Such a Thing as Independence (in Film, Music, and Writing)

Consider so-called “self-publishing” for the past several years and you’ll find that every year, someone writes that its “stigma” is disappearing. Perfunctory research dug up this 2002 Wired article, and articles every year following up until now, including this one at the Washington Post. What’s odd is that extensive searches for stigmas associated with either indie filmmaking or indie music-making yield no such results—in fact, the closest I came when Googling for any stigma associated with indie filmmaking were results lamenting the difficulty of an NC-17 film-rating. I thought, at first, I might be using invalid search terms, so I tried “independent”—rather than “indie”—filmmaking; ironically, I found only this Yahoo! question-and-answer post regarding the distinction between the stigma associated with self-publishing and the lack of any associated with independent filmmaking.

What’s interesting about that question is the response thereto: the poster proposes that the distinction is that, when considering writing, often the author is the only person associated with the work (say, a novel, or memoir, or book of poetry). The general thought seems to be that filmmaking can only be collaborative—with a producer and writer and director and actors—while a self-published novel’s creation is isolative—just one writer, in one room, with one keyboard and one screen.

If that is the case, however, wouldn’t it be true that, except in very rare circumstances, neither filmmaking nor music are ever truly “independent”? How often does one encounter a movie written, produced, and directed by one actor in one room? And that doesn’t even mention lighting, sound, and crafts.

Really, sounds like those self-shot YouTube videos one sees, in which users turn on their webcams and talk/rant at it for a few minutes.

(Regardless of your feelings concerning authors who have published their own books—through whatever means—it’s simply not equivalent to ranting at a webcam.)

What it comes down to is simple: for some reason, people respect independence when associated with music recording or filmmaking but not writing, even though writing is the only endeavor of the three that is ever actually accomplished independently.

I’m not sure that’s disingenuous, though I do realize it’s all complicated. I’m talking about very different creative pursuits and methods of distribution. For example, the term “independent,” when associated with filmmaking, doesn’t really mean that the writer/producer/director behind the film shot it in isolation without anyone’s help (or collaboration); what it really tends to mean—in most, though perhaps not all, cases of use—is that a filmmaker created a motion picture outside of what might be called the “studio system.” Used to be, that would mean “not in Hollywood,” but that’s changed in recent years, as technology has developed (though scripts have often not, so much). I was really disappointed to discover that neither my new cell phone (a Nexus S) nor my new point-and-shoot camera (a Canon S90) record 720p video; I mean, what is this, 2009? Seriously Canon and Samsung, get on that.

Point is, filmmaking is broad and diverse enough as to encompass myriad methods and techniques in the production of a final product, be that product digital or canned. While Avatar demonstrated breakthrough technology in not only the highest definition possible but also multiple dimensions and The Dark Knight showed off how great IMAX can look, there’s also something to be said for the immediate feel of something that appears shot-on-the-fly—go back a few years and consider Cloverfield there, which appears like a handful of people kept a party-video going through a monster invasion.

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Admittedly, filmmaking is probably the medium that most demonstrates differences in conception, but it’s not like it can’t be present in other media. You don’t really think either Lady Gaga or Kanye actually sound like that, do you? The most egregious and demonstrative example would probably be the Black Eyed Peas’ halftime show during this past Steelers-Packers Superbowl, which showed just how badly said Peas need studio effects to actually be entertaining, which is saying something considering Day-Glo dancers and Fergie’s inguinal muscles.

Then again, hand either Jack White or Trent Reznor pretty much any damned thing you want and they’ll probably return with something not only recorded but legitimately listenable.

Music has been an interesting scene, in terms of independence, lately. Thom Yorke and his boys have been releasing their seemingly deliberately inaccessible tunes independently for the past few years; that the releases have been independent haven’t prevented various publications from wetting their collective pages in purple prose composed in odes to the Head (who, for my money, have never been as good as Pablo Honey and “Creep”).

Jack White is more interesting—probably because the White Stripes, Raconteurs, and Dead Weather rock—having coming up through the Detroit music scene. All the White Stripes’ have the Third Man Records logo, though some were on V2, Sympathy for the Record, and Warner labels. Sympathy for the Records is interesting, as well; a guy named Long Gone John put up some money. That was really all it took to get the music out there. The White Stripes weren’t the only acts on the label, which also included Hole, Courtney Love, and an early incarnation of the Donnas. Over the years, Jack has acted in and supplied music for Cold Mountain, as well as produced other acts, including Lucinda Williams.

And let’s not forget Reznor. An independent musician who recently won an Oscar for best score for his work with Atticus Ross on David Fincher’s The Social Network (which was not robbed for best picture even if Fincher was robbed for a direction award). Reznor’s best known song is probably “Closer,” the Mark Romanek-directed video of which got heavy rotation on MTV for a lot of years, even if only during the late-night hours (because it’s a dark, gritty, disturbing video and because the song’s lyrics include the line “I want to fuck you like an animal”; MTV can fistbump its way to books by Snooki and gym-tan-laundry through Seaside Heights, but sex, obscenity, vulgarity, and profanity are totally off-limits. Just ask Ronnie or J-Woww).

And that’s not even to yet mention NIN. Can we acknowledge the above as a paragraph lauding the accolades of Trent Reznor without even once mentioning Nine Inch Nails?

Other cases in point: OK Go and Amanda Palmer, both of whom recently celebrated their detachment from their evil-dictator record labels. In the former case, OK Go released a couple great CDs (including their self-titled, with “Get Over It”), then YouTubed a bunch of totally no-budget videos that went viral.

What’s interesting is that the nature of those videos is difficult. They’re based on a do-it-yourself, independent aesthetic; the first one that went viral involved a single, stationary camera aimed at the band dancing in a backyard. The second featured the band on treadmills, was a again shot in a single, continuous take, and won a Grammy.

(sidenote: I like what OK Go has done, independently, but my favorite song remains “Get Over It,” which has a traditional type music video, complete with both lip- and instrument-syncing and higher production value. So it may be worth noting that, concerning several of the “independent” artists I’m mentioning, my favorite works have been early material tied to huge labels. See: “Creep,” “Closer,” and “Get Over It.” Though I must then in addition note that Reznor’s most recent work—his score for The Social Networ—was masterful, a study in subtlety, nuance, and myriad other stuff I tend to eschew in favor of that which rocks and blows shit up.)

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Any discussion of independence would be incomplete without mentioning Amanda Fucking Palmer, wife of Neil Gaiman and all-around in-general rock-goddess supreme. The woman is, simply, a genius, operating—like Douglas Adams, Tim Burton, and the afore-mentioned Trent Reznor—on a different plane. This is her site.

I love what she’s doing, which is brazen, and fearless, and takes no prisoners. The woman is a good musician, a terrific entertainer, a fabulous performing artist, and a genius-level marketer.

And again, someone who had affiliation (via the Dresden Dolls) to a major label (Roadrunner Records, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group), who subsequently broke from label support in favor of what has become a thriving independent career.

How great is Amanda Palmer? So great that it took me a long while to realize Evelyn Evelyn is actually Jason Webley and her. And Jason Webley, for anyone not familiar, is yet another terrific independent musician. I once described Airborne Toxic Event—whose CD I love—as the Killers fronted by Jason Webley, because he’s fantastic in a rocking but poetic sort of way.

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And then writing.

For some reason, when screenwriters direct and produce their passion project, they are independent. When musicians hunker down in a studio with a producer but no major-label support, they are independent.

But when an author sits down and produces, say, a novel, and then either goes to Lulu or CreateSpace to list the novel for sale, or, alternately, goes directly to Kindle or nook or the iBookstore, they are “self-published.” When authors manage to sell, via Kindle, a quantity of books any author—no matter the method of publication—would aspire to, they are either “exceptions” or “self-publishing success stories.”

I wonder if the discrepancy is one of perceived ability. Is it because making a movie or recording a song require specialized equipment in addition to some degree of technical know-how, while people believe that writing requires only a keyboard and a screen? We don’t all have high-def camcorders. We don’t all have sensitive microphones.

But we pretty much all have computers. Off the top of my head, I can’t name one person I know who hasn’t typed something at some point.

Maybe that’s the difference. Perhaps we all realize, on some subconscious level, that not everyone has access to a videocamera, or a microphone, and not everyone can shoot a movie or record a song, but we’ve all sent an e-mail, and writing a novel is just a longer version of that, so society, collectively—and publishers and writers and agents in particular—has put in place this block that says that authors require some external signifier—like, for example, a corporate publishing contract—so that readers will know that something still separates them from real writers.

It may be worth noting that publishers, agents, editors, and others associated with business/commercial/corporate publishing are, in general, the people who talk about how “self-publishing” has gotten okay (as though it wasn’t before), or how it can be a viable business model for many authors (though the question of whether all authors should really aspire to contracts with corporations is rarely discussed), or how someone’s an exception to a general rule . . .

You get the picture.

Many such people seem to think that authors who claim independence are squatting on a name little tiny micropresses have already laid claim to. I recently read someone claim that “independent publishing” is the province of SoHo, like it has some punk aesthetic or something. These are generally people who prefer, instead, the “self-publishing” versus “traditional publishing” distinction as a more useful descriptor. Which is inherently problematic: words work. What you call things changes not just people’s perception of things but indeed their actions. For example, many people were quick to note they were against “government-run health care,” but change that simple phrase to “public option,” and support increased substantially. When rich folks wanted to lobby against the government taking anything from the money they bequeathed to airs, one tactic was to get people to think of the “inheritance tax” as the “death tax.” Because people probably wouldn’t be familiar with legal tenets and such, but nobody wants a “death tax.”

I always wonder if these people know what “traditional” actually means.

Because remember when I said there’s no such thing as self-publishing?

There’s no such thing as “traditional” publishing, either. Traditional means that which is handed down, generation to generation (so the first thing one has to wonder is do we really want, during this generation, to be implementing a model that worked last generation. You know, before cell phones and iPods and near-universal access to the internet); it can also mean a long-established or inherited way of thinking.

These people who parrot “traditional publishing” claims tend to be ones who forget that the current model of publishing—based on six corporations with hundreds of imprints shipping returnable product to thousands of bookstores—isn’t “traditional.” If only because just a couple of decades ago there were more than six major conglomerations publishing, and Barnes & Noble and Borders really only rose to power during the eighties and nineties.

But really, if you consider the true meaning of the word “publishing”—that is, which is to make information available to the public—there’s really never been a “traditional” or even “normal” way to do it.

Consider the long list of authors who have published work without the support of anyone aside from themselves: Twain. Poe. Thoreau. Williams. Joyce. Grisham. Potter (that’s Beatrix. Not Harry). Proust. Strunk.

I could keep going.

Once upon a time, I made the argument that it wasn’t exactly comparable. That sure, say, Edgar Allan Poe went to a printer and got some of his work printed up and then tried to sell it, but that was in a different landscape, and publishing was different then. The truth is, though, publishing is always different. There are always going to be new (and perhaps better) ways to make information available to the public, and there are going to be people who want to restrict that information, and people who want to propagate it.

I know now where I fall.

There’s no such thing as self-publishing, and neither is there any such thing as traditional publishing. There is, however, such a thing as independence, and we are finally living in an age and culture wherein we can realize it. Of course those associated with the print publishing industry want to choose clear labels to make sure there is a distinction between what they’re trying to peddle and what everyone else is creating, but I think they’re trying to hold it ever more closely because they realize, on some level, it’s all gotten well out of their control, and we’re noticing it hasn’t been such a bad thing after all.


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