Friday, February 23, 2018

Who's the Man.

Back when I was still on Tumblr, I joked (only partly) that I was running a "social experiment" -- how successful did I have to get as a creator before I went from a peer worth supporting to a pro it was okay to insult and bring down? And, to satisfy my curiosity, would I be able to see the moment it happened?

My answers were "not very" and "to the day."

Overnight, at least to strangers and rubberneckers, I seemed to go from someone worth listening to to getting angry emails for daring to say that maybe we shouldn't pirate from creators. And this isn't even talking myself up... because frankly, I haven't moved into a new income bracket since that change took place. If anything, I've gone down from where I was financially back when I was a stressed-out office worker.

With no books to my name, no interviews under my belt, I could talk about kindness to creatives and not sneaking into events. But now, whatever the hell has happened, I am suddenly an aspect of The Man. And even though I'm still freelancing 18 hours a day, working all but one con (Crunchyroll Expo -- tied to my work) as volunteer gigs, and will be rationing the hell out of my incoming Girl Scout Cookies, I have been transferred into another bracket.

And I'm not the only one.

A lesson: how visible you are does not in any way correspond to how much money you make. There's a lot of television shows that want to tell you otherwise, but it's really not that way for 99% of the population.

If you produce content every waking hour of your day, that is not a guarantee you will be rich. It's not even a guarantee you'll be seen. Some of my favorite content makers have done ludicrous amounts of quality work in an impressive amount of time, and benefit neither financially nor visibly.

So Tip 1: money, visibility, and accomplishment do not go hand in hand. I only wish they did.

And here's another tip: others will make assumptions about your money and accomplishments based solely on your visibility.

We're seeing a major upswing in geek-relevant industries. Some are run by fellow geeks made good; others are run by corporations getting in on the trend. And I will admit right now that it can be difficult for a consumer to figure out which is which. There are lots of wolves in sheep's clothing out there, trying to make relatable social media posts and keep it fun and wacky to hide what's going on behind the curtain.

An example: look at any company that uses a guy's name. I'm thinking particularly of Bob FM (for the US and Canada) and Dave (for the UK). Whichever one you're familiar with, think of your mental image of them. For Bob FM, which we get here, my first image was of a pirate radio station made good, headed up by some dude named Bob who played whatever the damn hell he wanted in opposition to whatever was "hot" right now. Because that's what their set list (no repeats, diving back to pretty much anything you can imagine in the past 40 years) and their marketing conveyed.

The truth? B.O.B. stands for "Best Of the Best," and is owned by Bell Media -- who also own a ton of other TV and radio stations in Canada. It's not a dude with a radio tower and a six-pack. It's an international organization. Similarly for Dave (so named because "everyone knows a bloke called Dave"), it's under the UKTV umbrella, partially owned by BBC Worldwide. Even if we're generally aware that these companies probably couldn't just be a drunk dude doing what he wants, they kind of exude that.

Now, this is not a call-out of either of those. I like both Bob FM and Dave, so it's safe to use them as examples. They create an image of "one of us" to slip past the glut of marketing, but they're not screwing me over when they do. The service they offer actually reflects the image they exude. So yeah, you're benefiting Bell Telephone and BBC Worldwide, but they're giving you what they said they'd give you.

Holding that in full consideration, and given that fans do get burned a lot, it's not surprising that many consumers' first move is always to distrust creators, organizers, and marketers. And this manifests in a lot of ways when it comes to non-corporate creators trying to create a better marketplace.

Having been overcharged with promises underfulfilled (or even unfulfilled entirely), at the first sight of money that's anything more than a pittance, a fan may bristle. If the Bad People are trying to overcharge us, then why do the allegedly Good People want so much money? If they're Good, shouldn't prices be significantly lower?

The mistake here is believing that a move away from a corporate model harmful to fans is the same as doing away with money largely or altogether. The fact of the matter is, money exists. Contracts exist. Business does have to be done. A fan running their own studio can't afford to give you $5 content if the content takes them hours to make; they'll go bankrupt.

As I mentioned before, it's totally understandable to wonder and check. And that's okay. We've all been burned. We wouldn't be here trying to make a difference if we hadn't been. But once you get to the other side of that curtain, you learn a lot more clearly what's greed and what's The Nature of Things.

Miles Thomas over at Crunchyroll did a great tweet-chat pretty much embodying my experience going into the anime industry. Everything seems quite clear on the fan side when it comes to money, releases, schedules, the way things are put together. Hell, I once wrote a piece on why fansubs are beneficial to the industry. Full disclosure. A lot of us did.

Then you actually get in and get your hands dirty and you're like "oh shit this is what it's like." Does this mean there's nothing in the industry that needs changing? Absolutely not. Crunchyroll and other streaming sites have massively changed the face of international anime distribution, making it possible for people to watch free translated anime while still supporting the creators. And much, much of the operation of the company is handled by anime fans, many of whom came in believing they knew the industry better.

It's this way for pretty much any industry you level up in. And then when you tell a fan "I'm sorry, we can't do that because it's not financially feasible," even if you've exhausted multiple options to improve the state of things... well, you get the same earful you gave others.

This is not me defending every businessperson out there. There are some horrible companies who are doing their best to get as much money out of you for as little return as possible. And they will always exist. And some companies will in fact start out as fan-run endeavors and get full of themselves. These things happen.

But working in an industry, provided you're serious about it, entails learning about the industry. The people you yell at for charging what you think is too much may well be charging half (or less) of what's happening up the road. The people whose rules are too stringent to you may have those rules in place because something you don't even conceive of could ruin your interaction with the company otherwise.

An artist who charges $100 when you only want to spend $5 isn't out to get you. They are just not offering the service you currently want.

It's not necessary, as I've said before, to go out and take a business course to understand every industry you benefit from. But before accusing people of going corporate, or treating them like a handy punching bag, take a step back and look at the whole of what they're doing. You may well be attacking the person trying to stop the very behavior you dislike.


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