PatreonMooseGate the pitfalls of 2.0 indie marketing.

Today's story is about what happens when a genY musician-cum-entrepreneur gets his wires a bit crossed whilst earnestly trying to do good work, and how marginally bad things can come from smart, generally nice people acting without (much) malice.

First, let me get that out of the way : I'm a bit of a fan of Pomplamoose as an art act. I randomly stumbled upon Nataly Dawn singing her take on Louise Labé's Baise m'encor sometime in 2009, which led me to her Pomplamoose duo act along Jack Conte.
I dig their music and stagecraft/videos, I also like what Conte's trying to do with Patreon, and the pair of them is generally representative of the reasons why I'll try to give the benefit of the doubt even to hipster-looking types, as long as they're working at getting shit done.
[In the interest of full disclosure, I'll state for the record I have zero stake in the economic success of Pomplamoose, Patreon or any of the individuals and companies mentioned here, beyond personal well-wishing.]

Louise Labé is in da house, or something.

Now, in case you're coming at this without prior knowledge, here's the backstory :

  • Pomplamoose debuted in '08 and has seen growing popularity online since, thanks to their music and visual work, with their very active online presence in the form of vlogs and side projects not to be discounted.  6 years is a long time, you come to realize, when you find Pomplamoose has a friggin myspace page !
  • Then Patreon was launched last year by Jack Conte and partner Sam Yam.
    In a nutshell, Patreon is a subscription-style crowdfunding platform, which enables fans to act as patrons of the arts for their favorite bands, comic-book artists, podcasters, yni. People can either commit to a monthly fixed donation of their choice, staggered grant style, or pledge an amount of money towards any new work created / released by the artist(s) on a recurring basis (with a monthly cap). Patreon takes a reasonable (by today's standards) 5% cut on that.
  • This fall, Pomplamoose went on a month-long US tour of 24 shows across 23 cities, which by standard metrics for an indie band tour qualified as a success : they sold a lot of tickets and merch, filled their venues, and the audience seemed to generally be happy with the shows.
  • On Nov 24, Jack Conte went out and released some of the financial details of the whole operation in the context of a postmortem / expose about the difficulties of running a "mom and pop corner store" music act.
    …and the shit hit the fan.
  • Bob Lefsetz, a much-listened to (and rambunctious) voice in the music biz published a scalding commentary on the lacking economics of the Pomplamoose tour in his Nov 26 Leftsetz Letter on Encore, annexing to it some comments from the many readers who apparently pushed Conte's postmortem his way.
  • This prompted a number of other people in and around the biz to chime in with their own take on how Pomplamoose could fail to end in the black after a successful tour, but perhaps most critically, some saw the whole financial disclosure stunt as a manipulative marketing ploy by Jack Conte to drive business to Patreon, accusing him of hiding his personal stake as CEO and co-founder of Patreon when he explains how hard it is for a band to make a living by touring.
  • Conte was not happy about that last part, and op-ed'ed his rebuttal to accusations of dishonesty the next day on the same platform he used to release his original post-mortem.
Here, you're all caught up. Follow the links above for the full material, I intentionally left out some that would have been repetitive.

Not just covers, either.

I find myself largely agreeing with Bob Lefsetz and others to question Jack Conte's conclusions about Pomplamoose's tour ending in the red, namely that it's proof it's too hard to make it as a middle-tier artist on the road : in a nutshell, this tour could, and presumably should have turned a healthy profit without the need for the band and crew to sleep in vans and survive on ramen, and the fact it reportedly lost 12 grand out of 136K income is simply evidence of poor business management, not impossibly challenging economics.

Having watched a number of their videos, and knowing how much care and work they put in their visuals, I would nitpick on some of the criticisms made about the unnecessary expenses on lighting equipment, but some videos are out that make clear the stagecraft on their tour wasn't anything your average live music club couldn't handle with in-house gear or would demand a special lighting setup.

True fact : some Pomplamoose songs are not in French !

I don't think Jack Conte tanked the finances of his Pomplamoose tour on purpose to make a point, or that he cooked the numbers to prove the only path to monetary salvation for struggling indie bands was to enroll in Patreon.
Nonetheless, accusations of Conte's dishonesty and supposed attempts to hide his personal take in Patreon are worth taking a minute to discuss.

Conte's argument (in his rebuttal) that he didn't do anything to hide his involvement as not-just-a-user of Patreon kinda works for me : it's there for everyone to see on his personal public profiles, he's done promotion for Patreon and given plenty of interviews about it – Andy Cush was either lazy or disingenuous in his failure to do the homework for his Gawker piece (he since sorta acknowledged the fact in an article update) and that's plain bad journalism.

I also don't see malice in Conte not adding a full disclosure about his co-founder role in Patreon in the post-mortem : the financials tour breakdown was written from the perspective of Pomplamoose-the-band, not Jack Conte the Patreon co-founder, who had no investment in the tour's profitability (or lack thereof).
Either he overlooked pointing his interest in Patreon as self-evident (the intended readership of his postmortem presumably being reasonably educated about who Conte is), or he considered it, then figured bringing it up may muddy the waters when he's been going out of his way to keep the two separate – as pointed in his rebuttal, when he indicates taking zero salary from Patreon and instead being intent on making a living on his artist income alone (at this stage).

With that said, I don't think Conte is beyond criticism, here. My guess is he tried to make the best of a bad situation and it went somewhat poorly.

Do that on stage, nobody will gripe about the extra lights…
Finding his operation down 12 grand after a month of successful touring, with the main financial salvation for his band coming from his other venture (Patreon) may simply have reinforced Conte's  belief that Patreon is a great idea (which it is) and is the only credible way for an indie band to make a buck besides iTunes sales and YouTube ads, since touring is doomed to be done at a net loss (which it doesn't have to be).

Coming to a wrong conclusion because it saves oneself self-criticism (Jack sucks at finance) and reinforces established prejudices (Patreon is the way to go) is not exactly unheard of, especially when you throw in the cookie of making a case for something you strongly hope to see succeed (people should see that Patreon is the way to go).

On a personal note, his rebuttal rubbed me the wrong way by not linking to the source of the Bob Lefsetz piece he was responding to (on Encore), and phrasing it in such a way as to imply Lefsetz endorsed the accusations of cooking the numbers in the service of a marketing ploy (which he didn't). It's hard to read that as anything but a kneejerk attempt at damning-by-association the valid criticisms made by Leftsetz (among others).

So yeah, possibly, Conte spun his yarn in a way that portrayed touring as financially more grim than he would have if he didn't have an alternative on hand, and certainly he does a disservice to aspiring live artists by failing to take away the proper lesson from his experience : a band can't make a buck from shows without being a bit careful with budget.
He also should have put a full disclosure about Patreon in his piece, and it would not even have been out of place to plug it in there if he had.

If anything, his biggest mistake may have been to post this way too early after the tour, as that's the sort of stuff one should take notes on while it's hot, then let cool down before the actual writeup.

That he failed to address any of the substantial critique about money management in his rebuttal is telling of Conte's state of mind at the time : while he clearly took offense at the attacks on his moral integrity, he didn't seem to take issue with the challenges raised against his tour management acumen, which were much more damning to the substance of his original thesis.

It may be a hint that the truth about this is dawning on him.



Symaptico w/ the debil

Call me a contrarian, but the more public discourse seems to break down into a collection of loosely connected, self-referential reality-distorting echo chambers where people congregate based on shared prejudices and unexamined beliefs, the more I find myself going in the opposing direction, reaching out and paying attention to people I intuitively disagree with.


I remember my marveling, in the early days of the interwebs (circa 94), at how it was suddenly so easy to assemble and exchange according to shared interests and self-selection criteria, rather than by imposition of external factors such as locale, class, age, creed and other opportunity-limiting parameters. [all subject to the usual caveats about future's uneven distribution, etc.]
It was a nice change of pace.

The net created a privileged space where (a subset of the many) voices that couldn't be heard before could speak up and reach like-minded individuals, of the sort previously doomed to the solitude that comes from worshiping at no(t the right) altars, or failing to embrace the local unquestioned consensus — wherever one happened to have been born.
This new information age seemed to open the doors on a much richer, diverse future, and really, so it did.
Thanks to being fearful, bunchy apes, with sectarian reflexes drilled into us by history as the winning strategy for survival, this explosion in complexity and variety soon led to us seeking safety in exclusionary self-selected cliques. This mindset eventually leaked into meatspace and most venues of public debate as our daily lives got more networked and net-entangled, turbo-charging trends that had started with the advent of the TV age, and trampling whatever semblance of shared normalcy we'd painfully imposed upon ourselves through centuries of self-inflicted mass punishment.

Flash forward to now, where simply getting people to agree on basic facts gets problematic, since it's become so easy to tune all inputs, and receive only those feeds that confirm and reinforce one's expectations (good and bad), to engage only with people who share one's worldview.

If the takeaway lesson from the 20th century was to be wary of the ideological and military continent-scaled monstrosities enabled by mechanization, modern media and commerce acting as force multipliers for simplistic cure-all utopias, we certainly overdid the formula when we leveraged the wondrous potential of a networked world to create the epidemic of self-assembling cults that now seem to be tearing to bits every attempt at building any sort of social and political consensus.


Mobs freak me out today more than ever, as they've never been so well-insulated against any call to reason or practicality, now that self-delusions have been promoted to the 'new normals'… 
Strangely enough, this proliferation of self-contained insanity bubbles also makes me hopeful in the potential of education and shared intelligence in our technological age.

If we managed to shred the social fabric(s) that had gone essentially unchallenged for the previous eight thousand years in just a few decades (not to mention ecosystems and climate dynamics), then it could be a hint about our potential to collectively grow out of this phase, too, possibly in no more than a generation or three, and maybe even of us getting a clue before we self-exterminate, as cultures, and as species.

Hence me no longer seeking out like-minded types — it's good enough for me to know there are, a plenty — and instead looking in the most unlikely spaces I can parse for the sort of intelligence that differs from mine.
I'm not saying UFOs (you silly), although if you have some actual (or alleged) space aliens willing to sit down for a drink and a chat, I'm down with that, too.


So what do I mean by that ? 
Since I've always been driven by curiosity, I must now assume I can't rely on my sense of wonder and adventure alone to take me where I've been a dozen times already, and see better this time around.
Instead, I go where I normally wouldn't. 

If something or someone rubs me the wrong way, with that familiar "this is beyond dumb" feel, I go against my so-called best judgement and ask myself two things :
  • Why exactly does it trigger my scorn, disgust or mere irritation (when some hold it so dear and / or true) ?
  • What would it take for me to relate ?

I suggest you try it, it's interesting, and often fun.



Diversity in AAA titles

Hello reader : it's been a while.

Backstory : E3 is upon us, and the count of severed heads still beats that of female characters (because that's a metric now, apparently). Many are irked by this, and thanks to fumbling a PR saving throw, Ubisoft has made itself a sausage-shaped lightning rod in this storm of diversity denial, or something.
Assassin's Creed Unity coop mode will not have female avatars, which certainly is not as good as having them, but the real problem is Alex Amancio (creative director @ Ubisoft) inadvertently turned a missing bullet point into a scandal when he said the game sorta-kinda-almost did, yet doesn't, because it was "too much work", which some immediately translated into "not worth the trouble", to be taken as proof positive that female characters (hence players, too) are discriminated against.
If that wasn't enough to fuel the fury, the Far Cry team (also Ubisoft) then offered a free refill.

Diversity in videogames is a hot-button issue and the discussion is now reaching into the usual proclamations about WEIRD being the scourge of the universe (which should be the new Godwin, btw). The people is Kony2012-levels of angry and I kinda grok the outrage, yet I'm not totally on board, either, hence the poast. 
Let me mansplain why Assassin's Creed is the wrong kind of game to pick for affirmative action.

As a pale-skinned, blue-eyed, penis-having, reasonably affluent and educated cis-gendered straight-ish bastard, I still get frustrated by the lack of diversity in blockbuster RPG/adventure games, not just over avatars, but also plot, characterization, etc.
On the other hand, when I pick up a title that centers on ninja-ing through (admittedly gorgeous) scenery with not much more story to it than 'go there, kill that, don't get caught', I don't set my expectations higher than what reads on the tin – if that — and I don't care to identify with the avatar : it's a vehicle with about as much humanity to it as my keyboard.

Complaining about the lack of depth or diversity of what is essentially an over-polished hack'n'slash game seems as misguided to me as faulting a Monster Trucks show for falling short on character development and long story arcs.

I swear, I'd be all over that if it had playable female characters…

With that said, the default-to-white-straight-male thing gets on my nerves, too, and I wish there were more titles where the protagonist was anything else.
Don't count me as one of yours just yet, though, because I really mean that…

I do wish there were more games where we get to play really diverse characters, like a goblin or a spider, whose mission is to kill invading 'heroes' in order to protect our family and grow our stash of gold, or fill the boots of the cleanup crew who's to rebuild NYC every time the Avengers fuck up the city real good with their overkill tactics. I wish there were more games where you had to juggle accountability to your peers, or boss, or kids, while fighting the ebil du jour, and so on.

In short, I hate that most AAA games are unimaginative clichés crapfests, and I feel sorry that so many among the riled-up defenders of minorities rights seem to merely aspire for opportunities to better identify with the seriously lacking protagonists of seriously stupid games - it's like complaining that nobody makes truck nuts for girls.

… anymore.

As things stand now, it seems to me engaging the females-in-games issue in their established product lines is, if not a lost cause, at least an uphill battle for game studios : whatever ridiculously overblown female archetype they pick for a main character, they'll take flak (often deserved) for sexism, when they can safely dial the muscular grizzled warrior to eleven without a peep of complaint from their regular  audience.
The solution is to build deeper, less braindead games, and yes, I'd advocate being proactive in bringing more diversity in the teams that make games to make more diverse games, but I'm not of the opinion that merely slapping female textures and voicework* on the avatar in 13 year old male fantasy-fulfilling games will magically make them female-friendly.
…and if GearBox decides to build embarrassing stereotypical female-fantasy AAA titles, more power to them : I'll despise those with the same level of scorn I have for Duke Nukem Forevah.

Now, give me a good story, with engaging characters, and then I'll get seriously pissy if it all revolves around yet-another white male fantasy.


*[It's actually much more work than that, too, as Amancio apparently failed to get across. Adding a credible protagonist of different gender to a 3D full motion game is about as much work as adding another humanoid alien species.]