What Indie Filmmakers Can Learn from Kanye West
Today saw the iTunes-exclusive album release of Watch the Throne, a collaboration between rap megastars Kanye West and Jay-Z. What does this have to do with independent filmmaking? Good question. Regardless of what kind of music you listen to, I think there are some lessons to be learned from the career arc of Kanye West, as well as the digital-first distribution strategy the duo employed for today's album release. Caution: this post is not going to win any awards for organization or brevity. I'm going to ramble on here:
I've been following Kanye West's career since the release of his first album The College Dropout, but I don't feel nearly as qualified to talk about Jay-Z, so I'll focus on the former for this post. Let's start off with their innovative digital distribution strategy first, however.
Digital distribution and exclusivity
Everyone knows that over the past several years, as music distribution has moved from physical to digital, one of the foremost problems has been piracy. Specifically, leaks. I've said in the past that in order for piracy to be minimized, the experience of being a legitimate consumer must be equal to or better than the experience of being a pirate. When an album or film leaks before its official release date, this is impossible: the only way to hear or see it is through illicit channels. In the case of music, consumers who would normally pay for an album will often download it illegally, as it's the only way to hear what many others are listening to and talking about.
These leaks generally happen because there are hundreds of copies of the album floating around ahead of time in order for brick-and-mortar stores to stock them -- and for online music outlets to digitize and catalog the album (if critics are to publish their reviews as the album is released, they also need advance copies -- music's equivalent of film's advance press screenings). I'm a former employee of the digital music industry, and at Rhapsody we would digitize and catalog albums days or weeks ahead of their official debut. The same goes for dozens of online music outlets, and thus the number of copies floating around ahead of time drastically increases the chance of a leak -- in fact, it virtually guarantees it.
To combat piracy, Kanye and Jay-Z decided to release Watch the Throne with a staggered release schedule that is the inverse of a film's theatrical rollout. With a theatrical release, films are made available in theaters and then come to digital formats months later. Watch the Throne, on the other hand, was released today (August 8th) in digital format but won't be out in brick-and-mortar stores until Friday (August 12th). Not only did they delay the physical release (to prevent easily-ripped physical copies floating around ahead of time), they also made the album release exclusive to iTunes, further cutting down on the number of the digital copies floating around.
It seems to have worked. Released at 12:01AM today, the album did not leak ahead of time, making it the first major rap release in recent memory to debut via legal means.
This strategy, which may become commonplace going forward, is not without its detractors. Reacting to the news of the exclusive, independent record stores released an open letter protesting the move.
Something else Kanye and Jay-Z did was to make the iTunes exclusive a "deluxe edition," the concept of which is nothing new. However, the extent to which they made this edition deluxe is unprecedented to my knowledge: not only is the iTunes version four tracks longer (none of which are remixes of other tracks on the album), but the lead single, "H.A.M," is only found on the deluxe edition. They also priced the digital download of this deluxe version at a full $14.99, double that of most digital albums on, say, Amazon, and they can justify this by saying that it includes 25% more tracks than the "normal" version (and a digital booklet with all the lyrics). Think of this as a "Special Edition" DVD release. In a world of infinite shelf space, exclusivity is of paramount importance; I'd be willing to bet that because of the lack of leaks and the high price of the initial release, the duo (and their labels) will generate a much higher profit per sale than any other album this year. This makes Jay-Z's guest verse on Kanye's Diamonds From Sierra Leone, wherein he boasts, "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man," apt.
Will this digital-first strategy work to combat piracy for films in the same way? For film, the situation is different, and perhaps the opposite. A film playing exclusively in theaters (as long as there aren't awards screeners in circulation) is much harder to pirate than an album (which consumers can rip themselves). You've seen the camcorder-in-a-theater pirated copies that most viewers -- the kind that would actually pay for a ticket, at least -- will skip. Which is not to say that film distributors aren't experimenting with similar digital-first distribution strategies. The first example that comes to mind is the Natalie Portman-starring The Other Woman, which was available on VOD through IFC a month ahead of its theatrical release. This wasn't the first or last time that a film will be released this way; as an outsider to theatrical film distribution, my feeling is that this strategy makes sense for some films but not others. I can't help but think it would be a perfect strategy for a certain film project I'll be announcing next week, however. Stay tuned...
Kanye West's career arc
Now that this post is already much longer than I expected, let's get to what indie filmmakers can learn from Kanye West. This site focuses on DIY filmmaking, which often requires a filmmaker to learn nonlinear editing, DSLR cinematography, After Effects, or any other tool or technique that can help them bring their own vision to life without relying on others.
Kanye West got his start as a producer. Similar to a DIY filmmaker shooting and editing their own projects, he taught himself to create the music himself. Quoting his Wikipedia entry, as a rapper, "multiple record companies felt he was not as marketable as rappers who portray the "street image" prominent in hip hop culture." Labels would not sign him because he was different -- he didn't boast of dealing drugs, and he wore preppy clothes. But his ability to create his own demo tapes, and his ability to create sounds appropriate for his own voice -- both aurally and artistically -- is what got him into the industry. He kept creating tracks for himself because he'd taught himself how, and this is how he found his voice and a career. Eventually he no longer had to produce everything himself, because he'd put himself in a position to succeed and had discovered who he was. Now he's the biggest rap-pop star on the planet -- one of the best rappers of all time, perhaps -- of all time! -- and it all started with a "no one else is going to help, so I'll DIY" approach.
He wouldn't be let into an industry because he was different, but now he's successful in that industry because he's different. Rap songs about Jesus and about mothers are undeniably different from the prevailing genre of coke rap.
Let's take a look at an example that contributes to my point about Kanye's career arc as well as the piracy issue discussed above. Here's Kanye performing a cappella at Facebook's headquarters in Palo Alto, CA. WARNING: if you don't listen to rap -- I happen to listen to all genres of music, but have been listening to a lot of hip-hop lately because it plays a prominent role in my feature project -- you may be offended by the NSFW language here. Kanye himself gives a disclaimer up front about his use of the N-word. You've been warned!
We are the voices of our parents' bad choices
The aftermath of divorces
The kids of bitter
How many other rappers do you hear talking candidly about how divorce affected not only their childhood, but their current life? About a lack of father figures -- or rotating cast of them? Few rappers wear their heart on their sleeve -- Kanye does, almost literally, at right.
Despite the inevitably offense that some will take to the lyrics, I picked this clip not only for its lyrical content, but also because it speaks to selling digital goods in a world of prevalent piracy. A studio version of the song above hit the internet a couple of months ago, but as it turns out, it was an unauthorized leak. Kanye's reps released the following statement:
An unknown party or parties got ahold of Kanye West’s vocal track and added their own soundbed to it, effectively and falsely releasing it as a Kanye West track... The result in no way resembles the final song Kanye West intended his fans to hear, and he is deeply disappointed that one of the most personal, meaningful and special songs he has ever written would reach people in this way.
This is the equivalent of a filmmaker having a rough cut leaked on the internet. Can you imagine what it would be like to have an unfinished film -- say, a rough cut with a temp score, no sound mix, and no color correction -- being downloaded and watched before you had a chance to finish it? Forget about the commercial impact of a rough cut leak (the Jamaican film Shottas was so widely downloaded in rough cut form that there was practically no audience left for its official release years later), it's a shame for any artist to have incomplete work released against their will.
So how does this apply to independent filmmaking? Frankly, it applies to any creative endeavor, but especially independent filmmaking, where making a lower-budget version of a Hollywood film relegates one to the Sci-fi channel or bargain DVD bin instead of a lauded film festival run (and hopefully an acquisition or successful self-release). To me, the goal of independent filmmaking is to do something new and different, and so indie filmmakers must think about the following questions: What are the themes of your life that aren't represented in movies today? How are you different from what's already out there? What can you bring to the table? And what can you teach yourself that will allow you to get your unheard, unique voice out there?
That which makes you different can make you successful. This is what indie filmmakers can learn from Kanye West.