Saturday, December 5, 2009

Interview with Dan Holloway (Free-E-Day Fallout #2)

Dan Holloway is the mastermind behind the Free-E-Day festival, founding member of the Year Zero Writers collective, indie culture blogger, and author of Songs from the Other Side of the Wall.

I wanted to ask him what he thought about Free-E-Day after the fact, to get his perspective on its success as an event and see what lessons we can take from it moving forward to promote indie culture.

MM: Can you talk a little about how it started and what the goals were?  How did you get the first idea, what if any person or persons made you realize it could actually be pulled off, and what were your real, concrete goals for the event?

DH: It was the stereotypical back of a napkin thing. I had an idea on the bus home - what if every indie writer and musician and artist gave something away not just randomly on their website or through a directory but out and proud and FOR the fans. At first I wanted to call it e-Christmas because of the timing and the presents thing, but I soon realised that would alienate the 90 whatever percent of people who don't care less about Christmas - and the whole point of culture is it's a universal thing. I wanted to get everyone together - wherever they were from. I'd been doing a lot of blogging and arguing about indie culture and whether it was a threat to the mainstream,and so many of the people I came across on both sides had this total Westernised bubble they thought the debate took place in, and I wanted to say "hang on a minute - there are people producing great art in the slums of Sao Paolo - we're all in this together. Let's celebrate everyone." Concrete goal - a starting point for years to come. Idealistic goals - 1. to get a whole world of individuals together and make them - for one day - into the biggest gig on the planet 2. to show people that they don't need the mainstream for brilliance and originality 3. to build communities and resources to help those working outside the mainstream - wherever they are. Hence the development of the web workshops.

MM: From your perspective, was it a success?  Is there a way to quantify how successful?  Did you get what you hoped for in terms of response, participation, downloads, etc?

DH: I expected no one to show. We had 100 contributing participants, 3725 hits on the website plus getting a top 10 in the bookbuzzr charts with the brochure. Everyone I've spoken to got some downloads, several got proper spikes. Lots of people clicked through from the website and more, from word of mouth, from twitter (though that's unquantifiable). Most of all, people wrote about the event (see the Across the Web page), and there was so much enthusiasm - and I got e-mails from loads of strangers, and participation in the workshops from some great people who put in a huge effort to give detailed, helpful info. I can't begin to describe how excited I am by the response.

MM: From where I stood (virtually speaking of course) it seemed like there was an awful lot of nuts-and-bolts work that had to get done for this thing, and it looked like you were shouldering it all more-or-less solo, bless your heart.  Can you talk a little about the actual nitty gritty of what it took to put this together, how much you did yourself versus people pitching in, and any lessons learned?

DH: I think the first year with something like this it's always one person doing it out of a shed. The main problem has been the tech. I have an old PC and very little software - so putting the brochure together has - well, it's taught me a lot about formatting! Putting it together has mainly been a question of being loud, enthusiastic, and cheeky - those three qualities will get you a lot further in most things than talent or experience. The website is simply a free wordpress site but it does everything I need - one of the things I was crystal clear about was that I wasn't going to host material - I'm an administrator by day job (most of my job is events management, which helped!), and I do too many legal risk assessments to chance that - all it takes is one person to plagiarise their content or have something defamatory or stuffed with a virus and it would bring the whole thing down. I have no artistic talent but I'm OK at design, so I love the logo even though it's really shoddy (it's a scan of something I did with a felt pen). I've been able to play off the "homemade" nature of indie. But next year we've got a lovely shiny shiny one courtesy Lawrence Thomas, who has kept the design but polished it up. The main help I had was from everyone who participated or blogged about the event or got behind it in any way. I'd like to mention by name in terms of practicalities Nikki Loy, who put together Free-e-day live, and Vikram and Freya from Bookbuzzr who held my hand through the scary technical bits.

MM: What was the most challenging or difficult thing you encountered putting this together?  Were there any surprises?

DH: The most difficult thing was the brochure. I put it together as a Word document and converted to pdf. People naturally sent their work in in every format under the sun, and it wasn't always possible to paste it in. I was a regular with Zamzar, and I soon learned that the most common cause of formatting issues was not embedding font, so I learned a lot. Of course with better tech it would have been a breeze - but I'm a broke creative like everyone else. This was put together with 100% no expenditure. The surprise - that people were as enthusiastic about the idea as I was.

MM: Are there plans to do something like this again - either as a recurring annual Free-E-Day, or doing something similar but under a different guise or with a different focus?

DH: This will be an annual event. I've already had people e-mail me to say they want to put on live events next December 1st and can they come under the Free-e-day umbrella. I will have a whole year to plan it, and now there's one successful event under the belt, it will make it easier to get media coverage. I'd love to see more people take part as contributors - and more people downloading. For the rest of the year I'll keep the website active. The webchats were always meant to be the basis for permanent resources, so I'll be building on the "making money outside the mainstream" and "DIY Workshop" sessions. I'll also keep the blog at the front rolling discovering exciting new indie creativity. In the "curatorship" or "gatekeeping" arguments currently raging, I've often said I'd like to devote an hour a week to finding something amazing I never knew existed - a site or an author or band or artist or craft - and bring it to a wider audience. I already do something similar with "The View From the Shoe" on my personal blog but I'd like to do it on a wider platform & this is perfect.

MM: What I found most interesting about Free-E-Day when I first heard of it was the fact that it was going to encompass musicians and visual artists in addition to writers - I think you referred to it in one chat as the "cross-pollination" of arts.  Was this part of the design from the beginning, or an afterthought?  What gave you the idea in the first place, and how critical did it turn out to be in shaping Free-E-Day?  Were there pros and cons, in terms of casting a wide net versus losing a certain focus for audience or marketing?  Do you have plans to pursue future cross-pollinations?

DH: No, this was always the aim. I'm a writer but only because I'm tone deaf and can't draw. I write about music and art - in my fiction, and in the music articles I write for The Indie Handbook. I've always seen culture as culture, whatever form. For my own live gigs as a writer I invite musicians. I think drawing distinctions is a bit daft. I know more writers than musicians and artists because I am one, but I want more musicians and artists for next year. Those musicians who have been on board have been really supportive so I'm hopeful - and we had a great art exhibition at Free-e-day live. And you only have to look at the brochure to see the art/literature crossover.

Future plans in addition to Free-e-day? Am I allowed to plug? If so, I'll say a brief bit about Year Zero Writers (, the collective I'm part of. We'll be taking our next anthology, Thirteen Shadows Before Sunrise, on tour just like an album, with gigs featuring invited bands and T-shirts by our in house artist Sarah E Melville. There will also be video - one of Penny Goring's stories, Temporary Passport was picked up off the site by an animator who's making it into an adult animation. That'll be part of the show. At Year Zero we're kind of a cross between Andy's Factory and the Left Bank - only largely virtual. We're writers, but that's really a very tenuous boundary - we just want to give people a great experience and see what we can do with art.

MM: There was an issue raised in one of the chats that the problem with using the internet to market indie art is that there's a tendency to make yourself believe you have more of an audience than really exists.  On the one hand, just because some you had 100 page views, it doesn't mean 100 people actually read your book.  On the other hand, you can have a small, insular group (say ebook writers) thinking that they're putting all this great work out, but the only ones reading are each other plus maybe a handful of friends and family.  Now this is getting long and rambling, so I'm going to break it off into two parts:

First, do you think that Free-E-Day was successful in broadening its reach to the "average" reader/listener/consumer and exposing them to indie art they hadn't heard of before?  Or were the 100-or-so people who submitted work the same 100-or-so people who downloaded?  What did you do to help expand the audience reached?

DH: To the specific question - I have no idea. I can only go by a google search and what I'm told. And discussions I've found on various forums. What I CAN say is there's a network of people now very few of whom I knew beforehand. And that can build media and so on. I think a problem indie people have in general is expecting things to happen now. And without going totally Morrissey, these things take time. With my personal career, I expect it to be at least five books in before I make any splash - but I expect always to be growing a following. I think too many people play one gig say no one turned up and quit. Think if a band did that - they'd be laughed out of town. Most bands I know play hundreds of gigs before they get the owner to turn up to see what his dog's doing down the pub, let alone get thousands of downloads. But writers tend to give up if they fail to sell loads of their first book. I have a terrible feeling the reason the stats for indie projects seem so poor is because people don't persist.

MM: Okay, second part, do you think that there are particular challenges faced by online or e-format art in gaining new readers that old-school physical art does better?  For instance, do you think word-of-mouth is easier when you have a physical book or zine or CD to pass off to your friend as opposed to a digital download?    Is someone who picks up a physical object necessarily more engaged in the work than someone who clicks a link?

DH: Free-e-day isn't actually about e-art. The electronic part was simply a way 1, to make the global aspect possible and 2. to allow creatives to give something away without it costing them an arm and a leg. And there's no way as a writer I'd limit myself to ebooks. My primary means of building word of mouth is live reading. And it works - every time I read people are surprised - they come for the music and end up liking the writers better. And there are T-shirts, and free pamphlets - and I'd like to do something like bookcrossing. I think people who go the e-only route will find it hard. Do people buy into a physical object more? To me that sounds like a crooked antiques salesman telling us about patina.  In terms of word of mouth - I think a physical object makes it easier for people to tell one friend.  An e-object makes it easier for them to tell 100. I think the answer has to be in trying lots of things and seeing what works for you, then doing more of that and still trying new things as well. Stay absolutely true to your audience, but be an absolute floosy with the mechanics.

MM: Taking a step back from Free-E-Day the project for a second, I'm actually curious on your experience of the whole thing as Dan Holloway, writer.  Did you personally get some exposure for your own work?  How does Free-E-Day fit into the larger goals you have in terms of building your own online and offline presence?  Are you trying to build a fanbase, go pro, conquer the world?  If so, how's it going?

DH: Interesting. I deliberately pulled back personally and with Year Zero on the site (I mentioned in the very early days the event was hosted by Year Zero - a friend said that sounded like a plug, and she was right)- I hope there's nothing that reads like a plug. On the other hand I'd like to have some kind of a presence in the wider web as someone who's supportive of the indie cause, but only because that means I can do more - I have no money so reputation is what I can build and offer. every day I come across great talents and want to do something for them - if putting my name behind them, even just by having a couple of thousand followers on twitter, helps in any way, that's great.

I'm also utterly sick of a lot of people who claim to be for the cause and then it's all about them, or it's about monetising the product. I want to bring the culture-loving public and the very best culture together. To make sure that happens I need a presence.

What am I aiming for personally? Well I would like to earn a living from writing so I can do more of it, of course. I DO think I'm good at what I do, and that there are enough fans out there willing to pay that I could make a living. What confidence in my ability as a writer and a passion for culture do mean is that I can trust the audience. So the only real goal I have is putting great culture in front of the public and making sure mine's as visible as anyone else's. If it is, they'll buy in. If they don't buy in, why should I make a living at someone else's expense? The upshot of that is that I see culture as a non-zero-sum game. What we need to do is get people interested in reading, or in art, and show them the wealth of stuff out there, and trust them to know what they like and what they don't. I can do that through Free-e-day in a largish but relatively unfocused way. I can do it more focused through Year Zero, bringing great contemporary, exciting fiction to people, and stimulating debate.

I do want to use this question to make a semi-political point. There are two kinds of people in this debate who make me utterly sick and, frankly, furious. There are people inside the establishment who resent those outside trying things like giving stuff away for free in case it takes their jobs away - especially the people who claim they are sticking up for writers. well i've got news for them - I'm a writer and I can stick up for myself. And if their work is better than mine what have they got to be worried about, and if it's not then why the hell should they have a job doing it when I don't just because they're in a position to spout this kind of protectionist bs. The second kind, who makes me more angry because technically they're on "my side" so they're tarring me with their brush are the "help me I'm Indie" brigade. These are the people who give each other glowing reviews on Amazon (yes, I've done it for friends whose work I love in the past but I don't any more because I think it sends the wrong message). The kind who want others to big up their book because it's indie. Well, sorry - I'll big up your book if it's any good. And if it's not why should you get more readers just because you're Indie? I want to bring Indie culture and the public together so people can discover great work wherever it comes from. There's nothing cool about bigging up crap.

MM: Taking another step back, talk about Year Zero.  How does it fit in with Free-E-Day - obviously the two are separate entities, but do they dovetail together in any way, in terms of goals or approach?  Also, tell me a little more about how the collective came into existence, and why, and have the goals or your conception of what it is changed at all as it's grown and come into fruition?

DH: Well, I've probably answered most of that already. We started out as a group of people writing literary fiction who were fed up of being told we'd get published if only we were a little more commercial. So we made a place where we could write what we wanted to write. "Uncut prose" is basically what we stand for. Not, of course, meaning unedited, but meaning edited the way we want and not someone else. We originally thought it would be good to get together and market our self-published novels together, but we've grown into more than that. Now we have a blog with daily new fiction and weekly articles, we have started asking the same questions, and have become some kind of, I don't know if you'd call it a mini-movement or what. What we are is a group of people who want to do something new and see what's possible with prose, and write the very best we can. And whereas our first anthology, Brief Ojects of Beauty and Despair, was just a sampler, our second, Thirteen Shadows Waiting for Sunrise, is very much themed, around the subject of "writing pain". It feels like we're in a middle of one of those moments where people with individual aspirations and ambitions are brought together for however long and for that time live and breathe and share together and, without getting Precious Moments, it's quite magical and almost unreal. The 13 Shadows live events are going to be something very special.

Of course, we're all interested in the future of publishing debates going on, and many of us blog ferociously about it (especially Jenn). But as a group we don't talk about it. We're not interested in defending our position. There's nothing to defend. We do what we do and we're damn proud of it, and people will either like it or they won't.


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