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A gang of young musicians strutting through the mall to sell girls CDs out of their backpacks. An indie filmmaker driving through the Adirondacks to hawk copies of his latest cinematic look at the rural lifestyle. A painter uploading his newest masterpiece onto an online gallery so a potential buyer on another continent can study the image. These are just some of the ways in which local independent artists exploit new technology and old-fashioned gumption to reach the public. In an age when corporate control over the marketplace has become more stifling than ever before—just listen to the homogenized sounds coming off the radio or look at the bland images flickering on multiplex screens—the need for alternative means of distribution is urgent for the survival of independent artists and, some might argue, independent art itself. In that spirit, here are stories about how local artists working in three very different mediums are circumventing corporate distribution channels—and pocketing money that traditionally has ended up in the coffers of middlemen.

 

Film

Every January, scads of young filmmakers risk getting a serious case of vertigo by climbing to the hilly locale of Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival—but the disorientation they feel has as much to do with the dizzying air of dealmaking at the annual event as it has to do with altitude sickness. Ever since 1989, when director Steven Soderbergh debuted sex, lies, and videotape at Sundance and landed a distribution deal with Miramax Films, the idea of going to Park City as an unknown and leaving the festival a star has been the brass ring for which nearly every struggling director reaches.

Following in Soderbergh’s path is attractive to would-be auteurs because he made an impressive compromise between artistry and commerce: He created his picture independently, then cashed in without having to sell his soul. But throughout the ’90s, filmmakers who tried to emulate Soderbergh discovered how unusual his achievement actually was—does anybody remember The Spitfire Grill or Happy, Texas, two flicks that were bought after Sundance bidding wars, then crashed and burned in theaters? It turns out that the grimmest lesson of the ’90s indie-cinema boom is that scoring a distribution deal isn’t necessarily the first step to success.

“You hear ‘distributor,’ and you think of someone who’s going to legitimize your stuff with a real label,” notes Albany producer Joe Masucci.

For as long as people have been making movies in the Capital Region, local filmmakers have been enmeshed in the struggle of getting their work seen. Valatie’s Bruce G. Hallenbeck, perhaps the area’s most prolific director, spent a decade trying to exact proper compensation from the original distributor of his debut feature, 1990’s Vampyre. Hallenbeck is now involved in a harmonious business relationship with New Jersey’s EI Independent Cinema, which issues videos of Vampyre and other Hallenbeck movies, but he still works at a day job for the state. And in terms of regional filmmakers, he’s comparatively successful.

Albany documentarian Mike Camoin is one of the only area directors who makes a living off cinema, and he attributes his solvency to his choice to sidestep traditional distribution. When he finished the first picture in his series about life in the Adirondacks, 1997’s Leadley’s Legacy, he sold his products the old-fashioned way.

“I started out peddling them around, setting up screenings, visiting stores,” he recalls, adding that he sold a whopping 500 copies of Leadley’s within the first few months of its release. “I love getting in my car and driving around [to] the shops when the season starts in June. I know a lot of the store owners by name.”

One key to Camoin’s success is that he identified an underserved marketplace and catered his products to potential customers. Masucci, a producer-cinematographer who makes movies with his director-actor brother Dan Masucci, pulled a similar trick with his most visible project to date. In 2000, the Masuccis made a fake episode of The X-Files called Graceland, then spread the word about the project via the Internet. They couldn’t legally sell copies of the film, as they didn’t license the X-Files copyright, but they could distribute free copies to raise their profiles.

“People around the world would hear about Graceland and e-mail me to send them tapes, and that’s how Graceland got out there,” Masucci says. “My estimate is there are 300 copies of Graceland in the world today. They are as far away as the United Arab Emirates, Australia, England, Argentina.”

Later this year, the Masuccis will experiment with distributing a for-profit movie on the Internet when they make their latest project, the comic short Murphy’s Law, available for sale on their Web site, www.fountainheadpictures.com. But Joe Masucci acknowledges that to gain attention for the project, it will be necessary to have it showcased on higher-trafficked sites that feature indie short films from around the world.

“You can put stuff up on your Web site, but how many hits are you going to get?”
he asks. “So the idea is to put it up on something like Atom Films [www.atomfilms.com], and they allow you to link back to your own page so someone can look at it on Atom Films and then say ‘Oh, I can own that.’ ”

For the last two years, the Internet also has been pivotal for the distribution of Camoin’s pictures. Through his site, www.videosforchange.com, Camoin has stepped up his ability to reach faraway markets, and he estimates that he’s sold about 2,000 copies of the various products in his Adirondack line. He’s now poised to expand his sales even further, because Camoin recently moved his operation to an office at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s business-incubator program. He has 12 interns—including three students studying for their MBAs—working on improvements to his Web site, marketing and distribution.

“There was a nice match between my company’s direction, in terms of utilizing new media like streaming video, and what the program could offer in terms of support,” Camoin says. “The role of the incubator is to get students involved on an entry level, and we may hire from the student body. It’s a new area, and no one knows where’s it’s going to go.”

Yet even in the Information Age, some local filmmakers still rely on old-fashioned footwork to move their products. Area director Jeff Burns recently rented one of the screens at the Spectrum 7 Theatres in Albany for a promotional screening of his new comedy, Everything About Her, and brought a stack of videos to sell to the standing-room-only crowd. And Albany producer-entrepreneur Terry Field puts various locally made movies, including those with his name in the credits, out for sale and rental at his independent store, Super Video.

Myriad resources are available for indie directors eager to get their products out into the world. Camoin, Field, Burns and others work with Upstate Independents, a support group that meets monthly at the Arts Center of the Capital Region to discuss, among other things, new opportunities for distribution. And organizations like the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, of which UI is a franchise, regularly issue online lists of companies seeking product for distribution.

As area filmmakers are fast discovering, the new reality of distributing low-budget movies is that there are more options than ever before—but these options are best exploited by people willing to put in the time to develop their audiences, and by people willing to go through a trial-and-error process until they find the distribution method that works for them and their customers.

“I think everybody should have a ‘plan B,’ ” says Camoin. “They should be working on that from the moment they conceptualize the product, or else it’s going to sit in a corner.”

—Peter Hanson

 

Visual Art

The art of finding unconven-tional ways to put their work before the eyes of a viewing public is nothing new to visual artists. That explains why we see art shows hanging everywhere from cafés to public libraries, instead of just at traditional galleries. Now even these not-so-traditional venues are recognized as places where one might go to see and, artists hope, purchase art.

Undoubtedly, the Information Age revolution of the past handful of years may signal the beginning of a paradigm shift in the way business is done and work is produced and distributed in a number of creative fields. While visual artists may not be the quickest to jump on the technology bandwagon, some are finding the Internet to be important tool that can help them reach audiences—and customers—that once would have been far beyond their grasp, especially for emerging regional artists.

For contemporary realist painter David Arsenault, the idea of taking advantage of all the Internet could offer was a no-brainer. The Capital Region artist and graphic designer, whose work has been seen in the annual Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region exhibit and as well as many other exhibits, says that a turn of events helped him to think outside the box where the retail display of his art is concerned.

“Within a year and a half, four of the galleries I had been in closed,” he explains. “That caused me to rethink the idea of galleries and what they mean to me and how significant that can be for an artist or not. It fueled me to think away from the tried-and-true formulas.”

Arsenault established his own Web site, www.artofdavid.com, in 1999, at a time when entrepreneurs were making a splash on the World Wide Web with the new phenomenon of the online art gallery. His well-designed site features the components you might expect to find: an artist’s statement and biography, three virtual galleries where images of his oil-on-canvas works are displayed, and contact information, among other things.

While anyone surfing the net for art and artists might have a tough time honing in on his Web site in a totally random search, Arsenault believes it has been in an invaluable tool, especially when used in tandem with more traditional methods of exhibiting his work.

“I’ll give you an example,” says the upbeat 43-year-old. “I had a show in a Massachusetts gallery, and a year and a half after the fact, someone who had seen my work there contacted me and ended up buying a piece through my Web site.” One bonus for Arsenault is that when a customer contacts him directly, he doesn’t have to sacrifice 50 to 60 percent of his profits to gallery commissions.

“The benefit of being online is that anyone from anywhere in the world has access to your work at any time day or night, whether it’s on my Web site or an online gallery,” he says. “The distinction [between the virtual galleries and my Web site] is that they have a regular client base. The also have offline contacts that I would have to work very hard to establish. They’re also more proactive in promoting corporate channels and in courting media attention in their milieu than I am.”

For instance, when The Wall Street Journal ran an article about PaintingsDirect.com, which has represented Arsenault since 2001, he was mentioned in the story. Subsequently, his own Web site received additional traffic.

PaintingsDirect.com, a 4-year-old virtual gallery representing more than 500 international artists, seems to have been created for artists like Arsenault. While it features some established artists, most of those it represents are emerging talents whose work is priced beginning at $40. (Artists are selected by a jury process, and customers who buy work based only on virtual images have an option to return it within a specified time period.)

Christine Bourron, the founder and CEO of PaintingsDirect.com, says one of her reasons for creating the virtual gallery is that “there seemed to be very inefficient distribution channels for art.” One gallery, she explains, might have as few as 10 paintings on display, so a potential customer’s chances of finding something she liked could be slim.

And there were the artists to consider: “There are so many artists out there who have so many interesting things to show and really have a hard time getting visibility for their art,” she continues.” There are artists who join us and then really find their niche, where they have a group of followers. It’s a totally new way for artists to gain exposure.”

That’s what Arsenault and many other artists like him are hoping. While the PaintingsDirect Web site has yet to sell any of his works, he’s confident that over the long run his affiliation with it can only be beneficial. According to Bourron, clients have not shied away from making major purchases online; the average price of most sales, she says, is $800 to $900, while she’s even sold pieces as expensive at $7,000.

As far as actual sales go for Arsenault, he has had better luck closer to home with Artisanity.com, a small virtual gallery founded by Saratoga Springs resident Michelle Paquette in 1997. It features fine and functional art, as well as artisan-made crafts, by both regional and national artists. Arsenault says the prints of his paintings available from the gallery have sold steadily since it went online.

An affiliation he has with another online gallery, JustOriginals.com has also borne some fruit. Unlike the other virtual galleries who represent him and take a commission when they sell one of his works,
JustOriginals.com charges him a nominal monthly fee to publish images of his works and provide a link to his own Web site. He handles any sales directly; and he’s sold works to people from as far away as Texas based on the gallery’s referrals.

While Arsenault figures just 20 percent of his print sales and 30 percent of his sales of originals are generated online, he feels that’s a good start.

“If this is a feasible way in the 21st century for artists to get their work in front of new audiences, which, of course it is, then I want to be a part of it,” he concludes. “All I have to do is look at the statistics on my Web site. People from Holland visit it, and people from Germany have been there—people from all over the world. How else am I going to get my work in front of those people on a regular basis?”

—Susan Mehalick

 

Music

You are a musician. You’ve been playing your instrument since you were, say, 12 years old. You’ve been in bands. People tell you you’re good, and some of them aren’t even related to you. Now you’ve written some songs, scraped up enough money to record them, and scraped up some more money to get CDs pressed and nifty sleeve inserts printed with nice pictures and all of the ©s and ASCAPs and BMIs listed, even though you’re not entirely sure what they all mean. The CDs are piled up in your kitchen.

Now all you need is that record deal. Right?

Maybe not. These days, the music biz is getting so tight and ferret-like, you probably won’t get a deal unless you sound like next year’s Alicia Keys. Or last year’s Eminem.

Fact is, The Deal may not be the best thing for you. Ask 95 percent of the artists who’ve been on a major label, and they’ll tell you. Get signed, and you’ll get shuffled, molded, prodded and directed. Then, if your record is deemed worthy of being released, you’ll be shot out into the marketplace, maybe with a little marketing budget, a wing and a prayer, and three weeks to make a dent. And even if you sell some of your “product,” you’ll get screwed by the Byzantine contractual and unscrupulous accounting practices that almost all record labels, major and indie, inflict on their artists. Can you say 11 percent of 85 percent of retail after a 25-percent packaging deduction and a 35-percent reserve hold, minus four points for the producer, against a recoupable advance of $250,000, cross-
collateralized? Sure you can!

As an alternative, you can schlep your homemade CDs to those few record stores in the area that accept local stuff. This generally involves dropping off five copies on consignment. After a week, you drive to the store, learn they’ve sold one copy, and are rewarded with a $5 bill for your trouble. That’s showbiz, babe. And you can try to sell CDs at gigs, providing you have a friend who (a) can count, (b) is trustworthy, and (c) won’t get so twisted during the course of your gig that he or she loses sight of the need to receive money for your CDs.

A number of local musicians have found ways around these ruts. Through a combination of smarts, perseverance and diligence, it is possible to get your music to the public and to people who can make things happen for you, and make a little money in the process. And you don’t need to suck up to BMG, Sony or Universal to do it.

Sara Ayers records and runs her musical empire out of her house in Castleton. She’s released five CDs of what could be called exotic ambient electronica on her own Darkwood Recordings label, and her marketing is almost completely Web-based. “My experience distributing music locally has been abysmal, and I hardly bother with it anymore,” she says. “The music I do just isn’t that popular around here, compared to places like New York, Boston and L.A. There are a lot of tools for indie artists on the Web. Mostly I try to figure out where on the Web one would go to find this kind of niche music, and I go there and try to insinuate myself into that scene. My music falls into in a very specific niche, which makes it much easier to identify where to go.”

Ayers has insinuated herself into numerous e-lists and chat rooms that revolve around the particular genre of music she creates. She’s also posted music on MP3.com, Ampcast.com, and online specialty record shops like Projekt Records and Backroads Music.

And it’s working. “MP3.com is truly chaotic, but somehow last year I had a song ranked No. 1 on their ambient chart and No. 12 overall,” Ayers says. “I had no plan of attack on the site, but I guess people found me by cruising the charts.” In a year, Ayers has made more than $8,000 from downloads on MP3.com alone, and has licensed two of her recordings, for modest cash payments, for soundtracks of independent films. That’s in addition to steady CD sales through her Web site and other online stores. Ayers has generated money, acclaim and attention for her DIY music—all without leaving her house.

Amsterdam’s Alex Torres and his band Los Reyes Latinos sell a lot of their self-produced CDs through online retailers like Amazon.com, CDNow.com and CDStreet.com; the band’s Web site provides links directly to these online stores. Torres says using these companies enhances the legitimacy of his CDs, especially for buyers out of the area: “Local people might send you 10 bucks for a CD, but you don’t want somebody in California seeing you selling your own shit.”

To help get the word out on the band, Torres travels, on his own dime, to appear on Latino-based radio programs where the band’s songs have gotten airplay. “You do the research, and you do a lot of mass mailings,” he says. “You follow up the mailings with phone calls. You get a song on the air, and you go down to New York or Miami, give away CDs on the air. This costs money and takes time, but it’s what you have to do.”

Torres also is high on MP3.com. “MP3.com has been beddy beddy good to me! It’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to us. We’ve made thousands off that site. If you have a good record, you can make real money on MP3.com. In fact, money from that site paid for our last production.”

Through the exposure of the band’s music on the radio and the Internet, Torres has signed several licensing deals, with companies that supply music to television and film, plus MP3 homeplayers and jukeboxes. And he’s turned down many more deals than he’s taken. “Some of these deals, you look at their Web site and their offer, and they don’t look legitimate,” he says. “They’re just not worth the trouble. And I don’t sign anything until I’ve had the deal reviewed by my lawyer.”

Albany-based rocker-heartthrobs Count the Stars maintain an online community via frequent messages to a fan e-mail list (3,500 and counting) and a virtual real-time chronicling of their activities on their Web site. And they take a reducto ad absurdum approach to guerrilla marketing. Count the Stars are currently in the midst of a self-booked cross-country tour to promote their self-financed CD, Another Useless Night. To get people to come see an out-of-town band with no airplay and no press, the four band members hit the local shopping mall as soon as they get into a town.

There, they approach all of the suitable teenage girls they can find, then hand out stickers, photos and generally pour on what passes as charm in the world of late-teen early-20s rock & roll. The girls, suitably impressed and enamored by the lavish attention bestowed on them by four tattooed, pierced and hyper-friendly rock stars, show up in droves to the band’s all-ages gigs. Dave Shapiro, the band’s drummer and business mogul, explains the process. “Guys won’t give us the time of day, so we look for girls who look like they’re into cool music,” he says. “Maybe they’re wearing a shirt from a band we like. Maybe they’ve got on geek glasses so you know they’re into Weezer.” On a good day, the band will sell 20 CDs at the mall, and bring a respectable crowd of girls who look like they’re into cool music to their gigs, where they sell more CDs and other “merch,” chiefly T-shirts and thongs. They sell lots of thongs.

Count the Stars are assembling a nationwide “street team” of sales reps who direct-sell CDs and merchandise in their hometowns. The band recruit the reps from postings on Web sites like teen indie-art site makeoutclub.com, or by simple Web searches utilizing target town, popular band and age criteria. Again, teenage girls are the focus.

“We have some guys repping for us,” says Shapiro, “but we’ve found that guys won’t buy stuff from other guys. Guys will listen to girls.” The Count the Stars street team stands at 120 right now, and Shapiro has found this marketing method very effective. “The reps advance dates for us in towns we’re going to, and sell records and create a fan base in towns we’ve never been, and may never go to. We work pretty much on an honor system, and while we’ve been burned a few times, the system works real well.”

The Count the Stars tour is making money, and, perhaps equally as important, the band appear to be making a lot of new special friends, from sea to shining sea. If you don’t believe me, check out the guest book on their Web site.

—Paul Rapp

Rapp, an entertainment lawyer with the Albany firm Cohen Dax & Koenig, represents Ayers, Torres and Count the Stars.




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