broadcast radio station- things have become even less stable for emerging artists. My advice is do as much as you can with your content before you sign with a potential distributor. The landscape is shifting monthly so never sign anything "exclusive" unless you have really done your homework. Promote you work through niche channels (i.e. publications, websites, etc that cater to select audiences). We (Go-Kustom) make Hot Rod and Kustom Kulture Car Films so we promote through kustom kulture and automotive magazines and websites. Yes- do all that and then prepare for...

The Ugly: Pirating and copyright infringement is rampant. Many film makers and musical artist feel it is necessary to give their work away for free. The idea being, somehow in the future, they will get a licensing deal or TV Commercial to pay the rent. This rarely happens and a more realistic approach is for us all to confront the Pirates and ask them to support, not kill, what they love and enjoy. My personal battle cry is "Don't Pirate, Buy Indie." Pirates need to understand that they hardly hurt the giant corporations they vehemently denounce (yet watch everything said corps. produce). They really hurt the D.I.Y. and indie guys and gals. I never pirate, never have and never will. It is part of my self imposed "Support the Arts" ethic.

Certain pillars seem to be solidifying in this new world of self distribution. Amazon and iTunes are obvious ones. Others are quickly emerging as major players. The technology is driving the changes- just like it did when we all stopped buying records and started buying CDs or when we moved from VHS tape to DVDs. Some of the dust is starting to settle and I can truly say that (aside from the Pirates) the new self distribution landscape looks the best it ever has. It is a great time to make art, music and film!

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