Andy Baio welcomes the attendees of XOXO Festival (photo by John Biehler)
A week ago I went to a festival/conference in Portland called XOXO. When it was announced, this first-time event was speculatively described up as “an alternative to SXSW” – not as ‘the next SXSW’ mind you, but as another option for those who may feel that SouthBy has become bloated, and has perhaps lost some of its focus.
Attendance was limited to 400 people, and all registrations were handled through a Kickstarter project. Those 400 slots were snapped up in about 50 hours, with another 200+ people pledging a reduced amount for early access to the videos and some swag from the event. (Yes, there will be video! You can still buy early access on the XOXO website.)
In case you’re not familiar with Kickstarter, let me briefly explain how it works, because in many, many ways the XOXO Fest couldn’t have existed without it. Kickstarter is a site where people post details about a project they’d like to do, indicate how much money they need to complete it, and offer rewards for people who back their efforts. Other people, the backers, pledge an amount and select a desired reward for the projects they want to support. If – and only if – the total pledge amount reaches the goal by the stated deadline, everyone’s credit cards are charged and the creator begins their journey towards completing their project.
As Kickstarter has grown and entered broader awareness (and mainstream media) there seems to be some confusion, with a lot of people viewing it primarily as a marketplace for independently made gadgets and video games – a high-tech Etsy, if you will. But it’s more accurate to think of it as supporting an artist or entrepreneur, rather than as buying a product. Amid growing discussions of accountability, the people running the site recently clarified their position in a post called “Kickstarter Is Not a Store.”
So, back to XOXO, which describes itself as “an arts and technology festival celebrating disruptive creativity.” In the opening remarks, Andy Baio (who co-organized the festival, along with Andy McMillan) expressed some regret about using the overused buzzword “disruptive.” He also made it clear that the “hugs and kisses” implication of the conference title was intended. Without irony or snark, the weekend embraced the culture of independent creators in many forms – from high-end food carts outside the venue, to a pop-up arcade of independent video games, a concert by self-made musicians, the incredible speaker lineup, and an attendee list which boasts so many luminaries they could populate the programs of several other conferences. And then there were the parties, a maker market, and so many other interesting artisanal micro-events.
The speakers were a mix of people creating independent art and products – film, music, illustration, web comics, video games, and gadgets – and others who are building the platforms that support these efforts. There’s a good reason that this conference is happening now. In the ‘90s we had a major wave of DIY culture as technology became cheap enough and accessible enough that people could produce music, video, and printed materials at home. Inexpensive means of production gave birth to a deluge of garage bands, independent filmmakers and ‘zine publishers. But they had a limited reach, unless they somehow got a contract with a major company and crossed over into the mainstream.
Now we’re seeing another wave of DIY culture, brought on by several major developments:
- social tools that allow creators to build a direct relationship with a widespread audience
- crowdfunding systems, such as Kickstarter, that allow fans to directly fund projects
- sites and systems that allow creators to self-distribute digital and non-digital products
Many of the speakers could link the success of their projects to Kickstarter. This gave them project budgets that yielded very high quality work, whether they were a single person working alone, or a small team with a shared vision. Having a direct relationship with their audience is a key factor, too, because it establishes both a trust and a demand that makes people willing to give them money. Their fans are saying, “I know what you’re capable of and I want to be a part of making that happen.”
Other speakers talked about the platforms designed to help independent creators sell their products directly to their audience – the aforementioned Etsy (for fine crafts), VHX (for films), The Atavist (for long-form journalism), CASH Music (for music), 20×200 (for affordable art prints), and Simple (an alternative banking platform). It’s important to note that all of these distribution services result in the creators getting the vast majority of the income from the sale of their creations. This is the promise of the long tail – if a major record label is going to pay you next to nothing to release your album, but you can build your audience yourself and sell your music directly to them, then why wouldn’t you do it?
With all the talk recently of content being cheap in the digital realm, the idea of motivated creators being able to make and distribute their own work, and even earn a living doing it, is a disruption we all should welcome.
Want more XOXO? Here are some additional links:
- Anil Dash live-blogged the conference, old school-style
- Two days in the conference room, condensed into a 1-minute timelapse video
- A timeline of XOXO Tweets (from all of the attendees)
And follow @XOXO on Twitter to see more coverage and announcements about the conference. Keep an eye out for the release of the videos!