Talent for the price of salt
April 9, 2016
This site gets over 40,000 visits a month, has 500 blog posts and countless articles amassed over twenty years of banging out content, pieces now read hundreds of thousands of times since they were published, pieces shared and tweeted and linked too far more often than pieces on mainstream channels. But this site is not here to make money like them, only suck it out really. People often point out that in this free economy often the payment comes down the line, that I may sell a book or two, but then what do you say when you find I probably make less than you pay in parking in a year out of writing books (like this blog it’s a labour of love, like playing the guitar or planting flowers in the garden). Yes people come and see me speak and that’s how I pretty much pay my bills, but I could probably do that without writing so much, after all, how many other climbers apart from Nick Bullock put so much time into being freely creative?
So here’s what this blog is about really, it’s about how we as a community support the creative side of our sport, something that is incredibly rich and diverse and something we should be very proud of. As climbers, we have one of the richest veins of creativity running through our sport: film, poetry, literature and art, more so than most other sports. Climbing has never been mainstream, and so what we have been given, and what is given still, most often comes from the heart and is created with love. If the money was there we would have a ton of celeb books that are ghostwritten, a library full of Bear Grylls style lit, films made to Cliffhanger, K2 and Vertical Limit standards, no real room for any real art or poetry in the sport, money-sucking the real soul from all that climbing has to give.
Instead, we have even a mainstream stocking filler like Alex Honnold’s Alone on the Wall having real and genuine power and merit, blockbuster climbing films like Valley Uprising, made on a shoestring in terms of TV or Hollywood that can distil the true elements of climbing myth and lore while still offering real entertainment. Consider all those films you’ve sat and watched at Kendal or best of Banff that were made out of love and passion for this thing called climbing that fired up your senses. Think of the books you’ve read and magazine pieces that stuck in your head, all those classic issues we remember, the On The Edges, High, Crags, Mountain and Alpinist. Buy a copy of Games Climbers Play or Mirrors in the Cliffs and marvel at the wealth of ideas and stories we have been gifted to us in just those two books alone.
And by and large, we take it all for granted, don’t we?
But I think the world is changing and we need to rethink this attitude to the creative wealth of climbing. Not long ago people could put a year into making a film, people like Alastair Lee and Paul Diffley and others knowing that DVD sales would pay them back what they put in and enough to pay their bills and support their lifestyles. Now DVD sales are dead, worse still the promise of downloads replacing them never materialised, people simply moving on to free media, Youtube and content that has no depth at all, only the impression of weight, epic TV and corporate-funded films that are simply adverts. Writing is the same, the big publishers pulling out of climbing books, the smallest indies giving up the game as a broad market for books dries, only the medium-sized publishers like Vertebrate in the UK supporting climbing writing, but is still a business, only really having room for books that will reward the investment in time, money and energy. Magazines are dying on their feet and I can imagine that there will be no UK climbing magazines in a year or two, only US magazines to fill the gap, advertisers (who keep mags afloat in the UK) moving their money 100% digital. There are some big players who could inject money into something a little more creative in terms of media, like UKC, who I suspect have far more cash than any of the climbing mags, but so far I think their really strong in-depth pieces have been bitty (most by Natalie Berry). One positive has been growing support of UK film talent by the BMC, coming at just the right time, offering small but invaluable support to filmmakers (many of who seem to have given up their own creative projects and just focused on commercial projects). Some climbers who pay their BMC subs may grumble that it’s not the duty of the BMC to support media such as films, but can anyone who’s seen Operation Moffat not see that their support helped nurture something with as much value to us all as any new footpath or crag? Personally, I’d like to see far more support to the ‘arts’ from bodies like the BMC, Alpine Club, the outdoor industry and clubs, that creative writing, poetry and film as much a part of climbing as the climbing itself.
So what are the alternatives, what needs to change? Well first off no one should assume because it was free before it will always be. Look at the internet, it’s overflowing with information but most of it is shallow and poor because no one paid for it. I remember having a conversation with UKC about being paid more than £150 for a 4000-word article that went on to be read 70,000 times, that maybe you could get paid per word seeing as the words were good, and people want depth, or maybe get paid more when the piece was read say 50,000 times, so that there was an incentive to make your piece as strong as possible, not just hit a set word count. The response was “just write £150 worth of words” which kind of sums up the problem with the web, and also the reason I probably just write what I want to write. I feel that for so long good content has come from love and passion and goodwill, but all too soon unless it finds just reward just dies on the vine. In the past, people ended up working for mags or being indie climbing filmmakers, but those days have all but gone (you could get by as a dirtbag writing a column for a climbing mag in the ’90s and now you’d have trouble doing so even as an editor!). What we may see, or not see at all, is the slow demise of the rich vein of creativity, only having the illusion of it as people with talent and vision just doing other things to make a living and just go climbing. One day you may find only ghostwritten climbing books in the store, only corporate adverts winning at Kendal, the only magazines with creative pieces sandwiched in PDF’s from manufacturers, the only things of real value being old school punk zines printed or photocopied by those who still care.
And so we need to find alternatives. Although things are stark, change not being for good, change also offers up a whole new set of ways to get creative and support talent. My book Me, Myself & I would never have been produced without Kickstarter, and neither would my talk in central London, the idea of paying down £3,000 on a venue to speak in lunacy at one time to anyone but Messner. With crowdfunding you can come up with an idea and people can either get behind it and show you it’s not going to fly. Now I have to admit that it is fraught with risks and pitfalls, and two years down the line I know I have outstanding commitments to some who supported Me, Myself & I, plus I raised £2k for an Alaska project that got canned (Indigogo had no way of offering refunds at the time, and I tried to contact supports, either repaying the cash or being told to keep it, the whole thing far from satisfactory… but then I am a fucking disaster when it comes to admin). In a few weeks time Jen Randall (maker of Operation Moffat and Project Mina) will launch her Kickstarter for her film based on Psychovertical (working title is Journey through the Brain), a film that could really not be made these days without this kind of funding, too niche for TV, to long for EpicTV etc to support (but again getting some support from the BMC). Another project that deserves support is Menna Pritchard and Steve Wakeford’s Magnetic Mountains, a documentary “exploring the psychology of risk-taking in the mountains through the story of an everyman”.
What sets this film apart from many is the drive and creativity and talent of Steve and Menna, showing in the amazing number of people they’ve managed to interview for this film, a film that I think will go a lot deeper than any made for TV doc ever could. People who’ve read this blog for a while will know me and Menna have some history together, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a more talented, able and necessary voice in outdoor media (you can read some of Menna’s writing here on Al Humphrey’s blog (Al another creative powerhouse who gives more back to adventure than most). When you support a project like Magnetic Mountains (pay £10 for your names in the titles, or £25 for the download, plus other perks) you are not just paying for this film, but supporting real talent (when you see a target of £25,000 some would assume the filmmakers get that, but films like this cost way more than that, and those involved end up doing this for free, or more likely ending up losing money. For example, the film I made with Ella for CBBC climbing El Cap cost £58k and no one got paid, and I even had to pay for mine and Ella’s tickets. Basically, films cost a lot to make). When you stump up the price of two fancy coffees or a karabiner it’s not for your name on the titles, it’s knowing you made something happen, as people did when they sat and watched Jeff Lowe’s film Metanoia, and most important of all you support talent to move on to something better yet. I remember paying for Jen Randall’s first film Push It because I met her in Yosemite making it and thought ‘here’s someone with a poet’s eye”. Then year’s later as a judge I pushed for her short film ‘Where Walking Took Me’ not just because it was simple and beautiful and in no way bombastic (like most of the films), but because it’s the duty of us all to nurture talent, that in there were the seeds of something even better and more valuable to us all. And the following year she made Operation Moffat, one of the best climbing films ever to come out of the UK (well I think so!).
So what am I saying? Well, when I turned off my website a few weeks ago I had a sudden influx of emails from people saying “where is it?”, or that they came here most days to see if there was something new, or wanted to share something I’d written, saying it was a real and ‘invaluable resource’. It makes me proud to know this means something, but also part of me thinks that people should know that resources dry up, that if tomorrow I took up golf and stopped paying my hosting it would be gone. Some people read what I write and donate $2 or $10 but probably way less than 1%, but then I do the same (I do give money to wiki and NPR but that’s it really, but then I find it hard to find content that really engages me to the point I feel I owe a debt). But really I don’t want your money, but I would like you to consider supporting people who are starting out, would love it if you find £25 and support Magnetic Mountains or Journey through the Brain or get a year’s subscription to Alpinist, buy a book not borrow it, to pay not for what you get, but what we all get, both now and in the future.