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Small-time independent artists of every type are always trying to find ways to circumvent the big publishing and distribution machines. That’s because they have to. Every few years, an artist on the more-intelligent side of the “mainstream” tries to do the same. They have to, too. Or they wouldn’t do it. Right? Radiohead did the thing with the album you could name your own price for — remember that? — but it was only for a limited time. Prince moved his whole operation online for a time. One of my personal favorites from my college days, Michelle Shocked, sells all her old CDs as well as new material in unencrypted MP3 form on her personal website. It is only because she took this initiative that I was able to buy myself a new copy of her out-of-print masterpiece, Short Sharp Shocked, which I used to own as a cassette tape, and which I lost five cross-country moves ago. Now that I’ve got the MP3s, I’ll never have to buy it, or worry about losing it, again.

The most recent sort-of-high-profile artist (and I use that term with love — I mean by it, “the kind of artist that has a following and some mainstream success, but is less oversaturatable than Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber”) is the comedian Louis C. K. I love this guy’s show on FX, though my boyfriend finds it uncomfortable and disturbing. To be fair, he has a low threshold for discomfort in comedy — even the British version of The Office makes him squirm. Louis (since he is not Cher, I would normally call him by his last name, but “C. K.” is a weird thing to call somebody) spent a bunch of his own money filming a comedy concert he performed, then a little more building a website, and tried to sell unencrypted video files of the performance for $5 to the public at large. Unencrypted. Got that? So they could be easily pirated, if people wanted to steal them.

So far, he says he’s made $200K in profit. I believe him. And it makes me feel good about people. (Full disclosure: I have not yet bought the concert. But I damn sure won’t be stealing it, either).

You are often told that “people won’t pay for stuff on the web.”

It’s not true. When I launched Modern Tales, the first semi-successful subscription-based webcomics service, I noticed that people — some people — are willing to pay. We had around 4 or 5 thousand subscribers at the height of that project, which is comparable to a fairly successful indie comic book (as a matter of fact, there are Marvel and DC comics with lower paid circulation). It wasn’t enough, though, to support the financial ambitions of 30 comic artists (the typical “successful” indie comic also doesn’t make a profit).

The question is, are enough people willing to pay for your stuff to make it worth the effort you’re going through to try to sell it? As Louis points out, he could have made more money, and worked a lot less hard, by going the traditional route: letting some company hire him to do the concert then sell the video online and pay him a royalty. For him, the advantages of self-publication (I’m going to call it that, because that’s what it is, even though we’re not talking about a book) outweighed all that (he explains it here). For others, maybe not.

His success is not, by the way, an argument against the participation of big publishers and distributors in the careers of artists. As indie-minded a guy as I am, I would never have heard of Louis C. K., if it had not been for his cable television program — which isn’t published by just any old large corporation, but happens to be published by a large corporation I despise (FX, the network he’s on, is part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire). And still, that is the route by which I found him. I suspect that the majority of people buying his video heard about him because of that show, or some other mainstream gig. Without them, he would have probably sold about as many videos as we sold Modern Tales subscriptions.

I think the lesson is this: artists don’t have to choose. This isn’t Nazi-occupied France. One side isn’t evil. I know, I know, you’ve been told differently. For the artist, self-publishing and traditional publishing don’t have to be at odds with one another, despite what advocates of either “side” may want you to believe. You can do both, at different points in your career, or even at the same time. If you’re lucky enough to get mainstream gigs, great. Those can empower your self-publishing work, and vice versa. One artist on Modern Tales who ended up sticking with the subscription model, James Kochalka, was able to attract a paying audience in part because of his success in the print world (and the rock and roll world, but that’s a unique situation). Just make sure that you don’t sign away any rights that would preclude your ability to self-publish, too. At one point in our early days, one of the Modern Tales cartoonists had a print publisher who tried to claim that the cartoonist had signed away his/her digital rights to them, but the cartoonist was able to show them where he/she had purposefully struck out that part of the agreement before signing.

An artist who works every angle, who has the ability to make money from multiple business models, is more likely to succeed than an artist who is dependent only on one. I think. Probably.

What do you think?

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