Lessons Learned from Indie Media
Oh. Look. Another commercial with a doofus husband flooding the house because he doesn’t know how a dishwasher works. Change the channel. Oh. Hey. Look. Another sitcom single sobbing into her pint of low-cal, low-fat, mint chocolate chip because she just can’t find the right man.
When the same old, same old are the only images and attitudes you see represented, the mainstream media starts seeming way too stagnant and same-y. But thanks to greater access to independently-produced movies, shows, books, comics and other media these days, audiences have a far easier time supplementing their daily entertainment intake with more diverse perspectives and styles.
“There is definitely an audience for indie media and art created outside the corporate mainstream. People are, in fact, hungry for it,” says Chris “Uncle Staple” Nicholas, founder and director of the STAPLE! Independent Media Expo in Austin.
And the independent media sector has quite a few lessons that its mainstream counterpart should consider if it wants to engage its potential audience.
The Value of Creativity
Indie media refers to any media that is created free of corporate influence. Indie media can include creator-owned comics, handmade fanzines, self-published books, blogs, music, films and even software.
“The indie community is more willing to take chances on original or unusual material, and more open to new ideas and inclusive of different voices,” says Nicholas. “Where the mainstream acts as a gatekeeper, only letting in the same old, tired, formulaic stuff, in the indie world media there’s not even a fence. We’re outside the fence. Free range, as it were.”
Mainstream advertising tends to enjoy repetition, with the occasional glimmer of creativity, and “innovation” is treated more as a meaningless buzzword than genuine value. However, on the independent side of things, increased competition generates increased creativity. It is understood that if you want to earn an audience and make money off your work, you need to offer something of quality that’s either new or repackages the familiar in a novel, interesting way. Hard work and talent will speak for itself.
Why Diversity Matters
The fact that the website Sociological Images has to exist is proof enough that corporate advertising agencies and media companies still struggle with breaking away from stereotypes and suppositions, not to mention coming up short when it comes to assembling a diverse workforce. Feeling locked out of mainstream options, traditionally marginalized demographics turn toward small presses and self-publishing to express themselves. Which, in kind, provides relevant entertainment to audiences who don’t think their voices are sufficiently represented with quality media.
“I want to feel more respected by the people marketing to me,” says Amber Loranger, a founding board member and cataloger at Seattle’s Zine Archive and Publishing Project (ZAPP). When people can empathize or see themselves with a piece of art or advertising, they’re more likely to check it out and explore.
For example, women have been thriving in independent comics for decades now, despite almost non-existent representation at “The Big Two” publishers, Marvel and DC. However, as the larger comics outlets have started offering more books starring well-rounded female characters and hiring more female creators, sales have increased. It’s a fascinating, long-overdue trend, one that might help push the medium forward in positive ways.
And for media and culture enthusiasts, tracking the evolution of ideas between the independent and mainstream is its own fascinating pastime.
“Zines have history, are written by a diverse group of people about a diverse group of topics. Our collection goes back to science fiction zines of the 1940’s and includes a lot of punk and riot grrl zines, and some Northwest-specific stuff,” Loranger continues.
“It’s really interesting because these are voices that don’t, or didn’t at the time, have any way to get themselves out there, and self-publishing is a way to do that. Additionally, a lot of this stuff was made for the author’s larger or smaller communities, and maybe was expected to be sort of ephemeral; now it’s got historical value. I find that path fascinating.”
Since most independent media outlets don’t have the same promotional budgets as their mainstream counterparts, word of mouth – particularly via social media – is frequently their best shot at garnering attention. The most successful creators build organic relationships with their peers online, at conventions and other industry events. Giving and asking advice, as well as sharing and buying works you sincerely appreciate, builds creative communities.
“Forging new relationships and partnerships is key to reaching more people. Reach out to other organizations and see how you can help each other – people like being helpful!” Nicholas says.
Loranger agrees. “There’s a lot of fellowship within the indie media community,” she says. “ZAPP had an interesting experience in the spring, where we moved out of the place that had been our home for 18 or so years, and we’ve been working on getting started as an independent nonprofit, raising some funds and getting a new location. We’ve had several local organizations step up to work with us, help us out by offering space to hold events or partner with us on projects, which has been super cool. Hollow Earth Radio and the Black Coffee collective come to mind specifically, and I know there have been others.”
Sure, that other artist or author or filmmaker or developer is technically your competition. But fostering goodwill benefits both of your careers. It means more resources to pull from, more friends to support you and more opportunities to grow and learn.
So Here’s What to Do...
As consumers keep getting savvier, the manipulations pervasive in mainstream marketing will continue their trek toward obsolescence. But a genuinely innovative mainstream company can find inspiration in the independent. Not pull an Urban Outfitters and rip them off outright, of course, but instead hire them for their abilities and techniques.
Just because a piece of media is independent, that doesn’t inherently make it perfect or pure. However, there are plenty of creators and smaller companies out there with a lesson or two that could reinvigorate the sameness that many larger media outlets currently offer.
Zine Fest Houston is this Saturday! To celebrate, we interviewed the event's co-chair María-Elisa Heg, cartoonist Jason Poland (Robbie and Bobby, Shaqzine) and Christopher Patterson of Ella Egg Films. Enjoy the video series here.