Hack Circus - Lunar Trails
Hack Circus - Lunar Trails

Some things I learned from Hack Circus

29 June 2014

Lighthouse Creative Producer Andrew Sleigh reflects on our latest studio event, and on the challenges facing independent producers and artists today.

Saturday 14th June saw Hack Circus come to Lighthouse. Hack Circus is current studio resident Leila Johnston’s quarterly event and magazine series that explores "fantasy technology and everyday magic”.

Leila has been a resident in Lighthouse Studio for about six weeks, and in that time we’ve been helping her programme the event, and build an audience far from her home turf of Sheffield.

The event was a sometimes challenging learning experience for everyone involved, and I think it’s worth reflecting on that experience as there are patterns and lessons that can be applied elsewhere.

Studio collaboration

Let’s start with the good stuff. The Lighthouse Studio programme, and others like it, are predicated on the idea that cross-discipline collaboration is a good thing, and that if you put interesting people in the same room some magic will emerge. On top of that basic premise, you can apply various approaches to structure, curation, public engagement, output formats, facilitation, etc. to encourage the right kind of magic.

I’m pleased to say this is exactly what we found happened with Hack Circus. Coralie designed a poster for the event, and Seb brought his Lunar Trails installation to the event, as well as the delta 3D printer he’s developing with engineer Paul Strotten. In this case, the magic was largely self-organising and emergent, but was no doubt catalysed by the approaching jeopardy of a live event.

Institutional support

Another premise of the studio programme is that an institution can offer value to a producer (artist, designer, musician, whatever) through the resources it can draw on; venue, staff, audience, network, marketing, and experience. Lighthouse puts on events every week, both in our own venue and further afield; everything from casual meetups to conferences, exhibitions to screenings, workshops to parties. The operations and marketing teams here know their stuff, and are able to deploy those resources to great effect.

It was exciting to see that machine swing into action around the Hack Circus project, everything from tech setup and event logistics, to marketing and PR. Just two weeks before the event, it looked like we were going to have a fairly poor turnout, but in the end, we had a full house – in fact the largest turnout I’ve ever seen at Lighthouse, due to the combined efforts of Leila and the team here.

While that means pats on the back all round, it also points to some thorny issues, which are the really interesting things I want to talk about.

What is the role for intermediary cultural institutions?

Organisations like Lighthouse sit somewhere between funders, producers and audiences. We commission and curate work, we discover and nurture talent, we enable the production of, and then distribute and promote the best work.

We mediate between several different players in this ecosystem, and the resources, power and needs of those players are constantly shifting. With public funding being squeezed, and audiences increasingly looking to digital channels to find new work, it seems clear the role for commissioners, galleries and other intermediary organisations will change. It’s not clear how, but it seems a safe bet that the kind of resources we can offer to producers tomorrow will not be the same as those we offer today.

We look at the music and publishing industries, and see the incumbent institutions being edged out by new players. How do we avoid the same fate?

Well, I don’t know yet, but that’s why I’m looking at new models for the studio that allow us to play with different value exchanges in our ecosystem, whether that be working with producers who work predominantly online (like this talk at Tate by Things Organized Neatly creator, Austin Radcliffe, or Kickstarter’s curated pages, that allow organisations to support new funding and audience development models).

Traction for independent producers

In the run-up to the event, Leila wrote frankly about her difficulties in producing Hack Circus – finding advertisers, funding printing, and promoting the event:

I have fallen foul to what might be a common problem of our times – the misconception that because it is now easy to find audiences, produce and sell things, it is easier than ever to be successful in business; that we can take our foot off the pedal and simply ‘be creative’. Someone said to me recently, “I wish I was 18 now, look at all the things I could do, all the opportunities this digital world opens up.” But the digital world opens up the same opportunities to everyone – you still aren’t special – and as I keep saying, the easier it is to do something, the better it has to be. It is impossible to stand out.

This myth of the digital age – that lower barriers to entry free up creative production for everyone – needs to be addressed. Low barriers result in more noise, which makes it harder for your signal to be heard.

(They also allow you to lower your own signal:noise ratio – the cost of producing poor quality work is lower, so the impetus to improve the quality of your work is weaker. I don’t think Leila suffers from this problem, but it is part of the same issue, which needs to be addressed in the round, so it’s worth noting.)

Leila works hard, produces high quality, distinctive work, has a good network, promotes her output tirelessly, and even gets some pretty good mainstream media coverage. So if she’s struggling to get traction, how will smaller, emergent voices be heard?

Retooling branding

While many people operating outside mainstream culture recoil at the word (and rightly so, as the idea of ‘branding’ has been devalued over the years by countless half-witted marketing managers), I do think branding, or something like it, is part of the answer here. We just need to reassess it, and reconfigure it for the needs of the independent digital producer.

Historically, we could take the definition of a brand to be something like "a memorable, ideally compelling shortcut for a (more-or-less) commodity product made by a characterless organisation”. That shortcut is the sum of the customers’ product experience, advertising and comms, retail and after-sales experience, wider cultural context, and so on.

Fairy Liquid, Hovis, Ford: these are all brands in the traditional, industrial sense. Of late, brands have become more complex, whether that be from the rise of companies that are almost pure brand and no product, like Nike, or those that emerged in the digital age, and take on customer experience and conversation more readily as essential components of the brand, for better or worse (think eBay or WhatsApp, but also MySpace or Friends Reunited).

Independent producers are not characterless organisations – hence the rise of the phrase ‘personal brand’ among personal development consultants. However, we still need some of what the practice of branding offers. In fact, I would argue that we need to retool branding to serve the new producers and consumers of the digital age – not just to account for the more complex ways in which consumers interact with commodity products – but to enable small-scale producers operating at the new digital frontier to reach a market, build a community, or engage an audience.

At their core, these tools are about understanding your market (or ‘audience’ in art-world language), developing your product, locating the core resonating element that makes your product sing – and then communicating this to others.

This stuff is emerging now. There are individual case studies, sure, but no recognised best practice (if you know of some, let me know). I think this is an area where organisations like Lighthouse can offer huge value in the future.

Update: coincidentally I saw on Twitter after writing this post, that David Hieatt is offering a workshop entitled ‘How To Build A Brand With Very Little Money’. While money is not the only factor I’m talking about, I do think David is one of the people who has something useful to say here, and the promised takeaways from his workshop make for a pretty good reference point for the issues in play:

  • How to tell your story.
  • How to give your brand a voice.
  • How to get people to love your brand.
  • The importance of 1000 true fans.
  • The real advantages of being small.
  • Is your idea going to change anything.
  • How to put a moat around your idea.
  • How to identify a niche before others.
  • The importance of being first.
  • How to fund it without losing control.
  • How to build a great team without employing anyone.

Business models in the digital age

Just as reaching a market has become paradoxically more difficult with increased access to online audiences, falling production costs have also made business models for those in creative industries increasingly unstable. And God help you if you’re still producing physical goods.

Low marginal costs drive the price consumers are willing to pay for digital products down to zero – or as near as makes no difference. Physical goods however, still have the same marginal costs they had 25 years ago. In the case of Hack Circus, the situation is even more dire. Leila has chosen to operate in fields (events and publishing) that have respectively, very high costs, and a market saturated by high quality free-to-use competitors.

Marc Andreessen, in a recent paean to a future free market utopia, presents a now-familiar argument about the fringe benefits of software – or in this case, robots – eating the world:

… when automation is abundant and cheap, human experiences become rare and valuable. It flows from our nature as human beings. We see it all around us. The price of recorded music goes to zero, and the live music touring business explodes. The price of run-of-the-mill drip coffee drops, and the market for handmade gourmet coffee grows. You see this effect throughout luxury goods markets — handmade high-end clothes. This will extend out to far more consumers in future.

While the argument has some internal consistency, I see much evidence to the contrary today. With one or two notable exceptions, high-quality, hand-crafted events and publications cannot command the prices that make them economically viable products.

I know from my own experience running Brighton Mini Maker Faire, an event that most participants seem to love. The adult entry price in 2013 was £5. If we were to charge a price that covered the actual cost of the event, it would be somewhere around £15. I’m sceptical the market would bear these prices.

Similarly in publishing, I’ve produced a small-run hand-made magazine. The unit cost was about £5-6. We sold it for £2. (and thanks are due to the Art Council for making up the difference). Leila’s got the numbers a little better aligned (print cost £2, retail price: £7), but still, that doesn’t leave much room for people to be paid for their work.

So, small-run physical goods are still just as expensive as they used to be. And they seem even more expensive in comparison to free/cheap digital goods. And even if you’re making digital goods (podcasting, anyone?), no-one wants to pay for them.

It’s in times of need that innovation flourishes. This space is full of challenges right now, but it’s also full of bright adventurous people trying to figure out how it works. So I’m pretty excited to see how the new breed of digitally-focused producers can find an audience and fund their projects, and how the organisations that support them can transform themselves to remain relevant in a changing world.

To put it another way, if it’s a curse to live in interesting times, at least it’s interesting.



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