Last week, Rich Burlew broke all kinds of records when he launched a Kickstarter campaign to reprint his webcomic The Order Of The Stick; in the last twenty-four hours, Tim Schafer has raised over one million dollars to make an old-school graphic adventure game. Kickstarter has allowed these creators to reach out to their audience, and completely disintermediated not only their respective publishing industries, but the entire marketplace.
It should come as no surprise that the internet allows for this kind of individual patronage. Any number of creative individuals can thank the internet for their success, from Jonathan Coulton to Leo Laporte. It was inevitable that modern communication technology, when coupled with these new societies and communities, would allow us to return to one of the oldest ideas in the creative industries: personal patronage of the arts. Thanks to the internet, a writer or artist can reach out to individuals all across the world, and thus find their audience; it’s tough for a band to build a viable fan-base in their small town, but the internet gives them a potential audience of billions. Building that dedicated audience is easier than it has ever been, despite the fierce competition for attention. The great promise of disintermediation — which is now being fulfilled — is that fewer artists will earn billions of dollars, but many more will be able to make a decent living. Until recently, that has happened because customers have purchased art directly from the creators; now, we’re seeing internet citizens all over the world commission art.
This is not, of course, the answer for every struggling artist. Both Burlew and Schafer have large, devoted audiences; they bring proven track records and a wealth of existing content. Various Kickstarter projects have proved that new artists can attract the attention — and more importantly, the disposable income — of the public, but it isn’t easy, and it isn’t guaranteed. The great advantage of Kickstarter is that you can’t end up owing money after a failed artistic endeavor, as was so often the case in the bad old days of vanity publishing and the like; the great disadvantage is that directly-commissioned art reduces the chance of serendipitous discovery. The internet will adapt, of course: new platforms which facilitate discovery will rise, and the cost of entry for these various pursuits is dropping all the time, which will allow more people to enter the creative space and be reasonably rewarded for their time. It will work out, because the appetite of the public for new art is rapacious. That, even in the digital age, is a basic truth.
Right now, I’m simply grateful that Burlew and Schafer — two men for whom I have the utmost regard — are able to continue creating new things. It speaks well of our shared culture that we are willing to so generously support the things we love.