Gowanus Open Studios 2018

If you’re in New York on the third weekend of October and you wake up to a sunny and crisp autumn day, head immediately out to Gowanus, Brooklyn for the annual Open Studios weekend. The volume and variety of artists showing is dizzying, and seeing them exhibit their art on the walls of their workrooms is a special treat — not to mention the opportunity to speak directly with artists themselves.

a9adcf3bc3.jpg

The event started over 20 years ago, filling a role as the fall counterpart to the DUMBO Open Studios held annually in May. As DUMBO exploded in the aughts (becoming New York City’s most expensive rental neighborhood), many artists retreated south to find more affordable, formerly-industrial buildings where they could set up shop. Today, Gowanus Open Studios features over 300 artists in dozens of venues scattered around the neighborhood’s legendarily toxic canal. Can Gowanus remain a financially viable home base for artists in the long term? Let’s hope so. Open Studios reminds us every year what a vibrant neighborhood it is, coursing with creative independence.

Here are some of my favorites from 2018.


Sarah E. Brook

https://www.sarahebrook.com | https://www.instagram.com/sarahebrookart | Beautifully haunting amalgam of sculpture, installation, and photography.

Rachel Selekman

http://www.rachelselekman.com | https://www.instagram.com/rachelselekman | I love the delicacy and caprice of Selekman’s sculptures (and sculptural canvases); her work seems to lift and float effortlessly.

Patrick J Campbell

http://www.imxprs.com/free/wunderhome/final-design | https://www.instagram.com/wunderhome | Campbell’s trompe l’oeil dioramas wonderfully blend illusion and idiosyncrasy.

Michael Amendolara

http://www.agdir.org/artist/artist.php?id=519&ret=3 | https://www.instagram.com/michaelamendolara | I’m drawn to the richness of Amendolara’s colors and the deepness of his blacks (which can’t be fully done justice in these pictures).

Keun Yeung Park

http://www.keunyoung-park.com | https://www.instagram.com/keunyoungparkart | Park’s images shimmer and swirl, seeming almost like they’re painted on tiny lustrous eggshells.

Kenneth Wong

http://kennethwongart.com | I always stop in to see Kenneth Wong’s studio. He captures faces — particularly women’s expressions — with incredible specificity and emotion.

Hermann Mejía

https://www.hermannmejia.com | https://www.instagram.com/hermannmejia | If my fairy godmother granted me one piece of art from the Gowanus Art Walk this year, I’d take anything from Hermann Mejía.

Erica Harris

http://www.ericaharris.org | Sublime collage. Harris calls it “art made with found stuff” but that diminishes the wholly transfiguring quality of what she produces.

Erich Hibit

https://www.erichibit.com | https://www.instagram.com/erichibit | Hibit’s paintings practically vibrate off the walls. Their energy is mesmerizing.

Christina Martinelli

http://www.christinamartinelli.com | https://www.instagram.com/christina_martinelli_ | I love the precision and obsessiveness of Martinelli’s work — it revels in its geometric motifs, but still resists monotony.

Ai Campbell

http://www.aicampbell.com | https://www.instagram.com/aicampbell | I considered not posting these, because the photographs really don’t capture the dimension and silvery light of Campbell’s work. Her canvasses convey motion and mystery in a way that you can only appreciate in person.

Amy Weil

http://www.amyweilpaintings.com | There’s a tricky balance that Weil achieves on both large and small canvases, excavating and layering imagery to wonderful effect.

Fish Fridays at Acme: Where's There's Smoke, There's Lox

As someone who grew up combing through racks of split-tagged clothing at Marshall’s, I was trained at a young age to love a bargain. Outlet malls, closeout sales, BOGO deals — their mere mention makes my wallet itch. But none of that holds a candle to that magic word which wholly transcends the concept of a great deal: WHOLESALE.

IMG_7185.JPG

Wholesale implies an entirely different level of short-cutting the markups and margins of retail. Wholesale takes you direct to the authentic source of product you seek out — no add-ons, no bells and whistles, no marketing gloss. Wholesale eliminates those dreaded “middlemen” who line their wallets with our hard-earned cash. (Is there anyone more vilified in this age of disruption than the rapacious middleman?)

When I first heard about Acme’s Fish Fridays — wholesale smoked fish? really? that exists? — my salivary glands immediately surged into Pavlov Alert Defcon 1 levels. Acme, a fourth-generation, family-owned New York company, processes a mere 24,000 pounds of fish — per day. They smoke more fish than any other U.S. brand, cranking out almost 10 million pounds of salmon, whitefish, herring, and other appetizing delicacies at their facilities in Williamsburg and around the country.

Price-wise, you’ll see your dollar go about twice as far here as it would buying Acme products at retail (they also offer their Blue Hill Bay and Ruby Bay packaged brands). But the bargains are only a small part of the satisfaction of trekking out to 30 Gem Street in Brooklyn’s northern reaches. As you approach the facility, the wood smoke in the air is palpable. The unctuous, oily smell of fish envelopes you as you enter through the unmarked door. The queue winds around inside the warehouse, a satisfying refrigerated chill pervades the rooms.

I popped over to Acme early today with a friend, and while in line, we wondered why they open their doors one morning a week to regular folk. What’s in it for them, given their massive b2b operation? An Acme spokesperson said in an interview that they’ve done this for years (long before Williamsburg became the epicenter of hipster-dom) as a service to the community where they operate. More than that, I think the folks at Acme love their product, and relish their interactions with regular folk every Friday morning. It’s a point of pride.

The staff is eager to explain the difference between hot- and cold-smoked fish or the specifics of how their gravlax is cured. When I got the front of the line, the amiable woman behind the counter plied me with samples, and then she waved me over to the end of the display. “This is the belly salmon. $4 a pound, and it’s my favorite. You gotta try some of this,” she offered eagerly. Twenty dollars later (cash only, btw), I walked back out into the crisp autumn sunlight with enough smoked fish to last me well through the weekend.

The Future of Journalism Hits a Bump in the Road

There will be plenty of hot takes in the coming weeks about Civil, the blockchain start-up that intends to reinvent journalism. The company’s announcement yesterday that its Initial Coin Offering came up well short of their soft-cap minimum won’t help either. In the lead-up to their October 15th deadline, several articles already weighed in on what went wrong, citing the convoluted purchase process, a muddled marketing message, or Civil’s overly utopian vision of journalism. My takeaway, more than anything, is that the idea needs more time to percolate and more Civil newsrooms need to become essential parts of our media diets. Even if the process were streamlined and the marketing was clear as a bell, Civil is still selling an idea of what journalism can be, and unfortunately, that’s not something enough folks are going to buy.

Stepping back for a moment: What is Civil? For those who aren’t blockchain or news industry insiders, Civil launched early this year on the promise of making journalism sustainable by — stay with me here — creating a cryptocurrency-backed marketplace for journalists. Basically, they envision devoted readers funding essential journalism through the purchase of Civil tokens. It aims to create both a platform and a micro-economy where independent and in-depth reportage can thrive. Civil wants to give readers and writers a shared stake in the ecosystem, and as a result, fix many of the underlying problems with journalism today. (Consensys, through its Etherium-backed investment arm, has provided much of the capital for Civil, championing the start-up’s vision of decentralization.)

MIDNIGHT WEDNESDAY ON CIVIL’S SITE

MIDNIGHT WEDNESDAY ON CIVIL’S SITE

Full disclosure: I worked with Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant earlier this year in setting up their company, Stable Genius Productions, which is one of the newsrooms on the Civil platform. In the process, I had a handful of meetings with Civil folks. Further disclosure: they’re really smart, well-intentioned media veterans who are truly dedicated to their mission.

The premise of the Civil mission? Journalism is broken and needs to be reinvented. Most everyone would agree, but what exactly does that mean? As we’ve seen newspapers’ business model shrink (more on that below), the mission and resolve of the fourth estate has dwindled too. Local news coverage is disappearing rapidly. And so is tough, investigatory reporting; stories largely lean on optics, personalities, and polling. (“We spoke to 8 Trump supporters and put together a trend piece,” “Politician Q shows disappointment in reaction to tweet from the President,” “Poll numbers portend a deep divide between X and Y.”) At the same time, advertising and click-bait tactics have skewed the priorities of news outlets. Legal threats, which loom larger in the wake of Gawker’s downfall, force news businesses to take cautious stances on important and divisive stories. How many #MeToo stories were mothballed under the threat of litigation before the Harvey Weinstein story broke?

The dearth of serious, hard-nosed journalism plays directly into the narrative of fake news and conspiracy theories, which require the thinnest of premises to spin out stories. Unnamed sources, punditry as “news analysis,” and poll-driven horse races not only undermine newspapers’ credibility, but they frame journalism as a meta-exercise of simply observing politics. (And anyone with a Wordpress site can do that, as I can well attest to.)

What I don’t think is killing print journalism, despite how often it is cited, is partisanship. The charges of partisanship are louder than ever, but newspapers have always exhibited bias. The veil of impartiality is a marketing facade put on to assuage advertisers and maximize readership. And frankly, I don’t want impartiality. I want reporters to oppose and mistrust and rankle authority figures. That’s their job.

And this is where Civil seems to have put a lot of its focus. They talk a lot about “ethical journalism,” designing the platform where the collective sentiment (and ownership stake) of the Civil community will flag misleading reporting, and potentially vote to exclude a newsroom, if necessary. I feel like that’s all a bit of a red herring. At this point, the journalists who join Civil are doing it with pretty high-minded intentions. It will be a while before the tin-foil-hatted hucksters show up there.

So how else can a cryptocurrency-backed platform solve the problems that journalism faces?

Well, lot of that has to do with why print journalism is in decline to begin with. It’s a similar story to what has been happening across media. Niche cable channels subsisted because they could be bundled in with broader, mainstream offerings. Oddball b-side tracks made it on to albums that led with big pop chart hits. And expensive and resource-heavy investigative reporting was supported by a broad offering — which included non-news mainstays such as comics, TV listings, advice columns, and classified ads.

Digital distribution broke up these bundles, skimming off major revenue drivers in the process. Each back-section of the paper got subsumed by hundreds of specialty sites and blogs; classifieds were aggregated on Craigslist; local movie times were made searchable on Google; service journalism was taken up by armchair experts on message boards and hobbyists on Pinterest sites. The serious work of reporters was all that remained, but without a business model to support it.

In that way, what Civil is trying to do makes so much sense. They reduce reliance on ads and ROI-based story decisions by funding reporters directly from the pockets of avid readers. And by bringing together dozens of newsrooms (scaling it up to hundreds, eventually), each with a specific beat, they build a network effect. Sludge is a Civil newsroom which investigates special interests and politics; Block Club Chicago reports on local neighborhood news; Splice covers media in Asia. The deep-rooted appeal of each subject to niche audiences — who support those journalists through the purchase of Civil tokens — is leveraged across all the Civil newsrooms via an internal currency. Ta-da: the bundle is restored. It’s an economic system that holds a lot of promise, although the economics for individual newsrooms remain unclear.

Civil is also investing astutely in tools that independent journalists will need — everything from publishing to legal support to business infrastructure. A faction of developers from Digg.com has landed at Civil Labs, where they’re building the toolset that powers the platform. If the Labs team can build a 21st century product that super-serves the needs of reporters and attracts a loyal audience, the failed token auction this week may end up a footnote in the Civil story. The success of decentralized journalism is as much a technical UX challenge as it is a financial one.

Civil made clear that the failure to reach their minimum in the ICO will not affect the day-to-day of the company. The 18 existing newsrooms will continue publishing as usual. Civil has also promised another coin offering, and assured everyone that the purchase process will be greatly simplified. I didn’t mind the length of process as much as the underlying feeling of dread as I uploaded my license, drew directly from my bank account, and navigated the Dark Web design motif of The Token Foundry site. It all requires a lot of faith in the security and best intentions of the multiple organizations connected to the purchase process.

My sense is that, once it has built a devoted audience, newsroom by newsroom, Civil will succeed in its future offering. They’re counting on readers — not speculators — to be the ones who will stake their faith, make the effort, and spend their money to power this reinvention of journalism. I don’t have this on authority, but I suspect that one of the top drivers of token purchasers was Manoush and Jen’s podcast “Zig Zag.” The show delved deeply into the blockchain, Civil’s coin offering, and the future of journalism. But those aren’t the reasons that their listeners jumped through all the hoops necessary to buy Civil tokens. They did it because they believed in Manoush and Jen’s mission and story — and they wanted to fund more episodes of their podcast. Multiply that passion across a few dozen newsrooms and a new economy for journalism just might emerge.

Canvassing in Long Island to unseat Lee Zeldin

It’s no secret what’s at stake on November 6th, nor is it any mystery what it will take for Dems to wake up to a “blue wave” the morning after the mid-term elections on November 7th. What’s at stake is nothing less than a legitimate and operative two-party system — a country in which one side doesn’t rule in nearly every branch and tier of government.

What will it take? Turnout.

Screen Shot 2018-10-15 at 1.52.40 PM.png

The reality is that Republicans are more reliable voters, turning out consistently in election after election to get their candidates into office. Dems and Independents tend to show up in Presidential election years, and when they do, they regularly outnumber voters on the right. In the meantime, the midterms (with particularly disastrous results in 2010) have hamstrung the left’s ability to make real strides in local policy, state legislation and court appointments at all levels.

Demographic shifts in the U.S. don’t portend well for Republicans, and they’re well aware of that fact. We keep hearing that we’re in the throes of the “last gasp” of retrograde, white conservatism; but elections come down to votes counted, and despite championing causes that are unpopular with most Americans (tax gifts to the rich, subversion of the ACA, limiting abortion access, opposition of any gun control), Republicans still consistently win.

And this is the crux of our problem: we have a minority party and its fringe ideology clinging to their majority, while fully aware that they would lose power if elections were held freely and equitably. 

So, as a result they:

  • limit specific people's access to vote based on geography, demographics, and personal history (aka voterID legislation, limiting polling locations in blue counties, barring ex-felons from voting)

  • gerrymander

  • purge voter rolls and sow confusion with voters

  • curtail immigration and new citizenship

  • lie and distort the truth on critical policy issues

  • question the authenticity of election results (even when they win)

  • sabotage government processes to discourage participation and promote electoral cynicism

So what can we do in response? It’s simple: get people out to vote. And the most effective way to raise awareness of 11/6, the candidates in the races, and the importance of getting to the polls is canvassing.

SCREENSHOT FROM THE MINIVAN APP

SCREENSHOT FROM THE MINIVAN APP

The good news is the door-to-door canvassing is not only incredibly effective, it’s also easy — and energizing. We were out this weekend in Long Island talking to D voters in Greenport, Long Island about Perry Gershon. He’s facing an uphill climb against Lee Zeldin, a consistent Trump backer and reliable conservative vote in the House.

We used Vote Save America’s handy “Get Involved” feature (powered by Mobilize America) to find the nearest local canvassing coordinator in the NY-1 district. After a couple quick instructions and downloading the MiniVAN app, we were on our way. MiniVAN (VAN = Voter Activation Network) is reporting off-the-charts usage this election season, which portends well for turnout. We actually ran into another family with iPhones in hand, canvassing the neighborhood and knocking on doors.

The app is remarkably easy to use. It guides you around a specified neighborhood, listing likely blue voters and their demographic info. The goal is not to convince anyone of anything (my son and I politely nodded when one resident cited the NRA’s opposition to Gershon as his voting criteria — and then noted his views in MiniVAN). The idea is simply to motivate and encourage Democrat voters, and provide the campaign office with incredibly valuable data about where support is soft or shifting. When you’ve completed your list, a quick synch sends your info back to the campaign office. Easy, peasy!

It also feels great. Talking to sympathetic strangers, charting an unfamiliar neighborhood, contributing to a larger mission of voter participation — it’s a lot more fulfilling than scanning your Twitter feed and staring at the NYTimes live polling results (don’t even get me started on that whole thing — “how can we make politics even more of a score-keeping sporting spectacle that’s devoid of actual issues?”).

There’s plenty of time until November 6th, and the next few weeks will be critical for raising awareness and getting people out to vote. Knock on doors and talk to people.

Do it.

Podcasting Grows Up

Photo credit: @jasonroswell https://unsplash.com/photos/ASKeuOZqhYU

Photo credit: @jasonroswell https://unsplash.com/photos/ASKeuOZqhYU

There’s no shortage of press coverage and glowing reviews these days, listing the 50, 100, even the 200 most essential podcasts. They aren’t wrong — fifteen years since the advent of the iPod, we’re now in the midst of A Golden Age of Podcasting. (There aren’t enough hours in the day for all these Golden Ages, btw.) Season 3 of “Serial” recently premiered to three million downloads in its first day of release, and “The Daily” from the New York Times continues its juggernaut ascent with over 200M downloads in just one year. Add to that, the influx of bold-faced-name-talent, plus several high-profile film and TV adaptations, and you’d think the industry is bathing in champagne and truffle-dusting everything in sight. But while there is a distinct Gold Rush moment afoot, there’s also a lot of consolidation, right-sizing, and uncertainty about the future of a more mature podcasting business.

Here’s what we know today (and you can refer to some of the snazzy infographics below for further stats):

  • The podcast audience continues to grow, and at a healthy clip — although the 73M total audience and 314M in annual revenue is still dwarfed by radio with 271M listeners and 17.6B revenue.

  • The demographic makeup of listeners is more upscale and better educated than other media. They’re also loyal, and they show high completion rates, even for 1 hour-plus shows.

  • Advertiser recall, intent, and conversion are all notably stronger than any other medium, which is largely attributed to the authenticity of host-read ads and the fact that listeners tend not to skip.

  • At the same time, a universal audience measurement remains elusive, despite efforts from NPR, Triton, Nielsen. (Downloads, not actual listens or impressions, are the dominant metric today.)

  • Dynamic ad insertion exists, but it’s still primitive; robust geo- and demo-targeting tools aren’t in place yet.

As a result, you have a relatively small cohort of sponsors (if you listen to podcasts, you know them — Squarespace, Zip Recruiter, MailChimp, Talkspace, Stamps.com, the Cash app, Casper — mostly direct response advertisers) reaping steady and quantifiable benefit from their media spends. Measurement issues aren’t a problem for those folks since their ads are accompanied by offer codes which listeners redeem online; sponsors are doing all the critical tracking and ROI on their end. Podcast distributors are decidedly mixed on touting these success stories. DR sponsors tend to buy a show ad nauseam, and once they’ve converted and/or exhausted that audience, they move on to another means of gaining new customers.

So to date, major advertisers have shied away from splashy brand campaigns and big spends. Some movie studios and TV networks, a few insurance companies, and a couple fast-food chains have dipped a toe in here and there. Whereas making a podcast might be cool, advertising on it is something of a backwater.

Scale and measurement remain the two biggest issues — for now. Ultimately, there is too much worthy, engaging, and timely content being released every day. (More than half a million podcasts exist in the ether, but only about a fifth of them have been active in the last three months.) What I know, based on what I’ve witnessed in media, is that technology races to bridge any gap between audience and content and revenue. It’s happened over and over, in every sector of the entertainment industry since the advent of the public internet.

Scale is a temporary obstacle; the growth of voice-input devices in the home — and more critically, in the car — will greatly expand on-demand listenership over the next several years, as will AI technology from Google and start-ups like Audioburst. The ability to search (pull) and recommend (push) comprehensively indexed content will ease the friction around audio discovery, especially as podcasts proliferate. The notion of a “podcast,” and an app for listening to it, will recede in the next few years as audio becomes more pervasive (much in the same way that “blog content” coalesced with online print media over the last decade), and that will also remove many of the current barriers to consumption. Today, only about 25% of the US audience listens to podcasts with any regularity. That other 75% is a big slice of pie that won’t sit on the table untouched for long.

Measurement is a trickier knot to untangle. Just this past week, controversy erupted over outside manipulation of the Apple iTunes Podcast Chart, reinforcing the industry’s reliance on a flawed and non-neutral party for measurement data. Revenue is compelling motivator, though, and between just the top two players, NPR and IHeartRadio (which recently acquired HowStuffWorks for $55M), there are an estimated 27M+ monthly podcast listeners to tally — that’s over 1/3 of the total audience right there. Granted, it will only get more complicated as listening habits fragment across platforms and podcasts start seeping out of the walled garden apps they live in today. Plus, the days of one, agreed-upon ratings referee are probably behind us. But logically, I have to believe that a digitally-distributed and consumed piece of media can be reliably measured in aggregate, and we’ll eventually figure that out.

Some podcast veterans have warned that if/when the medium scales and unifies, a lot of the magic will disappear. The smaller stories, the independent producers, the voices in the margins, the niche subjects — they won’t get access to the big audio revenue pie, and we’ll look back at where we are today in much the same way we wax nostalgic for a free-wheeling ‘90s internet, before it was consolidated in the iron grip of The Frightful Five. That fear is not unfounded, and I have no doubt that the blockbuster mindset which has overtaken most of the entertainment business will subsume spoken-word audio as well. Given the relatively low cost of production, my hope is that the whispering intimacy of well-crafted audio narratives, no matter how obscure or narrow, will continue to flourish.

Everyone agrees that the industry is evolving — and it’s happening quickly. Google, Spotify, Amazon/Alexa, and Apple are all making moves to expand out to new audiences with new technology, while radio incumbents work to adapt and upstart content brands try to gain a foothold. My feeling — as the stakes get higher and content continually evolves toward an on-demand universe — is that you have to know your brand, articulate it clearly and consistently, and through that conversation, forge a firm bond with your fans. That connection, that shared identity, is partly what makes podcasting a such a unique form unto itself.

Also, make nice with some machine learning algorithms; as the content universe continues its inexorable expansion, they’re the ones that will go out and find us most the stuff we’ll be listening to, watching, reading, and experiencing.