More Tough Choices Ahead for Independent Animators

This time last year, I speculated that the ‘You’ part of ‘YouTube’ was about to become as irrelevant as the ‘Music’ part of ‘MTV’. As it turns out, that speculation has turned out to be correct. Unfortunately, the future looks even more gloomy for independent creators for an even more troubling reason.

Fritz the Cat - an independent creation

Part of my previous article discussed how the rise of multi-channel networks (MCNs) on YouTube served to lasso viewers and corral their attention into audiences to whom advertising could be sold. Such a model is based on attracting and acquiring as large an audience as possible irrespective of the actual quality of the content. The conclusion to that piece was that independent creators are faced with an unenviable choice: remain truly independent and be content with small views and low ad revenue, or sign with an MCN, acquire large views but part with a significant portion of the resulting ad revenue. The point that the guiding principle on which YouTube had been founded was being actively repressed by Google and MCNs.

Since then, we’ve seen another development emerge, and its one that Tal Shachar and Liam Boluk over at REDEF  have analysed in their piece Age of Abundance: How the Content Explosion will Invert the Media Industry.

This critically important essay is one that every creator ought to read because as much as I lamented the decline of YouTube in my previous post, this one looks at the road ahead, and the picture is far from rosey.

Despite its growth over the past few years, it is only in the past 12 months or so that we’ve seen the new reality that has resulted from the current explosion in content. We reached a point long ago where more content was being produced every minute than viewers could ever hope to watch in an entire year. What we have reached now, and what Shachar and Boluk discuss, is the realisation that the constraint in the entertainment supply chain is no longer the broadcaster, or even the TV schedule, but rather the viewer themselves and how many hours they devote to viewing content.

This bottleneck has spurred intense competition by multiple agencies who are all attempting to control the viewer’s eyeball. What Shachar and Boluk conclude is that curators will become the dominant gatekeepers to viewers and the most popular ones will command top dollar for recommendations and endorsements in exchange for revenue sharing and co-branding.

That leaves a gaping dilemma: can independent art survive if its viability depends on commercial relationships and agreements? That’s a tough one to answer for sure, and it prompts uncomfortable thoughts.

Independent artists have always had to have a degree of pragmatism about them. It was one thing to produce pure art, and it was another thing to compromise for the sake of being able to eat. The internet drastically minimized the gap between the two such that with everyone as a potential viewer, it was easy to find that supporting audience for even the most outlandish art. However, as Shachar and Boluk suggest, we are about to enter a period where it is the worst of both worlds and where artists will be forced to compromise out of cruel necessity.

What brings the dilemma painfully close to home, is that as a flourishing independent producer, do I need to craft my animation with the mindset that it should appeal to a curator instead of an audience? As the REDEF article suggests, recommendations from curators will come with a guaranteed seal of approval and will almost certainly have a greater chance of being seen by viewers. To that end, the viewer switches roles, and they cease to be the person to whom the most attention needs to be paid.

The easy solution is therefore to create animation that appeals strictly to the curator, or is even produced in association with them. The road-less-travelled solution is to focus solely on the audience, and craft content so good, it is to the detriment of the curator to ignore it.

Of the former, we can look forward to a significant decline in truly independent content, and in its place will be animation that enforces a curator’s message. Of the latter, producers will need to become extra diligent with regard to their content, and nurturing a loyal fanbase who can be relied upon for support. The end result will be a great shake-out as unambitious creators scramble to attract curators, and determined creators master their ability to command an audience based on their reputation alone. What little middle ground that is left will not be fought over.

So what does this mean for the upstart independent animator? To put it mildly: more tough decisions that will again mean making a difficult choice. If you thought the term ‘sellout’ has a negative connotation, you clearly don’t know that Taylor Swift ditched authenticity for money when she brought Max Martin in to write her current album. Art became less of a priority for her, and anyone who things that motion pictures and animation will be any different are delusional.

Unfortunately there has not been as much talk, or development, with regards to nurturing a fanbase. Frederator have done a good job, and have a system of sorts down, but what has worked for them may not work for everyone. In any case, unless they sign with a similar outfit, the independent creator is left to fend for themselves; forced to wear multiple creative hats in addition to being a full-time pitchman for their own work.

As daunting as the future seems though, it isn’t all bad news. Animated programming has increased exponentially from ten years ago, and the quality continue to improve as a whole. We’re in an era when the rules are still constantly changing, and their final composition is still taking shape. The next few years will be full of flux, but the end result should hopefully be such that independent artists still have a profitable outlet for their work.