The Sita Distribution Project is a public demonstration of how an artist can flourish — economically and artistically — by letting her works circulate for free.
It's not about self-distribution, it's about audience-distribution: put the work out there, let people share it, give them the freedom to organize activities (both commercial and non-commercial) around it, and the artist will benefit, because audiences want to support artists. Our goal is a comprehensible, repeatable model that can be used by independent artists everywhere.
The test subject is artist Nina Paley (now our Artist-in-Residence), who released her award-winning, feature-length animated film Sita Sings the Blues to the world under a totally free license in early 2009. That's free as in "freedom": anyone can make copies, anyone can sell copies, anyone can hold a screening (for profit or otherwise), anyone can make related merchandise, no one needs to ask permission for anything.
The Results So FarSo far, Nina has made more money by this method than any traditional (i.e., exclusive) distributor was offering before the film's release. Since releasing it for free distribution in February of 2009, she's received approximately $28,000 in donations and another $25,000 in sales of DVDs and other film-related merchandise from the online store. (Note that the donations are dedicated to paying back music licensing fees she had to pay to be able to release the film at all; there's more on that here.) The average donation is a bit over $10 US (but that's not counting the rare outliers, the occasional donations of $500 or $1000 -- if you include those, the average donation is around $30).
Best of all, her income stream is fairly steady. This is the opposite of the traditional "burst and fade" distribution model that so many works endure, dragged out of circulation prematurely to avoid competing with new releases from the same publisher. Because Nina's film is audience-distributed, it's in circulation forever, whenever and wherever people want to see it. And all those audience members are potential customers and donors, as the financial results bear out.
Raw data: While we have to protect the privacy of donors and customers at the online store, we can release summary data and anonymized data. Please see the donations summary, store sales summary, and the store sales details. We're sharing this data in order to give other independent artists some concrete numbers about what a freedom-based distribution model can bring.
The RecipeThis distribution model puts the artist squarely on the audience's side: instead of telling people they shouldn't share, the artist encourages them to share. But the key is to do more than just put the work out there and hope for the best. You have to set up infrastructure that makes the artist the focal point for economic activity around the work — not the exclusive owner of all economic activity, just the focal point. Instead of imposing a monopoly on the work itself (which pits artist against audience), let the work flow freely and take advantage of the one natural monopoly that comes from being the artist: attribution, that is, credit for having made the work. Audiences appreciate proper attribution, and will enforce it, because they want to be on the artist's side. So:
- Make it very easy for people to donate to you. Remember, if your work is good, some percentage of your audience will want to support you.
- Sell containers, not content (see Understanding Free Content for more: either on the QCO site or below).
For example, the Sita Sings the Blues Merchandise Empire sells DVDs, t-shirts, pins, stickers, and other merchandise. It also makes clear exactly what percentage of the money is going to the artist — people want to know this! While some of the items sold are utilitarian (a DVD is a more convenient way to have the movie), many of them occupy the grey area between utility and "karma value": people purchase them because they want to show their appreciation of the work to others, and they know that their purchase benefits the artist. (Think of why people who go to a concert will buy the band's CD there, even when they know they can download all the songs online for free. It's the same thing.) Don't worry about someone else setting up a store; you're the artist, people want the stuff to come straight from the source, and in any case you have first-mover advantage.
- Encourage commercial activity around the work, and give people a clear route to include the artist on the proceeds.
For example, people hold screenings of Sita Sings the Blues and charge admission. Often, they'll send Nina Paley a percentage of the proceeds — even though they don't have to do it, they do. Again, people want to support artists. All artists have to do is make it clear that they're on the audience's side, and audiences will reward them for it.
- License your endorsement.
If you are an artist, your reputation travels with your work, and grows with your work's. That reputation cannot be replicated and cannot be diluted — it's a natural monopoly, so use it!
Tell distributors they can claim to be endorsed by you, the artist, as long as they share a certain percentage of revenue with you. Given a choice between two distributors, one that is clearly sharing profits with the artist and one that is not, people will choose the former. Distributors know that, and in any case they want artists to succeed too. (Another way to say it is: middlemen perform a valuable service, but they perform it better without a monopoly.)
- Encourage the audience to get involved: the people who do get involved will really appreciate it, and even those who don't will sense that there's something interesting going on.
For example, the subtitles on the commercial DVDs of Sita Sings the Blues were done by volunteers who coordinated on a wiki.
- Encourage remixture and re-use — it will only help spread the word about your work.
Some of our favorite examples: a fashion line and this truly stunning film-as-print re-use from Bill Cheswick.
Nina Paley's preliminary report from five months after the free release of her film, including the talk she gave at DIY in Philadelphia.
See also The More She Shared, The More She Made by Mike Masnick at TechDirt, for a good writeup of the talk.
Sharing your work is good, sharing your work is rewarding. I hope all of this will help certain people see my point of view. Coming soon: Another Preview of Phoenicia. :)