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Why Pro-Amateurs are the Future

By on January 24, 2012

This is a re-post with the permission of Tadhg Kelly, who writes at What Games Are


The fact that professional makers are feeling under threat is not news. There are calls for tax breaks for game makers and novelists, scrambling efforts to lock down (or at least shut up) the Web through legislation. There is even Rupert Murdoch, once champion of anti-establishmentarian ideals of publishing, tweeting about why a search engine and mass theft are supposedly the same thing.

They have good reason to feel threatened. The Great Recession has accelerated the process of deconstruction. Nobody wants to invest in professional art in a time when we’ve started to use the word “trillion” in everyday conversations about national debts. Add to this the chorus of devaluation that digital distribution has wrought in all creative fields, the largely hazy arguments surrounding piracy, and cultural trends toward lionizing the past (great for back catalogue sales, not so much for new artists).

Image by Fernando Mafra

To many, it looks like Doomsday. However I think not.

Those Who Know

Creative industries tend to be like clubs. You can get into the club in many ways, but all of them are equally difficult. You’ve put the time in, done the training, had the lucky breaks, struggled and finally made it.

Once you are actually in the club then life is easier. You have a name, you are a part of a network and you work with a lot of the same people year in year out. Members rarely fall out of the club entirely.

I am a member of the games club, for example, through a combination of luck, hard work and some amount of aptitude. I am now in a position where others in the club talk to me (and I to them) and we have a kind of commonality. We are pros. We are “in”. And we are aware that there are so many more people who are not “in” that would like to be.

Perhaps they have an overly-romantic notion of what it’s like but that’s just how it is. All creative fields, from modern art through to advertising have that lustre because people like the idea of making things for a living. In many ways the desire to be “in” is where fans come from. Many fans like to be close to an artist almost as a participant in the creative process. They support the artist, and in a sense support themselves. Those who are “in” understand this, and the good ones encourage others to take the next step and make things of their own.

The Squeeze

However, part of being “in” is the sense that the club can’t get too big, and for many the internet is actually pushing to make the club smaller. Book publishers, for example, no longer offer much in the way of advances. Long-tail services like Netflix and Spotify have such huge libraries that every new artist is competing not just with their peers, but their antecedents also. Distribution may rise but prices fall.

They feel squeezed by piracy. Though they dislike it, many who are “in” quietly believe that they have to keep many more people “out” in order to hold on to what remains. I don’t mean executives etc. I mean established writers, musicians, game makers and so on. We live in a curious age where the freest of thinkers (artists of various stripes) are the ones that want to curtail freedom the most.

Those who are “in” also feel squeezed by something else: Democratisation of tools. It’s bad enough that they have to deal with a loss of revenue, but a reduction of difficulty in getting into the club threatens to increase its size many times over. The future is a world awash with low-rent ebooks, GarageBand music and GameMaker-developed games. Quality will collapse, and there will be no future for the professional any more.

The future, it seems, looks like an amateur hour idiocracy.

Pro-Amateurs

In the startup world, the reduction of barriers is a great boon. You can, for example, assemble a small team and go create a tool that will change the world. As an individual you can create a blog that causes conversations and change. You can develop a game, make music, start a design agency, and all you need is a laptop.

Seth Godin calls the laptop the new factory, and the new age a creative economy where mass production is no longer required. Lacking the previous barriers, we get to see many new kinds of art and entertainment that simply didn’t exist before. We get great new games, novels, rich media ebooks perhaps (Apple may be announcing a tool to that effect tomorrow) and Youtube series.

It’s not amateur in the sense of a lack of diligence, nor is it professional in the sense of those who are “in”. The forces of technology distribution and cheap or free tools creates a space for talent to do what talent wants to do. It creates a class of pro-amateur makers.

A pro-amateur perhaps works on a project as a side-line to her day-job but she treats it seriously. Like any struggling writer, there is the work and the need to pay the rent. The difference is that the pro-amateur then takes her work and distributes it directly. She creates a book, an album, a TV series and just puts it out there. It only really costs her time to do it, and if it works it works. If not, she does something else.

The magic of the internet is therefore this: It substitutes time spent getting into the club with time spent finding fans. Expertise with experience. Legitimacy with audience. Jargon with generosity. And for those with the talent to do it well come the rewards because niche audiences that blossom into tribes exist for almost anything you can think of. No longer is it the time when the frustrated artist with the marionette show has to climb inside the head of John Malkovich to catch a break (see image above). Now he can go global on his own.

It’s a Cambrian Explosion and it is the future-present. Many people will be “out”, as before, but the process of how they get “in” will change. There will be less structure and more aggregation. Less marketing and more marketing stories. Less reliable processes and more productive risks.

For most, those days of a publisher acting as an angel investor to an artist while they hone their craft are over. The publisher can’t afford it and the pro-amateur doesn’t need it.

Instead the new model sees the pro-amateur doing the work of building the market, and then perhaps later a publisher or aggregator cuts a deal with her to scale that operation up. The artist becomes part-business person and so she makes better art. And, in the end, we will all win.

About Tadhg Kelly