Indie Film vs Indie Music

Independent Music

I was an independent musician for about ten years.  I have two CDs on iTunes, played in a lot of LA clubs, went on tour in Brazil for three weeks as a sideman, and made my living doing gigs, lessons, and arrangements.

In music, as in film, the digital revolution came and allowed people like me to record our own creative work.  It was incredible.  And suddenly everyone and their uncle (and their uncle’s dog!) had a cd.

But distribution is a different story.  When my first cd came out, the distribution landscape was pretty bleak. A lot of the advice was about getting discovered:  give away your work on; play for free in LA clubs; send your cds to A&R reps (artist & repertoire) at the major studios.

But there was another camp that said no — your chances of being discovered are miniscule.  Book yourself at local clubs; sell your own CDs; organize your own tour; discover yourself.  I had my cd for sale on a few different sites (four, I think) including CD Baby, and watching what happened at each of them was fascinating.  Three of them barely paid enough to cover the cost of the cd and shipping, and each time they emailed me it would be complaining about the economy as an excuse to charge musicians more and offer us less.  And then there was CD Baby — every time I got an email from them it was fun and explained all the new super-useful stuff they were offering musicians for free.

Eventually the other companies got out of the business or folded, and CD Baby went on to become a giant force in the industry and a proponent of independent musicians.  When iTunes and digital distribution became the norm, CD Baby was there to work us a deal.  I really think that without them, without Derek Sivers, independent musicians would not be in the position they are in now.

Right now, independent musicians have access to the same distribution channels that the major studios have.  Incredible.  And hundreds if not thousands of independent musicians are making a living from their own creative work.

Independent Film

At the same time that the price of music recording equipment was dropping wildly, allowing regular people to record their own music, the same thing was happening in film.  Digital video cameras and editing equipment have revolutionized the industry, and thousands of talented people have flocked to the scene.

But what about distribution?  Film and video distribution is much more complex than music distribution for a number of reasons.

  • Audiences are used to paying plenty to watch content that is over 80 minutes long — 10 bucks a pop in the theater — but they have gotten everything shorter for free via television.
  • YouTube and other sites have cemented the concept that even after the advent of digital distribution, short video content is free.
  • Theatrical distribution is not digital, and has remained a business for the majors.
  • Making film/TV is much more expensive than making music. I can hire four professional musicians and one engineer for one day of recording in a studio and have at least 20 minutes of music.  To make a 20 minute film, you’d have to have a crew of at least eight plus any actors for at least four long days — that’s if nothing goes wrong.  And you still haven’t edited it — that’s going to be another few days of the editor’s time.

All this is to say that for complex reasons, film & video distribution has not become available for indies.  More simply: if you’re a filmmaker, you cannot make a living on your own creative work.

The appetite for great video content has not diminished — in fact, broadband speed has increased the public’s voracious appetite for short video content.  But indies are left out of the equation, at least financially.

I’ve thought about this independent film distribution problem a lot, and it doesn’t have to be this way.  Brands have always paid for video content — it’s the only reason we’ve ever had video content, hundreds of channels, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  We’re working to open this market up to independent filmmakers, so stay tuned for more info about independent film, viral video marketing, and everything in between.


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