The Internet, New Media And The New American Dream

Is getting paid for your thoughts and/or ideas the new quintessential 'American Dream'? Seems like everyone is trying to carve out a niche in online media and e-commerce these days. And why not? With a struggling economy people have become more resourceful and are looking for ways to bring in extra money or to pursue a passion. The rise of the internet has not only democratized publishing and distribution but has made it possible for people to make a living doing what they love. Andrew Sullivan, Louis C.K., Leo Laporte, Marie Forleo, Mac Miller, John Gruber and Ray William Johnson are all great examples of digital trailblazers making a living via the internet. All have found success by building a following from nothing or leaving mainstream publishers/distributors to go it alone in the wild west that is the internet. It's the new frontier for talented musicians, writers, podcasters, pundits, and entertainers. The idea in itself isn't new, but over the past couple of years we're hearing more and more of these success stories. Of course a lot of the hugely publicized stories are from those that were once attached to large media conglomerates like Louis C.K. or Leo Laporte. At some point they decided they could do at least as good of a job on their own while having more creative control and sometimes earning more money than they did before. 

People like to say things like, "I can't do what they did, they were already famous", and in some cases that's true. In 2007 alternative rock band Radiohead left their long-time record label EMI, and released an album independently via a "pay-what-you-want" model. Allowing fans to pay whatever they thought the album was worth to them. This was unheard of at the time and people thought they were crazy to do it. The little experiment worked and they went on to sell 3 million copies of their album, earning them more money then their previous album. Most unknown or indie artist couldn't get away with such a stunt, in fact most artist give away music with hopes of eventually getting people to pay for music in the future. But times are changing…fast. In 2011 a relatively unknown rapper by the name of Mac Miller released his first independent album (after years of free mixtapes and songs) and it debuted at #1 with 144,000 copies sold in the first week. Only the second independent album to ever debut at #1. No major record label marketing blitz, no traditional old media talk show tour, just using the internet and performing live shows building up his fan base Miller was able to galvanize a rabid following willing to support him and his music career. Yes these are still examples of anomalies but the path is becoming more viable for more artist and entrepreneurs  There has been an increasing number of high profile artist that at one point had major deals and by choice or force decided to go it alone using the internet as their rallying point. Sure the fame may have subsided but in some cases they are earning just as much if not more than they were signed to a major record label.

It's hard to measure but there are ten's of thousands of people around the world that are now either supplementing their income or making a living by using the distribution and publishing power of the internet. Websites like Etsy, Bandcamp, Youtube, and Amazon are fueling the independent art/media revolution. This surge in e-commerce has spawned other businesses like Square, Paypal, Tinypass, and Stripe to make selling items or subscriptions easier for entrepreneurs. No longer are artist forced to beg mega-corporations for a shot. If you have something to say there are an unlimited amount of tools to get your work published and distributed to the world within minutes. Writers need not wait for a major publisher to come knocking, they start blogs or twitter accounts to build a following then self-publish via Amazon and Apple's iBooks. Sophisticated musicians aren't beating the door down of record labels for a chance to sign a 360 deal, (new record deals that take cuts from album sales, shows, and merchandising) they are creating music at home and releasing it on Bandcamp, Sound Cloud and Youtube. The old media companies are still coming in and buying up a lot of these upstarts after they've made traction but they now have leverage they never would've had 10 years ago.

Yesterday writer/blogger Andrew Sullivan announced he was leaving the political website, The Daily Beast and was going to start his own subscription based blog entitled, The Dish. I saw tons of naysayers in the media claiming how ludicrous is was that he was leaving, and that he'll probably fail because no one is willing to pay the $20/yr to hear his opinion. Well 6 hrs after his announcement, Sullivan put out a statement that he had already reached six-figures in subscription fees. Again, it's not going to happen for everyone but the foundation continues to be laid. Tech blogger, John Gruber recently launched a sponsorship service on his popular blog, DaringFireball.net, where he charges $8,500/wk to place a small ad on his home page along with a post mentioning the sponsor in that week. He's been booked solid for the past few months, which if you do the math is a pretty handsome yearly income even if he only books sponsors for half the year. No, this isn't a get rich quick scheme, all of these people have put in years if not decades building their following and brand name. They've put in the work and have earned the respect (and sometimes hate) of their followers. Leo Laporte, long time tech commentator on radio and Tech TV channel, last year built a multi-million dollar studio where he produces his podcasting network, Twit.TV. They produce dozens of shows watched by hundreds of thousands of people that air live on his website, apps (Roku) or streamed via iTunes. He has targeted sponsors throughout his shows that pay to get access to his passionate audience.

Sure flash in the pans will occur, just like in old media, but the internet and it's vast array of choices make it incredibly easy to forget those that don't leave a lasting impression. Quality and consistency are the two attributes needed to succeed online. Focus on building a community first, and worry about monetization later. Find your niche, something you love to do and that love will be felt by those that come across your work. One of the best perks about new media is that the marketing can be free if your work is that good. People will share with their friends things that make an impact on them. With the rise of social media, sharing has become part of our daily lives. Word of mouth is and has always been the greatest form of marketing. Business on the internet is still maturing, and the majority of the advertising dollars are still in traditional media but every year the ratio is shifting. Sure, some people that make it online seek a larger platform and are bought out or taken over by old media trying to stay relevant. This has always been the case, but as the dust settles and the internet becomes not just a thing for the youth or technically inclined, but the dominant form of information consumption old media will either climb aboard or be driven into obscurity as they scratch and claw on to the past.