Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Drek Wars

I wanted to briefly rant about a serious crisis in the media world: an unconsidered result of the proliferation of DIY drek. Podcasts! Videocasts! Video comments! Independent, low budget digital movies! Band self-produced albums! All of these are potentially good things: I heralded them as much as anyone else, and am in fact a product of the media production boom that began in the late 90s with the availability of consumer applications such as Photoshop and Premiere, and hardware such as DV cameras, dedicated digital recording hard drives, and the like. Suddenly you didn’t need a $100,000 budget to record an album. However, I didn’t initially see the danger in all of these things: the tools do not, in themselves, provide the capability.

The well-intentioned beginners can be forgiven, they should in fact probably be condoned for their bravery. Experimenting in a new medium is scary. You face the expectation of greatness, when really you should just be tinkering and tossing your results in the closet for the first five to ten years. The Internet has become that closet however, and we are beset on all sides by so much crap that it can be hard to find the good stuff. (Also, we all have to start out here. Those who stick it out for long enough, with enough determination, ultimately get somewhere.)

But even that isn’t my actual gripe, the railroad spike in my side, the ipecac in my stomach. I don’t need to wade through mountains of user created crap on YouTube because I don’t go wading in the morass to begin with. This explosion pushed everything a step further: clients and employers think that - rather than hire a professional designer, or sound producer - just have one of your employees do it. It’s easy, right? Just a couple clicks in Photoshop. Podcast? Just plug in a mic and hit record. Why take on all that excess cost? The fact is: there are probably only six or seven ingredients in that dinner you had at that expensive 3 star restaurant. Put those ingredients in the wrong hands, and you get inedible mush. Have the crack addicted hobo on the corner wire your house, and expect a house fire.

Yet everywhere I turn I see clients and employers cutting corners by either overloading a single professional with the tasks of three people- it doesn’t matter if the person has the skills to do all those tasks, they simply don’t have the focus to pull them all off well- or worse, pawning off the work of media professionals on already overburdened employees who don’t have the background. I nearly got myself out of the freelance design industry a couple years ago for this reason, along with the fact that design clients have notoriously bad taste. (My all time favorite remains the mattress company that wanted me to develop a series of animations of flames dancing on top of images of their mattresses because their prices were “ON FIRE.” I tried to explain to them that juxtaposing the images of fire and mattresses was an abysmal idea, not to mention the fact that animated fire GIFs almost destroyed teh Internets in the 90s. I firmly believe that some sliver of the $50/hour rate that goes along with design services is a buffer against the potential of gastrointestinal damage that results from simply gritting your teeth, saying “at least he’s paying me,” and turning your carefully considered color scheme into taupe, orange, and pink.)

Having mentioned this, I’m not entirely certain there is a simple solution. We’re on a river that only flows one way, (DMT visions notwithstanding), and in many cases the immediate bottom line matters a lot more to a business than the long term gains, especially if they are qualitative rather than quantitative. Quality? This is America. Who cares about quality, I want it cheap and I want it now!

This is likely one of those instances where a cliche serves best: you get what you pay for.


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