Monday, October 17, 2011

I hear the train a'comin'...

It's rollin' round the bend...ya just gotta love Johnny Cash.

There is a measure in traditional publishing called “sales per book” that has often been used as a measure of the health of the industry. How many total sales, how many books published. Not a refined measurement, just a single number that can be tracked. This number is predicted to dive - big time - next year, as digital innovation wreaks havoc in a mature industry.

An industry is defined as mature by a number of factors, one being that it has passed the “emerging” and “growth” phases and has reached a plateau where it grows, or shrinks, along with the rest of the economy. (Sound familiar?) This is usually a time where companies tend to be stable, growing slowly if at all and improving profitability is their focus. For investors, mature industries tend to be a safe haven, and while individual companies in the industry may continue to come and go, the industry practices and products are mostly homogeneous.  The timeframe here can be years, decades or even longer – look at tires, oil, tobacco, steel, insurance, utilities, even airlines – not much has changed below the surface. This is blue chip territory.
While it sounds pleasant and relaxing, it’s a dangerous place for an industry. The only way to increase market share is to take it from your competitors, either by price or by innovation.  The trick is to not fall victim to game-changing innovations that you did not see coming. Ask Kodak, Xerox, Borders and a hundred advertising agencies – they can tell you.

You could also ask a hundred graphic designers. 

For many, many years the graphic design model has been based upon a step by step client/designer relationship: Here’s my project/OK here’s an idea /No, not what I wanted/ OK how about this/ I like that/ Here’s my bill. For a freelancer, agency or employee it was basically the same script. The mass access to design software took away many of the simpler projects, but being able find their way around the software did not automatically make them competent designers, so the business model continued to work.

 And then design went global. Websites popped up offering design work, many through “contests” that have dozens of designers submitting work - to spec – to “win” the fee, often 100 – 300 dollars. DesignCrowd, Mycroburst, 99Designs, 48Hourslogo, Crowdspring, Choosa, Brandstack, GFX Contests, Design Outpost, Design Contests, Pixish, Blurgroup, ODesk, Hatchwise, ShopForDesigns …see the problem? These sites already account for literally tens of thousands of designers and have paid out millions of dollars. And don’t kid yourself – a fair number of those designers are top level talent who are thrilled to get a 200 fee. That goes a long way in many parts of the world.

So what does this have to do with Art Licensing? Let’s put it this way – that train is rumbling down our tracks too. Already some of these sites are offering illustration, and what I expect will happen is this: these companies are going to come around to licensing as a way to utilize these assets – both the crowds and the huge libraries of designs that they are building.

 This has the potential to be a definite game changer, but instead of deciding if it is good or bad, think about this - now that we see it coming, how does one stay in front of it? Any ideas?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Don't drift - paddle!

There is some interesting discussion out there in blogworld about the “new” route to success in this business, part of which concerns the apparent shift away from the requirement that an art licensing artist has well developed drawing skills. Not very many years ago there was zero chance for success without those skills, but the continuing refinement of design software has opened up the field to some of those who did not spend their childhood sleeping with crayons under their pillow. This is not to say that the design standards are necessarily lower, or that average work will get you licensed - actually quite the contrary - but there are more ways to get there. It is now possible to express artistic talent through software, and like any sea change this has its share of detractors, and some are declaring it invalid.

Go read this interesting take on it from the UK’s Blue Strawberry here, and then come back…

Not too sure about their Real Artist conclusion but I love the idea of “product drift” in design software, though I would be inclined to call it a user access shift but let’s just run with the first tag.  Drift concepts have application in a variety of disciplines, one of the more familiar is language study (linguistic drift), where it relates to how a language can retain a basic format but exhibit certain significant variations, or drift, in various geographic areas. You writers should be familiar with that. Probably more applicable for us is the enormous category of “concept drift” which is the domain of mathematicians, computer scientists, statisticians, and other areas of study we really don’t want to fully understand. It deals with the inevitable effects of a dynamic datastream on a predicted target variable – in short what you thought you knew (the target outcome) actually changes as you collect new data, therefore the model you are using to predict that outcome needs to adapt constantly to reflect the new information and accurately predict a new outcome. (I know you theoretical math people are choking on that, but it’s the best I can manage in one sentence… and hey, we’re talking art licensing here…)

Machines and software find this almost impossible to do, because it requires them to “learn”, however our brain should be able to accomplish the task – if only we will let it. If you have been in this business for a while, don’t give up your advantage by struggling against the drift. This is a product driven business, and it is not so much about how you get there as where you end up - best to save the art snobbery for the galleries. If you need to change your way of thinking and working (your model) to get that product on the market (your target outcome) then you should take a deep breath and adapt. You can consider it a difficult time or an exciting time for Art Licensing – the choice is yours to make.